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Muskoka Lakes Winery: Award Winning Fruit Wines

By on September 21, 2013
Screen shot 2013 03 21 at 3.04.39 PM 300x336 -  Muskoka Lakes Winery: Award Winning Fruit Wines

Cranberries have been a passion for the Johnston family since 1950 when Orville Johnston bought land in Bala, Muskoka and began cultivating cranberries. Orville believed that the native cranberry should be a fundamental part of the North American diet. Now in its third generation, the Johnston farm is the oldest cranberry farm in Ontario.

“We’re small compared to the industry,” says Murray Johnston, Orville’s son, “but what we lack in size, we make up for in passion. The farm is about 325 acres in total. 27 acres are planted with five different varieties of cranberries and the rest is set aside as natural wetland, woodlands and support structures.” Murray now runs the farm with the help of his wife, Wendy Hogarth, and their four sons.

According to Vandana Shiva, winner of the Right Livelihood Award (the alternative Nobel prize), “It would be no exaggeration to say that small, family-run farms are the answer to our terrible problems of declining agricultural productivity and vanishing biodiversity.” But Johnston identifies that running a small, family farm isn’t easy.

“We’ve had to work hard to stay viable. We do a lot of things here besides growing cranberries – we’ve become a destination for tourists, we make a lot of value-added products, and we started Muskoka Lakes Winery 10 years ago.”

A winery? Do grapes grow in Muskoka? “No,” answers Johnston, “but winemaking used to be a way to preserve the local harvest, so wines were made from whatever grew locally. Fruit wines actually pre-date grape wines by thousands of years. Nowadays, most wines are made from French varietals because, for many years, France was the cultural authority of the western world.

“When we started Muskoka Lakes Winery, we wanted to create wines to reflect our region, and that meant starting with fruit native to this area – mostly cranberries and blueberries. We like to think that local flavours, combined with our belief in sustainable, low-impact agricultural practices makes for excellent wines – and we’ve certainly won a lot of awards! A lot of people think fruit wines are sweet, but we make wines from dry to dessert.”

Cranberries are surging in popularity in part because of the wealth of recent research linking a number of health benefits to cranberry consumption. High in antioxidants and phytonutrients, cranberries are thought to be helpful in preventing heart disease, cancer and other diseases. As well, the proanthocyanidins (PACs) in cranberries help to prevent urinary tract infections and possibly gum disease and stomach ulcers.

“Not only are cranberries good for you,” says Johnston, “but they’re interesting! “Cranberries are native only to North America, and they’re grown and harvested like no other crop in the world.”

Sanding is one of the many sustainable, low-impact farming practices used by Johnston. Every spring, a thin layer of sand is spread on top of the ice layer that protects the low-growing cranberry vines. When the ice melts, the sand buries insect eggs, weeds and rejuvenates the vines. “Farming should involve land stewardship,” says Johnston. “It’s important to step lightly, for our environment, our community and our kids.”

It seems the Johnstons aren’t the only ones excited about cranberries. The Johnston farm has become a year-round destination for locals, cottagers and tourists. Over 27 years ago, a few people from the town of Bala got together and decided to create a festival to celebrate the local harvest. The Bala Cranberry Festival is always the weekend after Thanksgiving, and the three-day event attracts over 25,000 visitors to the town each year.

“I’ve been really happy to see the changes brought on by the local food movement,” says Johnston. “More and more people are coming by the farm, wanting to see where their food is grown and meet the people who grow it. Every day at 1 pm, we do a tour of the farm and a tutored wine tasting. Even in the middle of the winter, we have people taking the tour. We want people to have fun while they’re here, so we’ve added trails, self-guided tour signs, snowshoe rentals, geocaches, nets for critter catching and lots of other adventures. Most people visit during our October harvest, but they’re welcome any time. We’re always happy to talk to people about our favourite subject!”


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