Joseph Pohorly was born in Vineland, Ontario (1932), he began life as a farmer's son. His family worked 12 hectares of land in Virgil. At 14, he was already learning how to make wine He learned how to grow grapes and other fruit crops from an early age, gaining an appreciation and knowledge of the land, of our geography and climate, and of the unique characteristics that make this viticultural area special.
As a young man he earned an engineering degree in 1975 from Columbus University, and teaching for Lincoln County Board of Education for over two decades between 1959 and 1981. Pohorly married Betty, with whom he would have three children: Joanne and twins Caroline and Barbara. They purchased a four-hectare peach tree orchard. The peach trees were in time torn up and replaced by wine grapes.
He would open his first winery, Newark Wines (later Hillebrand Wines, and then Trius Winery), in Virgil, in 1979. In 1983, Joseph made the first Icewine for Hillebrand and, in the process, became one of the early Canadian Icewine pioneers. By the following year, almost every winery in Niagara was leaving grapes hanging on the vines to create the luscious nectar that would become the darling of the industry.
One frozen evening in 1983, he hand-operated a basket grape presser, squeezing from Vidal grapes, the juice that was made into one of Canada’s earliest icewines.
In 1986, Pohorly sold his Hillebrand interest to design, build and operate the Colonel Butler Inn. He stayed in the hospitality business for ten years for returning to his first love the wine industry.
History would repeat itself he bought a peach farm pulled out the tress and planted grapes. He opened his second winery, Joseph’s Estate Wines, six years later, in 1996 which he later sold in 2014.
Kathy Reid, the winemaker at Joseph’s Estate, met him in the mid-1980s in a wine research lab. She’s been at the winery since its opening day.*
“He was very proud of his Gewürztraminer back in the ’80s,” Reid said. “I think some of these pioneers that made these wines out of vinifera (grapes) really got the wine industry to where it is today.”*
The two also volunteered together at St. Davids Lions Club in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Reid said a lot of Lions Club members worked at Joseph’s Estate.*
“Joseph really loved the social aspect, and he loved doing the volunteer work,” she said of the club.
He was a proud long-time active member of the St. Davids Lions Club and helped with various community projects such as the Centennial Pavilion at the Lions Park which he designed and funded.
If that’s not enough, in 2002, at age 70, Pohorly earned his PhD in environmental engineering from Columbus University for his research and development of processes to extract grape seed oil from the grape seeds and skins that are generated during the winemaking process.
Having a very active mind he came up with the idea to turn pomace — the leftover “waste” from pressing grapes — into grapeseed oil and started Joseph’s Natural Products in 2003, which operates in Niagara-on-the-Lake today.
He was named Niagara-on-the-Lake’s businessperson of the year in 2004,presented with the Christopher Newton Award for Extraordinary Vision in Business, and the year before that, he was given the Regional Innovation Award for Sustainable Development. In 2018, he was presented with a Niagara Agriculture Lifetime Achievement Award.
In his later years, he remained active as an engineering consultant, and continued to travel the globe spreading lore of a special place, home to world-class wines.
Dr. Pohorly passed away in 2020 age 88. He was a teacher, professional engineer, grape and tender fruit grower, entrepreneur, hotelier, winemaker and product innovator, during his long and well-recognized career.
Grape Growers of Ontario Board Director Steve Pohorly remembers his uncle: "The first thing I think about when I reflect on Uncle Joe, was his big heart full of generosity and joy. When you would bump into Joe, you were always greeted with an enormous grin and an outstretched hand that offered a firm shake. He was always willing to help however he could. When he owned Joseph’s Winery, whenever possible, he offered a welcome home to growers who couldn’t sell some or all of their grapes in a particular year. Uncle Joe's innovation and fearless entrepreneurial spirit was an inspiration to myself and he will be greatly missed."
* Jordan Snobelen Local Journalism Initiative Reporter