Original in their product, bold in their flavours and audacious with their branding, Megalomaniac Winery continues to revolutionize the Niagara wine industry one innovative wine at a time – each with a touch of sass.
This cheeky line is a daring turn for a Niagara homegrown – touting cult favourites SonofaBitch Pinot Noir, Bravado Cabernet Sauvignon, Narcissist Riesling and Pink Slip Rose on their long list of incredible wines. 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 characteristics; creating a truly unique reflection of a Canadian winery with a global perspective.
What began as strictly a retirement venture for owner John Howard has since rapidly grown; evolving from a brand of limited quantity, hand-crafted wines into an established award winning winery citing a 25-30 per cent per year growth over the last four years.
“We have gone from two thousand to 40 thousand cases in four to five vintages,” said Howard. “But that is all accredited to the people that I work with; they are all really personable, very grounded, they are all people who have a very dynamic spirit. They really walk the talk in terms of producing a quality wine and experience for the people who come here.”
Resting upon what is believed to be the highest vantage point on the Niagara Escarpment between Milton and Niagara Falls, 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 multi-level winery, Megalomaniac is a must visit while in Vineland; featuring an open concept tasting bar, retail facility, private tasting rooms and the new addition of a wraparound stone patio and rooftop terrace adorned with glass railings and seating for an unobscured panoramic view of both the Niagara Region and Toronto and Niagara Falls skylines that is simply breathtaking.
The patio is not the only new addition to the winery’s impressive repertoire; welcome acclaimed winemaker Sébastien Jacquey to the team. The dynamic and highly educated winemaker from Burgundy, France is known for using a combination of old world style in the new world; diligent in his quest to create premium wines while fostering a comfortable environment that promotes creativity, discovery and spontaneity.
“Six years before I met him I said that the wine he produced, Le Clos Jordanne, a pinot noir, that it was the best red wine ever produced in Niagara,” said Howard. “I’ve said this for six, seven years – and I had never met him. So when he came to talk to us about joining us, we talked about Le Clos Jordanne and he said ‘I’ve heard you say publicly that you think it’s the best red wine.’ And I said, ‘That’s because I believe that. Well I want you to produce more.”
Jacquey’s extensive education includes five years of vocational training, a university diploma in Technology and Biology with a specialization in Food and Biology, a National Diploma in Oenology and his Professional Agricultural Aptitude certificate. He later received his Master of Earth and Environment studies, specializing in Vine Management and Terroir and then went on to the l’Institut Supérieur d’Agriculture, RhoneAlpes, where he graduated as an Engineer of Oenology and Viticulture.
Recognizing that knowledge is not only gained by textbook, Jacquey’s rigorous training has been complemented by lots of hands on experience in wineries around the world.
“The really important thing, the key thing, about thresholding a culture where people can become creative is you have to make them comfortable,” said Howard. “If they do not have that threshold then it is very difficult to ascend for that level of greatness. The environment [Jacquey] creates allows for this level of spontaneity and discovery and exchange of ideas.”
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 two thousand case beginnings into a 50 thousand case operation over the course of eight years.
Howard has done 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’s growth could not be stunted.
“I was going to spend my retirement fly fishing for Atlantic salmon, I was going to spend time developing our projects 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 Chateaux 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.”
The original 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.
With the intention of keeping Megalomaniac Canadian, Howard and business associate Bernie Beauregard set out to find a creative label to match the unique brand.
“I called it Megalomaniac frankly to poke fun at people in the wine business who take themselves too seriously,” said Howard. “Everyone, including [Beauregard] was nervous about me using Megalomaniac. They thought wine journalists and people like that would think I was mocking them – which I was, unequivocally, so everyone was nervous.
“Our sense was that if we produced a really good wine at an affordable price, there would always be a place for that product,” said Howard. “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.”
Their search ended at an art institute where they held a contest to find the winning label design to accompany the cheeky name. A young woman from B.C. was the first to introduce the image of the faceless man in a bowler hat.
The brilliant packaging went on to receive 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].”
Megalomaniac quickly found themselves at the forefront of interest in the wine world. Though Howard says he had no aspirations to expand the brand past its original concept, Howard said they had no choice but to construct the new winery – 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 an evolving crop of varietals on the home vineyard and rolling fields of the main vineyard. This includes all Bordeaux varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc – and Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. Following an unfortunately rough winter, Megalomaniac was forced to uproot many of the damaged vines surrounding the property on flat land – losing 40-45 per cent and the entirety of the home vineyard merlot. But Howard said he is looking towards the future and not back at the damaged grapes; this uproot has allowed their team to plant new vineyards – including more Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to cater to Jacquey’s interests.
“I love planting vineyards but you don’t really want to plant vineyard by virtue of ripping out vineyard,” said Howard. “But I don’t think we will have that problem again.”
“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 will continue to work on expanding their new patio, adding an additional roof top component above the current patio, all to help soften the concrete exterior and provide even greater views of the surrounding region.
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.”
Whether it be their world-class wines, phenomenal views or Howard’s warmth and character that draw you to Megalomaniac, you are guaranteed to find something that will keep you coming back for more.
“We’re proud of our Niagara Heritage and we’re certainly proud of our homegrown wines!”
By Gabrielle Tieman