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Waters on Wine March 18, 2023.  Jessica Otting and Tawse photos

Tawse and Redstone wineries in Beamsville, Ont.Tawse Winery

It’s been more than a year since the senseless death of winemaker Paul Pender and visitors to Tawse and Redstone wineries in Beamsville, Ont., continue to ask how they are managing. As director of winemaking, Pender was front and centre promoting the wineries at events and playing host to visiting journalists and sommeliers. He was the passion and the drive behind the business, hatching new projects, such as establishing the Redstone property, which opened in 2015, and the addition of a distillery at Tawse in 2018.

He’s the reason the vineyards are farmed organically and biodynamically. Why those vineyards, which are home to horses, cows, sheep, chickens and even a llama in addition to the vines necessary to produce wine, feel more like Old MacDonald’s Farm than a conventional winery. Pender was many things, but he wasn’t a solo act. He relied upon a large team that focused on day-to-day winemaking production, while others managed the other facets of the business while he served as the ambassador of the organization.

“We have all been working together for a long time,” says Vicki Smyth, who oversees direct to consumer sales, marketing and hospitality operations at Tawse and Redstone Wineries. “We’re like this small family.”

On Feb. 3, 2022, Ontario Provincial Police found Pender dead outside the cottage in Selkirk, Ont., he owned with his wife, Allison Findlay. A Hamilton man is charged with second-degree murder. Following the 54-year-old winemaker’s death, winery owner Moray Tawse gathered workers to plan a way forward. With the question, “what are we going to do now?” hanging in the air, Tawse reassured the crew: “Paul told me you guys are awesome.”

Mourning the loss of Paul Pender, one of Canada’s best winemakers

Despite the overwhelming sense of shock and grief, this team that worked together to make some of Niagara’s most celebrated wines, including Tawse winning the winery of the year title at the National Wine Awards of Canada in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2016, had to pull together.

“We needed to carry on,” Smyth says. “We couldn’t just shut the doors and bury our heads.”

Jessica Otting, who has been a winemaker at Tawse and Redstone since April, 2020, got her start as a laboratory technician at Tawse back in 2014. Having worked closely with Pender and winemaker Rene Van Ede, Otting was named assistant winemaker in 2018 and moved into her current position when Van Ede took a position with Foreign Affair Winery in Vineland.

The 2020 vintage is considered one of the best quality years for winemaking in Ontario.

Some of Otting’s 2020 wines have come out at the winery and some LCBO outlets, while others are enjoying extended aging in the cellar prior to release. “I was incredibly lucky to have the 2020 as my debut vintage and despite being my first vintage running the show, I felt incredibly calm,” Otting recalls. “Having Paul as a sounding board and access to Rene as a mentor gave me great confidence.”

Otting cut short her maternity leave to oversee the 2022 vintage. Looking back on that harvest, which saw the grape crop drastically reduced by frost, she recalls holding conversations with Pender in her head. “I don’t get to ask anybody what they think; I just have to go with my gut,” she explained.

Aware of questions about the fate of Tawse and Redstone, Otting is confident the team Pender assembled, which includes vineyard manager Augusta Vanmuyen and assistant winemakers Jessica Lyng and Devin Campbell, is carrying his vision forward. “I think in his last year with us, he had already shifted to building his legacy, which included building an incredibly strong team,” Otting says.

The veteran winemaker took time to share his knowledge and was working to refocus the portfolio on a quality-over-quantity basis by replanting and reining in the portfolio. For instance, an overabundance of riesling grapes led Vanmuyen to remove a large section of vines planted at the Limestone Vineyard North Vineyard in Jordan. They replaced some of that acreage with cabernet franc vines to see how it performs while leaving the rest of the vineyard sitting fallow for future consideration.

Like Pender, Otting pays particular attention to the various pinot noirs produced at Tawse. She often finds herself walking alongside the stacks of barrels, tasting to keep tabs on how each is progressing, conjuring up what the final blend could be in her head.

Open this photo in gallery:
Waters on Wine March 18, 2023.  Jessica Otting and Tawse photos

Jessica Otting cut short her maternity leave to oversee the 2022 vintage.Tawse Winery

The Quarry Road Pinot Noir made in 2020 stands out as a favourite from her first vintage. “I think we’re only just starting to understand the site and what it takes to make a great pinot from here,” she explains. The quality of the vintage and size of the crop allowed her to experiment with different fermentations and other winemaking practices to see how the style of the wine was affected. The finished wine is remarkably perfumed, with a ripe and rich core of fruit that is underscored by some youthful tannins. The Quarry Road Pinot Noir (already down to its last 50 cases) is one of the most popular wines at the tasting bar right now, which should help answer customer questions about how the winery will fare in Pender’s absence.

From Otting’s vantage, however, it’s impossible to separate Pender from the vines and wines tended by the winemaking team. “Paul will always be in the DNA of every Tawse wine,” she says. “At least, that will certainly be the case as long as I am making wine here.”

Three wines to buy now

Tawse Spark Limestone Ridge Organic Brut Sparkling Riesling 2020 (Canada), $24.95

Rating:90 /100

This ripe and refreshing sparkling wine is made from riesling grapes grown in an estate vineyard in Jordan. The mix of citrus and honeyed notes make this easy to appreciate. The overall impression is juicy and very satisfying. Drink now to 2025. Vegan friendly. Available in Ontario at the above price or direct,, various prices in Alberta.

Contino Reserva 2018 (Spain), $35.95

Rating:92 /100

The old-school white-and-gold label of this single-vineyard wine from Rioja suggests the traditional style red in the bottle, with its appealing balanced savoury and sweet character. Aged for two years in French and American oak, this tempranillo blend sports rich and complex flavours and a rewarding supple texture. A great value red with nice structure and concentration, this is serious and age-worthy although it’s certainly pleasurable now. Drink now to 2032. Vegan friendly. Available in Ontario at the above price, $45.99 in Alberta, $31.50 in Quebec.

Finca Sophenia Altosur Malbec 2021 (Chile), $17

Rating:88 /100

A fresh and concentrated estate-grown malbec from vineyards in Gualtallary, Uco Valley, this is a juicy and richly fruity style of red wine with polished tannins and a fresh finish. Made in a simple and enjoyable style, this makes the most of its ripe berry fruit flavours and floral accents. Drink now to 2026. Available in Ontario at the above price, $21.99 in British Columbia.

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