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the ladder

Sue-Ann Staff says being a winemaker is a great job, but involves constant cleaning, which most people don’t realize.

Sue-Ann Staff, 45, made wine in Ontario's Niagara Escarpment at Pillitteri Estates, 20 Bees and Megalomaniac before establishing Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery Inc.

I was a competitive figure skater, so if I came home after school on the bus I'd always keep an eye out for my grandmother's car, because that's where the crew was working. I'd come home and ask my mom what farm she was on. I'd hop on the bike and out I'd go and help her at the end of the day. She had up to a hundred people in her crew at times. My father and grandfather were overall managers, but a big part of our success was because she was so iron-fisted and nothing got by her.

My family's lived here for 200 years. Staff Avenue used to be Seventh Avenue. When 911 came in, the town needed to rename the road. They kept it a surprise, asking neighbours what they thought – it was fantastic. We found out by reading it in the newspaper. We actually own the road; there's an easement, but at one time there was a toll basket in front of my brother's house.

Winning the American Society for Horticultural Science's award for top undergraduate paper showed me that good work gets rewarded. It showed me what an impact you can make, because when I won that it was quite a feat. I was the first Canadian to win that award, and people were just so happy for me.

In winning Ontario's 2002 Winemaker of the Year, I was the first female and the youngest ever. When your head's down working in a cellar with ripped jeans and steel-toed work boots on all the time, I was, "Really? Me?" When they went to announce the award, I was wondering who it was and I had all these names in my mind. And most of them were 70-year-old men!

To see a female winemaker now, it's not as surprising as it was 10 years ago. When I started at Pillitteri, a group of senior ladies wanted to meet the winemaker – super-excited when they heard they could. So they had their compacts out, primping up because they expected to meet a 70-year-old man. I didn't know this was happening and came around the corner. They all burst out laughing. I didn't expect that at all, checked if my fly was up or had wine spots on my face. … In Australia now, I think over 50 per cent of winemakers are women.

People who think it's cool to start wineries underestimate the work. I see that every single day, like a group in yesterday. I was all glammed up because I'd just come back from a tasting. Running upstairs to change, I stopped to say hello. They said, "You have the best job in the world!" I said, "Uh, yeah." A winemaker is a glorified janitor – you're cleaning, cleaning, cleaning all the time. If you're not cleaning, then something is going to go astray. It's the most overglamourized profession on the planet.

It's very hard to keep up with trends because we have to anticipate what the consumer is going to want at least five years out. From the time we plant the vines, it's four years before we get the first crop – five before we get the first full crop. Then we've got to make the wine, which can be from six months to 2 1/2 years depending on the wine. It's always: What's next? What's happening? From my experience – and time away in part – you see that here in new wine styles. At Pillitteri, I was the first winemaker to make a Gewürztraminer Riesling blend and the first to start doing unoaked Chardonnay – everything was still overoaked at the time – and people went gaga for it.

We're Ontario's only fly-in winery. I have my pilot's licence – forced to do my first takeoff and landing on our landing strip, as my instructor wanted me to be most comfortable here. It's a fun hobby, it's mentally consuming.

With my labels, the reality is most wine is purchased by women, so if labels make it more receptive, easier and more comfortable for women to buy wine, go for it. What I totally underestimated was the gifting power of Fancy Farm Girl. I've delineated that brand so it's $14.95 [on the] Liquor Control Board of Ontario general list. The Sue-Anne Staff brand is Vintages, $18 plus, the true love and spirit of wine. No label is going to appeal to everybody.

When not drinking wine, my go-to drink is gin and tonic.

As told to Halifax-based freelance writer Cynthia Martin. This interview has been edited and condensed.