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Palette to Palate: Tanya Mitchell, winemaker

Tanya Mitchell winemaker
Tanya Mitchell, winemaker, with her Hawk’s Flight Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

There’s a saying you hear frequently at Sprucewood Shores, and that’s “you’re family here.” Whether you’re staff, a club member, or a drop-in wine lover, you really are treated like part of the family. Which is apropos of course, because Sprucewood Shores IS a family business; maybe you’ve seen their family photos hanging in the tasting room? You have to love a place that proudly displays their family glamor shots. And while winemaking itself is not always glamorous, we should all be thankful that this family decided to pursue their shared love of wine to create the award-winning vintages we enjoy today.    

Sprucewood officially planted their first vines in 1991, but its origins go back much further. Gord Mitchell was raised on a farm in the area, and he lived next to a vineyard. A vineyard that he would sneak into and eat the grapes. After being caught, he was told that if wanted to sample those juicy little snacks, he’d have to actually work for them; so he did. Many years later, with this background in farming and a love of architecture, Gord and his wife Hannah wanted to turn this passion into something bigger. Tanya Mitchell, their daughter and Sprucewood’s winemaker, says “he dreamt it up, but if it wasn’t for my mom, they probably wouldn’t have been able to do it. She was the finance person and the driving force behind all the details.” 

In the early days, they sold their grapes to other local wineries before deciding to create their own label. As Tanya tells it, her sister Marlaina wanted to get married at the vineyard, so this was the catalyst to “go big”. Gord gauged the interest of his children in working in a family business, and three of the four siblings were on board. Construction began in 2002, and in 2004 their first wine was produced. It was a short crop that year, they handpicked everything, and only produced small batches, which Tanya says was “interesting doing all of that for the first time, but I fell in love with winemaking and I decided this is what I wanted to do for the business.” It’s a perfect fit for someone who studied chemical engineering and enjoys logistics, production processes, and the science behind wine. Her older brother Steve, who majored in mechanical engineering, joined a couple of years later, and younger brother Jake, who studied graphic design, came along when he finished school. There are so many facets of a wine business: agriculture, sales, IT, customer service, wine production, and equipment maintenance, to name just a few, that each sibling felt there was a place for them at Sprucewood. 

The Mitchell Family dream team has since taken Sprucewood Shores (so named because of the spruce trees that grow along the shoreline) to an atmospheric level. On site they currently grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Baco Noir, and they have recently added Marquette and Petit Pearl. When it comes to white varietals, they source their grapes both locally and from the Niagara region. As the southernmost growing region in the country, vineyards on the Lake Erie north shore have the longest and warmest growing season, as well as diverse types of soil. That means grapes can ripen on the vine longer, building up the ideal acidity and sugar levels. This is key for Cabernet varieties which benefit from this extra vine-time. Each year Sprucewood Shores produces around 15,000 cases of wine. Quick! How’s your mental math? That comes out to about 180,000 bottles of wine a year!

Logistically, that means there is a lot going on in the wine production area, so we asked Tanya what her favorite part of winemaking is. She says “the gratification I get from people enjoying my product, and making a tasty wine,” is probably her absolute favorite part of her job. She also “thrives” on the chaos and “the puzzle pieces. Piecing all the logistics together.” One can only imagine that with the amount of wine she makes, the number of bottles produced, the management of the vines, the shopping around for other grapes, and the equipment maintenance, there are a LOT of puzzle pieces. (Pro tip: they offer tours on weekends (you must reserve in advance) and you can see all these moving parts, while drinking wine)! What about the not so great aspects of the job? “Definitely the physical and mental exhaustion.” It’s obvious this is an extremely physical career, and we can see how hands-on she is. 

But certainly the wine industry has been around for centuries, so things should be easier at this point in time, right? Unfortunately the answer isn’t so simple. There is always new equipment being developed, or new ingredients to research. Every year, the harvest is different based on the weather that season, which means lessons learned in previous years may not be relevant. With climate change, winemakers are running into scenarios that they’ve never seen before. (Do we all remember the flooding in August and then the extremely warm fall)? The only constant is change. It takes a truly skilled and adept winemaker to take the grapes they’re given and turn them into something wonderful. 

winemaker Tanya Mitchell
Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery grows five red grape varietals on site.

While the world was in chaos during 2020, grapes were having one of their best years yet. This is a year that many winemakers still talk about because it produced amazing fruit. Both the 2020 Hawk’s Flight Reserve Merlot and the 2020 Hawk’s Flight Reserve Appassimento Cabernet received prestigious awards last summer. If you’ve tasted them, you know why. And if you haven’t yet, they would be perfect Valentine’s Day wines to pair with chocolate or a fancy steak dinner. If you’re trying to impress a lady perhaps, Tanya suggests the Beach Glass Rosé because it’s so versatile and the bottle is beautiful. 

Speaking of beautiful, Sprucewood is undergoing major renovations to their tasting room that is sure to wow visitors when it reopens in April. Over the years wine service has evolved and they wanted better functionality for their staff and guests, since it’s been quite awhile since the space was constructed. What can guests look forward to? “A fresh look, lighter colors, more seating, more modern furniture. We saw that our customers wanted a more interesting and in depth experience, and we wanted to create a nicer atmosphere for people to enjoy their wine in.” Along with this exciting project, Sprucewood also recently completed a permanent patio out front complete with views of Lake Erie, and if you want to get even closer to the beach, they have a seasonal beach hut where you can order wine and snacks. 

Just like every great wine has a special story, the same can be said here. The wine, the family, the atmosphere; they are what make Sprucewood Shores Estate Winery such an exceptional place in our community, and now you know where to find us all summer long. 

RTT recommends: Lakeside Red, Beach Glass White, Cabernet Sauvignon. 

By Tammy Joho - Special to the RTT

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