Jay Johnston

It was just supposed to be a bottle of wine to go with dinner.

But that 1999 Blue Mountain Pinot Noir turned out to be a game changer for Jay Johnston.

“I thought this was so good, I’ve got to do something about this,”

Johnston recalled.


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So he did. Johnston, who was honeymooning in Tofino, BC, at the time didn’t order another bottle, though. He didn’t even order a case. Nor did he change his travel plans and high-tail it to Okanagan Falls in BC’s interior to visit the winery where it was made.

Johnston, who was 31 at the time, changed his entire career with the hope of one day making a vintage as halting and remarkable. It’s safe to say he is as winemaker of Hidden Bench Estate Winery in Beamsville. In addition to a slew of other awards, Hidden Bench was named the top Ontario winery at the 2019 WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada.

Winemaking Career Change

Turn the clock back 18 years, though, and winemaking was an about-face for a guy who’d been working for an email marketing company and software provider in Toronto. Still, it wasn’t a complete stretch given Johnston forged his techie career after reading Fast Company while working in the golf industry. He became so “smitten with the knowledge economy” that he “charmed” his way into a job.

That wine would be his fourth career was simply par for the course, and a necessary change for someone who longed to trade shuffling emails in the virtual world for making something more tangible.

Johnston looked into schooling. South Africa sounded like a dream until he learned he needed to speak Afrikaans to attend a wine program there.


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Then Niagara College beckoned with its winery and viticulture technician curriculum in English. It was 2003 and the local wine industry was poised to explode as a New World tipple region, a sign of that being Johnston’s first stop during his move to Niagara. He visited Thomas & Vaughan Estates Winery, which produced award-winning Bordeaux-style reds and multidimensional whites on a 38-acre plot in Beamsville that’s now the home of Redstone Winery.

“I was so intimidated,” Johnston recalled. “I knew nothing about wine.”

He did know that Niagara was something special after that winery visit, however. And soon he would also learn that winemaking wasn’t all romance and life-changing Pinots. A lot of hard work — physical labour — goes into every bottle, and that was Johnston’s next lesson.

Vineyard Work

“I was 33, working away in vineyards, making $10 an hour after having a good job in the city. It was an eyeopener,” he said. “I had this romantic ideal and I had to work through that to get to the more pleasant side of the business.”

His heart still guided him in many ways, though. Johnston’s first harvest job was at Jackson-Triggs in Niagara-on-the-Lake. “I just loved the building,” he said about the winery’s modern architecture.

Johnston also worked for two years in the vineyards of Le Clos Jordanne, a chardonnay and pinot noir-focussed project turning out vintages that made oenophiles swoon. His mentor was Thomas Bachelder, a giant in both stature and winemaking.

He was undeterred by the physicality of the work, unlike many of his classmates. Only 11 students graduated out of the 26 who started the program with Johnston a few years earlier.

“I was so committed to becoming a winemaker, I knew I’d have to fight it out,” he said. “I was so invested in what was happening here in Niagara. I probably met the right people. Thomas was so inspiring. The sweat equity felt good. It felt like you were doing something.”


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Johnston’s streak of meeting the right people continued in 2007 when he crossed paths with Harald Thiel, proprietor of Hidden Bench. Like Bachelder, Thiel knew Niagara’s potential and was determined to show the world its matchless terroir.

Thiel and Bachelder were among the six Niagara winemakers to launch the annual International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration (i4C) after a local chardonnay outshone its Burgundian and California counterparts at the renowned Cellier Wine Awards in Montreal in 2009.

i4C, which draws winemakers from the world’s cool climate regions — i.e. not California — to pour their vintages for the curious and thirsty, has become one of Niagara’s premier wine events.
And Thiel remains an industry stalwart for his exacting standards when it comes to bottling a “true representation of what can do in Niagara.”

Making Niagara Terroir Wine

“You could see this guy was going to do whatever it takes to make the best wines from these vineyards,” Johnston said. “To this day, that’s still rare to find in this environment.”

It would be another 10 years with other winery stops along the way, including at Flat Rock Cellars, before Johnston would be tapped as Hidden Bench winemaker. He knew when he was handed the reins of the cellar that the job entailed more than simply pressing and fermenting grapes, and hoping for the best.


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“For me, it’s a massive responsibility. Our vineyard manager and Harald do whatever it takes to give us the best fruit possible,” Johnston said.

“We have to take the time and effort to take care of what they’re doing.

“The focus and attention to detail we put in the cellar has to match what they do in the vineyard. I’m not a tinkering winemaker. It’s more about putting energy into the expression of fruit coming in from the vineyard in the glass. I don’t put my stamp on it. I’m definitely a terroir guy.”

And a Niagara terroir guy, especially. Between Lake Ontario’s effects on the climate and a soil structure that allows for “the perfect expression of wine” there’s nowhere else in the world Johnston could get the same results from another season’s promise.

He’s not the only one who knows that. Industry professionals from all over the world confirm it when they visit the region and Hidden Bench,, including one wine writer from California who said he “would kill for the soils you have in Niagara,” — soil suited to Chardonnay, Riesling and the wine that started it all for Johnston, Pinot Noir.

“We’ve got all the tools,” Johnston said. “So there’s no excuse not to make the best wines possible from year to year.”


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Hidden Bench Estate Winery
Website: https://hiddenbench.com/
4152 Locust Ln, Beamsville, ON L0R 1B0

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