Monday, November 30, 2009

July 2008: The Harmonious Winery

Featherstone Winery in Vineland is a fascinating example of how producers can work in harmony with the land in a variety of ways. David Johnson is both the winemaker and the grower at Featherstone, and so he oversees the production of his wines through the seasons, from bud to grape to juice to wine. What’s more, he and his wife and business partner, Louise Engel, try to work in harmony with the environment.

They use non-chemical alternatives to herbicides wherever possible and no pesticides at all, favouring the release of pheromones to discourage grape berry beetle for example, and hand-sorting the grapes on a shaker table to combat lady bugs. While not certified organic (only one Ontario winery has gone through the certification process: Frogpond in Niagara on the Lake), Featherstone consciously chooses sustainable, natural solutions to agricultural challenges.

One of the most noticeable instances of this is Louise’s bird control practice. Starlings and other birds descend on the grape vines in huge flocks, and one peck of a bird bill ruins not only the grape, but can expose the whole cluster to fungus and rot. That’s why a winery tour in Niagara in high summer can sound like a trip through a combat zone; the wineries use propane-powered “bangers” to scare the flocks away from their valuable grapes. Louise is a falconer, and her three impressive raptors can be seen circling high above the vines on regular patrol. While they kill very few birds, they provide a natural intimidation factor that keeps the flocks of hungry birds well away from Featherstone territory.

Another example of Featherstone’s symbiotic farming practices is the lambs that wander freely among the rows of grapes. These mammalian lawn mowers keep weeds and grasses to a minimum, reducing the need for chemical or mechanical removal of vegetation. But when they have finished with the ground cover, the lambs really become useful. They turn to the grape leaves. Normally, in cool climate viticulture, human labour is used to thin the grape leaves and allow the sun to get at the grapes and help the ripening process. Much more thorough at leaf removal than humans tend to be (after all, it’s their food!), the lambs leave the still-sour grapes alone and happily munch on the unwanted leaves. Nature has played into this happy relationship; since sheep cannot swallow with their heads tilted above horizontal, they concentrate on the grape leaves from chin height down… exactly the zone in which leaf removal is most effective for the ripening grapes.

Of course, an added bonus (for us, not the lambs) is that when they have fattened on the tender and tasty grape leaves, their meat is sweet and succulent. Featherstone lambs are in high demand among some of Niagara’s most discerning restaurateurs, including Mark Piccone and Stephen Treadwell. Lamb, fattened on Featherstone grape leaves, served with one of Featherstone’s premier red wines is a match made in gastronomic heaven.

Slow Food Pelham is hosting in August an event featuring whole Featherstone lamb slow roasted over Featherstone vine cuttings, with Featherstone wines on offer and a tour of the vineyards with David Johnson. For more information about the Slow Food movement, look at and to learn about the Pelham Convivium or to get more information on this event, write to Renée Girard at

Roast Leg of Ontario Lamb
Cut five garlic cloves into slices, and insert the slices into slits made all over the lamb leg. Combine four Tbsp of fresh Rosemary with two Tbsp of Dijon mustard and two Tbsp olive oil and smear the mixture over the lamb. Bake on a meat rack in a 375 degree oven until the internal temperature is 130 degrees for medium rare (allow about 15 minutes per pound). Cover with foil and let it sit for 15 minutes before carving. Serve with potatoes roasted in the same pan, a summer salad, and a good VQA Meritage or Cabernet.

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