I have so enjoyed working on the winemaker’s series for the blog – and I
thank all of you who have been regularly reading! Your positive
feedback has encouraged me to continue with my interviews and I have a
number of features in the works.
Today’s interview is with David Sheppard of Coyote’s Run Estate Winery in Niagara. If you haven’t visited Coyote’s Run, I highly recommend it. With wonderful staff and beautiful grounds, their patio is a lovely place to sip a glass of their sparkling, Pinot (gris, blanc or noir) or Chardonnay. I was very interested in learning more about their winemaking process and especially their Red Paw/Black Paw vineyards – showcasing how different soil makes a huge difference in the same grape varieties.
Can you tell me a little bit about your history? Why did you decide to move from making wine in Germany to making wine in Canada?
I did get my start and my inspiration in Germany but I am actually born and raised in the Niagara region and am descended from a line of Sheppard’s who farmed in Niagara-on-the-Lake, so I was really just coming home to my roots. I had a degree in environmental studies from the University of Waterloo prior to going to Germany and had every intention of pursuing a career in that field.
It wasn’t until I had exhausted my funds and needed work (even to be able to ultimately purchase return air fare) that I found work in a family-run winery. The German family were wonderful to me and the work I found fascinating, all of which lead me to change my focus and pursue winemaking.
In my time in Germany I occasionally helped my German boss, Fritz, conduct tutored wine tastings on the cruise ships that sailed up and down the Rhein River. A lot of the patrons of those tastings were English speaking people and so I could be of considerable help to Fritz. It was on one of those tours that I met a couple from Ottawa who, when they found out that I was Canadian, said that if I wanted to pursue winemaking in Canada I should look up these two guys who had started the first new winery in Canada since prohibition. On the inside of a matchbook they wrote the names Karl Kaiser and Donald Ziraldo from an upstart winery called Inniskillin. Turns out Inniskillin was located a few kilometres from my home, so once I had returned to Canada I looked them up straight away, and to this day I remain grateful for the opportunity that they gave me.
What inspired you to make the leap from Inniskillin to Coyote's Run?
Over the course of the 21 years I worked at Inniskillin I got to be very familiar with our premium grape growers and the various vineyard sites that produced consistently top quality fruit. One of those growers was a young guy (my age so I’ll call him young) named Steve Murdza who owned and operated the vineyard that is now the Coyote’s Run Estate Vineyard. Steve was one of a select few growers who always had a keen interest in knowing what fate awaited his grapes after delivery to the winery. He was truly a wine grower and not just a grape grower, and he had long dreamt of being part of a winery. Steve had approached me about just such an idea, on what I already new to be a special vineyard site. His timing was also good in that Inniskillin had been steadily growing into a part of a much larger and more corporate structure, and scaling back to something closer to my roots had great appeal. Both Karl and Donald were very understanding and supportive and have remained great friends of mine since my move. To this day I know that either one of them would help me out without a second thought.
I find the Red Paw/Black Paw idea so interesting - other than the soil, do you find any other major distinctions between the two? Does your winemaking technique change for each?
What makes it interesting for me is utilizing the exact same winemaking techniques so that the soil/site speaks for itself in the wines.
What are you most excited about with your newest vintage?
The newest vintage (2014) by all accounts was marked by a challenging growing season (late start, early rains, cooler spring and early summer etc.). I think early on a lot people had written off 2014 as being one of the poorer vintages. As it turned out, the weather we desperately needed to salvage it was exactly what we got. What excites me about all that in particular is the quality of the red wines as they are now shaping up. I am always more impressed with the skill of winemakers who produce great wines in “lesser” years, and correspondingly am always more pleased with my own when I know what a challenging year it was. We have all made some great wines in the “easy” years, but it is somehow more rewarding and exciting to do it in the tougher years.
I have been talking to a lot of winemakers recently who are trying different styles or grape varieties. Are you experimenting with anything new or different in the vineyard right now?
We have been playing around a bit with our Pinot Gris from the estate vineyard blocks making a few different styles. Last fall we let a few rows hang late in the season to get super ripe. From those grapes we then made 2 different wines. One, a traditional Late Harvest style wine with the natural residual sweetness, and the other, a dry, barrel aged Pinot Gris in which the higher than normal sweetness fermented out to a higher than normal alcohol. In the latter we were looking for a bigger, bolder texture and mouthfeel, without the residual sweetness. Our 3rd style of Pinot Gris, from the grapes picked at the normal time and ripeness, we made in a lighter, more easy-drinking “Pinot Grigio” style. (duly designated on the bottle as Pinot Grigio).