In our search for a partner to collaborate with for the opening of Atelier Munro House in Toronto, we found Southbrook Organic Vineyards. From the moment we discovered winemaker Bill Redelmeier, we knew we had met a kindred spirit.
A son of a farming family with partly Dutch roots, Bill grew up on a dairy farm in Richmond Hill just outside Toronto. When Bill and his wife started Southbrook Farms in the early 80s, making wine seemed like an organic evolution of their farm-to-table philosophy. When the opportunity arose in 2005 to move to their favorite grape growing region, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Bill took the chance to pursue certified organic and biodynamic farming with a focus on sustainability. The Niagara winery now stands a prime example of what is possible in low-impact viticulture.
In 2011, Bill’s son Andrew officially joined the company, after first finishing a degree in History and becoming a certified Court of Masters sommelier. Together they are one of the pioneering institutions of the Ontario wine industry, ushering the next era for winemakers across the country.
Almost half a year since our first visit, we return to Niagara-on-the-Lake to capture Andrew and Bill in their natural habitat. Sitting down with the father and son duo to discuss the values that drive every decision they make, their endless pursuit of quality in everything they produce, and the inevitable transition that will make Andrew the lone successor of his father’s business.
Bill, you were making wine before you became one of the pioneers in the bio-dynamic practice of winemaking. How and why did the transition into organics come about?
Bill: When I started working on the farm, fifty years ago, my father always said to me: “You should never ask a worker to do something you can’t do or don’t want to do yourself.” Having used agricultural chemicals for most of my life, at a certain point I just didn’t want to do it anymore. So, morally how can I ask my workers to do it? That’s where our philosophy and the root of our venture into organics comes from. It’s a question I get asked all the time, and the reasoning is still crystal clear
What did it mean in terms of having to change the way you work the farm?
The transition into organics takes about three years of rigorous figuring out what you can use and more to the point of what you can’t use. In the vineyard or in the farm. To me, it’s a way of increasing not only the quality of what we produce but also the qualities of what we produce. So, the quality – the flavor, that is one thing. The qualities – the sustainability, the sitting lightly on the land is also really important. To me, the best way to do that is the conversion to organics and biodynamics.
What did it teach you?
When you are doing any business, whether it’s making wine or making clothes. You want to create that relationship with the customer that is interested in what you are doing. There is a whole bunch of people that are interested in what we are doing when it comes to organics, and those are the people we need to work with. There are other people that are looking to get ’their’ products as cheap and quickly as possible – those aren’t the people I can and want to work with.
In some ways there is a huge parallel between what we are doing and Atelier Munro. We are both looking for quality people who appreciate something that is well made. And I think that we both agree, in our own fields, that the consumer is going to have to change. As a society we can no longer work with fast fashion. The consuming of huge amounts of products needs to change. Everyone should be able to understand that any time something is being produced cheaply, it is done by cutting corners. Those corners can be something that can be seen by the consumer in the quality of the product, or in the supply chain where the people making the product are paying the price for the customer to unfairly pay less
Do you feel you were able to inspire the industry you are in, here in Canada?
We are starting to see change, yes. When we were first certified organic, we were the third organic vineyards and second organic winery in Ontario. At this point, there are three other wineries and close to ten other vineyards that are certified organic in Ontario. It started slowly, but surely. In France it is up to 15% of all vineyards that are certified organic. People are realizing that the chemicals they thought were important, maybe even unmissable, in farming aren’t. Even some chemicals were taken off the market by regulations. It made people realize they could completely move into organics.
How do you see the future, is that change actually coming?
I hope that people are starting to realize that the change doesn’t come from a government or a corporation. It’s not one big solution. It’s a million small solutions that will make the change. If it has to come from one entity to dictate all the necessary changes, I don’t believe it will happen. I took one particular lesson from my mother. When we had made a mess in our room, she always said to my brother and myself: “If you make a mess, you are the one to clean it up.” That mindset needs to grow roots in many aspects of our modern society. We cannot get away anymore with not caring about what we do. We made a mess, so we have to clean it up. It’s high time for a change.
And what about the future of Southbrook Vineyards?
That will be a continuation of what we are already doing. I think we are on the right track. I feel that we are getting traction and people are starting to see that what we’re doing is a good thing. I often say to other people: “The way to make change, is to vote with our wallet.” To choose products from companies that share the same values that you have yourself. That is the only effective way to make change. It’s the same way I feel about companies like Atelier Munro
What about you, Andrew?
Andrew: I really look forward to continue making the quality wine we are making right now. Not only being what you call sustainable, but also improving the environment and the soil quality. It’s also important that we keep treating our staff with a level of respect so that they don’t just want to continue to work with us but are excited to be part of our company. That’s a legacy that is -no pun intended- sustainable and something that I would love to continue in the future.
And what about the future where Bill hands over the reins to you?
I think I would like to continue the legacy of quality, and environmental and social sustainability first and foremost. I also want to make wine that people really enjoy. And that people; our team, clients, and myself, can be proud of the product and of what it is doing for the environment.
It is still pretty hard to fathom Bill not being part of the business at this point, to be completely honest. He’s a bit of legend in the Ontario wine industry, in terms of the generation of winemakers that he is part of. There are a few second-generation winemakers, like myself, who are in a similar situation. You are basically taking over the “baby” that was created by your parents, which is both a privilege and, at times, a very hard thing to do.
To find the perfect way of continuing what was started in very particular ways by your parents is a challenge that every family- owned business goes through at some point. The fact that it is about to be “our turn” rather soon, is very exciting and daunting at the same time. But I’m ready to take on everything that is necessary and do the legacy justice.
What are your feelings about the future, Bill?
Bill: One of the things I really don’t want Andrew, or his brother James, to do is turn 50 and think: “Shit, I wish I had done this or that, but I felt I needed to stay in the family business.” Over the course of the last decades, I had this chance to be really creative in what I was doing. And what I would love Andrew to do is, not to let Southbrook disappear, but it needs to be remade in Andrew’s image and his vision. To me that’s the only important thing.
I want Andrew at 55, or whatever, to feel that he has accomplished want he wanted to accomplish. One of the difficulties in that, comparing it to my own story, at 30 I still had no idea where I would be today at 68. In my life, with the vineyard, where we stand today happened quite organically. For him, this is a little different, but he will need to be flexible as you never know exactly what will happen in the future. I think the Southbrook of today offers a great opportunity to contribute to society and create more positive change. That’s what I wish for him and for Southbrook.
Get inspired by the Redelmeier’s elevated workwear collection, curated for the cellar door and life beyond the vineyard.