Paul Leblanc can’t seem to sit still. You might think that after a 32-year military career, retiring as a chief warrant officer, it might be time to slow down.
Not Paul. He and his wife still work for the government, but over the last 14 years, they’ve operated their own vineyard in Mountain, southeast of Kemptville. “We wanted a place where we could grow our own grapes for our own wine,” he said. Not knowing how much the idea would expand, “It kind of got out of hand,” he chuckles.
Smokie Ridge Vineyard sprawls across 43 acres with its 10,000 vines covering 10 acres. Leblanc planted his first 6,000 vines in 2007 and the first harvest came in 2010. Since then, Leblanc has added more to the experience. Wine tours and tastings, a wood-fired pizza oven, an event stage, his own wine-infused cheese and a store. A massive community tent for wine sampling and hosting events is connected to the winery.
The winery hosted Heating Up the Capital event, which drew about 1,000 people. The 20 ft. by 60 ft. winery is a large part of the $2.5 million investment in the business. They have their own bees to sell raw honey as well as using it in mead. Smokie Ridge also offers two types of hot sauce, each infused with their white and red wines.
It’s very much a family affair for Leblanc who sees friends and family chipping in to lend a hand around the vineyard. His eldest son, Claude, 45, works in Ottawa full time and is co-owner and manages the microbrewery. The youngest son, Maurice, 43 is serving in the military in Kuwait and hopes to retire to the winery in five years.
Smokie Ridge has just received its provincial microbrewery licence and can start making its own beer. The vineyard is located on the County Bicycle Trail in North Dundas which sees groups of cyclists finish their rides and enjoy the offerings. “We also offer space for RV’s to spend the night.”
Smokie Ridge is a labour of love for Paul and his wife who put in a full day for the government before putting on their vineyard hats working another six or seven hours on the winery. Much like any small business, it’s all about positive thinking for Leblanc. “Everybody laughed at us. The banks laughed at us.”
It took four years before they were able to secure bank support. The plan was to see one of them retire next year and devote more time to the project, but the pandemic arrived. “COVID killed us”, says Leblanc as he estimates it cost them two years of business. The long term plan is to see Leblanc’s wife retire in 2023 with him to follow a year later.
It’s been a learning experience for the whole family which is turning their passion into a successful business and to be successful according to Leblanc is to embrace social media marketing which he will leave up to his kids. “They understand that more than I do.” It’s critical to getting your name out in such a niche industry.
Giving back and the military are very much in Leblanc’s DNA. Two of their best selling wines, including Soldier’s Pride sees 15% of sales donated to Families of the Fallen.
Leblanc says that his best business decision was taking on the position as president of the Eastern Ontario Wine Producers and sees a huge potential for local wine. There are 16 wineries in the area and the association has created its own “wine route” to showcase its members.
What makes the Eastern Ontario vineyards different from others in the province is they grow cold, hardy grapes which can withstand a frigid Eastern Ontario winter unlike those in Prince Edward County or Niagara. “I hope we will be established as the next wine region of Ontario,” he says.