It takes a special kind of person to make wine, and an even more unique character to produce it in Ontario. It's a notoriously challenging region to grow grapes, often rendering wine enthusiasts and professionals to muse, "if it's so hard to grow grapes, why make wine here?"
I had the privilege to pick the brain of David Eiberg, who has emerged as the unofficial new "it" winemaker on the Canadian natural wine scene, touching on the challenges of making wine in Ontario, and the reasons behind why he settled here for his project, Therianthropy.
I recently wrote about his 2018 Cabernet Franc, a wine I have come to highly regard.
David's humility is one of the most endearing traits about him, and it's certainly an attribute that shines through in his wines too.
LM: Tell me about your new space, and the concept behind it.
DE: We always thought the space that we created should be one that can accommodate a couple wineries at the least. We were lucky enough to have experienced that with other wineries doing the same for us, so we want to continue and emulate that idea of community.
We'll be sharing the space with Paradise Grapevine, and a yet to be opened winery called Creemore Hills. We'll share everything, including presses and all equipment.
LM: How did you get into winemaking?
DE: A somewhat dormant and forgotten experience was when I was 16 and went to the Western Cape. At that time there were only 10-15 wineries. I fell in love with the concept of winemaking and meeting the winemakers. It was like a seed had been planted.
When I graduated from high school, I went into finance and moved to London. I worked in banking for 10-15 years. It was never enjoyable or fulfilling. It was a stepping stone, and it allowed me to visit many countries around the world. All the places I was visiting happened to be wine producing regions. I was always tasting for that reason.
I was a consumer until I was 40. Then, I decided it was time to leave banking - I had wanted to leave for my entire career. However, I always seduced and stayed, lured in by the next bonus which made it really hard to leave.
I decided to go on a pilgrimage - Camino de Santiago. I did that for 30 days without a cell phone so I couldn't be contacted. I was totally off grid. During that period, I met my now wife. Soon after that we moved to California. It was a natural move for her as she's an actor, and I thought it would be a good place to find a new career, but wine still hadn't occurred to me. I was helping run a non profit, but I knew I still needed to find "what I wanted to do".
I came to Canada because my wife was filming there. I went north of Prince Edward County and did a 5 day silent fast. It's a really great way to clear your head. After two or three days of not eating or talking to anyone, things start coming to you - your mind is so much more clear. Yet even after the fast, I still hadn't found clarity. My wife came to pick me up, and asked if I wanted to go taste in the county.
We stumbled upon a place that happened to be for sale. We loved the location, and suddenly those long forgotten dreams from my teens reappeared. I approached the owners, and spent two months doing harvest. We didn't end up buying that particular property, but it was the first harvest I ever did, and from then it was clear - "this is what I'm doing."
All I did after that was seek out talented winemakers around the globe. I offered my labour for free in exchange to learn from them. I worked in California, Oregon, Swartland, Canada and learned how to make wine.
From there, I decided I had all the practical knowledge but lacked the chemistry. I enrolled at UC Davis and did their winemaking and viticulture program.
LM: How did you decide on the location of the new winery?
DE: We found a few partners in Canada, and initially thought we'd be in the county but ended up in Creemore which we really love. We started making wine on a custom crush basis, but 2020 is the first year we have our own home.
LM: Do you find that it's a common story that people stumble into winemaking as a second career?
DE: I find that with a lot of winemakers. It's invariably that way - I don't think any of them go to university to study viticulture straight out of school. I've never really thought of that notion, but I guess it's true.
LM: How are you successful in finding clean, quality fruit for producing this style of wine?
DE: It's really difficult. That's why we want our own vineyard. Finding organically farmed grapes in Ontario is really hard. We have found some sites and there are growers that are either organic or converting. It's really hard to do in Ontario with the amount of humidity and disease pressure compared to other places around the world. It's still being done and can be done - it's just a lot more work.
We have two growers that are farming organically for us now, and one that we're trying to convert, which will become ours which we will grow organically.
LM: What inspired you to get into this style?
DE: In the process of going from region to region I happened to go back to South Africa and was initially working in Stellenbosch. Within a few days, it was suggested I go to the Swartland instead, based on what I was into - low intervention, biodynamic winemaking - so I went, and they were my inspiration for moving into that style of winemaking. What I observed there is that it's just so easy. Frustratingly so. It's always hot, dry, no disease pressure.
LM: Now that you're planting your own vineyards, do you think your style or approach will change?
DE: I think it'll change mostly because the varieties we plan to work with are different than where we buy from. There will be different fruit to work with. Low intervention will continue, there's no question about that. The fruit will be fun to work with something outside of Niagara fruit.
Two out of the three growers that we we work with, allow us to dictate and conduct the growing practice throughout the season - they'll do anything you say. It comes at a price, but you can crop as much fruit as you like. They're only spraying organic, so it's like running your own vineyard - they take direction from you. It does still feel like it's our fruit in the end as we look after it all year.
LM: How would you build a case or defend Canada as an industry, with the stigma that still exists?
DE: I encountered this attitude within myself when I first arrived here. The first time I came to Canada was in 2012 and spent about 9 months living in Toronto. I thought Canadian wines were awful but it was really a result of what was on the shelves in the LCBO.
Even if I went to the Summerhill LCBO, I struggled to find Canadian wines that were different. Friends started to tell me to go to wineries that don't sell at the LCBO, so I went to meet Brent Rowland at Pearl Morissette, and I was like wow, ok there's something else here.
I think that's part of the problem - the shelf space, and anyone visiting Canada, be it Toronto or Niagara - is really only getting some of the mediocre wines at best.
I think there is a little bit of a spark - people are starting to take notice - it's nice to be part of a region that is taking off, rather than something that has been around forever. I feel like there are a couple winemakers who have been trail blazing for the last few years, getting Canadian wine into the US and Europe and providing exposure. But I think there's a lot more that needs to be done.
I did harvest in Burgundy three years ago. I took some Canadian Chardonnay and Cab Franc to share with the team, and they were all blown away. They didn't know that sort of quality wine could come from here. So now, those are 15 converted people who will tell 15 more people and eventually the word will get out.
Whenever I travel I always take Canadian wines with me. If you're promoting the country, it's different, because there's no pressure, and I find people are more honest with you. I had one winemaker who told me a particular Canadian chardonnay was awful - he never would have said that to me if it was my wine.
LM: Who is on your radar? Who do you think is doing exceptional things?
DE: I'm a big fan of Pearl Morissette - they've always been a trail blazer.
I've recently become aware of Rigour and Whimsy and I'm really enjoying them. It's a very weird coincidence that Costa's sister is my wife's makeup artist on the show she's currently filming in Nova Scotia. There's been a lot of sharing happening because of that connection.
I've always loved what Ann Sperling does as well.
LM: Are you hoping to move towards biodynamic farming?
DE: We're going to start organic, then move toward biodynamic. For me, there's something in the end product - there's something unspoken there. I remember the first time someone told me about it - it's all this kooky stuff.
My response to the skepticism - even people that are scientists are still learning all the time. Nothing's ever been proven on full moons and the effect on moods - but I'll notice when my wife and I might be off kilter, I'll check and yup, it's a full moon. I cannot explain that on a biological level, but I can feel it. Sometimes you just go with intuition.
LM: Would you say you approach winemaking intuitively?
DE: Absolutely. I never really have a plan for a batch of wine - we get the fruit in, taste it, and go with the flow. I don't have a plan each year for each wine. It happens when the fruit arrives and then it's like ok, what are we doing with this?
Learn more about David's wines here or follow on IG @therianthropy_wine