A Winemaker with Strong Roots

Written by Gary Killops

Tanya Mitchell of Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery

I look forward to this issue every year. It is in this issue that I recognize the contribution of a women in the Ontario wine industry. 

It was about 12 years ago on my first visit to Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery that I met Tanya Mitchell, the winemaker at the family owned and operated winery located on the shores of Lake Erie just outside of Amherstburg. At that time, she was Ontario’s youngest female winemaker. The wines she was making then were very good. And they continue to get better every year. 

Tanya has grown up with the Ontario wine industry. She is now married with children and balances family with work and is a mentor to future female winemakers looking to follow her path.

GK: How did you become the winemaker for Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery?

TM: Our family was developing the concept for the winery during the last year of my Chemical Engineering degree. I took the opportunity to spend a harvest at Henry of Pelham since it was close to McMaster University. This taught me a lot about the lab analysis and gave me a glimpse into the cellar. Mostly, it developed a very strong interest in the winemaking side of the business for me. It was perfect timing for me to jump right in from the ground up in something I was passionately curious about. Turns out, it was the perfect career for me in so many ways.

GK: Your family has always owned the winery. How did it all begin?

TM: The vineyard land was purchased back in the 1970s by my parents Hannah and Gord Mitchell, and our first vineyard plot was planted by hand, by us and our closest relatives, in the late 1980s. I still remember that day so well, my first real glance at the hard work ahead of us. What I didn’t realize at the time, was how incredible a feat my parents had already accomplished, and just how far these vines would take us. We planted strong roots for our family to grow a business and a reason to always keep us working together.

GK: What interests you the most about wine?

TM: It is a living thing, constantly changing, and surprising me. It always keeps me on my toes. Bonus, it tastes great and when someone loves my products, I glow in the praise. There is a lot of hard work that goes into every bottle, so it’s wonderful when it’s received well.

GK: What are you trying to achieve with your wines?

TM: I always aim to produce small batch wines that focus on showcasing the vibrant fruit and crisp flavours of Ontario wines. The wines I produce are approachable, quality and dependable products that are meant for everyone to enjoy. I produce a large range of styles and varietals, so any customer will find something they love when they visit, or pick up a bottle off the shelf. I enjoy playing around with different styles, and trying new ways of making wine, using new technologies, and incorporating old techniques together in the best way possible. Our newest venture with appassimento wines excites me and our customers are loving it!

GK: What grape varietal do you find the most exciting and challenging, both for drinking and production?

TM: Cabernet sauvignon. We can ripen these incredible grapes down our way in our warm and sunny long summers. I love the colour of the grapes and the hardy skins on them, they are a pleasure to ferment and make into wine. It’s often delicious on its own, but also a wonderful compliment to many wines in a blend, providing the backbone and tannic structure that so many other varieties lack. The challenge with this fruit is getting the plants through the cold winters.

GK: What is your favourite part of the winemaking process? 

TM: Harvest!  When the grapes arrive. The smell of them pouring into the vats. The smell of a perfect white fermentation. The snap decisions required during such a chaotic time. Watching the incredible change a wine undergoes in only a few days and watching it develop slowly over years after that.

GK: Is there any advice you wish you got before you started making wine? 

TM: Yes… run away and never return! Just kidding. Honestly, yes 15 years of advice would have been great. I’m still learning everyday and I am 15 years into my practice. Thankfully I worked with many skilled winemakers in the early years to help develop my craft.

GK: Are there varietals that grow better in Lake Erie North Shore than other regions? 

TM: Cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and baco noir are incredible down here. We have the longest growing season and the highest heat units of anywhere in Ontario.

GK: What advice do you have for a woman wanting to get involved in the wine business today?

TM: If you want something, go for it. If you have a strong interest in science, math and most importantly a strong passion for wine… and you don’t mind physical work, some long days and getting your hands (and feet!) wet, it’s the most rewarding career you could ever ask for.

GK: Where are women going to be in this industry in the next 10 years?

TM: Everywhere, like they already are, in every facet of the business.

GK: Does being a woman have any bearing on winemaking? 

TM: Our senses can be different from men, which can reflect in the styles of wines we produce. Our physical strength and endurance play an important role in the production side.

GK: How do you maintain a work/life/family balance? 

TM: The support of my family and staff have enabled me to continue to pursue this time- and mind- consuming career. It has been quite challenging at times, especially during harvest and bottling time. Challenging for both me and my husband, who I am very grateful to for all the extra work he puts into our family during my busy seasons.

GK: Anything else you would like to add? Proud moments at the winery? Perhaps info on any upcoming projects that you can share?

TM: I have been working on a project with my brother Steve for a few years now, getting into production of appassimento wines and it has been a very challenging, but extremely rewarding pursuit. We have a wine out right now that I am very proud of, and it is getting an incredible reception from our customers. 

Overall, I consider myself lucky to have been given the rewarding and challenging opportunity to run my own business with my family and I look forward to the many years ahead, especially when our young ones start to join in on the fun.     


About the author

Gary Killops

Gary Killops is a CAPS Certified Sommelier who loves to talk, taste and write about wine. He shares his wine tasting notes on EssexWineReview.com