The Speck brothers helm Henry of Pelham, one of Ontario’s oldest and most respected family estate wineries. They are stewards of a legacy that reaches back to 1794 when great-great-great grandfather Nicholas Smith was deeded the land where the winery stands today. In 1842, in jest, his son Henry signed the name “Henry of Pelham” to the liquor licence for a tavern he’d built on the land, a tongue-in-cheek reference to a previous British prime minister. That hint of irreverence, mischief and fun are family traits that have clearly endured through the generations.
Paul, the eldest brother, runs business operations, while middle brother Matt is the viticulturist, and Daniel, the youngest, heads sales and marketing. While all three brothers grew up working in the vines, in adulthood they found their natural place to flourish within the family business. They actively collaborate on all aspects of the winery operation while respecting each others’ individual strengths and expertise.
When it comes to gatherings, Speck family affairs are admittedly a little raucous. “We’ll often have friends—stragglers without families—join us for our holiday gatherings and they often remark that it’s “loud,” says Matt. “Because the three of us studied philosophy, the conversation ranges from business, to politics, to literature to family stuff. There’s a lot of business and politics in the discussion,” says Paul. “We’re a family of talkers,” Daniel elaborates.
In a clear parallel with the den Haan family’s experience, the Specks acknowledge that there is little separation between work and home, and that family gatherings are often the setting for conversations that lead to business and innovation. “ It’s always business,” says Paul. “We could get into a sidebar about launching a new brand while we’re tasting a wine; and then someone will sketch it out on a napkin. That’s what makes it unique, but it’s not for everyone. Most people like to leave work behind when they go home. We’re the opposite. Last Thanksgiving, over dinner, we started talking about this little building on the property we can’t use for the business because it’s too small. That turned into the restoration of a 200 year old barn. It went from, “Where do we store our stuff?” to a full-blown heritage building restoration project over dinner. It’s going to be beautiful when we’re done with it.”
Matt shares that the building is a swing beam barn built in the 1830s by Henry’s brother, John N. “We have both their tombstones behind the winery, actually. In the late 1800s, it was converted from a swing beam barn into a dairy barn. It had been raised and has this beautiful stone foundation where the dairy cows would have been, with hay storage above. It’s in amazing condition. As we’re no longer dairy farmers and we grow grapes, it makes sense to preserve it. There were vineyards on this property going back 150 years, but there were also dairy cows, sheep, and grain.”
Not surprisingly, wine is often the centrepiece at Speck family get-togethers. “Gatherings always break into a massive wine tasting,” says Daniel. “I think wine would be a central part of our gatherings even if we weren’t in the wine business–we love it. For example, Paul will bring in a bottle of wine, and then Matt will say, “Oh, I’ve got something interesting to pair with that.” All of a sudden there are five bottles of wine, cheese and food on the table and it’s a full-on pairing session.” If I have a special bottle of wine, I tend to build a meal around that. Normally, you’d pair the wine with the food, but if you have a cool, special wine, you build around that.”
Paul agrees, “Wine is a kind of a condiment, in a sense.”
The Specks generally favour the classics for holiday dinners, possibly excepting a seafood boil one year that met with mixed reception. “We tend to go with local turkey for Thanksgiving”, says Paul. “In Niagara, we’re blessed with incredible local fruits, vegetables, wines, cheeses and other ingredients from farmers. It’s interesting to take traditional foods and put a unique spin on them – work off the agenda, so to speak.”
The wines paired with the Savour Ontario Harvest Menu are the perfect example of pushing the boundaries of familiar foods and flavours. “The Baco is a medium body wine and kind of works with turkey in much the same way as a cranberry sauce.” says Daniel, and Paul agrees. “Normally, most people would pair Pinot Noir or Chardonnay with turkey off the top. But the wines we’ve chosen typify our dinners in that they’re slightly different. Rosé is awesome because you can drink it on its own or even with a salad. Pinot Grigio is one of those wines that’s very approachable, quaffable and crowd pleasing. It goes with pretty much any food. Baco Noir is distinctive and something we’re quite well known for. It’s what you would consider a heritage brand or grape variety. It was developed in France, but it’s become famous in Niagara through Henry of Pelham. It’s very distinctive, but it can act in a traditional way.”
Like most agricultural families, the Specks take a long view of their business, looking beyond to generations to come. “The character of our wines comes from our family farm and the original extended family farm we’re piecing back together,” says Matt. We now have 300 contiguous acres of the original farmland. We want to maintain that flavour profile and the quality of our wines and the soil is integral to that.”
“Niagara is and always will be a small region in the global wine business.” Paul allows. “Here we are 30+ years later in a highly competitive business and we’re still family owned by three brothers. Our wines are sold across Canada and in 21 countries around the world. In our small way, I’m proud of the fact that we’re spreading the Canadian culture through wine and food around the world, and that we’re doing it independently. Canada does have a food culture worth celebrating, and wine and cheese are a part of that.”
Daniel agrees. “We’ve been doing this a long time now, and we’re part of that new generation of wineries in Ontario. Wine has been made here for 200 years, but we’ve played a significant part in defining the wine flavour of the Niagara region and have elevated a specific grape variety with our emblematic Baco Noir. Not every winery can “own” a grape variety.”
“And, as I look at the agricultural side of what we do, you can drive by our vines and see blocks that are 30 or 50 years old.” adds Matt. “As the vines mature, as makers of wine, we appreciate their maturity as they age into more defined flavours. The local wine community is also evolving, gaining confidence and maturing, and we’re proud to be part of that agricultural and food community.