GRAPE ESCAPES - A great way to spend the day in the Annapolis Valley
I am ashamed to say that it has taken me almost three seasons to get on the bus—a Grape Escapes Wine Tour bus, that is. It hasn’t been for a lack of trying. I always envisioned doing it with a pack of old girlfriends, but because of scheduling and distance issues, it just hasn’t come to pass yet. On the flip side, I’ve had the great pleasure to work with Grape Escapes owner Susan Downey through my event, Devour! The Food Film Fest, when we hired her to facilitate our tasting tours. But again, when you’re organizing an event, you’re certainly not attending your own tours; you’re the one driving to beat the bus, dropping off whatever the next location has run out of. True story.
On this particular Friday afternoon, it’s a mixed group for a five-hour “Afternoon Escape with Cheese” tour. I joined in on a party of two from Edmonton, which included the tenth strongest man in western Canada (and yes, we dared him to pick up stuff along the way). He and his wife were just finishing off a well-rounded beverage tour of Nova Scotia, hitting up spirits first, followed by craft beers and finishing with this very wine excursion to the valley. There was also a party of eight from Lower Sackville, a family celebrating the return of their freshly married son and his bride from Calgary. After an afternoon of watching them interact, I must say that a family who drinks wine together stays together.
There’s something kind of wonderful about the ebb and flow of a tour like this, from the quiet start to the boisterous finish. The only thing I can liken it to is an airplane ride, where you start out with simple courtesies and a bit of casual conversation with the person in the seat beside you and end the flight with conversations erupting loudly all around you.
Susan prefaces the tour: “I like drinking wine, but I won’t be drinking any today as your guide.” Laughter abounds. As we drive down the Harvest Highway, she brings us up to speed on the relatively short history of winemaking in Nova Scotia. From the failed start with the first French settlers in the 1600s who battled our tough, new-to-them climate with their European varietals to the first relative success in the eighties at the hands of the purported father of Nova Scotia wine, Roger Dial, the original vintner and owner of Grand Pré Winery. Ultimately, his experimentation led to our first signature grape, L’Acadie Blanc. Today we have 17 wineries (depending on who you ask), with 650 acres of grapes, 40 to 50 grape growers and our first official appellation, Tidal Bay. We excel at whites and sparkling. Susan promises that by the end of the tour, each of us will find at least one wine that appeals to us. And that we did, as our crowd filled the back of the bus with cases.
We hit up three wineries: L’Acadie Vineyards (the first certified organic winery in Nova Scotia and the award-winning producers of traditional method sparkling wine), Gaspereau Vineyards (sister winery to Jost Vineyards and the 16th best winery in Canada according to Wine Access magazine) and Luckett Vineyards (with a massive new renovation and the best view). Wineries on these tours are scheduled based on their availability and timing. This is a particularly good cross-section and showcase for what’s happening in Nova Scotia. In each location, we are met by enthusiastic staff and guided through generous tastings, including our finish with the exuberant Pete Luckett himself, who took the piss out of every person on the tour within moments.
Gaspereau Vineyards turned into our longest tasting because we lingered outside in the sun over local cheese plates featuring fresh fruit (including the first blush of local strawberries) and cheeses from That Dutchman’s Cheese Farm, Fox Hill Cheese House, the new Blue Harbour Cheese and a guest appearance from PEI’s Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar. Cheese is coming into its own here in Nova Scotia, much like our wines.
These tours are yet another Centre for Entrepreneurship Education and Development (CEED) success story; some of Nova Scotia’s most exciting food, wine and tourism businesses have received training, support and funding from their programs. It might surprise you who’s on the list—from Brooklyn Warehouse to some of your favourite food trucks.
Susan worked at Premiere Wine & Spirits through university, organizing tastings and developing a healthy excitement for what was happening in our own backyard. After a fair amount of travel, she would often find herself seeking out small-scale wine tours in other parts of the world—Australia and New Zealand, and Niagara and Prince Edward County back in Canada. She started to see a gap, as these experiential tours appeared to be working everywhere else.
When Susan and her now-husband Mike started their seasonal business about three years ago, they stepped in at just the right time as they have been able to grow along with the industry. A teacher by trade with one foot still in the substitute teacher door in the off-season, Susan says this has become a large commitment complete with three part-time staff and their first full-time co-op student, Della, through the Nova Scotia Community College’s tourism program.
In the first season, they struck a deal to put no money in, so at least it would only be a waste of time if it didn’t all pan out. They operated a business without a storefront or a vehicle and a sole reliance on social media for marketing, not to mention continued support from CEED. They were pleasantly surprised to book 70 tours in year one, followed by a staggering 170 tours in year two. They’ve seen a shift in visitors as well—from all locals to a 50/50 ratio of locals and tourists in just two seasons.
At the start of year three, business continues to thrive. They recently purchased a 22-seat bus and have just launched a second initiative, Taste Halifax, which offers tours of the best of beer, food and wine destinations in and around Halifax.
They’ve also increased from operating five days a week to seven between May and November, offering up to four different daily curated tours, including cheese tastings and meals around the Annapolis Valley. Private tours are offered all year long to other parts of the province or are themed for bachelorettes, conferences or corporate team-building. You can build your own tour any time.
Nova Scotia isn’t known worldwide for its wine just yet. Susan admits her favourite tours are about discovery and winning over any snob, especially one from Ontario. She’s down to earth, has strong pride in place and is clearly excited to show it to people. “There is just something so awesome about Nova Scotia,” she says.
If we already have a father of wine, she could very well take the title of Nova Scotia’s wine darling.