The chatter about town that Harvest Barn was for sale has been around for about a year, but it's chatter no more — two local families have confirmed their deal has closed on the popular market on Niagara Stone Road.
They have also purchased Rancourt Winery, on Concession 4 behind Harvest Barn.
Erwin Wiens and Fabian Reis have been working together for about four years. Wiens is a grape-grower, Reis a wine-maker, both with a love of the land in their veins.
They are also both passionate and determined — their wives nod in agreement at that description, although one allowed the word stubborn to creep into the conversation. To them, there is no other option than giving their all to whatever they do.
They didn't set out to buy a market, or a winery, for that matter. It just seemed like a natural progression from the partnership that has developed between them, said Erwin.
Fabian was practically raised in a winery. His grandfather is Herbert Konzelmann, and his parents were both involved in the family business. But he and his wife Stephanie, who calls Erwin uncle (she is the daughter of his second cousin), wanted to do their own thing.
Although Stephanie didn't grow up surrounded by vineyards as Fabian did, their families come from the same city in Germany, and they met at a Konzelmann open house.
Rather than working in the family business, they wanted to “spread their wings, create their own vision,” said Fabian. And after doing some travelling and studying, they came back to Niagara-on-the-Lake, where he took on the management of a local vineyard.
“We wanted to make wine,” said Stephanie, who has trained as a sommelier, and together they began a virtual winery.
The next step of the journey that brought the two couples to this point was an annual guys' snowmobiling weekend, where the two men met for the first time, and hit it off. They had a similar vision, said Fabian. It wasn't just about growing grapes or making wine, it was about “quality, quality, quality. Our visions are so similar. It's tough in life to find people who are on the same page.”
Erwin agrees. “Thet's the reason our partnership works. The retail part of it is not for me. I want to grow grapes. I'm a farmer. We'll have separate responsibilities. Grapes are my gig. Fabian's gig s the wine.”
“We want to blaze new trails, and we love the challenge,” adds Fabian.
Erwin helped Fabian out in the vineyard, in addition to his own 160 acres he was tending when he wasn't working as a full-time police officer in Hamilton, and in 2015, Fabian made and bottled the first vintage of Ferox, which has become their brand. Ferox is Latin for fierce, says Stephanie. The logo is of a lion — she and Fabian are both Leos — but the word 'fierce' also symbolizes their dedication to their work and the quality they insist on for their wine. She and Fabian picked the grapes for their first vintage by hand, Nov. 15, 2015. She remembers that it was 12 degrees Celsius, and the sun was shining.
“We live this and breath this,” said Fabian. “It has to be quality. We want to be the best.”
About a year ago, Erwin heard Rancourt and Harvest Barn were for sale. He was managing the Rancourt vineyards and had mentioned to the owner, Joe Enrich, that he might be interested in buying the winery.
But Enrich already had a buyer he was working with — Benny Marotta, of Two Sisters Vineyards, who was looking at both properties.
That was when the rumours started, and people in town thought Harvest Barn had already been sold.
Neither of the men know exactly what happened to that deal. Marotta had been talking to the Town, and without revealing what he planned to do with the property, he did say it would be something beautiful for one of the most important intersections of NOTL. But the deal fell through, and Enrich reached out to Erwin, who then began working with Fabian to see it they could make it happen. Not being big developers, there was the matter of trying to finance the purchase, said Erwin, and then working out the myriad details that are involved in taking over a business, before the sale was finally completed last week. They didn't want investors, although it wouldn't have been hard to find them — they wanted to make it a family enterprise, said Erwin, and they did, with some help from his oldest brother. “It took longer than we thought. Buying a business doesn't happen over night.”
They are excited about the location, with good soil for growing grapes, and an older, established vineyard planted with mostly bordeaux. “Location is key,” said Fabian.
The Wiens and Reis families feel this is a way of ensuring Harvest Barn remains as the community landmark it has become, and they have heard from many friends and neighbours how grateful they are it will remain in the hands of local families.
“All of us are very proud of this,” said Erwin. “Harvest Barn is going to remain as it is.”
Well, maybe not quite. The women talk about expanding the role of the market. Kevin Baum, long-time manager since the days of Doug Dineley's ownership and the “heart and soul of the operation,” will continue to run it, including going to the Ontario Food Terminal to buy the freshest produce and ensuring the best customer service. His decisions about stock will be unhindered, but the women are looking at planning events on the property, working with locals to make it even more of a fixture in the community, “to enhance the local experience,” said Dorothy. They will start with some 'welcome back, we appreciate your support' type of events, they plan to sell local products, and make it once again about loyal local customers.
“The grocery store business is not the easiest,” said Fabian. “There are lots of big chains out there, lots of competition. We want to make sure this stays the same local Harvest Barn.”
“We didn't expect to get into this business,” added Stephanie. “We've become very passionate about it, and about enhancing that local, community feel.”
The transition to the new owners will appear seamless, but the winery has been closed for about a week, with a reopening likely this weekend. It needs a little sprucing up, said Dorothy. It has a bit of a neglected look about it, and they want to give it a little TLC. When they open, they will be selling Rancourt wines for now. Their Ferox vintage is on the shelves of Reif Estate Winery, thanks to the support of Klaus Reif, and is available online and on the wine list of The Pie Plate in Virgi and a few other restaurants.
There will be an official opening of the winery in the future, but for now, the new owners are encouraging locals to stop in for a visit.
As for the wine they will sell once Ferox becomes the winery name and brand, “we've set the bar high,” said Erwin.
“And we can honestly call it a family estate winery,” said Dorothy.
For Fabian, “this is part of the story now, our story.”