The postmodern winemaker; Urban Tractor Farm's Gordon Maretzki
Heading up the Escarpment from the village of Beamsville, one travels a well trodden route to wine country staples like Hidden Bench and Fielding Estate. Continue climbing, though, and you come across the lesser-travelled roads of Niagara's highest winemaking appelation; Vinemount Ridge. Clinging to the top of the Escarpment, a set of weathered farm buildings exude character but wouldn't entice passersby to stop for more than a glance. That will change.
For on this historic property, Gordon and Paula Maretzki have thrown their hat into the ring as Niagara's new winemaking family. While many new wineries in Niagara come about with a bang - starchitect-designed tasting rooms, icewine igloos, splashy unveilings at Toronto or Niagara-on-the-Lake wine bars - Urban Tractor Farm is not that.
Gord is a true 'garagiste' winemaker, in that his winemaking suite, aging cellar, and tasting room are all currently in his garage. And this garage wasn't even heated until last month! But he also embodies the passion and can-do attitude that have turned garage winemakers into superstars at bottle shops the world over. Case in point; Urban Tractor's winepress was handbuilt, which is surely a first in the region.
The whole Maretzki family pitch in at harvest time and today, the garage is filled to the brim with barrels, totes, and winemaking equipment that spills out onto the frozen drive. There are some exciting plans in place to turn this old farmstead into an experiential winery. On a blustery January afternoon, Archives chatted with Gord over a glass of the delightful 2020 Maréchal Foch and we were fascinated by his thoughtful approach to winemaking and family.
AWSM: How did you decide to start a winery?
Gord: The decision to start a winery was not something that we ever really deliberately made. It has evolved from a set of unique circumstances and a chain of decisions as a result of our decision to seek a new lifestyle for our family.
The start of it all was when we moved from the city in 2009 looking for a wider space to raise our growing family and came across this awesome yet neglected 47 acre farm property in Beamsville. We focused on our family and “homesteady” farm pursuits to give our kids an experience in the initial years after acquiring the farm. We had cattle, chickens, ponies, and puppies in this time.
After the honeymoon period of being on the farm, we came to the realization that we would as some point in time, like to have a profitable farm or at some point at least breakeven. Farmers have all heard the joke about the farmer who won a million dollars in the lottery. When asked what he would do with the money, he answered “Keep farming until it’s all gone”.
So while we were forage growers, we had hoped for more revenue than the forage was giving us. Forage was hard work and we felt like we were working for nothing.
I then had a bright idea, maybe we could grow a more profitable crop. Being in wine country, we could probably do better growing grapes. I did the research on input costs and potential yields and profitability and convinced my wife we should plant vines and bask in the revenues that grapes would give us. Well it’s a good thing I didn’t know at the time how hard establishing vines is, or I would never have attempted it. As it is, we bit off a lot, but powered through. I wouldn’t recommend anyone do what I did. In the process I have gained tremendous respect for farmers. Farming is a long game.
OK, so farming grapes is hard and you have to wait a long time for a return, and the risk of crop failure is great every season – welcome to farming. So then after farming grapes for a few years with only expenses and realising that we would have been better off growing forage, we realised we couldn’t go back. We had serious dollars in the ground with vines and were committed to making this work. Not to outdo myself with another bright idea, but I thought 'Hmmmm... wouldn’t it be more profitable to add value to our crop and start a winery – how hard can it be?'
Again, I did my research: so many tons per acre, so many litres per ton, so many cases of wine – boom! – great idea…..on paper. So we started the winery, in anticipation of processing our first harvest. Exciting times.
What have some of the challenges been so far?
There is another joke all winery owners know.
Question: How do you make a small fortune in a winery?
Answer: Start with a large fortune.
So it’s been a tough journey, tougher that we thought, waaaayyy tougher.
When we first moved to the property, we discovered it was in much worse shape than we thought. The buildings were neglected and in much need of serious repair. The previous owner had removed blocks of Niagara and Concord [grapes] and left us with a bare slate of tired soil.
The first thing we did was make necessary repairs to the buildings to prevent further deterioration. We also immediately focused on restoring the land to fruitfulness through restorative and regenerative practices. We planted perennial grasses and legumes to control erosion. The legumes added nutrients to depleted soils and the grasses provided much needed biomass. We farmed the grasses as forage organically for many years without sprays or tillage and adding organic compost allowing the beneficial soil microbes to recover. This was all a tremendous amount of work, and singularly a family affair.
Gord stands next to his handmade winepress.
Did anything draw you to your specific property? And how is the site for grape growing?
We had been looking for sometime for a rural property in the Niagara region for a perfect place to raise our family. My parents had recently retired to Grimsby and Paula’s parents were in Mississauga. We wanted to be within an hour's drive of both our families so the Niagara area was a perfect location. We loved wine country and at that time we were happy to just be near it. So when we came across this farm in Beamsville, we immediately made an offer, only to find out there was another offer pending. Two weeks later we found out the offer fell through and we secured the property.
The property, although tired, had great potential. It is at a high elevation, one of the highest in the Niagara Region and was used for aircraft navigation beacons in WWII as a result. There are amazing views from the top of the hill. Because of the change in topography, at this elevation we have consistent winds, which make hot summers quite bearable. From a grape growing perspective, the vines are planted on the slopes, which makes for good drainage, grapes don’t like wet feet. The consistent winds help with vine health and provide good air circulation which mitigates disease pressure. Our soil is clay loam till, which has a high water-holding capacity, which is particularly suitable to our dry farming approach. Our vines enjoy a consistent and reliable water supply throughout the summer.
Our farm is in the Vinemount Ridge Sub-Appellation which has fewer degree days than some of the other appellations in the Niagara Peninsula. Because of this, for our estate blocks, we focused on varietals that do well in colder settings. We chose Baco Noir as our red and Seyval Blanc for our white for our first plantings as they are early varietals that do well in our climate.
Do you have a winemaking philosophy?
I am a voracious reader, and once read a book by Clark Smith called “Post Modern” winemaking. The wine making philosophies presented in his book particularly resonated with me. To coin the title, our wine making approach could be said to be “Post Modern”.
The post-modern approach credits both science and art in the many steps of the wine making process. The ancient traditions are highly valued, but science has given us insight as to why these ways are so successful. To give an example, it was only in 1858 that Louis Pasteur discovered that it was the yeast microbe that was responsible for turning sugar into alcohol. This discovery helps us to understand the important role yeast has on the winemaking process, and we can leverage this information to make great wine. My goal is to strive to understand what the ancients did and apply tradition and science to not only make competent and consistent wine, but exceptional wine of structure and mystery.
To varying degrees, the ancient ways will always be a mysterious, and we see the process through the glass dimly. That won’t stop me from trying to understand and unlock at least some of the mysteries. Making wine for me is a personal, creative and objective journey. This journey will never be finished.
The literally 'garagiste' barrel cellar.
Which wines have you got in the pipeline for future releases and how are they coming along?
For our first vintage, we had two offerings, A Marechal Foch and a Riesling-Seyval Blanc dual varietal. We are particularly proud of our Foch that has turned out amazingly well. 2020 was a great Vintage.
For 2021, we are continuing with the Foch and it is showing great promise. We had the opportunity to farm a block of Gewurztraminer this year. As well are trying our hand at a Cab Franc which is an interesting varietal. It is tasting true to type and should blossom with some time on oak. We had a very small yield from our Seyval Blanc from our estate grown block this year and it is really showing interesting complexity already. This growing season was a challenge for all farmers. Disease was a big risk with all the late rains, but our estate block of Baco stayed healthy and harvested nicely. It’s tasting super fruit forward and we’re excited to see how this turns out when it’s finished in the barrel.
Can you tell us a little about the future construction you’re planning at the winery?
We have big plans for the next couple of seasons. Our winery is currently in a repurposed drive shed. It’s been perfect to get us to the point we are now. As people get to know us and understand and appreciate our wines, we’re expecting to change things up a bit. We’re concentrating on making our property more conducive to on-site experiences. With Covid, this priority has been put on the backburner and has allowed us to focus on grape growing and wine making. We are optimistic and hope that we’re close to the end of this and look forward to meeting people and sharing our journey in person.
We have a space set aside for a tasting room/retail space in our shed. The wine making will move into a larger barn and the current space will be re-assigned to a barrel room. We are currently in the planning stages to give the grounds landscaping and residence a facelift for a more visitor-focused experience which we hope to complete this next season.
Where do you see Urban Tractor in five years? Ten?
We really see Urban Tractor Farm as something greater than just a place to get good wine. We really want to be experience-focused, especially in regard to the local community. We get a lot of questions on the name of our winery. Why Urban Tractor Farm, and not Urban Tractor Winery? One of the reasons why, is that we are a farm first. All wineries are a farm first. There is no magic wand to put wine in a bottle. We want people to think about the process; that there was a farmer, who needed land, who had to plant the vine, tend the vine, harvest the fruit, secure resources to process the fruit, acquire skills to make the wine, make the wine, et cetera, et cetera, and finally, enjoy it with your friends.
If we would have named it Urban Tractor Winery, we would be just focusing on the last step and people would think of UTF as just another place to get some wine. While yes, it is about the wine, it is about so much more.
This is the story we want to tell in a nutshell:
Two unique urbanites, moving with their family to wine country, embracing the lifestyle, overcoming the challenges, and sharing their story and the fruits of their passion with their friends.
It is our desire to make every visitor to our farm a friend. In next years we hope to have events that we can invite our friends to, to share experiences as well as a glass of wine. A social experience that is one to remember and worth coming back for.