The drive out to Avondale is gorgeous, all rolling hills and farms, with the occasional glimpse of the red mud shores of the Avon River, which feeds into the Bay of Fundy and changes dramatically with the tides. This was a new part of the province for me, as it was for Stewart Creaser and Lorraine Vassalo the first time they took a drive out there looking for land to build their dreams on.
The couple has owned Avondale Sky Winery for eight years now, and they have achieved great things in this relatively short period. In 2014 they were one of the inaugural winners of the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Nova Scotia Wines, and in 2015 were named the Winery of the Year at the Atlantic Canadian Wine Awards.
In their previous lives, Creaser and Vassalo had high-stress jobs. Creaser owned a commercial heating and air conditioning company, and Vassalo worked in the criminal justice system. “We recognized that we needed to make some fundamental changes in the way we were living if we wanted to have another 30 or 40 years together without both having heart attacks,” says Creaser. What they didn’t know was what exactly they should be doing instead. They did know that they didn’t just want to retire.
Positive Thinking and Lucky Breaks
“Over more than one bottle of wine, we sat and made a ‘how do we want to live’ bucket list,” says Creaser. This list included things like wanting to live a more sustainable lifestyle, getting more fresh air and exercise, and generally living a more wholesome life.
“After we looked at it for a while, we thought that we could do all that by owning a vineyard, and that could be a good move, as it is such a growing industry here,” he says. They love wine and had travelled in various wine regions, so a vineyard certainly seemed like a good fit.
They started learning all they could about the Nova Scotia wine industry. They toyed with the idea of growing grapes on a piece of land they’d inherited in Cape Breton, but soon learned that the land had issues that weren’t suited to grow grapes (both related to soil structure and climate).
With a firm idea of where they thought grapes would grow best, they headed out to Avondale where they knew there was a vineyard, thinking that maybe there’d be other suitable land around it for sale. They drove up to the property they now own and had a peek. Although the place was deserted, they liked what they saw. It was pure luck that the next day the vineyard popped up on MLS for sale.
“Lorraine was checking MLS every day looking at properties, and I came home one evening and she’s standing in the doorway with these papers in her hand. And she has this look on her face, and I thought someone had died,” says Creaser. “She says we’re in so much trouble—look, look! And we knew immediately that we wanted to buy it.”
The vineyard has been there since the mid-80s, planted as the original owners’ retirement plan. At that point, the vineyard was owned by a Californian who was planning to turn the place into a winery resort with chalets and a restaurant, but Creaser says that once he figured out how long our summers are, he realized that the business plan wasn’t going to work.
The couple’s original plan wasn’t to spend as much money as this property was selling for, but it had 14 acres of established producing vines, with a contract to sell the grapes to Jost. They decided to go for it, buying in late September, with their first harvest ready just a month later. They didn’t exactly know what they were doing at that point.
As luck would have it, a winemaker was already there. While the Californian had bailed on the project, he had hired a winemaker, Ben Swetnam, to manage the vineyard until they got the winery started. From Halifax, Swetnam studied in Niagara and did an internship in Germany, and had worked at several wineries before taking the job there.
“Ben came here for this job, and they were selling the property out from underneath him. He didn’t know us from Adam but we begged him to stay with us just through the harvest because we were complete newbies,” says Creaser.
Diving into Wines
Swetnam stayed on, the harvesting went well and they asked him to stay on another year. “That harvest, Ben and Lorraine decided just for fun to try making some wines in our basement here, and I was still working in the city at that point running my business,” says Creaser. “Months later they decide to let me taste the wine, and I realized that we had a really talented winemaker who really knows what he is doing.”
The couple had said they were going to run the vineyard for five years before deciding whether they wanted to actually turn the place into a winery. But when Creaser sipped on that first glass of wine, they decided to get going with the winery side of business right away. “We had the grapes, we had a great winemaker and we, fortunately, had the money to get started,” he says.
It was two years before they were able to actually sell any of the fantastic wines they were producing. Licensing required finished buildings to sell it from, so that’s when they started looking at ways to build their winery in a sustainable way that was in line with the principles they’d vowed to adhere to at the start of the project.
“After running into issues with reusing old lumber, we found out fairly quickly that you could re-use old buildings, so the first part of the winery is a hay barn that one of our neighbours owned, and they were able to move it here for us,” says Creaser.
The barn is unique. It is what’s known as a free-span barn, and was designed by the Agricultural College in Truro in the 20s as a superior way of barn building that led to more efficient stacking of hay, but it became obsolete as a building method once farmers learned how to bale hay (the inside looks like that of an old covered bridge). “All this architecture foiled by a piece of twine,” laughs Vassalo.
Once word got out that the couple was looking for old buildings, the offers came flooding in. “One morning we were offered three barns and two churches,” says Vassalo. Eventually, they heard about the church just up the river in Walton, and when they went to look at it, they knew the second that they walked in that it was the right building. They just had to bring it home.
Floating the Church
Technically, moving the church wasn’t actually that difficult, despite the fact that it had to be moved in one piece because of the way it was built. But because the church was too tall to be moved via the highway (you couldn’t take all the power lines down to move it), it needed to be floated on a barge up the Avon River from Walton to the harbour at the bottom of the hill, then moved up the hill to its new location.
Moving the church turned into a huge story, first with the CBC reporting on it, and then CNN picking it up.
The process may not have been technically difficult, but it certainly was nerve-racking. “My nails have grown back, but the colour has not returned to my hair,” jokes Vassalo. The riskiest part was when it was out on the bay. “It’s a big building, just like a giant sail, and if the weather had got really bad, we may have had some problems,” says Creaser. Fortunately, the weather on moving day was perfect. There were other problems, though.
“We got it loaded on and thought we weren’t going to have any problems. We got about a mile offshore, one of the crew came flying out of the wheelhouse and ran to the engine room, which was billowing with smoke because one of the engines had overheated,” says Creaser. “As they steer using their engines, that was a problem.”
Then things got worse. “They ran the vessel aground and put a hole in the bottom, and after that, it started taking on water,” says Creaser. But they made it, and now the church sits there beautifully, with its fine wood interior and beautiful stained-glass windows intact. If you head there to buy wine or eat in the restaurant they opened last year, D’Vine Morsels, you can sit there and marvel at just how lovely a spot it is. (Or you could sit on the deck and admire the buildings and vineyards from outside.)
The Winery is Born
With buildings in place, Avondale Sky Winery could actually start selling, which felt amazing for Creaser and Vassalo. They started tapering back how much of their grapes they were selling elsewhere, eventually keeping their harvest and planting more vines. “We have 22 acres planted now, 18.5 producing this year, and every year we will plant more,” says Creaser, though he admits that they’re not looking to expand on too great a scale.
“Our business model is to be a boutique winery. We make a lot of different wines, some may only be in small and very limited runs. We have a lot of different grapes, and we make a lot of different styles,” he says.
From highest volume to lowest, Avondale Sky makes white wines, reds, roses, traditional method sparkling wines, port styles, sweet dessert wines like ice wines and harvest selects. “Within that, we might make a dozen or more different white wines in a season.”
“We make many more wines than the average winery, even for a large winery, but it was always part of our plan,” says Creaser. “Part of it is that for people that really like wine, they want to try lots of different wines. So it allows us to always be releasing new wines, and someone can come pretty much any time of the year and there’s going to be something new to try.”
Most of those smaller lots are only available from the winery itself, and many of them go straight to the winery’s VP Club. “The members get the first crack at those limited runs, and sometimes they’ll get it all,” says Creaser.
Creaser knows that this makes Avondale Sky different from other wineries, and as a marketing ploy, it is certainly one that works well. “Most wineries don’t allow winemakers to make that much, they stick to those same five wines that they know will sell,” he says. “We want Ben to keep experimenting. He is happier doing that, and allows us to delve into different things.”
Vassalo explains that even though cost-wise it is much more efficient to stick to a defined set of products, that just isn’t what they are about. “One of the principles that was on our list was that we wanted to continue to learn and try different things, and this is a wonderful way to do that,” she says. “There is no end to the learning curve. The vineyard, the winemaking, the business itself is a constantly evolving thing, which we like. Though we have to be profitable to keep it going, it’s about a lifestyle for us.”
And what a lifestyle they’ve built for themselves. Vassalo says that when they first moved there, they felt like they’d found nirvana. It is a beautiful spot. The terrain in Avondale is all gypsum, which erodes over time, leaving sinkholes and ravines, creating an otherworldly environment. “If you were to take all the trees off this peninsula, it would look like the surface of the moon,” says Creaser. You can hike through their lands on a 4.5-kilometre maintained community trail, and get a real sense of how gorgeous this part of the world truly is. “It’s Middle-earth,” says Creaser with a smile. “I go out in the morning and I go to the vineyard and I start looking for hobbits.”
You may not find hobbits if you do make the drive out to Avondale Sky Winery, but there’s plenty there that makes it well worth the trip. Head there for the wine, stay for a delicious locally sourced meal, then take a hike. Perfect.
AVONDALE SKY WINERY
80 AVONDALE CROSS ROAD, NEWPORT LANDING