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The Wine Life: A Profile of Winemaker Paul Speck

Cheers! Paul credits being in the right place at the right time when his father asked him to help run the family's winery.

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The story of Paul Speck, president and co-owner with his two brothers of a premium winery in Ontario, Canada, is a new kind of story for us at Fine Cooking. We’re calling it a “Personality” story, where we introduce you, our readers, to interesting people in the world of food and drink… people who have such fun jobs that we want to spend a day with them, learning about their lives and passions, and hopefully getting in a good meal along the way. 

Paul was perfect – he’s fun, smart, passionate, and happens to run an award-winning winery in St. Catharine’s, Ontario. Even better, his wife, Melissa, is a wonderful cook and they entertain all the time.  It was a slam-dunk! So last October, our photographer, Scott Phillips, photo editor, Kelly Gearity, and I went to spend the day with Paul and crash a dinner party at his house that evening.  It was a delicious day, to say the least!  And here’s what I learned about what it’s like to be Paul Speck…

Paul Speck, one-time city boy turned philosopher turned winemaker, is tearing the foil from a bottle of sparkling wine as he gets ready for a Friday night dinner with his two younger brothers and their wives. It’s a bone-dry sparkler from their family winery—Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery in St. Catharines, Ontario—and with a splash of their Cabernet Franc ice wine, it makes for a killer cocktail.

Melissa, Paul’s wife, is busy arranging “dessert”: an all-Ontario cheese plate with fresh fruit and toasted nuts. Her menu for tonight—a juicy stuffed pork roast, beets with fresh goat cheese, sautéed broccoli raab, and a lentil salad—comes straight from neighborhood shops and farmers’ markets, including a family-owned butcher shop across the street from her children’s school.

roast pork with rosemary, sage, and garlic cheese plate
Tuscan-Style Roast Pork with Rosemary, Sage, and Garlic   Counterclockwise from front: Ramembert, a sheep’s milk bloomyrind cheese; Niagara Gold, a semisoft washed-rind cow’s milk cheese; and a cow’s milk smoked blue called Blue Haze.

There’s still some warmth in the air, so Paul is cooking the garlic-and-herb-stuffed pork on a rotisserie. “I’m always trying new things on the grill,” says Paul. “We have these big dinners together about once a month, so I’ve got plenty of chances to experiment. Planning the menus and the wines—ours or someone else’s—is practically a family pastime.”

Wine and food were not always Paul’s passions. “I studied philosophy in college, and I actually wanted to be a lawyer in Toronto,” he explains as he checks on the pork that’s filling the patio with a rich, garlicky perfume. “But my dad asked me to come help run the winery, and it turns out I was lucky to be in this place at the right time.” Whatever you want to call it—luck or fate or a father’s wish—the timing was ideal. Just as Paul began managing the family business (he’d later become the winery’s president), the premium wine industry in Ontario began to take off. And as Henry of Pelham grew, so did Paul’s passion for making wine. (For more about Henry of Pelham’s wines, see “The Wine Thinker” below.)

Making—and drinking—wine is much more than a job for Paul and his brothers: It’s a lifestyle, one that includes good food. As they stand on the patio, sipping cocktails and nibbling on prosciutto and oil-cured olives before dinner, talk turns to a New Zealand rosé that Paul wants his brothers to try. “It’s made from Cabernet Franc, which we grow, too. European-style grapes like Cab Franc, Chardonnay, and Riesling, they all grow well here and make wines that express this part of the world. That’s key for us.”

Plates are passed and filled, and more bottles are opened—Henry of Pelham’s lush, fruity reserve Cabernet-Merlot blend is ideal with the smoky, grilled pork roast and gently bitter broccoli raab. The beet salad with goat cheese and toasted pecans is creamy and tangy and crunchy all at once, and earthy lentils and scallions get a kick from sherry vinaigrette.


 

Later, Melissa serves the cheese plate and Paul pours their Riesling ice wine. One cheese in particular, a buttery, cow’s milk, washed-rind cheese called Niagara Gold, captures everyone’s attention. It’s made less than 10 miles from the winery, and it pairs perfectly with the cold, sweet wine. For Paul Speck and his brothers, this is what it’s all about—great wine and food, all from this corner of Canada.

 

The Wine Thinker
Paul Speck believes that fine wine is grown, not made. After all, a bottle of wine is only as good as its grapes.

The Land

Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery sits near the base of the Niagara Escarpment (the steep cliff over which Niagara Falls runs) in the Short Hills Bench sub-appellation of Niagara. “The soil is heavy clay with lots of limestone and shale sediment spread throughout,” Paul explains. “The clay naturally restricts the root growth of the vines, which is a good thing. Low yields and small volume are perfect for growing premium wines. And the sediment gives the grapes—especially Riesling and Chardonnay—a great natural acidity and minerality.”

The Climate

“We’re sandwiched between Lake Ontario and the Niagara Escarpment, so there’s a triangle of warm air from the lake and cool air from the escarpment flowing over the vineyards,” says Paul. These conditions are ideal for growing both ice wine and red wine grapes, with temperatures as hot as 85°F in the summer, and as cold as 10°F in the winter.

The Wines
Three-quarters of the grapes that go into Henry of Pelham wines come from their own vineyards, which, for a small 225-acre winery (170 acres of which are under vine), is significant. The other quarter comes from neighboring vineyards in Niagara. “We will always be 100 percent Niagara. That way, when you buy our wines you’re getting something special from this part of the world.”

The Cheese Plate
Wondering where you can get the Canadian cheeses so good they qualify as dessert?

Ramembert: Ewenity Dairy
Niagara Gold: Upper Canada Cheese Co.
Blue Haze: Provincial Affineurs

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