The Award of Distinction is the pre-eminent award for the Canadian wine industry and regarded as the highest form of peer recognition and appreciation.
The award was presented to Gary Pillitteri, founder and proprietor of Pillitteri Estates Winery, for demonstrating outstanding leadership, commitment and passion for the advancement of the Canadian wine industry.
This distinguished honour was presented in a virtual ceremony held on Monday, July 11, with participants from across Canada.
Gary and his wife Lena began their journey of grape growing and winemaking in the 1960s when they purchased a small piece of land along Niagara Stone Road. At that time, they farmed cherry trees and sold cherries along with other tender fruits at their roadside fruit stand, called Gary’s Farm Market.
He was an early adaptor and began planting vinifera (winemaking-style) grapes on his farm, culminating with him being crowned Grape King in 1981 for the quality of his wine grapes.
In 1993, Pillitteri Estates Winery opened on the site of the fruit market with three vintages of wine and icewine available for sale. Now with sales in 30 countries, thousands of wine awards, a national brand presence and a partnership to produce the official wines of the Canadian Olympic Team, Pillitteri Estates Winery has become a respected and renowned member of the global wine community.
Gary acknowledges that this achievement would not have been possible without the support of his wife Lena, his children Connie, Lucy and Charlie, his grandchildren and his friends. He is proud that presently there are three generations of family members working at Pillitteri Estates Winery.
He has watched the industry evolve and grow by leaps and bounds in the last 40 years. “We were told vinifera varietals could not be grown here. But we grew them. Our wine industry was told we could not make great wine with the grapes we grew. So, we created an appellation standard, VQA, and we made great wine, red wine, white wine, sparkling wine, icewines, winning every top world wine award.”
“We were told that no one would buy our wines. So, we built wineries with stores and developed agritourism, which now accounts for 50 per cent of all VQA wine sales in Ontario. We also looked beyond our backyard and exported our wines.”
The challenges continue and to combat the downturn of international tourism due to COVID, Gary renovated the winery’s patio into a new restaurant, BarrelHead Wine Pizza Patio. Locals and tourists enjoy traditional wood-fired pizza, icewine cocktails and live music.
Gary, now 86, says: “When I came to Canada, I was 12 years old. All I owned was a pair of shorts and the shirt on my back. For me there was no easy path to success. If there was, I have not found it. For if I have accomplished anything in my life, it is because I have been willing to work hard.”
His nominator for the Award of Distinction, Jim Clark, president of Colio Estate Wines, noted in his nomination: “Gary, you make world-class wines, have won thousands of awards worldwide and are one of the leading exporters of icewine. You have invested an incredible amount of capital, time and energy into the export market.”
“While you are promoting Pillitteri wines and icewine at these shows your family is always waving the Canadian flag by telling your and our story. For that, the entire industry is grateful. Gary, on behalf of the entire Canadian wine industry, we thank you for your outstanding leadership, your commitment and service. We congratulate you on an outstanding career.”