When Faik Turkmen took control of Lailey Winery in October, 2021, one of his first moves was to contact tour operators and bus companies to tell them about the change in ownership. “No more buses,” he explains, was a signal that Lailey was returning to its roots as a small-scale producer of fine wine.
Turkmen, who also produces wine under the Stonebridge label from another vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake, was attracted to the property on the Niagara River Parkway because of the pedigree of the wines produced by its original owners. David and Donna Lailey had gradually transformed their family fruit farm into a vineyard, starting with 10 rows of chardonnay and pinot noir planted in 1970. They supplied grapes to Niagara wineries and amateur winemakers until they started their own winery with winemaker Derek Barnett in 2000.
For 14 years, Lailey was recognized as one of Canada’s leading wine producers, with a devoted following that would flock to its annual release events to snap up its bottles of small-batch wines. The 18-acre vineyard was planted with 17 different varieties, including cabernet franc, malbec and zweigelt. The property and business sold in 2015 to John Chang and his wife Allison Lu, who changed Lailey’s focus overnight to icewine production for export markets and the tourist trade. The Laileys’ former home was demolished to expand the parking lot to accommodate bus traffic.
“I was looking back through the numbers,” Turkmen explains. “They used to have $5,000 of icewine sales on a single day. … During COVID that business died.”
Turkmen, who worked as a financial services executive in Toronto prior to focusing on winemaking, fell in love with Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2007, when he and his family first came to Ontario from Turkey. A wine lover who holds certifications from the Wine Spirit Education Trust and Wine Scholar Guild, he took his passion a step further by purchasing his first vineyard in 2016.
Beyond the Lailey vineyard’s storied history, purchasing the property provided much-needed production and retail space for Turkmen’s operation on a high-traffic spot just outside of Old Town Niagara-on-the-Lake. Not that there was much wine to sell at first.
“We had one riesling, four icewines and a big potential,” Turkmen says lightheartedly. But customers came, many with what Turkmen describes as “a spiritual connection” to the winery. They would share stories about their experiences with Lailey wines and meetings with Donna Lailey or Derek Barnett.
“The brand is special,” he says. “From day one, we pledged to focus on quality and rejuvenating the vineyard.”
Winemakers Ann Sperling and Peter Gamble have been working with Turkmen since he got into grape growing and started building his Stonebridge label. The husband-and-wife team have been involved in key winery startups in Ontario and Nova Scotia, including Stratus and Benjamin Bridge. Gamble acts as lead consultant, while Sperling advises the vineyard and cellar teams. Extensive replanting is needed, in part to help focus the production.
Seventeen different varieties might have made sense to have a diverse inventory to sell to amateur winemakers and wineries, but that single row of muscat grapes could only produce around 75 cases of wine. Sperling is also excited about the opportunity to plant better clones of existing grapes to improve overall wine quality. The plan is to have larger blocks of vines, notably of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, with three different clonal selections of each to increase complexity in the finished wine. Once in the ground, those vines will need to be cultivated for three years before producing a crop of grapes that’s suitable for wine production.
“There is an opportunity to go to the next level and build for the future,” Sperling says. “We have seen this vineyard perform. We know what we can expect from the soils. We have been able to evaluate the wines over more than 20 years. The hope is to build something that is even better than what was done in the past.”
Visitors to the Lailey today are greeted with a range of wines produced between 2017 and 2020 for the Stonebridge label and a range of rosés, an orange wine (a white wine that was made like a red wine by fermenting vidal grapes on the skins) and a zweigelt from the 2021 vintage sporting a refreshed label that harkens back to Lailey’s original look.
Marketing four different rosés wasn’t planned, Turkmen says. It was a reaction to the timing of the purchase of Lailey, which happened during harvest season in October, 2021, that would promise a high crop load of icewine grapes. But premium wineries focus on low-yield, high-quality grapes to have the necessary ingredients to produce concentrated and flavourful wines in warmer spots or finesse and fruitiness in cooler locations such as Lailey. So, instead of focusing their efforts on icewine, producing pink wines from the red wine varieties on the property was considered to have the best possible quality wines to reintroduce the brand. “We walked the vineyard and ran the numbers,” winemaking consultant Peter Gamble says, “and we arrived at the conclusion that we could make some really killer rosé.”
Each batch was barrel-fermented and aged for four months in French oak barrels. One is a blend of different varieties, including merlot, cabernet sauvignon and malbec; the others are single-variety bottlings: cabernet sauvignon reserve rosé, cabernet franc reserve and pinot noir reserve. The prices range from $29 to $42, which is a premium price for pink wine. But it’s consistent with the uncompromising pricing on all the Lailey and Stonebridge wines, which include bottles of cabernet franc and syrah for $78 and chardonnay for $110.
Turkmen says the average bottle price of his portfolio is $45, adding that he feels that price reflects the investment in the operation and quality of what is in the glass. Since his tasting room caters to small groups – the reservation system asks groups of more than five people to call or e-mail – he is confident that his tasting-room staff can welcome visitors with great wines and a great story about a legacy that’s being reborn.