During his second year of university in 1996, Steve Byfield was looking for part-time employment, and found a job as a customer service agent at The Brew Factory — where customers could make their own beer and wine.
Hamilton-based Byfield — who was born and raised in Kitchener to Jamaican immigrants — said he was immediately “bitten by the wine bug” and was so “intrigued with winemaking” that his plan to teach music went out the window.
“Within, I’d say, two months of that job, working twice a week through studies, I really got fascinated with the whole process of winemaking and wanted to learn more,” Byfield told CBC Hamilton.
“So, by the time I graduated from university I was really fascinated with it, enthralled with it, in love with it and figured it would be kind of cool to see the winemaking process from the commercial end.”
He said that opportunity presented itself a year and a half later when he was hired as a product consultant at Southbrook Farms, which was located at Richmond Hill, Ont. A year later he was offered an apprenticeship opportunity to become a winemaker.
Watch: Steve Byfield talks about pairing wine with your favourite food
Today, Byfield is one of only a few racialized winemakers in Canada — and the only Black Canadian with their own wine label.
Byfield, 55, is the owner of Nyarai Cellars, a virtual wine label. The company does not have a building or vineyard of its own, but contracts grapes from growers in the Niagara region. The wine is made at a winery in Hamilton — West Avenue Cider House — where Nyarai Cellars has its own barrels and tanks.
“It’s just a way for winemakers to essentially create a wine brand and run it as such, minus the overhead costs [associated with it] — owning a vineyard, owning property — and really allow them to develop that brand,” Byfield said.
When Byfield started Nyarai Cellars in 2008, his virtual wine label was one of only three in the Niagara region.
Barriers to racialized individuals
Byfield said land ownership is among barriers facing racialized individuals entering the industry as winemakers.
“Most wineries are operations that have emerged from family farmsteads,” he said.
“Despite the fact that communities of colour have always had a presence and involvement in the wine industry, primarily labour equity or farm work, opportunities to invest in properties may have been determining factors contributing to the lack of diversity in the ranks of winemakers,” he said.
Byfield said he “definitely would love to see more” racialized individuals joining the industry.
“If you’re passionate about it, if you’re driven to learn and work hard, it is rewarding,” he said.
“For me, from the winemaking end, it’s a passion … so most mornings it’s easy for me to get up [and head to work].
Resources to help new farmers
While there are no specific programs for new entrants into winemaking, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) says it has introduced a number of initiatives to help both new and veteran farmers continue to grow across the province.
Connie Osborne, an OMAFRA spokesperson, said initiatives include a web portal that includes information and support on skills development, business planning, marketing, farm business transfer and other relevant subjects.
Osborne said there’s also a business resource guide, which “provides information and resources to help new farmers start up, strengthen and grow farming operations.”
Resources include getting started, building a business plan, crop production basics, livestock operation basics, and more, Osborne said.
Winemakers, grape growers see bright future
Meanwhile, Ontario winemakers and grape growers anticipate substantial growth in this sector of the provincial economy, fuelling increases in investment, market share, jobs and related tourism.
“The growing recognition of the quality of Ontario VQA wines, the excellence of our wine country tourism experiences and the opportunities for growth will combine to take our world class industry to another level, with premium wine at the centre of a thriving economy and culture,” Del Rollo, chair of Wine Growers Ontario, said in a news release.
According to Ontario’s VQA Wine and Grape Industry’s 2030 Vision, projected growth targets within the next seven years include:
- More than 40,000 direct and indirect jobs in Ontario’s grape and wine production, tourism and hospitality sectors.
- Annual Ontario VQA wine sales of more than half a billion dollars (up from $385 million per year currently), with all-channel share of Ontario’s wine market growing by 20 per cent (from current 13 per cent).
- Three million annual visitors to Ontario’s wine regions (up from 2.6 million today).
- A 75 per cent increase in capital investment by Ontario wine producers, with 4 million new vines planted over 20,000 acres.
‘Very fortunate and thankful’
Byfield said “as a person of colour, having [my] own label,’ challenges have been no different than everyone else in the industry.
“My experience has been good for the most part [and any challenges] are diminished by the overall goodwill of my peers who’ve been nothing but supportive,” he said.
It’s very “humbling” to hear the feedback of customers who enjoy the product, Byfield said.
“It keeps you very humble and I’m very fortunate and thankful for the accolades.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.