Summer may be slipping out the back door, but that doesn’t mean the party’s over. There are so many ways to enjoy autumn in Canada, and Ontario’s Southwest offers more than just scenery. It’s only a short drive to this corridor of the province filled with wineries, farm fresh fare, and agritourism.
We’ve put together a short itinerary for a 24-hour fall getaway to the region of Windsor Essex Pelee Island. It’s roughly four hours from Toronto by car, so we recommend driving in the night before if you can. Are you ready to go?
10:00AM: A Picking Party at Wagner Orchards and Estate Winery
Start your tour with a dose of reality from Harold Wagner, owner of Wagner Orchards and Estate Winery. He’s adamant that this isn’t a hobby farm – it’s the real deal.
“We’re legit,” says owner, Harold Wagner. “There are no pony rides or face painting here. That’s nonsense. When the kids ask, I tell ‘em clowns don’t live here.”
Clown politics aside, this is one of the few farms in Ontario where you can pick your own apples. Wagner first began planting apple trees back in 1986, and quickly became a popular agritourism destination for families. In the last two months, the farm attracted approximately 40,000 visitors.
“We only have a few rules listed on that board,” says Wagner. “Such as, don’t touch the electric fence, or pick up the barn cats.”
At Wagner’s, you can wander freely through farm fields and watch cows grazing and giant hogs rolling in mud.
For a flat rate of $15, take your oversized burlap sack into the orchard, and fill it to the brim with Yellow Delicious, Royal Gala, or whatever is growing. A word of advice: wear closed-toed shoes and long pants, as the grass and weeds grow wildly in the orchard.
Nearby, a humming sound drifts in the air. It originates from the 60 hives tucked into the corner of the property, all ripe with honey and swarming with bees. But these little workers are too busy to care about visitors – unless you bug ‘em, of course.
If picking ain’t your thang, check out Wagner’s organic meats and homemade treats for purchasing. Walking into the shop, aromas of baked goodies waft in the air: French Canadian minced meat pie, apple pie, and flaky apple strudel, drizzled in cinnamon and icing sugar.
“We probably baked 10,000 pies this year,” says Wagner. “Towns used to have a bakery, but it’s been put out of business by Tim Horton’s and other chains. But we’re doing it.”
For Wagner, it’s all about returning to that time-old tradition of local bakeries, fruit stands, and butchers. Families are loving it, but Wagner hopes to reach a new audience too.
“We’re targeting hipsters,” says Wagner. “They actually care where food comes from.”
Noon: Pizza on the Patio at Muscedere Vineyards
After working up an appetite apple picking, relax on the patio overlooking the grapevines at Muscedere Vineyards. From May to October, you can taste an array of red wines and munch on homemade pizza pulled fresh from a wood-fired oven and “goes well with wine.”
“Reds are our specialty,” says Melissa Muscedere, co-owner. “We’ve got a thick, heavy clay dirt that’s perfect for growing grapes.”
This is one of the smallest family-owned wineries in Essex County, and started as a conversation between the two Muscedere brothers. By 2002, the family had planted their first five acres of vineyard, and did a bunch of test runs. Today, there are 168 acres and guests flock here for the pizzas and to sample an array of reds. In the tasting room, you can savour hints of raisin and black currant in the Cabernet Franc to peppery notes in the Syrah to the earthy, toasted nut tang of the Baco Noir.
“We’re not in the LCBO,” says Muscedere. “It’s a small family-run production. So you have to visit the winery to try our reds.”
By the way, don’t be alarmed if you hear gun fire. It’s just to scare away the pesky birds that hover over the grapes.
2:00pm: It’s Wine O’Clock (Again)
After lunch, go “wine trekking” along the lovely Lake Erie North Shore and Pelee Island wine route. There are close to 20 wineries that produce award-winning and internationally acclaimed red, white and ice wines – most of which offer free tastings to customers. If you’re really ambitious, cycle one of the wine trails.
On a warm autumn afternoon, I stopped at Oxley Estate Winery to soak up the stunning vineyard views…as well as a few wines too. The wine menu includes white and red blends with fun names, like the zesty Ripper Red and peachy Wowza White, as well as suggested music pairings for each.
“Riesling grows very well here,” says Ann Neyton Wilson, co-owner. “When we first opened, people in Toronto were calling and asking for our Riesling.”
Before opening in 2012, Ann left a busy law practice to start up the winery with her husband. They planted five acres of crop, with 7-8 varieties of grape. With an unexpectedly plentiful harvest (“the grapes grew so fast…now what?”), the duo began bottling blends, built an outdoor patio with a massive brick fireplace, and hired two emerging chefs to head up the onsite restaurant – which is now generating quite a buzz for its farm to fork menu.
“Our Executive Chef is a local boy,” Ann says. “He cooked across Canada and then came home to us. He’s very much about bringing food to the table, even catching his own perch.”
On September 26, the winery is hosting a “Howl at the Moon” multi-course feast with wine pairings and live music; and another for October 29 that includes a craft beer pairing. If you want to go, make sure to reserve in advance.
7:00pm: A Five-Course Feast on Farm Fresh Fare at the Iron Kettle B&B
After a full day out, kick off your heels and get comfy at the acclaimed Iron Kettle B&B in Essex County. This converted Victorian farmhouse from 1876 is getting hella attention, partly for its warm hospitality and charming décor; but also because its owner, Ben Leblanc-Beaudoin, is a superstar chef who competed on The Food Network’s Chopped Canada.
Before settling in Comber, Chef Ben trained in Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris; now, he enthusiastically creates five-course feasts for his guests. It’s like experiencing a chef’s table – an intimate evening with a small group of guests staying at the B&B, who huddle together at the kitchen table and await a parade of farm fresh dishes.
“This is one of the things greenhouses are known for around here,” Chef Ben says. “Our cucumbers do well here.”
He hands me a wine glass filled with cold cucumber soup, topped with olive oil, cilantro, and crumbled feta cheese. It’s deliciously thick and foamy, almost like a milkshake.
“I get so much inspiration from the local fare,” he says. “This is a pan-seared duck breast with heirloom and sautéed carrots, paired with a pan-seared pickerel fresh off the boat.” I’m still busy lapping up a sweet and savoury tomato-y chutney.
“What’s in this?” I ask, licking the spoon.
“Secrets,” Chef Ben says.
10:00pm: Wine and Star-Gazing
After stuffing yourself silly, retreat to the Iron Kettle’s back porch for a night cap and to admire the starry night. It’s all so indulgent; but really, who’s complaining?
PLANNING YOUR TRIP:
To plan your trip, check out the Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island Tourism website here. Or visit Ontario’s Southwest website for more getaway ideas and inspiration in Southwest Ontario.
Ann Neydon Wilson says
Thanks very much, Lisa. We enjoyed your visit and are so happy to read that you did, too.