Bordeaux, in the south west of France, needs little introduction as one of the world’s most famous, prestigious and prolific wine regions. Few regions can rival Bordeaux in terms of its impact on the wine world. Except for Niagara, that is. At least that’s what John Howard of John Howard Wines of Distinction – Megalomaniac Wines would like us to know.
Howard’s story as a businessman with years spent traveling around the world as Executive Vice President at Canon and his success as proprietor of Vineland Estates where he grew the operation from 2,000 to 50,000 cases in just eight years, is one he readily shares with his friends and guests.
But as he embarks on two new ventures that will bring wine lovers from France and Canada, indeed from around the world, together, Howard is finally ready to share a story that he doesn’t often tell, that of his connection with France. “I get asked a lot about what my connection to France is, and apart from saying I have a partnership there, I own a stake in two chateaux, I visit there a lot and go fishing, that’s about all I say,” says Howard.
Now that he has two new projects in the mix, one that will bring a taste of France to Canada and the other that will provide a truly unique way for wine lovers to discover what it’s like to live in a French chateau with your very own wine cellar and wine label, he’s finally ready to give us the details we’ve all been waiting to hear about.
Some of you may already know the story behind Howard’s success as a businessman and of his “retirement” projects, growing Vineland Estates and building the sassy and critically acclaimed Megalomaniac brand of wines in Vineland, Ontario. To say Howard is one of the most influential figures on the Canadian wine landscape is an understatement.
Through it all, Howard shares what he’s learned with his friends, colleagues, and guests, imparting his business savvy and knowledge and mentoring his young employees, some straight out of college, to carry on the tradition of excellence at Megalomaniac.
His passion for cultivating talent and bringing in the best people to run his winery, including putting world class winemaker Sebastien Jacquey at the helm of his vineyards and CFO Ryan Conte in charge of the business side of Megalomaniac, is evident of Megalomaniac’s continued ascent as one of Canada’s premier wine brands. So to what does he attribute his success? “My advice is this – do what you love and surround yourself with people you like and respect and you’ll always be successful,” says Howard.
As for Howard’s French connection, prior to selling Vineland Estates in 2004, Howard partnered with Jean Philippe Janoueix to acquire Chateau La Confession and Chateau Haut Pontet in St. Emilion, Bordeaux, France. “Jean-Philippe’s family has been in the wine business on the right bank of Bordeaux for generations, they’re literally a winemaking dynasty,” says Howard.
The family, which operates estates in Bordeaux from Grand Cru Classé to Bordeaux Superieur, also owns 12 grand chateaux and farm the equivalent of 1,200 acres of farmland. “Jean Philippe’s name is on La Confession, La Croix St-Georges, 20 Mille De Janoueix, Cap Saint Georges, Sacre Coeur and Croix Mouton,” adds Howard.
In addition to Chateau La Confession and Chateau Haut Pontet, Howard has been laying the framework with partner Janoueix on a third project – another chateau in St. Emilion.
This Grand Cru chateau sits on 19 hectares in Bordeaux and features a stunning castle that is being renovated to house a new syndication venture that’s been four years in the making. “One of my partners and I, while fishing, came up with the idea to build something unique that will take the wine experience to a whole new level,” Howard shares. “We are going to syndicate elements of the cellar at this domain so that guests can have their own wine labels from the vintages we produce.”
Howard’s partnership with Janoueix and his stake in these chateaux is unique and special in and of itself. The Vineland businessman turned wine baron is a 35 per cent partner. This is pretty significant considering the fact that 35 per cent ownership is the maximum stake permitteby the French government.
“The process for a foreigner to become an owner of a chateau in Bordeaux is long and requires a number of criteria to be satisfied, in addition to going before a tribunal,” Howard explains. “To be granted part ownership demonstrates that we are respected as sound stewards of the land.”
Howard goes on to say that Canada, and Niagara in particular, is highly respected by the French wine world. “The norm in Niagara is to keep our vineyards pristine, and they understand that concept in France. From our own perspective, the fact that we carefully and lovingly grow varietals directly imported from Bordeaux shows not just our talent but also our respect and appreciation for French varietals. I think that goes a long way towards that level of trust and respect the French have for us and is why I’ve been successful before the tribunals and been granted permission to partner with Jean Philippe.”
Howard’s dedication to and connection with Bordeaux is a strong factor behind the success of his vineyard in Vineland. “All of our vines and barrels are import- ed from France. We farm a variety of Bordeaux varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc – and Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling.”
Following an unfortunately rough winter a few years ago Megalomaniac was forced to uproot many of the damaged vines surrounding the property on flat land – losing 40-45 per cent and the entirety of the home vineyard merlot. This uproot, while devastating, also proved to be a bit of a blessing, allowing their team to plant new vines based on the terroir and track record of what grows best and where. This includes more Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to cater to Megalomaniac’s new winemaker, Jacquey.
The flavour profile and quality of wine he produces from the varietals he’s imported from Bordeaux and grown in his home vineyard prove that Canada is on par with wine made in France. Howard is as passionate about the wine we produce here in Canada as he is with what’s made in France. “We never want to lose our distinction as being Canadian,” assures Howard, as clearly evidenced with the branding of Megalomaniac. “We focus on what our customers want and on quality.”
It also means a focus on value. “We produce really good wines at an affordable price that feature all aspects of the distribution channel, from entry level to premium,” says Howard. “That has been our mandate – producing the best wines we can, but presenting them at a very affordable price. Our underlying theme is quality and value and it is very important to us and our customers.”
To highlight just how distinctly Canadian Megalomaniac is, while also showing how the quality of what’s produced domestically stacks up against wines from Bordeaux, Howard is embarking on an importation project to bring the wines he makes in France to Canada. Starting in 2018, Howard will begin importing a selection of premium wines from he and Janoueix’s labels to Ontario and Quebec. “We think that this will give Canadians a chance to taste wines they would never have access to, unless they’re coming to Europe to access it directly. We’re going to bring in two brands for restaurateurs, two for the LCBO and two for private collectors. The plan is to be importing pretty seriously by the second quarter of next year.”
Part of Howard’s reasoning for importing premium French labels is to give Canadians an opportunity to juxtapose Bordeaux wine with Niagara wine. “I think Canadians will be impressed with how our homegrown wines hold up in taste profile and quality.”
the Megalomaniac brand with new vintages and has put great effort into growing the highly successful and exclusive Megalomonaniac wine club. Continued improvements
and renovations to the gorgeous Megalomaniac facility on Cherry Avenue itself are also ongoing. This includes a new rooftop patio at the very top of the building to provide an even higher vantage point to see the breathtaking views of Toronto and Niagara Falls.
The consummate showman, Howard is also stoked about the massive elevator currently under construction that will whisk guests from the Megalomaniac cellars straight up to the top of the building and the brand new patio. “The elevator is going to be really incredible and will give our guests a chance to see our operations from every level, from the cellar to our distribution centre, private tasting rooms, retail store, terrace and, of course, to the newest patio at the very top.”
All renovations sit with the same goal of creating an all-encompassing Niagara wine experience like no other.
What started off as a retirement project that would leave time for days spent salmon fishing, Howard instead continues to lead the rapid growth of Megalomaniac. And between expansions and additions and importing and syndications, opportunities seem to just keep presenting themselves to Howard, who doesn’t seem to mind one bit. “Probably the older you get and the more experience you get, people tend to keep coming to you with opportunities that are innovative, exciting and new. I just follow my gut and see where the next path takes me.”
The wine world can be a serious one, but Howard has some words of advice: “Drink wine. It’s good for you. Enjoy it with your friends. But don’t take yourself too seriously when you drink wine because you shouldn’t take yourself too seriously in life, period.”
Now that we’ve heard the story of Howard’s connection to France, other stories Howard loves to share include his tales of fly fishing for Atlantic Salmon, visiting Argentina, his favourite place on earth, and travelling across Europe by train. But his favourite stories are truly about his two grandsons, Morgan and Spencer. “They keep me busy,” he laughs.
3930 Cherry Ave, Vineland, ON
905 562 5155