“I like to be as prepared as possible, but at a certain point, I just had to jump and make it happen.” – Kelly Mason
Ten years ago, Kelly Mason took a giant leap towards her ultimate dream of owning a winery and bought what she thought would be the perfect site for a vineyard in the Twenty Mile Bench sub-region of Niagara, Ontario. But before reaching a place where that dream could be realized, Kelly knew that there was a lot of work that still needed to be done.
She got started in the industry as an intern at Saintsbury Winery in the Napa Valley before returning to Canada to officially study Winemaking at Brock University. Kelly would then go on to intern at Ontario winery moguls Tawse Winery and Le Clos Jordanne, all the while keeping that dream of hers at the forefront of her mind.
Kelly’s passion and talent for Burgundian varietals fledged her career towards head winemaking jobs at Honsberger Estates, The Farm, and eventually Domaine Queylus, building a significant fan following that were all anxiously awaiting the launch of Mason Vineyard.
In 2021, Kelly Mason was, at last, able to launch Mason Vineyard, releasing estate low-intervention pinot noir, cabernet franc, and a blanc de noirs sparkling rosé. She also released a Mason collaboration series with assistant winemaker, Brooke Husband, with a wild ferment rosé and a wild ferment viognier. Most of the wines sold out extremely fast. I spoke with Kelly about her career and the launch of her Mason Vineyard label:
VineRoutes: After building a commendable reputation for winemaking at Honsberger, The Farm, and Queylus, what does it mean to you to finally launch your own winery?
Kelly Mason: My own label has always been the goal – from the first day I got into the industry, I knew that was the objective. I needed time to learn about my vineyard and winemaking, but also how to run a small business. I spent the past years making wines across multiple appellations, managing different projects simultaneously and experiencing the various Ontario growing seasons. I like to be as prepared as possible, but at a certain point, I just had to jump and make it happen. I think to me it means personal accomplishment; that my focus paid off and it was rewarding this year to open my notebook that I’ve kept over the years and check that goal off.
VineRoutes: How will the wines of Mason Vineyard differ from the Honsberger wines you’ve created?
Kelly Mason: I have been with Honsberger for 10 years and Barb Honsberger has always been so supportive. The similar thing about both projects is that I have a lot of creative freedom at Honsberger, and now I get to do the same with my own project. The quick answer is the varietals are mostly different. The only two varietals we both do are chardonnay and cabernet franc, and they are from completely different appellations. My winemaking style on all projects remains the same, minimal intervention and wild fermentation. This allows the fruit quality to shine, and in all 45 wines that I help produce, display completely different sensory profiles. Watch for an interesting Collab Series wine coming soon that will show the difference in terroir.
Kelly’s winemaking style shines through in both the Honsberger and Mason Vineyard Cabernet Franc. Both highlight the best structural attributes of Ontario wine, with perhaps a dash of California influence, and Kelly’s undeniable talent. The Mason Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2018 and 2019 are both showstoppers that boast Kelly’s experience and skill, providing a soft, juicy palate with loads of complexity – a cab franc lovers’ dream!
VineRoutes: Is the feedback from the launch of Mason Vineyard what you expected it to be?
Kelly Mason: There was so much work behind the scenes to get to that release day and I never stopped to set any expectations. We reached out for people to sign up pre-release. People started signing up and I was seeing their emails – this was new to me. I have often just been in the cellar and there is a retail team that takes care of lists and sign ups. Honestly, I was blown away. The customers were amazing cheerleaders and trust me, it was a hard haul in the last couple of months, but I’d be going through sign ups at 10pm and enjoying answering the messages. So yes, safe to say I was all smiles and I’ll always remember those early sign ups. The next release is coming soon so if you have not signed up, do so at www.masonvineyard.com.
VR: What do you most value in assistant winemaker Brooke Husband’s approach to winemaking and the winery?
KM: I value her loyalty. To everyone reading this, don’t even think about contacting her for a job. In all seriousness, Brooke brings a lot to the project. She has a solid skill set: five harvests and bottlings; is organized; and a fast learner. She’s also an amazing team leader and can run the floor at harvest. You asked me what I value most, so more succinctly, her ideas, work ethic, and attitude – she asks great questions, pushes me to think in new directions, she is detailed in her approach and gets the job done quickly and accurately. We can brainstorm together and divide and conquer. I feel lucky to have had the chance to mentor her and watch her take on more responsibility. I think the sky is the limit for this girl.
VR: What’s your favourite wine to make and why?
KM: Pinot. Surprised? Pinot noir has been my long-time favourite wine to make, especially off my own vineyard, because I can drop leaves, clusters, shoots, and vertically shoot position until it makes me happy. There are no economics to my vineyard expenses for pinot noir. I don’t care. It just needs to be a certain way based on the growing season that year. Pinot noir speaks to me. It’s needy in terms of air flow, personal space and weather. In my vineyard, I am starting to understand my old vines better and I love the depth and flavours in the wine. It’s such a pain, but when it’s right, it so beautiful. I am always chasing that and trying to capture it in a bottle.
Kelly’s passion for pinot is obvious upon first sip of the most recent vintage of her 2019 Mason Vineyard Pinot Noir. All of her experience seems cultivated into this bottle, as if it were in its 20th vintage. A well orchestrated palate showcases balanced acidity that coddles soft ripe fruit and fall leaves. Ripe raspberry, forest, and dogwood notes are well integrated with a pulse of Niagara minerality. An impressive launch indeed.
VR: Are you still growing cabernet sauvignon and do you plan on making this wine under your label?
KM: Yes, I am still currently growing cabernet sauvignon on my property. This year was a tough growing season for Bordeaux varietals in Niagara, so in speaking with our usual buyer I decided not to sell my cab sauv because the quantity on the vine wasn’t worth it to the grower and it was already looking like a questionable vintage for Bordeaux varietals. As a new small business owner in the business of making wine, I kept the grapes. 2021 is the first year I made cabernet sauvignon, and it may be the only year I make it… jury is still out on that one. I think I would have regretted not making it once if I never got the opportunity – the plan is to replace it with something else. The wine is still young, and I don’t know where this wine’s journey to bottle will end, whether it’s Mason Vineyard or somewhere else.
VR: Where do you see the future of Ontario wine going from here?
KM: “Aside from a handful of large national producers, the Canadian wine industry trends towards smaller wineries that create interesting small lot wines that express their soil and microclimate – their local personality.” Quoting Barry’s Quintessential Canada. Perhaps we are starting to see Ontario wine as a craft product and more purchases are happening online, direct, and from small independent bottle shops and restaurants that find unique wines that don’t make it to the shelves of government retail and grocery. It’s the maturing of the market — let’s go the rest of the way like other regions around the world. We need to introduce more consumers to these wines and all of us should be proud to open our wines on tables alongside other global wines. As a whole, we need to keep kicking and get everyone on board pouring Ontario wine in their glasses so yeah, where are we going? Moving on up.
Kelly’s humble manor and humour comes through in her closing remarks: “People who have supported me since the beginning mean so much to me. I can’t believe that most of the Mason Vineyard wines sold out before anyone got the chance to taste the wine. Also, I’m currently looking for a used 4X4 truck, if anyone has one for sale, please DM me.”
Keep an eye out on Instagram @masonvineyard for a few fun tastings coming this summer!
-Leah Spooner is a contributing editor for VineRoutes