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Farming and Wine Runs in Thomas Whitty’s Blood

Need to know which wine will pair best with that new dish you’re cooking this weekend? Just ask Rochester Knighthawks defender Thomas Whitty.

Whitty and his family operate 13th Street Winery in St. Catharines, Ontario, located in the Niagara Region. You might as well call the Niagara area Napa Valley North for the sheer amount of wineries found in the region, but 13th Street is special. It’s family-owned and operated and was named the 2022 Ontario Winery of the Year by the National Wine Awards of Canada.

“We’re known for three things: wine, food, art. That’s our slogan,” Whitty said. “If we could add a fourth it would be experience. We do wine tastings, we do dinners, we do chef and winemaker guided food experiences and tours, so that experience portion is quite large. We have this amazing space. We’re famous for butter tarts. We were at one point the #1 butter tart in Canada. We’ve sold millions in my lifetime. I think we hit the millionth butter tart when I was 18, so quite a few have gone out the door. If you ask people in Niagara about 13th Street Winery one of the first things they’ll say is you have to try their butter tarts.”

Whitty’s parents, Doug and Karen, purchased the winery in 2008 with John and June Mann. The business was 10 years old at the time, making 2023 their 25th anniversary.

“We’ve been farming in Niagara since 1908,” Whitty explained. “We used to have cattle for the family and a few animals, but mainly we’ve been tender fruit farmers.”

Grapes are the main crop they grow now, along with some apricots and plums, but the family used to grow strawberries, raspberries, pears, peaches, Northern kiwi and corn. Grapes are not all equal, though: the family used to grow Concord grapes (table grapes), which many area farmers sold to Welch’s for juice and fruit snacks. Once Welch’s stopped taking Canadian grapes, the government gave subsidies for those farmers to remove those grapes and plant vinifera grapes (wine grapes).

The winery now has seven vineyards throughout St. Catharines from which they harvest grapes for a variety of different wines.

“We’re known for Gamay, which is a red grape varietal, a light-bodied, easy drinking, fresh fruit, red berry that we grow on our farm,” Whitty said.

13th Street Winery products are in over 200 restaurants in Ontario and can also be purchased at the LCBO. Varieties include a Gamma Noir, Blanc de Blanc (chardonnay), Cuvée Rose and a Pinot Grigio.

The winery itself is located on a 25-acre plot, and it’s not just where the wine is made. Of course they offer wine tastings and tours, but the Whitty family has also added a bakery, a bistro, an art gallery and a sculpture garden to the property, which regularly hosts special events and private bookings. You could easily spend an entire day at 13th Street Winery and never be bored.

Fred. A very good boy.

If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to meet Fred, the golden retriever who hangs around the winery all day.

“He’s very well-known at the winery. People will ask for him,” Whitty chuckled. “My parents say he’s their fourth child.”

Whitty and his two older brothers, Benjamin and Luke, grew up helping around the farm.

“By the time I was five, I was probably helping pick grapes; I don’t know how much I was helping, but I was probably out there eating more fruit than I was picking,” he chuckled. “I was mowing a lot of lawns, doing maintenance of the properties. As we got older, we used to run our fruit stand. I used to wake up in the morning to my mom baking pies and using the fruit from the farm such as peaches, strawberries and rhubarb to make pies and cookies and all those good things.

“There’d be three or four of us at the fruit stand after school, sorting fruit, restocking the tables, restocking baked goods. I baked a little bit, but not a whole lot. And then I spent a year on the farm as an operator: driving the tractors, spraying, vineyard maintenance, root sucker removal, mowing. A large part of the growing is just keeping the weeds at bay.”

All three brothers studied fields in university that will help them run the farm and winery in the future. Luke, who is currently working in Toronto, is a marketer. Benjamin took Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture (“a big fancy name for grape and wine science,” according to Whitty). Thomas himself graduated with a degree in Food and Agricultural Business from the University of Guelph, making him more adept at the supply and management side of things, grower-winery relationships and warehousing.

“I love working for my family,” Whitty expressed. “It’s something I’m really passionate about. I love working with the land, seeing something grow and being responsible for it. We are stewards of this land and it’s our duty to make sure that it’s prosperous, not just for us, but for the next generations after us.

“We hope Luke comes back one day and that the three of us can follow in our parent’s footsteps and create something of our own. I love the aspect of working and having creative freedom with myself. My parents give me a lot of responsibility, but also opportunities to try new things and bring a different side of the business forward if I so choose.”

One of those opportunities is managing the bistro, the newest addition to the winery. Their patio seats 200 people and frequently hosts live music performances. The menu changes with the seasons.

“We do really good truffle fries,” Whitty said. “We did a steak sandwich last summer that was really good. We do a fried chicken sandwich, a bruschetta dip, and a roasted carrot hummus. We’re going to be changing the menu seven times this summer, which is quite a bit. We’re going to have an emphasis on the seasonal aspect, having different wine pairings with all the different food items.”

Whitty creates the menus with chef Josh Berry and sommelier Corrine Witusik.

“We talk about our goals for what we want to provide and the type of food that you can eat with wine,” he described. “For example, eating chicken wings and holding a glass of wine – not that they don’t go well together, but you don’t really want someone holding a glass with a dirty chicken finger. So we try and strategize a way that we can make people’s experience on the property really enjoyable.”

If you’re craving something extra sweet after your meal, you can stop by the 13th Street Bakery, located in a historic farmhouse built circa 1857, before you leave the winery. The fruit stand that Whitty used to tend as a child grew into a full bakery and now offers “jams, preserves, salsa, cheesecakes, brownies, scones, pretty much anything, you name it, we’ll do it.”

One thing Whitty doesn’t do is make the wine himself. He leaves that for Jean-Pierre Colas, the business’s award-winning French winemaker.

“I’ve worked one harvest in the cellar making wine,” Whitty said. “And I wouldn’t say I know a lot about winemaking, but I know a lot about drinking it.”

Whitty may dedicate himself to his family business, but lacrosse is still his priority. He and the Knighthawks visit Colorado on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET as they look to improve their 6-6 record and compete for a playoff spot.

The 25-year-old defender is only in his third season playing for the Knighthawks, even though his rookie season was way back in 2019-20. The pandemic canceled part of 2020 and 2021, of course, but Whitty also missed the entire 2023 season recovering from a serious injury.

Whitty was summering at the cottage in 2022, as many people do in southern Ontario, and fell from a rope swing 20 feet in the air onto rocks. The result was devastating: both patella tendons were torn, as well as a quad tendon. He also broke his left tibia, and had contusions all over his body.

“I spent 11 days in the hospital, had double knee surgery and was put into a full leg cast,” Whitty described. “I was in a wheelchair for about a month. I had to learn to walk again with a walker. I was 205 pounds and I went down to 170 in a span of three weeks. So I had lost 35 pounds in two weeks. My legs atrophied. And then over the next few weeks, I started to put some weight on, but it definitely wasn’t muscle. And so by the time I got the cast off, it was tough.”

Despite the long recovery, Whitty had no doubts he’d be back on the lacrosse floor.

“I signed a two-year contract with Rochester, lying in bed with two broken legs, with Dan Carey on the phone. He’s a great GM. He took really good care of me throughout the whole process, and the team was super supportive. I have a great, great coaching staff and teammates that would check in on me to see how I was doing. To get back playing this season, and to earn my spot back where I used to be when I was healthy, logging more minutes, getting onto the penalty kill, all these kind of things were dreams I kept close to my chest as I was recovering.”

Whitty credits teammate Mitch Ogilvie, his roommate at Guelph, and in the early days with Rochester, with being a catalyst in his recovery. Whitty did much of his rehab at school, where he was able to keep up with classes and cheer on Ogilvie and the Gryphons to a Baggataway Cup berth.

“Watching games with him and talking lacrosse kept me busy. He took good care of me. If it wasn’t for Mitch I probably wouldn’t have been able to get a lot of places. He drove me pretty well everywhere during that time, wherever I needed to go,” Whitty said. “He’s the best. I’m glad I get to play with him in Peterborough and Rochester. He and I had a lot of fun on the road together and in our house. We spent every day together for two-and-a-half years. He’ll be a lifelong friend.”

He’s got his friends, his family, lacrosse and wine – Thomas Whitty is set up quite well for the future.