Pelee Island Wine History

Vin Villa Winery Pelee Island - photo provided by Terry Matz

Pelee Island is situated in the Western Basin of Lake Erie, Canada's southernmost lake. Just above the Canadian-American border at a latitude of 41 degrees, Pelee Island is located 380km southeast of Toronto. The climate of the Lake Erie Islands Archipelago boasts the highest heat units in the country, and the longest frost-free season in Ontario.

Pelee Island has one of the longest growing season the most frost free days and the most heat units. It was and is a unique microclimate for for growing quality grapes.


VIN VILLA replicate

It is one of canada's oldest grape growing regions. One of the very early wineries of Canada was built on the island in 1866. The Vin Villa Winery opened in 1871 became renowned for it's rare Catawba wines and the many awards it won from as far away as Europe. Six additional wineries were built making the island a centre of early wine making in Canada.

Grape growing was very successful on Kellys Island and other Bass lslands to the south of Pelee Island. (2) A good boat service connected these islands with the American mainland and so they enjoyed an influx of tourists. Wine cellars, hotels and stores did a good business. (1) It would seem that Captain David McCormick of Pelee Island had been watching the growing business of the American Islands and perhaps would have encouraged the development of the grape industry earlier but for a land problem.

Property ownership on Pelee Island for many years was in dispute and land did not change hands because of the death of its owner Wm. McCormick. It was 27 years after McCormick's passing before his will was complied with and title perfected. (1) The very first land to be sold after the settlement was in 1865 to Thaddeus Smith, J. D. Williams and Thos. S. Williams. (1) These men were from Kentucky, although Mr. J. D. Williams resided in Windsor and had been encouraged by Captain McCormick to invest in land on the Island. (1) In 1866, twenty-five acres of grapes were planted. This extended to thirty-three acres in the course of three years. (1) The Wardroper brothers followed in 1866 and planted 15 acres to grapes. (1)

It would seem obvious that the reason for growing the grapes on Pelee Island was to make wine and so the Williams and Smith built a large wine cellar and installed a press. The place called "Vin Villa Vineyards", (1) The first crop of grapes was to be harvested in 1868. (3) The wines were to find markets in much of Canada as well as in the U.S.A.

In 1865 Thaddeus Smith left the United States and came to Pelee Island where he purchased forty acres of land on the northwest cornor. In 1866 he formed a partnership with D.J. Williams and planted 25 acres of vines. Some history also list a third partner
Thomas Williams. Soon after, Pelee Island attracted another wine ventures. Two brothers from England Edward and John Wardoper founded a Pelee Island Winery. Records indicated it was called the Pelee I sland Winery ( not the same winery operating today). Another was called Finlay Winery.

Finlay winery ( John Finlay) constructed a cellar in 1888. A house was constructed over the cellar. The cellar would hold at least 10,000 gallons. Fire damaged the cellar in 1893, it was rebuilt in 1894 and final improvements were made in 1895.   


Remains of the winery


Vin Villa found the production on wine on the Island to be very successful but marketing the wine was another story.
Canada makes wines ! Ship it off the Island to the Mainland. They hired J. S. Smith to market their wine. J.S Hamilton was also agent of the Pelee Island Wine and Vineyard Co. Hamilton was based in Brantford. Some writers have stated that the Hamilton Dunlap Company formed in Brantford was the first winery in Canada . The man behind the winery Major J. S Hamilton.* There was a Hamilton, Dunlop and Company a retail company.


Joshua S. Hamilton started a grocery and liquor business in 1871. A couple of years later R. S. Dunlop became a partner with him in Hamilton, Dunlop and Company, a wholesale wine and liquor business located on Colborne Street. After R. S. Dunlop retired in 1877 the name was changed to J. S. Hamilton and Company. Mr. Hamilton started advertising Pelee wines after became associated with Thaddeus Smith of the Vin Villa Vineyards located on Pelee Island. This led to the establishment of the Pelee Island Wine and Vineyards Company with J. S. Hamilton as president and managing director. One of the company's most well-known products was St. Augustine Communion Wine, purchased by churches in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain. Needing more space the company moved to larger premises at 91-93-95 Dalhousie Street. In 1913 J. S. Hamilton bought the property adjoining the fire hall on Dalhousie Street and built a large warehouse. The Pelee Island Wine and Vineyards Company amalgamated with J. S. Hamilton and Company in 1919 to become J. S. Hamilton and Company Limited with Mr. Hamilton as president and managing director. J. S. Hamilton died in March 1931 but the business continued under his name until 1945 when London Winery Ltd. acquired the company. ( form Genology Department at the Brantford Library)


Edward and John Wardroper planted grapes in 1866 on the Island; later building a winery. The winery was located at lot 2 on the north shore road. It was completed in 1882.

In 1878, Pelee Island wines won a bronze medal at an Exhibition in Paris. His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, tasted the wines and was pleased with their flavour and quality. A gold Medal was awarded at the 1978 Jamaica Exhibition.

In 1891 Hamilton opened a distillery at Cognac on the Island. The Brandy became an immediate favourite. In 1898 he introduced
Champagne sold under the name L'Empereur . There were two styles Sec and Extra Dry. Perhaps the most successful wine produced was St. Augustine Communion Wine. In 1929, the Anglican Bishop of Montréal had proclaimed: I know of no other wine wine equal to it for sacramental purposes.

By 1890 there were 41 wineries in Canada, 23 of those were in the corridor between Windsor and Pelee Island. Grapes had become one of the major crops on the mainland, as well as Pelee Island. By 1900, Essex was one of the most important grape production areas in Ontario. Acreage peaked in 1904 at 1794 acres, and then dropped. By 1914, there were only 275 commercial acres of grapes, and less than 50 a few years later. See history

WWI along with disease brought an end to the Pelee Island Winery. The war caused a major decline in the wine market. The
Pelee Island Wine and Vineyard Company ceased operations in 1916. For more on the wineries in this time period click here

As Canada wine struggled to compete with European wines, beer and hard liquor the Island turned to producing other crops
Wine growers saw other areas as been more productive such as the Niagara region. Grape growing and winemaking disappeared for over half of a century until 1979 when grapes were reintroduced to the Island and Today's Pelee Island Winery was established.

Today Pelee Island Winery is located on the mainland having moved to Kingsville in 1982 . On the island their 550 comprise the largest private estate in Canada With heat units and frost free days unmatched anywhere else in Canada, the island is a natural destination for Vinifera grape growing. Varietals grown on the island include: White: Chardonnay Gewurztraminer Riesling Sauvignon Blanc Vidal Pinot Gris Seyval Blanc Red: Merlot Pinot Noir Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc Baco Noir Shiraz Tempranillo Chambercin Gamay Zweigelt.

Resources  :
~ Notes,information and photographs supplied by Terry Matz
~ Genology Department at the Brantford Library
~ Township of Pelee Municipal Office
~ Pelee Island Heritage Museum
~  Lee Weber, Agricultural Representative, Essex is always seeking information and photographes of Canadian wineries.
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