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It’s a fresh autumn day when I back my car into the parking lot in front of the big red barn across from John and Amber Eikelenboom’s vineyard and winery at 1365 Church Street in Port Williams, NS. There’s ground fog still hanging around, and the otherwise quiet morning is punctuated occasionally by booms from the bird-deterring cannons in the vineyard.

Shouts of starlings, determined to feast on grapes despite the careful netting draped over the rows of as yet unharvested red grapes. Huge pots of chrysanthemums line the walkway to the century-plus house and the former apple barn, now transformed into a decked wine store and reception area, and the whole scene is one of tranquil, pastoral beauty.

John comes up from the vineyard deep in conversation with a worker, hopping out of the vehicle before it’s even fully stopped. He has the look of a man who has seven things on his mind, but he is always gregarious and warm, shepherding me into the office to greet his wife, Amber, who is staying home this morning to join us in our talk about their business. Together, we walk out to the wine shop, pausing to gaze at the beauty of the view. The winery is planted on a slope with a splendid view of the North Mountain and the dyked farmlands rolling away towards Canning and the Minas Basis.

First generation Canadian John Eikelenboom hails originally from Shubenacadie, where his Dutch immigrant parents established a dairy farm. He started working at five years old—by choice—selling mushrooms at the roadside, and then rabbits and guinea pigs, followed by training rescue horses to be saddle horses. Then, as he describes it, “I got pretty cow disease.” He trained as a hairdresser for show cattle—yes, this is a profession—and as a livestock auctioneer, while still a pre-teen, which took him to shows and superb dairy farms around the continent. The same year he graduated from the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, now Dalhousie Agricultural Campus,in Truro, he bought his parents’ dairy farm. At age 19.

He ran and grew the operation for many years, and seeing a proliferation of interest in local wines, began planting grapes on the Kent Marsh lands near Stewiacke. The farm he now lives on in the Annapolis Valley with his wife and her teenage sons was the first one he looked at when he decided to get serious about planting grapes after selling his dairy operation, “a run-down apple farm owned by a hippy from California.” He moved in nearly immediately once the sale closed, and had excavators come in and rip out the orchard. He planted vines the following spring, in 2016, and worked off farm for several years before the first crop came in. He continues, “And Johnny says, ‘I’m not going to only grow grapes, I’m value-adding.’ Got a grant, bought a processor and got it done.”

Two years after opening, the vineyards and business have grown 300 per cent, with 14.86 acres in production, and more to come next year.

Amber is originally from Prospect and owns two Co-operator Insurance franchises, in Halifax and Greenwood. She met John when she sold him insurance a few years back following his protracted divorce, and as she says, “John knew what he was going to do from Day One when he decided to grow grapes and open a winery, and that’s why I fell for him: it’s not just the ambition, it’s the vision and the execution of that vision.” Despite having lived by the ocean for much of her life, she adds,
“I didn’t realize I had this strange addiction to farmland and watching everything get plowed and harrowed and growing. It never gets old.”

It wasn’t always smooth sailing to get to this point. After his divorce and selling the dairy operation, John was diagnosed with two types of cancer, which he handled with the same determination and grit as he has other challenges in life. He acknowledges that his family life as a child and young teen was not easy, with difficult parents, but he says, “I have everything because of what they did, because of their work ethic.” Currently in remission from his diagnosis, he puts in long days but always has time to stop and chat with a visitor or potential customer.

Amber says, “We fought to open during COVID [and did so on Valentine’s Day in 2021] with him on the back end of his cancer diagnosis, but we’re a team.” The first few years while the grapes were growing and not producing, she and John put in big flower gardens, although she says she is not a gardener. “I was the sous-chef of the garden. I love my insurance business, but there’s something so relaxing and satisfying about farming, where I can go down a row weeding, and we do a task together and it’s done. I don’t get that in my day-to-day work.” For the winery, Amber does all the management, the bookwork and runs the machines and consults on the winemaking with John and winemaker Patrick Cantini.

“But people come here for John. He’s my best asset and my worst detriment,” she laughs. Because they live in the century-plus farmhouse right in the middle of the operation—with vines planted in the front yard as well as all around—they are always onsite, and “if someone comes in at ten past six when we closed at six, we open the door and ask where they’re from. And because John has done so many things, he knows so many people and has an astonishing number of connections. Sure, he can spin a tale, but then you meet all these people who corroborate his stories!”

These days, family conversations are often about business, but they can sit in the winery or on the deck, looking at their million-dollar view and enjoying a glass of wine. They’re proud of their varieties, and the way business has been booming, customers are delighted, too. Currently, 1365 Church Street Winery grows eight different cultivars of grapes, predominantly whites, with more being added next year, and has 15 different wines for sale. Last year they produced 48,000 barrels, which works out to 60,000 bottles of wine. Together with their winemaker, the Eikelenbooms are always testing and developing new wines, including several popular blends, a rosé and of course, a Tidal Bay offering.

Not every grape variety planted has been a raging success. John, who took the grape growing course through Dalhousie Agriculture Campus years ago, observes that, “with farming comes death, and some grapes haven’t done well so we try something else. We work our grapes hard, we feed them heavy to make them produce.” This is the first time in some 50 years of farming that he’s bought crop insurance, which was very helpful last year when there was a bad freeze in November and vineyards throughout the area were damaged. They are nearly self-sufficient in their grape growing, meaning they are buying fewer grapes from fellow growers to use in their wines.

John firmly believes that because of the number and quality of vineyards and winemakers in Nova Scotia, they as a group have the potential to surpass the receipts of the dairy industry in the province. “That’s a brassy statement and it’s true,” he says. “We are halfway there and when you figure in the value-
added jobs that our industry produces—we help restaurants, bars, taxicabs, tour groups, and others—we’re so close to doing that. Just get us some additional hotels here in the Valley to hold people a bit longer, so there are more benefits for more people.”

As a former dairy farmer, John says, “Most customers buy milk or cheese in a store and never know a local farmer. Whereas we grape growers and winery operators, many of us have a personal relationship with customers because they come here to tour, to sample and purchase our wines.” He is adamant that he doesn’t call himself a winery owner, “I still call myself a farmer. We grow grapes to make our wines in one of the most beautiful places in the country to farm.”

“John knew what he was going to do from Day One when he decided to grow grapes and open a winery,” says his wife Amber.

There are challenges to any aspect of farming, and one of the biggest is reliable labour. This year was the second year that the couple had a mechanical harvester come in to pick the grapes because they simply couldn’t get enough local people to do the work.  “We are starting the journey for overseas labour, because we had problems getting staff this year for the vineyard all season,” says John.

For the winery shop, it’s easier to find workers—Amber pays her wait staff well above the going rate, plus they keep all their tips. “We need you to show up, be pleasant and follow instruction,” she says, “It’s not hard work. This is the company; this is the vision and our home and you’ll prosper if we prosper.”

Another challenge to the farm is pest birds like starlings, and deer and other wildlife wanting to dine on the grapes. John and Amber use a combination of methods to repel the hungry pests, using predator kites that resemble hawks, sound cannons to startle the birds, and netting the entire vineyard. All the nets came down during post-tropical storm Fiona in late September, and while the family was madly trying to get all the nets back up, the birds got nearly an acre of grapes.  “Preventative measures are okay, but we have to work on the pests as a group,” John says. “We need to educate customers about the pest problems; so they don’t just see a beautiful murmuration of starlings or a herd of deer, but a serious problem for all farmers.”

The Eikelenbooms wonder why the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission doesn’t promote local wines as well as it should; and they wonder why the Commission can take half of the winery’s revenue when they sell their or any other winery’s offerings. John says, “We believe in promoting our own, and when one of us prospers, we all can prosper.”

Because this is a new establishment, John and Amber aren’t ready to talk about legacy management and planning—this is John’s retirement project, and as he says with a grin, “I’ve never started a business without growing it. If you never grew your dairy farm every year, you went behind. You grow equity if you do it right.” Amber adds, “We’re knee deep in this and expanding, and if I were to pull John out of anything, he’d find something else to do!”

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