Megalomaniac Winery is nothing short of jaw dropping. Original in their product, bold in their flavours and audacious with their branding, this groundbreaking winery continually crafts wines of distinction – but with a touch of sass.
This cheeky line is a daring turn for a Niagara homegrown – touting brand favourites SonofaBitch Pinot Noir, Bravado Cabernet Sauvignon, Narcissist Riesling and Bigmouth Merlot. But though Megalomaniac may use their unique branding and attitude to poke fun at the occasionally rigid and traditional Niagara wine industry, each wine remains loyal to the Niagara Region with their elevated homegrown characters; creating a truly unique reflection of a Canadian winery with a global perspective.
What began as strictly a retirement side venture for owner John Howard has since rapidly grown – evolving from a brand of limited quantity, hand-crafted wines made by some of the finest winemakers into an established world class award winning winery.
Megalomaniac’s 120 acres of vineyard on the Vineland Upper Bench in Lincoln has been cultivated and restored to its natural glory; boasting five varietals on premise and a newly constructed multi-level winery featuring an open concept tasting bar, retail facility, private tasting rooms and a rooftop terrace. The winery is even believed to rest upon the highest vantage point on the Niagara Escarpment between Milton and Niagara Falls; so no matter where you find yourself standing and in which direction you may glance, you receive incredible panoramic views of both the Niagara Region and Toronto and Niagara Falls skylines.
Howard, the former proprietor of Vineland Estates Winery and Executive Vice-President for Canon’s North American operations, is no stranger to the evolution and growth of industry. Under Howard’s innovative eye, Vineland Estate’s once petite winery grew into a high-end operation with much acclaim; expanding vineyards by 300 acres and growing production from its humble 2,000 case beginnings into a 50,000 case operation over the course of eight years.
Howard has done much the same with his newest venture. What began as a single vintage meant to help financially support his charity Kids’ Health Links Foundation, which provides computers for children in hospital so they can stay connected to family and friends, took off. And though Howard’s initial goal was to limit annual production to a few thousand cases while keeping the bottle price low, the winery has continued to grow exponentially; developing from 2,000 cases to roughly 35,000 cases in a few years and boasting a 50% compounded growth rate for four years running.
“I was going to spend my retirement fly fishing, I was going to spend time in Bordeaux [France], and I was going to farm this property,” said Howard. “I wasn’t really keen on the notion of making wine again. For me, I was done making wine in Canada; I had two Wine Chateux in France [With the Jeanoueix family, a dynasty in the wine industry]. So we did one vintage, where a portion of the proceeds would go to the charity, and called it Megalomaniac.
“I called it Megalomaniac frankly to poke fun at people in the wine business who take themselves too seriously,” said Howard. “And I didn’t care, because it was only going to be one vintage. Everyone will know who I am poking fun at and in a year, it will be over.”
But the vintage sold out within 90 days and in tandem with the wine’s success, the foundation established a threshold. It became clear to Howard that the foundation could have a huge impact on children hospitals across the country. The notion of taking it national came up, so he made another vintage. Today, neither the winery nor the foundation has ceased growth; with the foundation currently residing in 11 of the 13 children’s hospitals across Canada.
“At the beginning, we were cautioned that wine journalists would beat us up pretty badly because of the name,” said Howard. “But our sense was that if we produced a really good wine at an affordable price, there would always be a place for that product. That has been a bit of a threshold; producing the best wines we can, but presenting them at a very affordable price. Our underlining theme is value and it is very important to us and our customers.”
Following the success of the vintages, Megalomaniac quickly found themselves at the forefront of interest in the wine world. Their brilliant packaging – which portrays a faceless figure of a male executive wearing a bowler hat – received much acclaim in 2007 when Narcissist Riesling was singled out as the only individual design to earn double-gold honours at the San Francisco International Wine Competition under unanimous vote.
“I really think the branding struck a note with wine people internationally,” said Howard. “To win gold, first you have to have more votes than anyone else from the tribunal, but to get double gold it has to be unanimous. It’s a pretty big deal for Napa [Valley].”
Though Howard says he had no aspirations to expand the brand past its original concept, Howard said they had no choice but to build the new building – which opened in 2014 – to accommodate current and future growth. Rising upwards from the Underground Cellar Howard had constructed years previous to house farming equipment, a winery of esteem rose with one reoccurring theme: that it be Canadian.
“I wanted it to be Canadian,” said Howard. “And I wanted it to be organic. All of the stone is from the escarpment. Majority of the wood is Canadian. It’s supposed to look Canadian and I want it to look Canadian because we are in Canada. This idea of trying to emulate Italy, France; I don’t get that. You want property that looks French? Buy in France!”
Though they farm a variety of Bordeaux varietals imported from France on the property, this passion for a true Canadian winery can be found flowing effortlessly among the grapes surrounding the vineyard – with Howard’s patriotism mirrored by the Crimson King Maple Trees that line the drive into the winery.
“Anyone who takes a photograph – there is a maple leaf in front of it,” said Howard. “That’s who we are. But it was natural that we would have Bordeaux varietals here because of what we were doing in France. Some of the same vine clones we have on our properties in France are planted here so it gives us an interesting dynamic.”
The winery farms a traditional blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot on the home vineyard and an evolving crop of five varietals on the rolling fields of the main vineyard including all Bordeaux varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc – and Pinot Noir and Riesling.
“We are very keen on farming what we put into the bottle,” said Howard. “We want people to see that and see the commitment we have got in terms of owning and operating and maintaining the amount of vineyard that we have.”
The winery also features on premise labs and state of the art fermentation and barrel rooms for on-site wine tasting, testing and experimentation. Megalomaniac chose to invest in both high end cigar barrels and traditional round barrels for developing their wines – allowing their wine makers the opportunity to experiment and test aging and development components on the same grapes.
But expansions are not set to cease in the near future. Howard said the winery is currently working on the addition of an 8,800 square foot patio accompanied by large stone pillars that will surround the tasting bar and retail facility in order to help soften the concrete exterior and provide even greater views of the surrounding region. Another 1,800 square foot balcony will rest above and a 4,200 square foot roof garden that will offer a seating area with breathtaking views will adorn the top of the building. Howard said they are also looking to build an experimental kitchen for catered events and add drone technology into the vineyard for live profiles of the grapes. All renovations sit with the same goal of creating an all-encompassing Niagara wine experience.
“We really want people to come out here and have fun and get a perspective of Niagara that is traditional,” said Howard. “If it wasn’t for this industry, all of this land on the horizon could soon be planted with basements. We’ll always pride ourselves in protecting our Agricultural Heritage.”
“We’re proud of our Niagara Heritage and we’re certainly proud of our Homegrown Wines!”