Nicolette Novak has an amazing ability to strike up a conversation with anyone. It can be your first time meeting her but you immediately feel at ease, like with an old friend. There’s no formality, but a sense of familiarity instead.
Take the cool, wet day in early June when two women sat down at a table under the covered patio in the bistro of Novak’s Good Earth Food and Wine Co. in Beamsville. They started wrapping themselves in fleece blankets when Novak cut in to empathize — even apologize. It’s June, after all, but one that could easily be confused with late October for its lack of sunny, warm weather that normally makes Niagara shine at this time of year.
The women shrugged at Mother Nature’s confused ways. It’s cosy, they assured, which led Novak to ask the obvious: “Where are you from?”
“Georgia,” one woman answered. It was the perfect segue into Novak telling them peaches grow here, though the growing season is about a month behind this year. She points to the swath of trees beside the bistro.
“Those are all peach trees,” Novak said, sensing the women’s disbelief that peaches grow in Canada. They marvel. But that’s typical. Marvelling is what happens at The Good Earth — as Novak intended — the moment a visitor turns down the gravel laneway, through a welcome mat of vineyards and orchards, to the winery, bistro and cooking school that borders Beamsville. It serves as a bucolic reminder that, despite the promise of condo high-rises being built around the corner, this is still Niagara farm country.
It’s also still Novak’s home. The bistro table where those women sat was little more than a 100 metres from her front door.
“One of the things I set out to do to differentiate from other places… I really think of this as an extension of my own home,” Novak said. “It has that feel of someone’s places. It still has warts, there are weeds, our driveway isn’t paved. But once you turn onto that driveway, you really are transported somewhere different.”
Ultimately, that’s what happened to Novak when she returned home after her father had been killed in a car accident 32 years ago. A twenty-something at the time, Novak had been carving a career path in Toronto, working for a Member of Provincial Parliament. But with news of her dad’s death coming on the first day of peach harvest, she knew she had to return to Beamsville to help the farm and her family — it was Novak, her mother, Betty, and her grandmother — carry on.
“There were no options,” Novak recalled.
The farm was 220 acres at the time, a mammoth swath by Niagara standards. But she enjoyed it until a streak of bad years compelled her to sell most of it. She kept 55 acres, which she leased out, and returned to the city to work in public relations.
But in 1998, she was beckoned back to Beamsville. Niagara was on the cusp of something new and more convivial than the hotels with their expansive and formal dining rooms in Niagara-on-the-Lake that had been serving as the region’s calling card for tourists seeking something more refined than waterfalls and wax museums.
Wineries with inviting tasting rooms and restaurants were opening and a new culinary identity was being forged for the region, thanks to a crop of big city chefs who’d come here seeing the potential of cooking in the middle of one of Canada’s most unique agricultural areas.
View this post on Instagram
Novak contributed to the effort by opening a cooking school on the property.
“It was so long ago, there were only five wineries,” she recalled.
That eventually led to catering events, and in 2008, the next natural progression in rural Niagara: a winery.
“I made the fateful decision to make wine, which was an awful decision,” Novak said. “It’s hard. It’s very capital intensive and there’s still a threshold of what people are willing to spend. And in Toronto, there’s still a perception that Ontario wines suck.”
Still, The Good Earth is clearly a good place to be, even on a cold, rainy June day.
People come, and when the first sunny days that hint at summer and stone fruit harvests arrive, they come in droves. They come to attend a session at the cooking school that’s more edutainment than hands-on. They come to sample some of The Good Earth’s vintages, made by winemaker Ilya Senchuk, who has a talent for teasing out the best in Niagara grapes. And they come to wrap themselves in a fleece blanket and eat lunch on the bistro patio.
View this post on Instagram
Despite the challenges, Novak admitted it’s been a successful venture. She has a classically trained chef, St. Catharines native Andrew Thorne, doing monthly seasonal menus in the kitchen. She’s surrounded herself with staff with the same salt-of-the-earth vibe as their boss.
“I’m really fortunate. They all have personality and they’re not afraid of showing it with people. They’re real,” Novak said. “I can say with confidence the food is excellent and we try to keep it as seasonal as possible. It’s a wine and food environment that isn’t foreboding. It isn’t pretentious. And it’s pretty. We work hard to make it pretty.”
All that’s changed over the years is the audience. Novak sees more twenty- and thirty-somethings attending the themed cooking classes, or arranging private dos, that run three hours, feature three courses plus an amuse bouche, and wine.
“It’s laid back and there for you to enjoy,” she said. “You take away from it as much as you want. We don’t like to micromanage it because the idea behind (the culinary school) is to expose people to what they might not normally have ordered (to eat).”
They’re still Novak’s favourite part of her entire endeavour. Within moments of gathering in the small outbuilding dedicated to the instructional sessions, strangers become friends. It’s also not uncommon to find Novak cleaning up afterward instead of relegating the task to her staff. But then, that’s all in keeping with The Good Earth’s MO of feeling like a visit to someone’s home.
“To me, it’s like after a really good dinner party,” Novak said. “It gives me time to reflect, to come down.”
And perhaps remember that there’s only one place she can do this.
“The driver for this whole business was that this is home,” Novak said. “I had a strong foundation in agriculture and an understanding of what this place called Niagara has here.”
• • • • •
Good Earth Food & Wine
4556 Lincoln Ave, Beamsville, ON L0R 1B3