Questions raised about wine operation, plans for large weddings in violation of bylaw
Queenston Mile Vineyards argued its case for a town zoning bylaw amendment Monday to allow the winery to install commercial cooking equipment it says will be used for wine tastings.
But a group of nearby residents and vineyard owners is fighting the request, accusing the vineyard of trying to covertly operate as an events space and saying it is not producing enough wine on the grounds to be considered an estate winery.
The issue was debated at Monday's committee of the whole planning meeting and council will make a decision on the application at a later date.
“This is not an easy subject,” Lord Mayor Betty Disero said in an interview Tuesday. “There was a lot of information provided last night.”
Angry residents presented a unified front against Queenston Mile's proposal, arguing the facility is not operating as an estate winery, that it does not have suitable parking for events and that it is attempting to hold large-scale special events in violation of zoning regulations.
The lands are designated prime agricultural under the Niagara-on-the-Lake official plan, and as specialty crop lands, which are a focus of protection under the plan. The town allows wineries to have a hospitality room where wine and food are prepared for serving, so long as the production is secondary to the main use of the vineyard, according to Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake planner Jesse Auspitz.
Mary Lou Tanner, representing the winery, argued the cooking equipment would be purely “ancillary” to the winery, meaning a secondary use that helps support the main use of the building. Queenston Mile says food pairing supports the agricultural side of the vineyard by aiding it economically.
Under the winery's designation, it also is not allowed to have any outdoor special events.
“There will be no tents, there will be no outdoor special events. Other wineries have requested this … we do not request any change to that provision,” Tanner told council.
And thus, the most contentious aspect of the presentation arose: the lack of cohesion between Queenston Mile's proposal to host wine pairings and its posted advertisements for holding large weddings and corporate events, which Auspitz considered to be special events.
Coun. Norm Arsenault pressed Tanner about the claimed intention to use the cooking equipment for wine pairings.
“You go to great lengths to identify that what you’re looking for is cooking equipment for food pairings and wine. As a matter of fact, it shows up on 22 different occasions (in the submission), so clearly that’s the intent,” he said.
Arsenault then asked Tanner if weddings would be considered special events. Tanner disagreed that weddings should be considered special events, meaning the vineyard would be allowed to host weddings as they will not infringe on the bylaw.
“It is a special event,” Arsenault said in an interview. “Weddings are all special events.”
“I thought it was just food pairings they were going to do – but clearly on their website they’re advertising weddings, they’re advertising providing meals for 150 people, they’re looking at receptions for 350 people – which clearly they can’t have because the septic system can’t handle that. They’re also advertising corporate events where cooking classes are being offered. I see some real strange items here,” Arsenault told councillors.
“I’m pretty astounded that they’re actually advertising weddings and advertising corporate events when they don’t even have a permit to do so,” he told The Lake Report.
The website also promotes wedding packages consisting of three-course meals with mains such as chicken supreme, pork loin and trout nicoise.
Paul Harber, owner of Ravine Vineyards, asked council: “Is an eight-ounce Angus burger really a pairing for a six-ounce glass of Merlot?”
According to Arsenault, the facility has a septic system capable of handling up to 275 guests. Queenston Mile Vineyards has advertisements on its website offering receptions for up to 350 people and a charge of $15 per person over that total, with no stated cap.
The mayor also addressed this issue, inquiring whether it was the town who was being misled by the vineyard, or the public.
“Weddingwire, I guess kind of like Expedia for weddings, had advertised Queenston Mile anywhere between 10 and 400 guests. There was a little tab there to request pricing. Was that a mistake, or? That number 400. Did somebody make an error?”
“I’ll have to get back to you on that,” Tanner responded.
One of the more serious allegations levied at the vineyard was that it was not producing all of its wine on-site and thus was deceiving the town in its designation as an estate winery.
Harber, who was a vocal opponent of Queenston Mile receiving a designation as an estate winery in 2019, noted NOTL bylaws concerning estate wine production on-site states “they have to crush all the wine on-site and ferment all the wine on-site.”
He said that is not being done and pointed out Queenston Mile's proposed site plan would have its production area doubling as a hospitality area.
“I would probably be choked by my winemaker if I was going to put up their production space to be an event space… I will challenge the decision if this application is approved.”
Private sewage system inspector Caitlyn Wood stated that “wine production cannot occur on-site as the sewage system is not designed to accommodate the industrial wastewater,” The Lake Report noted in a 2019 story.
“They’re saying ‘Oh yeah, we crush everything here, we ferment everything here,’ but I’m not seeing the space. When I asked them about the wastewater they said, ‘We’re carrying that away. We’re taking the wastewater somewhere else.’ I’m not sure where,” Arsenault said on Tuesday.
In response, Tanner said: “This is an estate winery. Wine is produced on-site. One of the things we’ve heard in the past is questions about this, and one of our neighbours has indicated this more recently. So, to confirm, this is a winery that produces wine.”
Lawyer Tom Richardson, who was hired by residents, including Harber, to challenge the zoning amendment said the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario has been informed about the vineyard failing to function under the bylaws for estate wineries. He asked the town to undertake a formal investigation into the matter.
Complaints of nearby residents included the lack of suitable parking for the advertised receptions of 350 or more people. When asked how the winery would accommodate the extra cars needed for such events, Tanner said people can park on the grass around the winery.
“But nothing that’s actually an official parking space?” Arsenault inquired.
Tanner replied that, in addition to the 30 spaces on the property, the winery would use “overflow parking,” a direct concern of resident Marianne Hasselbroek, who worried that large events would cause parking overflow onto her property and others nearby.
“And after listening to Miss Tanner discussing overflow parking, that is a very, very serious concern,” Hasselbroek said to council.
Hasselbroek also questioned whether the vineyard is withholding the list of cooking equipment it wants to install because it could reveal that it entails much more equipment than would be needed to accommodate wine tastings and food pairings.
In 2019, when Queenston Vineyard originally applied to use commercial cooking equipment, The Lake Report was invited into the facility and was able to photograph the equipment that had already been purchased. The pictures depict an industrial-sized kitchen fully equipped and ready to operate.
Tanner confirmed: “The equipment is on-site. It is not hooked up. There is no gas line to it and it will only be hooked up if this amendment is approved.”
Arsenault said Tuesday, “If their intent is just to have wine pairings, food pairings – you don’t need a whole commercial kitchen to do pairings. You can have wine and cheese, crackers, various different types of food that don’t require a full kitchen with a gas hook-up, a fan, all those sorts of things.”
“I’m not buying the argument that this is a wine pairing issue. What I’m seeing right now, and I could be corrected, is that they’re looking for a full-on wedding venue,” he said.