PT I – NYARAI CELLARS: A VIRTUAL WINERY YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT
Steve’s wine career began in 2000 at Southbrook – an incredibly successful winery in the Niagara region – where he worked his way up to Assistant Winemaker by 2005. Steve worked around the clock on honing his craft. After long days in the cellar, he would supplement his hands-on experience with distance education.
It was at Calamus Estate Winery where Steve was offered an opportunity to create his own label under using the winery’s manufacturing license. The business arrangement entailed that Steve would be able to make his own wine on shared premises, but not sell the wine on-site. Steve pondered the opportunity for a while. Finally, fueled by his “love for aromatic whites” and a desire to differentiate himself, it was in 2008 where Steve embarked on his own project with business partner Rod Ingram.
A VIRTUAL WINERY
The result of this partnership is Nyarai Cellars, a virtual winery. What the heck is a virtual winery you ask? Think of the operation as a type of négociant-style operating model. Steve carefully selects the grapes he wants, visiting growers in the Niagara region, inspecting the vines and the grapes in person. Once his hand-selected grapes arrive at the cellar, this is where he begins carefully orchestrating his own symphony of flavor, through his own style of winemaking.
Shortly after embarking on this new adventure in 2008. Steve managed to pluck former nurse-turned-marketing-guru Sharon Little from prestigious operations like Wayne Gretzky Estates and Creekside Estate Winery. As a virtual winery without a brick and mortar store, marketing his product has been of utmost importance, and Sharon’s expertise has been vital in Nyarai’s success.
As we all know, 2008 was also right around the time of the global financial crisis. Facing an economy in recession, many would’ve folded up shop and called it a day, however Steve and his team persevered, and Nyarai Cellars started gaining some serious traction in 2010. In 2011, Steve was winning awards, and one of his releases was featured in Vintages at the LCBO.
I came across Nyarai Cellars only recently, as part of my research of black winemakers in Canada. Intrigued by Steve’s story, I wanted to check out what he was all about.
If there’s one thing you take away from this post, let it resonate that Steve Byfield is a very talented winemaker.
In 2011, Steve Byfield’s Nyarai Cellars was in CCOVI’s Cuvee Grand Tasting. The contest is a celebration of excellence in Ontario Winemaking, and pits the Province’s top producers against each other in various categories – the likes of Jackson-Triggs, Inniskilling, Thirty Bench, EastDell, etc. in attendance. One of the biggest prizes on the night, is the Best Red Assemblage category.
If people hadn’t heard of Nyarai Cellars prior to this night, they certainly had now. When he heard his 2007 Veritas called, he recalled it being
“An odd feeling. The feeling that follows a moment that defines your career. Those moments of pure joy, relief, elation… those moments that vindicate all the blood, sweat, tears, choices, and sacrifices, you made prior to that very moment…”
The bottle, 2007 Veritas, is a blend of 33% Cabernet Franc, 27% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot and 13% Syrah. For such a small operation – a virtual operation at that – to win such a big prize, Steve recalls a media frenzy ensuing. Soon after this moment, his wines appeared in the LCBO – another significant achievement unlocked in the trajectory of an Ontario winemaker.
PART 2 – CANADA’S (POSSIBLY ONLY) BLACK WINEMAKER
“Hey Steve… you know that you might be the only black winemaker in the Country, right?”
The observation was made by Konrad Ejbich. Konrad is one of Canada’s most prolific wine writers, and also an industry peer who encourage Steve on his efforts, and up until this comment, Steve really had no clue that he could very well be Canada’s only black winemaker (nor did he care, really).
Steve Byfield’s journey in winemaking hasn’t been typical. He isn’t a graduate of any winemaking or oenology programs. He hasn’t had any stages abroad as a winemaker. He graduated with a University degree in Music. He’s a person of colour, who cut his teeth in the (predominantly Caucasian) winemaking world, through perseverance, talent, and hard work.
THE SEARCH FOR BLACK-OWNED WINERIES
As I mentioned, Steve graciously set aside one hour of his busy schedule to speak with me. After my last post on the blog, I emailed several provincial government-owned liquor stores, asking them for a list of wines produced by black winemakers, or of bottles coming from black-owned wineries. Of the six provincial liquor stores I contacted, only Ontario’s LCBO was able to provide me with a list. The other establishments weren’t able to provide me with any information, or simply didn’t respond to my inquiry. Of those identified on the list provided to be by the LCBO, none of them were Canadian.
I asked Steve for his thoughts on this. His reply was honest. He believes that if a wine makes it to the shelves of the LCBO, he hopes that it’s because of its quality – not simply because of the colour of the winemaker’s skin. That said, he believes that if someone wishes to support BIPOC businesses, they should absolutely have the right to know which products are made by BIPOC – as Steve remarks, “it’s our taxpayers’ dollars after all.”
FLYING THE FLAG FOR BIPOC
I asked Steve the question frankly – why aren’t there more BIPOC winemakers or BIPOC-owned wineries in Canada? If Canada truly is a country built on multiculturalism and inclusivity, this fact runs incredibly counter to our national identity. Steve struggled to find a reason.
Steve eventually surmised that it might be due to the world of wine’s greatest fault – this notion that the world of wine is some sort of fraternity or closed society… something you must be born in to, or “buy” your way in to.
Reflecting on his own personal experiences, Steve recounts that people of colour were always the ones doing the ‘grunt’ work. Weeding, sorting good grapes from the bad ones – the monotonous and painstaking work essential to keep such operations running – always seemed to be undertaken by those foreigners and those of colour.
Steve came from that type of grunt work. He’s as unpretentious as they come. He’s humble (Nyarai means humility in Southern African Shona dialect), attentive, approachable, knowledgeable. He doesn’t give a rats ass if you chill your Shiraz – he wants you to learn and enjoy wine at your own pace, at your own rhythm, and at your own comfort. Steve speaks to people at their level, he meets them wherever they’re at in their wine journey. He believes this is the only way that the world wine will grow and reach new audiences – music to my damn ears!
He hopes that both his story and his comportment as a professional winemaker helps break barriers so that people of colour see winemaking as a very real and viable career choice. Nyarai Cellars is the very embodiment of this idea. You don’t need to be a land holder, you don’t need your own storefront, you don’t need to be born into a winemaking family. You can do beautiful things without all of these things, and you can absolutely do it as a BIPOC. Wine is not a closed, secret society… as Mr. Byfield puts it, “let’s open the damn thing up!”
Yes, Steve might very well be the only black winemaker in Canada. But he’ll tell you straight up – don’t buy his wines on that fact alone.
“Talent transcends boundaries. If you’re good at something, people will notice, regardless of the colour of your skin.”