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Dare to Dream: The alchemy of life at Lighthall Vineyards

By Brent Lawlor / Photography By Brent Lawlor | May 01, 2015
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Dreams, how many of us have them? How many follow them? Many of us conjure visions of breaking away, starting again, doing what we love, what we were meant to do — building a dream.

When he was in his mid-30s, Glenn Symons decided to follow a dream that had begun 17 years earlier. In the midst of a burgeoning career as a professional pharmacist, working long-hours, hustling to and from work in downtown Ottawa, Symons made the decision to walk away. He and his spouse picked up their young family and moved southwest, taking the first step to enable his dream of owning a winery.

Nearly six years have passed and it’s clear he is well into the process of making his dream a reality. When edible Ottawa visited, Lighthall Vineyards’ production facility was filled to the 50-foot rafters with case upon case of wine — they’d bottled 300 cases the preceding week. Accolades from competitions and wine festivals adorned the tasting bar that welcomes travellers entering the facility (as does Symons’ mild-mannered dog, affectionately known as “Bacon”).

Symons’ passion for the fruits of his labour are clear as he explains his long-time interest in winemaking. Beginning in his late teens, he started refining his craft in “basements and bathtubs” and soon moved on to fermentation kits, acquiring many of his early supplies at Little Italy’s winemaking institution, Preston Hardware. Although he continued to make wine throughout his 20s, Symons pursued a formal education in chemistry, a field of study that would become particularly useful as he embarked on his second career. Ultimately, he completed his studies in pharmacology and continued on this path. And yet, through it all, winemaking was always there — his passion begging for devotion to the craft.

When he finally made the decision to leave Ottawa and try his hand at cultivating grapes and making wine professionally, he looked at three properties, one as far away as New Zealand, another on a 50-year-old vinery in the South of France. But ultimately, he chose Prince Edward County, in part because it was not a world away, but also due to the increasingly popular terroir — a limestone, clay-loam mix — the region offers to winemakers. He was also drawn to the “newness” of the area and the opportunity to forge his dream in a place that was seeking to establish itself for its vinification. 

Lighthall, boasting eight acres of vines, is set on a 100-acre property in the south end of the county, near the village of Milford. In the summers, the Symons raise ducks, chickens, turkeys and hens; tend a massive garden; and grow hops for homemade beer. But the big job is tending to eight acres of vines that need a lot of care. On an owner-operated winery, “the work is endless,” Symons explains. At the same time, a vineyard has one yield and one attempt at winemaking per season and much rides on getting it right. The labour involves everything from close attention to the health and cultivation of the grape vines to the selection of French oak barrels for aging and fermentation. And when the season is over, as fall wanes, Symons has the added task of burying his vines to protect them over long, inhospitable winters. Over the winter, he continues to bottle and case wine while working the tasting bar at the facility. “If I’m here, I’m open,” he says.

Today, Lighthall offers a Chardonnay, a Gewürztraminer, a sparkling white, a sparkling Rosé, and a Pinot Noir (sold out at time of press). He takes particular pride in the winemaking process. For example, his wines are fermented in the county’s only concrete fermentation vessel. The massive structure was made in France and shipped to the county from Burgundy. The concrete regulates the temperature during fermentation, preventing heat spikes, while allowing oxygen into the vessel, supporting the process. Ultimately, ”it results in a healthier, more consistent fermentation, which yields a better wine,” he says.

For the annual harvest, each of Symons’ four children (ages, 17, 16 and 13-year-old-twins) are afforded the chance to be lowered into the vessel, minus shoes and socks, to lead the grape-stomping process prior to fermentation. And each year, the resulting Pinot Noir is named after those who took in the chore of smashing the grapes. For example, Lighthall’s 2012 Pinot Noir, a particularly adventurous year, was named “Mes Trois Fils” — my three sons. He likes to get his children involved and it’s evident he makes every attempt to stoke his passion in them. On the distribution side, Symons has engaged the LCBO and his 2009 Chardonnay is supplied as a vintage offering, available in select outlets for $25. This exposure drove flocks of new enthusiasts to the winery, where Symons offers tastings and a variety of wines for sale. Yet, despite the marketing advantages the distribution agreement with the LCBO afforded, Lighthall remains focused on being an owner-operated, artisanal producer of wines. Symons concentrates on quality and connecting to wine lovers. “It’s all about sharing the experience — that’s why the door is open,” he says.

In keeping with the artisanal approach, Symons has joined forces with Heather Robertson, a local cheesemaker. Robertson honed her craft at Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Co., just east of Picton. Currently, Symons and Robertson are working on four varieties: a brie, a washed rind (washed in Chardonnay), a blue cheese and an Alpine-style pressed cheese that is rubbed with local honey. “For me, a collaborative approach is a huge deal,” he says. They use sheep’s milk for the cheese, relying on a local sheep farmer’s flock for the raw goods. Sheep’s milk is much higher in protein and comprised of 10-12 per cent fat. The resulting cheese is thick, creamy and full of flavour.

Making cheese allows Symons and Robertson to work with the community while offering another draw to that area of the county.

“We have extra work to do because we are off the beaten path,” Symons explains of their location on the county’s less-populated south end. “We need to draw people here.”

Plans are in the works to expand the wine-production facility to include a commercial kitchen, which will allow them to make the cheese on site and host gatherings on the premise.

What began as a dream has become a full-fledged operation. At the same time, from co-opting his kids in the fun of production to taking on the chemistry of cheesemaking, Symons has not lost his roots or direction. If you’re in the county and you’re looking to snag some of Symons' cherished Pinot, or perhaps some Chardonnay to quench the summer palate, head south to Milford and keep your eye out for Lighthall Road.

Lighthall Vineyards 
308 Lighthall Rd., Milford, ON, 613.767.9155

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