Featurepreneurs: Darren Carey and Susan Wong
Darren Carey and Susan Wong are the owners of Bear River Vineyards. Susan is currently taking wine making courses from the University of California at Davis and will be the driver of their wine style, while Darren is the farmer in the operation, which still makes him (and anyone else who knows him) chuckle.
The Grapevine: Your vineyards and winery have a unique history. Can you tell us about it?
Darren Carey and Susan Wong: History in our roots. It’s one of the foundations on which our business is built. It is said that the first grapevines in Canada were planted on the south-facing slopes of Bear River by Louis Hebert in 1611. Now we can’t claim that our vineyard is on the original site but the presence of very old vines just a bit up the road leads us to believe we aren’t far off.
The history of the vineyard itself is even more interesting. It was planted back in the early ’90s by Chris Hawes. Chris recognized that the rocky slopes and proximity to the tidal estuary made a perfect climate for growing grapes. He believed that the unique microclimate provided a warmer environment than could be seen further up the Valley and would support some tender Vinifera grapes that at the time weren’t planted anywhere else in the province. We believe that this vineyard produced the first single varietal Pinot Noir wine in Nova Scotia. Varietals such as Merlot, Pinot Gris, and Gamay Noir were also planted and continue to grow in the vineyard to this day. The previous owner also capitalized on the fantastic sun exposure to incorporate solar power into some of the winery operations.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect out of property is the building itself. The wine industry in Nova Scotia is fairly new and as a result most of the wineries were built to accommodate the business. It is the opposite here at Bear River where this historic 1883 bank barn was masterfully renovated. Much of the material used in the renovation was sourced from the land itself. It truly is a work of art. What makes it unique is that the design of the multi-level barn allows us to incorporate gravity-fed winemaking into our operations. This allows for more gentle processing of the wine.
GV: You took over a vineyard that was cultivated by a previous owner. Can you tell us about what this experience is like? Did the winery already exist?
DC & SW: Taking over stewardship of someone else’s dream can be a daunting task and we consider ourselves fortunate that Chris actually agreed to sell us the property.
The winery has been in production since 2006. Neither of us have any experience in the wine industry so there has been a huge learning curve for us. Chris and his wife Peg graciously allowed Darren to train with them prior to the close of the sale to teach him the basics. Going forward we have surrounded ourselves with a supportive and knowledgeable staff to continue to help us learn the art and science of grape growing and winemaking. We are fortunate to have Patrick Cantieni as our winemaking consultant.
Currently the winery is very small volume and is operated as direct-to-consumer only. The only place you can buy our wines is out of our shop. In the future we hope to expand our production. To that end we have done extensive replanting of the vineyard this season to get us back up to our seven acre capacity. The vineyard had been previously downsized to only about four acres under vine.
GV: You have teenagers at home. Have they been involved in building your business?
DC & SW: Nova Scotia is home to us, however all of our children grew up in Ontario and so far have remained there. They all love the property and we love being able to put them to work when they come to visit! Everything from schlepping bottles from the cellar to planting vines and helping with the tours. We joke about the roles they can all one day play as we have a pretty diverse educational scope. We have a business major, a human resources major, and a couple of different types of engineers. Our youngest is still in high school but she hopes to study environmental science. So potentially we have a lot of bases covered.
Of course one of the things they hope to help us with is social media. Darren does a pretty good job of Facebook but they all tell us that’s for our generation not theirs and we need Twitter and Instagram! So watch for that soon.
GV: It’s hard not to notice the burgeoning libations scene in the Valley. What is it like working alongside wineries, distilleries, and breweries in the region?
DC & SW: The industry in Nova Scotia is fantastic. Everyone is so supportive and encouraging. You see very little competition and a lot of collaboration. The devastating frost that hit back in June really solidified that. There was great information exchange as we all tried to bring our vineyards back to life. Some areas were hit harder than others but everyone shared what they knew.
We have also developed close working relationships in our immediate area. We are a little off the beaten path here in Bear River so the various alcohol producers in the region have come together to form an informal association. We have two wineries (us and Casa Nova), two distilleries (Still fired and Coven Hoven), and two breweries (Lazy Bear and Roof Hound). We hope to start offering area tours later this season.
GV: What would you recommend for those who would like to experience your winery? What would a day in Bear River entail?
DC & SW: Well we would start by saying, if you have the time, come and stay for a few days to take in everything the area has to offer. We have a well-equipped rental guest suite on site that has a beautiful view of the vineyard and comes complete with a bottle of wine.
If a day trip is more your style, ideally plan to give yourself at least an hour to enjoy the property if you can. We are open daily 11am-6pm during the summer season. Tastings include a selection of four of our wines and depending on the timing may also include fresh figs from our greenhouse, Thompson seedless grapes picked fresh from the top of the vineyard, and our own peaches. Most days we are also able to offer tours of the winery and the cellar where you can see what we mean by gravity-fed operations, and really appreciate the craftsmanship that went into the building. We end the tour on the precipice overlooking our spectacular valley vineyard where you will find comfortable Adirondack chairs made by Darren’s dad. The perfect place to relax in the sun and appreciate why part of our expansion plans include increasing our solar power capacity. We don’t currently offer food but you are welcome to bring your own picnic.
The Village of Bear River itself is also worth taking time to see. It’s largely built on stilts to accommodate the tidal flow of the river. It’s also a great place to get a fantastic cup of coffee or a delicious burger! We would also suggest you check out the galleries and many artists’ studios in the area. You can find some truly beautiful and unique pieces.
There is also much to offer in the surrounding areas, including historic Annapolis Royal, the scenic town of Digby, and of course the other fabulous alcohol producers in our area.
Bear River Vineyards is a member of the Good Cheer Trail so pick up your passport in the tasting room and start exploring!
Located at 133 Chute Road, Bear River, Nova Scotia. Bear River Vineyards is 7km off highway 101, between Digby and Annapolis Royal. ake exit 24, and just follow the signs! You will be guided to the vineyard by a mix of blue and white provincial signs for wineries (grape bunches) and their custom Bear River Winery signs.