In 1965, when Gary and Lena Pillitteri settled in Niagara-on-the-Lake, they had no idea that their tender fruit farm would grow to become the world’s largest estate producer of icewine.
Born in – Gary and Lena met in 1957 after both families settled in Canada. They were married in 1960 and their three (3) children Connie, Lucy and Charlie were born soon after. In 1973 they opened Gary’s Fruit Market where they sold their delicious vegetables and fruits including peaches, cherries, plums and grapes. , Italy
Over the next 15 years the fruit market grew to become a popular Niagara destination for locals and tourists alike. In 1988 Gary first experimented with icewine – making a Vidal Icewine for the family to try. Liking it so much his wife and kids secretly entered the icewine into a Niagara Amateur wine competition where it won gold!
Being a 1st generation Italian Canadian, I can only imagine the thrill of knowing that your father’s icewine won first, and then the anticipation of letting your Italian father know what you had done without his knowledge. Thankfully Gary saw this win as an opportunity to evolve Gary’s Fruit Market into a Niagara winery. The next 5 years were spent changing the orchard into a vineyard – planting vines and renovating spaces. And then, in 1993, Pillitteri Estates Winery opened its doors.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of being invited to explore the winery with 6 year employee and Retail Manager Beth Duc (like Duke‘s of Hazzard, not duck). Knowing her love for wine and Niagara, I brought with me my newly engaged, master foodie (by interest and education), product developer for Kerr’s and best friend, Tracy Brenner. Wonderfully hospitable and knowledgeable, Beth took us on a journey that left me feeling connected to the Pillitteri family, connected to the wine and excited to plan my next visit.
One of the joys of visiting this great winery is that their wine tastings and tours are complimentary! As such, the tasting bar is especially busy but the service is speedy and always with a genuine smile. It was very serendipitous that the first person I approached upon arrival happened to be Beth – the person I was looking for. In moments she’d cleared a space and had me chatting with a smile as I tasted some of their famous whites:
- 2011 Pinot Grigio – fruit forward with pear and melon flavours on the palate
- 2011 Gewurztraminer Riesling Fusion – tropical fruit flavours filled with pear and pineapple
- 2008 Bottle Blond – a unique blend of 4 wines, mix of spice and fruit
- 2010 Straight Up White VQA – fruity, floral and refreshing … all things white wine should be!
My favourite of the bunch is hard to say. For me, it is a toss up between the fusion and the straight up —
I especially love that I swear I could smell belgium chocolate truffles in the straight up. Trick of the nose or not – that’s my kind of wine!
Beth then asked if we would like to see the cellar – how could we say no? It is spectacular! The Pillitteri website describes it as Neo Norman – if I knew what that meant I am sure I would be impressed. But since I do not I will say that I felt like I was in the castle of King Arthur – in a secret and luxurious lair about to have the feast of a lifetime at the largest concrete table I have ever seen (and will likely ever see again). It is cool and dimly lit and filled with 600 barrels of wine. The ceilings are generously high and it adds to the uniqueness of the room. On either side of the table, mounted high on the walls, are 23 stainless steel chairs – each symbolically telling the story of the Pillitteri family. One of the chairs, the king chair, is larger than the rest and is the ‘leader’ when it comes to where the chairs are placed around the table. Once the king chair is set, the rest of the chairs follow suit is a specific order dictated by the unique design on each. And, it was here in the impressive barrel cellar that I learned about the infamous number 23.
To paraphrase Beth,
There are a lot of cool stories that come with family-owned wineries that are often quirky and pleasantly personal.
As it turns out, the number 23 is of importance and considered a very luck number to the Pillitteri family – and, when you start looking for it, you find it everywhere. I must admit, that as Beth was rhyming off the instances of 23 that she could remember, I lost count! In any case, there is much to be said about the number 23 at Pillitteri – which explains a lot about their 23 series wine label.
- Gary arrived in Canada on the 23rd of November in 1948
- Connie (Gary and Lena’s first child) was born on the 23rd of September
- Lucy (Gary and Lena’s second child) was born on the 23rd of February
- Charlie (child number three) was due on the 23rd of August – although he arrived early
- There are 23 stairs that lead down to the Pillitteri barrel cellar
- There are 23 lights in the cellar over the feasting table and 23 chairs to go around it
- There are 23 letters in the name “Pillitteri Estates Winery”
Next we were whisked into one of the Estate’s private tasting rooms. It was large and beautiful like the rest of the winery. Ornately decorated with a mix of old world recovered planks from a century-old Niagara barn and new world stone and modern chrome, anyone and everyone would feel both awed and at home. It was the perfect environment for what was coming next:
- 2010 Cabernet Franc – full bodied red wine with spice, raspberry and blackberry tones throughout the palate
- 2008 Pinot Blanc Icewine – orange, mango, apricot and a touch of nutmeg
- 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine – nose of mint, raspberry and red liquorice with strawberry and black pepper
Then, le Pièce de résistance – Beth brought out a 1999 Gewurztraminer Icewine. It was like nothing I have ever tasted before. At first nose it smelled like honey and caramel but then it transformed to something smokey – almost like I was at a family BBQ. On the tongue it was smooth and thick like a balsamic reduction and tasted like a deep candied Fresh-peach Panacotta that I had a few weeks ago at the Good Earth Winery. There was also a deep, burnt orange flavour that I loved. Certainly a treat of an experience!
Some other tid-bits that I learned about this winery that I cannot resist to share are that Gary’s Fruit Market is still up and running in the east wing of the winery and it is often stocked with peaches and cherry tomatoes and basil and other delicacies that Lena tenderly grows in her garden. I also had the opportunity to take a look at the symbolic Italian Caretto housed in the Awards Hall (the Italian cart that is the Pillitteri Estates Winery logo) and was ridiculously impressed by the number of awards housed in that amazing space. Something else definitely worth mentioning is that Pillitteri is not ‘just‘ the world’s largest estate producer of icewine, they also created the world’s 1st Merlot Icewine (1999), the world’s 1st Shiraz Icewine (2004), the world’s 1st Sangiovese Icewine (2007) and the world’s first Sparkling Cabernet Icewine (2008).
If you have not yet taken an afternoon to visit Pillitteri Estates Winery, I am tempted to ask you what you are waiting for. Deeply connected to the earth, the community and to each other – the family and staff that run this winery are dedicated to providing locals and tourists alike with a quirky yet deliciously personal experience that you will be raving about for days, months and likely years to come!