Women leading the way at a top Ontario winery

NORFOLK COUNTY, ONTARIO – “A lot of agriculture is dominated by men,” says Susan Judd, marketing manager at Burning Kiln Winery. “When it’s all women like we have here a kind of magic happens, and it’s a very special bond.”
Farming in general, and growing grapes in particular, have traditionally been a male concern. But at Burning Kiln , which sits on a bluff high above Lake Erie, the six people at the top of the management ladder are all women.
They didn’t plan it that way. But neither are they overly concerned at upsetting the gender balance cart.
“It’s kind of ironic but it wasn’t designed this way” said general manager Karen Matthews. “Lydia (Tomek) was my first choice for winemaker. I wanted a Canadian and I love her background. I didn’t pick her because she’s a woman but because of her commitment and passion for the craft.”

Women pretty much run the show at Burning Kiln in Norfolk County, one of Ontario’s top wineries. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

Matthews doesn’t push the female angle too much, and notes that the owners of the winery are men. But Tomek doesn’t hold back on the subject.
“I think women are better workers and are more creative and more flexible,” she said. “Forget equal pay, we should be paid more.”
Tomek’s web site talks about her brawn and mentions she has a black belt in karate. But she also tells me it’s lovely being surrounded by women at the winery.
“We’re all at different ages or stages in our life, but we’re all enthusiastic and excite,” Tomek said. “We all love to have support in our lives, men and women both. But as a woman it’s extra special to have that kind of support around me. And I support Karen and Sharon (Sharon Saunders, the retail manager). They get it. It’s a sisterhood.”
Tomek, who is sometimes known around Burning Kiln as Wonder Woman, was one of the youngest winemakers in Canada at age 23 when she joined Hillebrand Estates in Niagara. She also has worked for Jackson-Triggs and Hernder, where she was chief winemaker.
The object of wine-making is, of course, to make the best product you can. Whatever their individual feelings might be on workplace pay issues and equality, there’s no doubt this group is turning out excellent wine.
“I think we’re at the early stages of something big that’s going to happen here,” Tomek said, referring to the north shore of Lake Erie near Turkey Point. “I think there’s huge potential.”

Lydia Tomek is the head winemaker at Burning Kiln. She says the area has enormous potential for making wine. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

Matthews said the property was a tobacco farm prior to it being purchased by its current owners. They thought about making wine and had the soil tested.
“A bit later the soil testing folks called him and said, “Are you sitting down? Because we think you’re sitting on the next great wine-growing area of Ontario.”
It’s a lovely winery, with a small pond out front with turtles and a pretty grove of trees. The wines are varied, from crisp whites to deep, luscious reds such as the Strip Room Cab Frank, one of my favourite Ontario wines.
They’ve recently built a beautiful event space overlooking the vineyards that can be used for anything from weddings to concerts, such as one that renowned Canadian guitarist Liona Boyd played.
Burning Kiln isn’t the only place in Norfolk County where women are making their mark in what some might call a man’s world. Up the road in Simcoe, the popular Blue Elephant restaurant and brewery has a woman owner, Heather Pond, and a new female brew master, Sarah Fritch.
Pond tells me folks in Simcoe are still mighty fond of beer brands such as Old Vienna and Molson Export, so it isn’t easy selling India Pale Ales and other craft brews. But they’re gaining a great reputation with summer-friendly Radlers with grapefruit and other beers. When I visited in May they were brewing up some fresh lager with local strawberries as well as another beer with rhubarb from Pond’s garden.

Heather Pond and Sarah Fritch make very good beer (and fine food) at Blue Elephant in Simcoe, Ontario. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

“We can get so many things around here; strawberries, hazelnuts, great wine,” Pond told me. “Some farmers are even growing Chinese goji berries. I think about the only thing we don’t grow are coconuts.”
Pond’s restaurant makes everything from burgers to Thai food and lovely salads with local ingredients. There’s a fine patio out front that’s perfect for this time of year. Or well into fall, given the warm September weather in this part of Ontario.
“We’re not Boston Pizza,” she said with a laugh. “I really don’t classify us as being like any place around here.”
Pond said Fritch likes to experiment but isn’t venturing too far out of the box.
Fritch said her beer-making class had four women and 15 men. But she knows of one woman brewer who was in a class with 18 men and no other women.
“There aren’t many women brew masters, but there are more women in the higher echelons of breweries these days. All my classmates and my teachers were very accepting, and I haven’t run into any problems yet.”
My Norfolk County guide for the day makes a point of taking me down the hill to the beach at Turkey Point; a part of Ontario I’d somehow never explored. There’s a great beach and a series of small shops, bars and surf/kayak rental spots on a quiet road that leads to a series of splendid cottages looking out on the expanse of Lake Erie and out towards Long Point and its national wildlife area, a prominent bird-watching spot.

Turkey Point is a marvellous spot on Lake Erie in Norfolk County, Ontario. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

We stop at Sandbar on the Beach, a great little lakeside bar, to try another Norfolk County beer; this one from a group of guys (imagine that) at a company called Hometown Brew Co., based in Langton, Ontario. Hometown President Tommy De Vos pours me several tasty varieties, including a Belgian-style beer that tastes a bit like Shock Top (the one some folks like to plunk an orange slice into) and a saison beer made with local blueberries that can be a struggle for some male beer drinkers.
“A lot of guys aren’t sure they say they’ll try a little,” said De Vos. “Then they come back a few minutes later, looking a little sheepish, and say, ‘Hey, can I have another of those blueberry beers?’”
“We’re in a light beer community, so we’re trying to bring folks up the ladder a bit,” De Vos said with a smile.
Not far away is an adorable, tiny community I stumble onto called Normandale, which feels like a Southern Ontario version of Pleasantville, or maybe even Mayberry from the 1960’s TV show with Andy Griffith and Ron Howard. I loved it.

A spectacular sunset at Burning Kiln Winery; as if the wine and food weren’t enough to bring you back already. – JIM BYERS PHOTO

Back up at the top of the hill we have dinner on the patio at Burning Kiln, listening to a local duo play some fine modern tunes and classics like “Sweet Caroline” that has the whole joint swaying in tune. They don’t have their own restaurant, but they do partner with a fine food truck operation called David’s Restaurant on Tour that does wonderful charcuterie, a super-tender beef tenderloin, vegetable lasagna and other treats.
I spent the night at Long Point Eco-Adventures, a combination adventure/sports centre and resort area with cozy cabins in a variety of sizes (both with or without private washrooms) and glamorous camping tents that provide what’s become known as a “glamping experience.”
They gave me one of the glamping tents, which was basically a hotel room with canvas walls and an outside shower (lovely on a cool May morning). My unit had Wi-Fi and a beautiful, soft bed and a nice washroom. But I also got lulled to sleep by crickets and the sound of the wind in the trees; giving me pretty much the best of both a hotel room and a camping experience. Which is kind of the idea.

Long Point Eco-Adventures has a series of cool zip lines, bridges and platforms. It’s a great place to visit in Ontario’s Southwest. – PHOTO COURTESY LONG POINT ECO-ADVENTURES

I don’t have time for the sports side of things, but manager Karen Matthews (she also runs Burning Kiln Winery, which is across the road) shows me some of the 50 km’s of mountain bike trails, as well as the axe-throwing centre (I don’t know when this became a thing in Canada, but it’s quite big) and the observatory (nights are quite dark in this area as there no big cities for miles around). They also can arrange kayak rides on nearby creeks and rivers, which I got to do a couple years ago, as well as fishing trips, mushroom forays and, of course, wine-tasting across the street.
Perhaps their biggest draw is the zip-line experience. Following an introduction and preparation time by their expert guides, guests go on a 2.5-hour trip over eight zip lines, two suspension bridges, 14 platforms and, just for good measure, a 40-foot cliff rappel.
Combining so many activities with a winery and dining spot makes Eco-Point a fantastic spot for corporate events, team bonding ventures or just weekend visits. When I was there, I sat around the campfire with several couples who were visiting from other parts of southern Ontario and having a great getaway.

The “glamping’ units at Long Point Eco-Adventures are cozy and comfortable, with all the amenities you need for a great stay – JIM BYERS PHOTO

“It’s great because you can do things like bike-riding or zip-lining in the day, and then at night go across the way for dinner and some great wine,” one visitor told me.
One woman around the fire said she loved the night time zipline tour.
“It’s super-fun at night,” Matthews told me. “The bugs are below you so they’re not an issue, and the fireflies are dancing in the air. You feel like you’re kind of sliding off into the abyss, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Matthews said they’re adding new units all the time and that they hope to have a full restaurant on-site by fall.

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