LUCKETT VINEYARDS - Fabulous wine, food, and view of the Annapolis Valley
I’m going to describe a feeling I get every time I drive to the valley. I am sure anyone who travels this route will understand what I am talking about, and there’s probably even a precious few who have only seen it once or twice and still experience this. You’re driving along Highway 101, aptly named the “Harvest Highway,” and just before Exit 9, you pass under the West Brooklyn Road overpass and all is revealed in one moment before you … the view. Behold the Gaspereau Valley, Annapolis Valley, Wolfville, the Minas Basin as it meets the Bay of Fundy and Cape Blomidon in the far distance. I draw in my breath every single time, but it’s more than that. I actually had to look it up; it’s what is referred to as a “stuttering inhalation,” when your breath is dropped and recovered in repeated excitement, kind of like that big gasp you take after sobbing.
So, why not take that very view, immortalize it and frame it in floor-to-ceiling angled glass? Then step back from those windows and build a long granite wine tasting bar where you can lean, sip and continue to sigh over that view?
“Everyone who looks out those slanted glass windows thinks they’re in an exotic part of the world, like Tuscany,” says Pete Luckett, “but they’re actually right here in Nova Scotia.” It is a spectacular view; I would dare say one of the best in our province.
Pete Luckett is an iconic character. He makes stuff happen. Everyone has an opinion, I’m sure, but you can’t deny how he changed the face of grocery retail and, more specifically, how we look at fresh produce at Pete’s Frootique. Pushing the boundaries all those years ago, he was instrumental in changing shopping legislation for Nova Scotia. Not afraid of hard work and always throwing himself into every aspect of his businesses, he was stocking the shelves in the beginning, and I’ll be damned if he still isn’t stocking the shelves every single time I see him, only this time it’s bottles of wine in the new tasting room and shop at Luckett Vineyards.
There’s a tide of change around here, rolling in like the Bay of Fundy. A significantly renovated space and a strong core team, which Pete says is made up of his business family and family family, have him surrounded in this special new place. New offices, new bathrooms, new kitchen, new chef, new tasting and retail space, and an amped up Crush Pad Bistro with the cutest peaked tents. Not to mention, a very happy winemaker with three shiny new floor-to-ceiling tank additions—Larry, Curly and Moe.
“There’s two things about having family involved in the business,” Pete says. “Number one is a great level of trust and comfort. And number two, customers love dealing with family. It’s an image second to none.”
Pete goes on to fill in a bit of the family picture, explaining how people love booking events knowing they are talking to his daughter Geena Luckett. When his other daughter Sophia works the tasting bar, she has, as he puts it, “more BS than dad.” Everyone references his wife Sue as the backbone, keeping everyone on the straight and narrow, deftly navigating the fine line between business, family and home. An avid gardener and cook in her own right, she wields her influence for good mostly in the private dining events realm. At the height of summer season, other family members join in the fun; his sister Barb drops in for an extended stay, and Pete quips that she brings good looks and maturity to the whole equation. He also marvels at her ability to assess and engage a customer in less than 30 seconds. I suspect this is a Luckett family trait across the board; I’ve certainly witnessed as much. This goes for the core team as well—Office Manager Kim Hatcher, who’s been busting my balls for years over the internet, along with Restaurant Manager Nicole Greene, Vineyard Manager Marcel Kolb and one of the more recent additions to the winery staff, Events Manager Geena Luckett.
Don’t get the wrong idea here; Geena is by no means new to the family business. She’s been around it since she was legal, working every aspect of her father’s businesses through high school and university with her heart set squarely on the winery. When she was completing her Bachelor of Management at Dalhousie University, she was quite taken with a course called “Managing the Family Enterprise” and particular advice that rang true for her: go work somewhere else before going home. She did just that, managing a shop after graduation, and the moment the position became available she jumped right in. With a passion and enthusiasm for the industry, she’s in the right place. It’s clear she’s ready to put her own mark on the wine experiences on offer.
Luckett Vineyards is entering its fourth official season under the direction of Executive Winemaker Mike Mainguy, who spent his formative years in the Niagara region before making Nova Scotia his home. There is a unique terroir here on this fertile hillside facing the ocean with all of that valley sunshine. There are over 20 wines on offer this year, from the classics—L’Acadie and their best vintage of Tidal Bay yet—to the limited edition Buried Red and the newer full-bodied Black Cab to ice wines and ciders to ports. They’ve upped their game in terms of quantities, have hit their stride with small lots and reserves, and can offer limited premium tastings.
And how about the food, you ask? Enter valley born-and-raised Chef Richard Harmes. He recently took up the reins in the kitchen in mid-April, just in time for the season. Working his way through kitchens in Halifax, the south shore and all over the valley (Old Orchard Inn, King’s Arms) since he was about 16, his last job had him cooking at a 1200-man camp in northern Alberta. It’s been years since he worked in the area, but with his third kid on the way and itching to get back home, the job at Luckett’s was simply too good to pass up. He’s been flexing his wings in the new kitchen digs, and with an arsenal of incredible ingredients at his fingertips through Pete’s resources, he has shuffled up lunches and has just introduced their first dinner menu.
“It’s gourmet dining in a bistro, patio setting,” says Pete. “The scene has changed dramatically here since Richard was last in it, but he’s adapting well to our unique environment at the winery.” The only other winery with a restaurant in the region is Le Caveau at Grand Pré Winery, headed up by Chef Jason Lynch. Ironically, he and Richard have worked on a number of restaurant projects together over the years, and Jason tipped him off about the job opening.
Working closely with the kitchen crew and collaborating with Pete and Sue, lunch is now offered from 11 am to 4 pm 7 days a week out in the open air on the Crush Pad Bistro from May to October. And as of this month, dinner will be served on Friday and Saturdays until 8 pm. For special occasions, they have the private Barrel Cellar for 12 to just over 20 people available with personalized 3-, 5- or 7-course tasting menus paired with their wines.
The bistro has already established itself as a much sought-after summer lunch spot serving up cheese, charcuterie boards, and a selection of salads and sandwiches, including the staff’s standing favourite, The Churchill with Atlantic beef and That Dutchman’s Dragon’s Breath dijonaise (though apparently there’s a contender on the new menu: a blackened chicken panini with brie and aioli). Expect to see even more seafood worked into the menu in the future as Chef Richard’s favourite thing to experiment with is fresh fish, especially halibut. I will certainly vouch for The Churchill, and I managed to try a few other delicious items, including their kale and quinoa salad, a lobster cake with roasted artichoke aioli and onion relish, and a bite of one of their seasonal tarts. And surprisingly this may be the only Nova Scotia winery where you can order a local beer, too. What?!
Hot tip: when you’re standing in the tasting room, you’ll notice bowls of distinctive green Bravo Spanish olives, or chupadedos. Do yourself a serious favour and try one. I promise you’ll become absolutely addicted to them. They are available in town at Pete’s locations, but what’s an olive without a view? Still a very good olive. Just make the trip already.
Geena says that with the renovations done and everyone settling into the new space, their focus is now shifting to special events and rentals. There’s no shortage of things to look forward to in the next few months: Pete’s Paella Party, Tidal Bay Seafood Festival, Sausage Fest, Swing Under the Stars, Cheese Fest and their Harvest Corn Boil & BBQ.
Honey, your grapes are calling. You just can’t be in this place and not reference the classic British red phone box situated in the vineyard facing the winery; it’s like a little welcoming beacon. Here in Nova Scotia, we’ve seen this image splashed across tourism campaigns, and rightly so; the thing just begs for a picture. What makes this even cooler is that you can call anywhere in North America for free. There are some regulars, staff included, who you can see trail down on breaks or on their way home. People have even been spotted early in the morning in the dead of winter making calls. There’s something sweet about removing yourself from the reliance of your own phone—and social media in general—and just chatting old school with that view.
Luckett Vineyards is officially a destination, and the destination is calling you. █