When the pandemic hit just as the Shale Ridge Estate Winery was about to open near Thedford, owners Alicia and Garren Hardman decided they’d just have to work with it.
Nearly two years later, they’re drawing in customers to the farm on Widder Road and recently opened a new production building and tasting room.
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“It was a little bit worrisome,” Alicia Hardman said about their original plan to open in April 2020, just as COVID-19 was taking hold. “We weren’t really sure how we were going to manouevre at all, but we tried to stay positive.”
They had produced about 6,000 litres of hard cider in a converted two-car garage and went ahead with the original opening date, offering online ordering and curbside pickup, as well as deliveries within a 60-kilometre radius.
“We were going all over the place from Sarnia, London – all the in-betweens,” Hardman said. “That kept us, actually, pretty busy.”
They used Facebook and Instagram to get the word out.
“I still do believe that it almost benefited us in a way,” Hardman said about the pandemic. “People were at home and were on their phones, on their computers – not a lot to do.”
And along came a new winery and cidery.
“People wanted to try our stuff,” Hardman said. “It ended up going very well.”
The response convinced the couple to triple production, so they worked all that summer making and bottling cider to keep up with demand.
“That was definitely a lot better outcome than we had expected,” Hardman said.
Both now in their late 20s, the couple bought the 5.2-hectare property in 2013. Their farm is just down the road from the Juicy Fruit Orchard owned by Alicia’s family.
An old orchard on the couple’s property hadn’t been cared for, so they pulled it out and learned from testing the soil and considering the climate that grapes were the best fit, she said.
“With the ciders, we source all of the apples and most of the fruit – whatever we can – from my family farm and then, whatever they don’t have, we try to source locally,” Hardman said.
“Apples really do well in our area, which is great for us because it really shows through in our ciders – just the quality and the taste.”
When public health rules allowed outdoor customers in 2020, the couple welcomed them to the farm and an outdoor area they set up for tastings.
Things really took off after Garren, a welder and fabricator, designed and built tables with swings for seats after Alicia noticed some online in late 2020.
The following June, after another lockdown lifted, they launched outdoor swing seating at the farm.
“We were fully booked every single weekend for the whole summer and all of fall,” Alicia said. “They were really cool.”
The charm of a small-farm experience the winery offered helped fuel its popularity, along with their ciders and the novelty of the swing seats, she said.
“People come and they say it’s just so relaxing.”
As well as Sarnia and London, they’ve drawn customers from as far away as Windsor, Kitchener-Waterloo and the Toronto area, Hardman said.
The couple’s initial plans were to consider a new building for production and sales a few years down the road.
“We wanted to prove the concept before we really dove in deep,” she said, but they soon saw the business was growing quickly and had outgrown its small production area.
They approached Farm Credit Canada and it all happened quickly. They completed designs, secured funding and began construction in May 2021 before opening the new building in November.
Once landscaping is completed in the coming year, the total cost of the building is expected to be $1.3 million, Hardman said.
“My husband and I have always been pretty entrepreneurial and willing to take risks, and work hard at it,” she said.
The building includes a production area built into the ground that takes advantage of natural cooling. The tasting room above also serves food and has a few of the swing tables inside.
The tasting room was built with the pandemic in mind so has garage doors that open on three walls, so it qualifies as a covered patio under public-health rules.
“It’s obviously chilly, but we have heaters inside,” and the tasting rooms have continued operating through the latest restrictions, she said.
“We’ve been busier than ever the last couple of weekends,” Hardman said.
Last spring, they also launched six varieties of wine with grapes sourced from Niagara.
Most of the winery’s own grapes vines were planted in 2020, but it generally takes a minimum of three years before they produce a mature harvest for winemaking, Hardman said.
“We did our homework on what would do well and what would thrive in our soil and our location,” Hardman said about the varieties of grapes they planted.
The farm produced 56,000 litres of cider last year, along with about 15,000 litres of wine, and plans to increase production “by quite a bit” for what is expected to be an even busier season in 2022, she said.