Southern Ontario wine tour operators are adjusting to the times to attract Canadian travellers who prefer to stay close to home
Like many Ontario residents, Ashley Gallant was forced to cancel international travel plans this spring due to the pandemic. By mid-summer, her vacation days at her job in the tourism industry were piling up. She and her partner took a week off, but with Canadians urged to stay close to home, they felt like they had nowhere to go.
“We booked a last-minute, 24-hour trip to the Niagara region and a packaged wine tour through Niagara Vintage Wine Tours to safely indulge in a getaway,” she says. “I had only ever been on a wine tour once – a boozy bachelorette party in Prince Edward County – and had never explored Niagara wineries. I’m more of a brewery person, but I’m trying to get into wine.”
Gallant and her partner went mid-week to avoid crowds, and were picked up in a sprinter van outside their Airbnb at noon. They stopped at three wineries – Pillitteri Estates, Between the Lines and PondView Estate – with two other couples and a group of four, who all wore masks and physically distanced inside the van. At each winery, the group tasted three to five different wines, and at one they were served individually wrapped cheese and charcuterie plates.
“Everything was done outside and there weren’t a lot of people at the places we went to,” she says, adding that she felt safe the entire time. “When we drove by larger, popular wineries like Wayne Gretzky Estates, they were pretty packed, and downtown Niagara Falls seemed busy with tourists.”
Gallant enjoyed her tour, especially because the wineries they stopped at were curated for them and the tasting appointments were arranged ahead of time. Lance Patten, president of Niagara Wine Tours International, says the days of driving around Niagara and dropping into wineries as you pleased have been on pause since the pandemic hit.
“It’s much more scheduled to limit capacity, and wineries have staggered entries and exits,” he says. “About 75 per cent of tastings are handled outside, and all staff at wineries wear masks.”
In addition to tours done by vehicle, Niagara Wine Tours International offers bicycle tours, which have been especially popular this summer since health advisors have said COVID-19 is less transmittable outdoors. All touchpoints in vehicles and on bikes are disinfected after each use, and staff have been trained in safety precautions.
“Part of that is communicating all the restrictions to our customers. If we have a 10-passenger van, we can only have six people so that everyone can social distance,” he says. “Even with cycling tours, just because we have the bikes, it’s difficult to schedule appointments for tastings at wineries due to limited capacity. We can’t possibly fill the demand.”
But despite the number of international tourists being down – especially while the Canada-U.S. border remains closed – Southern Ontario residents are flocking to Niagara’s more than 80 wineries for an experience that’s as relaxing and celebratory as many of us will have this year.
At Niagara Wine Tours, vehicle-guided tours are offered throughout the fall and winter, and Patten is hoping next summer will look a little different.
Visit three award-winning boutique wineries on this five-hour tour. At the first winery, tastings are paired with a cheese and charcuterie plate, and at the second winery, attendees tour the wine-making facilities to see how it’s all bottled. Transportation is provided in an SUV or sprinter van with capacity for 10 people.
2205 Mewburn, Niagara Falls. $109.95. niagaravintagewinetours.com
Cycle to three Niagara wineries with a knowledgeable guide during this 3.5-hour tour. Attendees will sample a minimum of 10 different wines and have the chance to tour one winery. The tour is appropriate for novice cyclists, with around 15 kilometres of cycling on bike trails and country lanes. Available until the end of October, weather permitting.
1534 Niagara Stone, Niagara-on-the-Lake. $89. niagaraworldwinetours.com
Avoid the crowds by heading out early and visiting three Niagara wineries from 10 am to 1 pm. Attendees sample a minimum of nine different wines. However, due to COVID-19 protocols, food pairings won’t be provided.
1627 Niagara Stone, Niagara-on-the-Lake. $79. tourniagarawineries.com
Up to six people are allowed on this six-hour cycle tour, which includes visits to at least four wineries in Prince Edward County, a minimum of 12 tastings and a stop at an alpaca farm. While light snacks and water are offered, attendees are encouraged to bring their own food to continuously fuel up. The bike ride will cover around 20 kilometres of the Millennium Trail, and is offered until mid-October.
81 Cleminson, Wellington. $150. thecountywinetours.com
Take your social bubble to Prince Edward County, where afternoon wine tours are offered to groups of up to eight people. Over four hours, enjoy transportation in a spacious 14-seat van to four different wineries, where three tastings are served at each. Vehicles are equipped with PPE, masks and hand sanitizer.
1533 Hwy 62, Bloomfield. $130. pecwinetours.com