If Greg Yemen were to ever work a desk job, he’d want to set up his office on the crush pad of The Organized Crime Winery in Beamsville.
That way, the winemaker could still take in the jaw-dropping view that meanders down a gentle slope of the Niagara Escarpment, lined with grapevines, before stretching across Lake Ontario to the big city on the other side.
It’s not a large area relative to the rest of the region but it has become hugely important for its role in Niagara’s wine story, and Yemen’s as a vintner. The impact of this parcel can be tasted in the wines that netted him and The Organized Crime seven medals in the 2019 National Wine Awards of Canada handed out by Wine Align. The winery also ranked sixth among the top 25 wineries in Canada, and second in Ontario after its neighbour Hidden Bench Estate Winery, which is part of Yemen’s enviable view.
“There’s something more to it than us,” Yemen said. “This piece, this special little spot in Niagara with this soil, we don’t get overripeness. We get the right level of ripeness, balance, freshness, and the minerality. This land is really special.”
But, then, so is Yemen, a humble type who’s more inclined to be sheepish about getting any attention at all for his work.
“All we’re doing is making a beverage,” he said. “There’s this whole culture of celebrity with chefs and winemakers. I don’t understand it. We’re just blue collar workers.”
Whatever the colour of his shirt, Yemen’s pathway to becoming a lauded winemaker was filled with as many bends and twists as an old vine.
The native of Guelph, Ont., spent the first part of his career as a carpenter on Vancouver Island in the early aughts. He and his wife, Courtney, never intended to return to Ontario but then she was accepted to vet school “and we came back, right to the city we left,” Yemen recalled.
Wherever he was, though, Yemen had his love for wine to help pass his off-hours. At night, he would sit down with a glass and his copy of the Oxford Companion of Wine, and read about the region whose vintage he was sipping.
It was fitting for a guy whose fondest memories growing up were of food rather than the usual kid’s stuff; like that time he and his family went to Disney World, and it was waffles he ate in Orlando that stayed with him most.
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“That’s what I remember, not Mickey Mouse. I can remember being in Washington and eating a Philly Cheesesteak, but I can’t remember the Smithsonian,” he said.
Making Wine in the Niagara Region
The final proverbial nail in his carpentry career came after Yemen read a story about Paul Pender, a former carpenter turned renowned winemaker at Tawse Winery in nearby Vineland.
“I thought, ‘Why can’t I do this?’” Yemen said.
So he did. After Courtney graduated from vet school, Yemen decided it was time for him to return to the classroom. He enrolled at Niagara College, studying winemaking and viticulture. But before cracking a textbook, he got a job at Alvento Winery in 2008. The Jordan winery was making a name for itself with Italian influenced vintages and Bordeaux-style reds at the time.
It was “very old world” in comparison to school, which was “textbook winemaking, and very safe.”
Sometimes Yemen would skip class to do the hands-on version of his lessons at Alvento, treating winemaking like an apprenticeship rather than an academic pursuit. He didn’t shy away from the hard work or the physical labour required to make wine. As a result, he’s not inclined to cut corners in his winemaking today.
“I probably make a lot more work for myself but in the end, I make better wine because of it. It probably helps coming from a trade because I know what it’s like to work, so it wasn’t a jump coming into this,” he explained. “We’re still making something but it’s a longer process and in the end, we’re making something that makes people happy.”
After three years at Alvento, Yemen worked with Ross Wise at Flat Rock Cellars. Together, the duo also did winemaking at smaller wineries, including The Organized Crime, starting in 2013. By 2016, though, he decided to devote his efforts entirely to the winery owned by Jan Tarasewicz, who, other than Yemen, is the only full-time employee.
Yemen avoids any heavy-handed intervention when turning another year’s harvest into vintages that are noteworthy to national wine award judges. He’ll tend toward wild and natural fermentation processes but will still use yeast when he deems it necessary.
Whatever the case, he takes his cues from the grapes, which are different every year, thanks to unpredictable Mother Nature. Yemen doesn’t mind, though. He relishes the learning opportunities that come with each growing season.
“Every year, I feel less smart because I discovered what I don’t know,” he said with a laugh.
And only when he’s able to taste his wine does he know which ones were right, he added.
“If you ever meet a winemaker who thinks they’ve figured it out, they’re probably wrong,” Yemen said. “I think most winemakers are jealous of beer makers. If it doesn’t work out one day, they can start over the next. We get one shot a year.”
Still, he’s making the wine he likes to drink with the right balance of acidity and minerality — a “leaner wine” that’s not high in alcohol, and wine that’s causing people to play close attention to Niagara, and Yemen himself, who marvels at it all.
“I really like what we make here. We’re starting to get international recognition here, the chardonnay, the pinot noir, the cabernet franc,” he said.
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4043 Mountainview Rd, Beamsville, ON L0R 1B2