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homeless wineries

online wine
lynn ogryzlo

Today's trend in wineries: go virtual

Winemaker Steve Byfield is using his reputation in the wine industry, an entrepreneurial spirit and a bare-bones staff to create what he calls a “homeless winery”.

A homeless winery, also known as a virtual winery is just that – virtual. It has no real estate, no winery building, no tasting bar or retail store. It’s a new phenomena of a digital world and now – and how cool is this? – one can drink wine from a non-existent winery.

Virtual winery Nyarai Cellars ( was created one evening when Byfield shared a glass of wine with Sharon Marks, president of the Niagara chapter of the Ontario Wine Society. Two very passionate wine lovers who decided it would be fun to make their own wine. It wasn’t long before more wine lovers joined in: brothers Rod and Mike Ingram.

The value in virtual wineries is their creative labels, the wine that goes into the bottles and a lean operation. Instead of investing millions of dollars to buy land, plant a vineyard, launch a winery and have the full staff necessary to run a bricks-and-mortar winery, virtual wineries put as much money as they can into what goes into the bottle.

It’s true, not just anyone can put wine in a bottle and sell it, so how does it work? Byfield is winemaker at Calamus Estate Winery in Jordan and he’s running his virtual winery through the Calamus winery license. He leases the equipment, the space he needs and the rights to run his virtual winery under the Calamus license, yet it’s a stand alone business.

Calamus owner, Derek Saunders explains.

“Steve wanted his own brand and it’s a great way for me to keep our best talent in-house”.

What isn’t said is that virtual wineries don’t compete with the hand that feeds them. For example, you won’t find a Nyarai wine that directly competes with a Calamus wine. Instead, it’s complementary.

Head of Sales and Marketing for Stratus Vineyards, Charles Baker calls his Charles Baker Riesling simply CB. Stratus is well known for premium assemblage, Bordeaux-style wines so Baker’s Riesling is a complementary, not competitive brand.

Baker romantically refers to his project as a garrista-style wine making operation. He sources grapes from the oldest section of the Picone Vineyard in Vineland and ensures they’re cropped to two tonnes per acre. He uses three sorting tables to select only the ripest berries and ferments only the free run juice into his 100 per cent Riesling, a grape that Baker (if you couldn’t tell by now) is obsessively passionate about.

Baker started in 2005, producing a mere 125 cases of Riesling because it was “something I’ve always wanted to do”. Five years later, he’s just bottled almost 400 cases of the 2009 vintage ($35/bottle, and it’s impressive. It starts with a mineral edge that underscores the Gala apple, baked pear and creamy white peach notes backed by a strong, steady body and firm, zesty acidity. The finish is elegant and mouthwatering; the best Riesling I’ve tasted from Niagara yet.

Like Byfield, Baker sells his wine to restaurants, through a private mailing list and the website. Traditionally, virtual wines are not sold on the retail shelves of the wineries they work out of, but I did find one exception to that rule: DareDevil Wines.

DareDevil Wines ( is a virtual winery owned by sommelier, Marcel Morgenstern. Morgenstern was sommelier at Pillitteri Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Inside the Pillitteri retail store is a proud display of DareDevil 07 Cabernet ($36/bottle) for customers to taste and buy.

The DareDevil Cabernet is an alluring wine with aromas of young blackberry, cinnamon and cedar over cigar ash. On the palate is a straight core of baked cherries, cured meat and a toasty cinnamon finish. It’s simply luscious.

With no retail shop or tasting bar the wines are sold through websites, aka virtual stores. You can join their mailing list for information on release dates and special tasting events. Sharon Marks organizes a tasting of virtual wineries once a year and it’s an event not to be missed. This year it will be held Monday, April 11 and if you’re interested, you can reach her through the Nyarai Cellars website.

So it’s the people behind a virtual winery that make it tick, but can one person really make a winery? Donald Ziraldo thinks so. Last November Ziraldo, co-founder of Inniskillin Wines and iconic figure of the Ontario wine industry replaced a 60-year-old cherry orchard with various clones of Riesling grape vines. His grapes too young to bear fruit, Ziraldo just happened to taste some barrel samples of icewine from John Howard’s cellars (Meglomaniac Wines) and was so impressed, he bought it all./p>

His long-time winery partner and winemaker, Karl Kaiser finished the 400 cases of Ziraldo Icewine ($59/375 mL,, it was released and not surprisingly, it sold out in five weeks. A trickling of the icewine made it to the LCBO Vintages but most traveled across the globe. This year Ziraldo is experimenting with a Riesling table wine and only time will tell if he plans to share it with the rest of us.

A virtual winery is a relatively inexpensive way to “set up shop”, explains Baker who “didn’t get into this to start a winery. This kind of winemaking fuels more interest (and growth) in our industry” and what could be better than that?

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Authorlynn ogryzlo

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