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Wednesday, July 24, 2024
Pillitteri family shares what it took to sustain 30 years of business
Live music, a pizza bar and lots of mixing and mingling made for and exceptionally fun 30th anniversary celebration at Pillitteri. (Julia Sacco)
Lord Mayor Gary Zalepa made a speech during Pillitter's Friday festivities, noting the family's many contributions made in the community. (Julia Sacco)

For the Pillitteri family, it takes strong kinship, community and dedication to keep a business thriving in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

After celebrating the 30th anniversary of Pillitteri Estates Winery’s opening last Friday, family member Jamie Slingerland reflected on the last three decades in the community.

The entire Pillitteri family was in attendance for their 30th-anniversary celebration at BarrelHead, the pizza patio next to the winery.

In a celebratory speech, founder Gary Pillitteri explained how success grew from nothing after moving to NOTL back in 1965.

“I never dreamt 30 years ago we would have come to this extent, the extent that today we export to over 30 different countries,” he said.

Slingerland, who married Gary and Lena Pillitteri’s daughter Connie, recalls stories of how the winery bloomed out of a farm Gary started after immigrating to Canada from Sicily.

He said the Pilliterris had an affluent life in Sicily before the economy collapsed after the Second World War. They left the island for Canada in 1948.

“Things were dangerous. There was no future for his children,” Slingerland said.

Slingerland explained that before there was any talk of wine, Gary Pillitteri ran a produce stand, mostly focusing on tender fruits and vegetables.

“We’ve extended our roots in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Each of us intended to do better, and I did,” Pillitteri said in his speech.

He said the first order of business was chasing out all of the pigs.

They purchased the Niagara Stone Road property in 1965 to start Pillitteri’s farm, following a pig farm there before them.

“The town of Niagara-on-the-Lake never thanked us for getting rid of those pigs,” Pilliterri joked.

Slingerland and his wife Connie followed in these footsteps, starting their own farm shortly after marriage. 

When the winery finally did open in 1993, it came as a relief to him and his wife, who had lost all of their revenue to a weather disaster.

A major hail storm in 1986 wiped out everything they had, Slingerland said.

“All of a sudden it was all about a young family and how they were impacted by a tragedy,” he said.

Ever since then, the family has been working closely together within the winery.

Slingerland became involved with the winery when it opened 30 years ago and remains the director of viticulture today.

He says a strong familial bond and connection with NOTL is what has kept the business going for so long. 

While Pillitteri served as a member of the House of Commons of Canada from 1993 to 2004, the family took over to make sure the winery continued to function.

“We’re all coordinated together, for nine family members to work well together all the time takes organization,” Slingerland said.

There are currently 27 family members dispersed around NOTL, four of them being doctors, Slingerland added.

Some children and grandchildren intend to work in the winery as the next generation.

“I think my great-grandson over here is going to take over,” Pillitteri said during the celebration.

His faith in his children is evident in how he credits them for the winery’s success over the last 30 years.

“It was our kids: that’s the next generation,” he said.

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