by Jonathan van Bilsen
Making wine is a talent and not something you perfect in a week or two. The art of winemaking takes years and sometimes generations, and for Matt Passafiume, from Applewood Farm & Winery, it was something which began while still in his teens.
Having an Italian name, I asked Matt if he was raised drinking wine from an early age and surprisingly, he said he was not. “My family was not a big wine drinking clan, unlike my neighbours, who were always pressing grapes,” Matt said, laughingly.
From the age of thirteen, Matt had a fascination with the art of winemaking. Growing up on a fruit farm is what sparked the interest, and while other kids from his school worked in stores or fast food outlets, Matt worked laboriously on the farm.
Matt’s family farm was primarily apples and strawberries, where people would pick their own, a pastime still enjoyed today. The fruit farming industry has not changed dramatically over the years. Most of the work is done by hand, especially apples, cherries, blueberries etc.
“Our new farm, Applewood Farm &Winery, just north of Port Perry, is a pick your own venue, featuring strawberries and apples,” Matt explained. “My kids (and he and Stephanie have four), are our real workforce.”
I was surprised to learn, Matt’s background and education is in fisheries biology. He spent ten years with the Ministry of Natural Resources, prior to, and while he was setting up the wine industry on the family farm. His job was assisting in the stocking of Lake Ontario and all its tributaries, with various types of salmon. I asked how someone went from fisheries to becoming a vintner.
“One day,’ Matt explained, “My brother came home with a beer making kit. I was surprised it was possible to brew your own beer. I remember thinking, I could probably make wine, and picked a bunch of fruit, went through the process, and to my surprise, it turned out pretty good.”
That certainly set the stage for his new venture. The next dozen batches were not as good, but Matt had learned the potential was there. He continued to perfect his new craft, and after marrying Stephanie, the couple decided to open a winery on the family farm in Stouffville. This happened two years after Matt started his career with MNR. To say it was a hectic pace for the newlyweds, would be an understatement.
During this time, their first daughter was born. To give you an example of frenzied schedules, Matt would go to work at the Ministry and Stephanie, along with their newborn, would go to the winery and serve customers all day. When Matt came home, he would head to the farm to bottle, label and keep the supply chain rolling.
The farm was still run by Matt’s parents, who grew apples. Matt and Stephanie planted and raised strawberries for winemaking, and the two businesses thrived.
The very first wine Matt and Stephanie made was a honey wine, more commonly known as meade. Coincidentally, meade is still their biggest selling product. At first, it was a difficult sell, as most people were unfamiliar with meade.
It was time for Matt and Stephanie to branch out on their own. The business was growing and they needed the space. When they first began to search for a farm, they started looking in York Region. During their quest, they stumbled on Scugog, and Stephanie loved the house they now own. They immediately fell in love with the area, the people and the opportunities, purchased the property and designed and built the barn, which serves as a store.
The Passafiume family had no sooner moved than the pandemic set in. “For us, the timing was actually great,” Matt explained. Our kids were home, we had so much work to do, and now we had the time to do it.”
The wines are made from various fruits. Grapes never entered the equation. One reason is the harsh winters of this area can wreak havoc with the vines. Another advantage of fruit wines is, Matt and Stephanie can produce strawberry wine in June, raspberry wine in July, black currant in August, and so forth. This process allows them to make much more wine with much less equipment. It also provides a unique variety of beverages for the public to try.
I was intrigued about meade and asked him a little bit about the process. Whenever you watch a historical film, someone inevitably is drinking meade. Matt explained the primary fermentable sugar is honey. That is the key focus of meade. It can then be blended with other fruits to give a variety of different products.
With a need for all that honey, I wondered if they had bees on the farm. “We have well over a million bees living in 32 hives.” A beekeeper looks after the hives, and Matt and Stephanie use all the honey produced. Water has to be added to the honey in order to start the fermenting process, as honey on its own will never go bad. The process is slow and takes a long time. In the case of Applewood, it takes five years, and they limit meade production to 1,000 bottles a year. Another interesting fact of meade is the taste can vary, depending on the flowers the bees pollinate.
Summers at Applewood are great. A patio allows you to enjoy some product, listen to music and relax. There are wagon rides and a giant corn maze. Christmas, however, is special at the winery. On November 25th, the 2nd annual Holiday Market & Mingle takes place, with loads of great handmade finds, made by amazing people from the area. There is food, music and good times around the campfire, and a great opportunity to try a glass of Matt's Moonshine spiked Apple Cider.
Weekends in December include: fireside flights and holiday tunes, hot apple cider and mulled wine. On Sunday, December 17th, there is a Holiday sing-a-long with Mike Burns, a local musician who puts on a fantastic show.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. His show, ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show’, on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube, features many of the people included in this column.