The New Matriarch of Niagara Wine

Kelly Mason on making wine at her eponymous vineyard.

The New Matriarch of Niagara Wine

At first blush, Kelly Mason’s Niagara vineyard is almost uncannily primped. The vines on the Twenty Mile Bench property seem more ornamental than agricultural, and the whitewashed farmhouse Mason calls home looks pulled straight from a Hallmark movie. Surrounding the tightly wound rows that run uphill, away from Lake Ontario, dense forest traps the light, contrasting the paradisaical parcel with a tangled reminder of what nature intends its vegetation to look like. Although it feels like you’d be hard-pressed to find a single implement for it anywhere on the property, there is some serious farming going on here—with the grapes from the meticulously kept vineyard going into Mason’s equally otherworldly wines.

If Ontario’s Niagara region is a rising star in the wine world, then Mason is the gas that fuels its flame. Hot on the heels of the peninsula’s recent renaissance—led by the likes of Francois Morissette of Pearl Morissette, Jean-Laurent Groux of Stratus Vineyards, and Thomas Bachelder of almost innumerable projects—second-generation star winemakers such as Mason are starting to remake estates in their own discerning image. She has worked at some of the region’s most esteemed wineries, including Honsberger Estate Winery and The Farm Wines, as well as Domaine Queylus, where she is head winemaker to this day. And now, with her eponymous project, Mason Vineyard, the leading lady of Niagara is blazing her own trail, crafting wines that have both local winemakers and nerds revaluating just what the region’s potential is.

Before becoming a winemaker, Mason worked at Magna International, the Canadian auto parts giant. Soon after starting, she was sent to Italy for four years and found herself falling head over heels for wine. When she returned to Canada, Mason enrolled in an MBA program, intending to put it to use at Magna, but she found herself unable to resist the pull of the vineyard. Instead of returning to Magna after graduating, she set out for Napa Valley, where she ultimately spent two years interning at Saintsbury, a prominent pinot noir producer in the Carneros AVA. When back in Canada, she returned to university, receiving a certificate in grape and wine technology from Brock University in 2010.


Kelly Mason: The New Matriarch of Niagara Wine


Just a few short years later when she used all her savings to purchase a 12-acre vineyard in 2012, Mason was still working a low-level winemaking job at Le Clos Jordanne, making $17 an hour but learning invaluable lessons from her mentor, Bachelder. Some years later, the adjacent property went up for sale, and she knew she needed to acquire it to fulfill her dream. Through a few strokes of good luck and some serious chutzpah, Mason was able to buy the property, but after closing she realized she had to make yet another drastic move to keep her dream alive. “I moved off the property for four years and went and lived elsewhere because the payments were huge. I put tenants in the house,” she says. “And I still did all the vineyard work, so I would park at the top of the driveway and come with my backpack and all my tools, and I would just work. The tenants would be enjoying the property, and I was like, ‘One day I will take it back.’ But that’s what I had to do.”

Over the following years, as she advanced in the Niagara wine industry, Mason floated the property by selling her grapes to other wineries in the region, including those she worked for. She only began making wines under her own label and from her own grapes in 2018, after a wine she made for The Farm, its 2015 Mason Vineyard pinot noir, won Red Wine of the Year at the 2018 Ontario Wine Awards. Today, she focuses on making first-rate examples of cabernet franc, chardonnay, and pinot noir (and sometimes cabernet sauvignon, but only in agreeable years, she stresses), sourced completely from the winery’s home vineyard.
When an opportunity to purchase high-quality grapes from other farmers arose, Mason developed the other half of the Mason Vineyard portfolio: the collaboration series. Envisioned as a means to explore different winemaking styles with like-minded vintners, the collaboration series has included wines made by Mason and her assistant winemaker, Brooke Husband, including a gamay rosé and a viognier, as well as former employers such as Bachelder and Barb Honsberger, owner of Honsberger Estate Winery. In 2022, Mason tapped her team of interns to make The Protégés, a rosé made with cabernet franc from Mason Vineyard.


Mason Vineyard Wines


Regardless of the lineup, Mason’s style is perceptible in every bottle of wine she has a hand in making. She aggressively crops her vines for concentration, is a vocal proponent of wild fermentation (where naturally occurring rather than industrial yeasts are used), and often opts not to filter. While she is inspired by Burgundy, the homeland of chardonnay and pinot noir, Mason is proud to be from Niagara and has total faith in the potential of its wines. “It’s about letting go of what the rest of the world is doing,” she says. “They’re doing a great job but it’s: ‘What can we do?’ We have our own intricacies and our amazing assets in our soil and our positioning, and we should celebrate that.” All her wines celebrate Niagara, but it is on her favourite grape, pinot noir, that Mason has built her cult-like fandom. The current release from the 2021 vintage—aptly titled The Matriarch—in some ways resembles its maker. It is equal parts wild and refined, the bold, rough-around-the-edges herbal and earthy qualities leading into clean raspberry, cherry, and mineral notes.

Nowadays, Mason is making roughly 35 wines between Domaine Queylus and Mason Vineyard, but that isn’t stopping her from dreaming up future projects. Now that she has established herself in Niagara, she feels a bit of wanderlust. “I’ve been working so hard that I think my next thing is to go back to travelling,” she says. However, unlike the rest of us, Mason wants to work while she travels, and she already has a destination in mind. “We all spend money on different things. I’ll spend money on flying and working. I want to work with Russian River Valley grapes.” As with everything she’s done thus far, a Californian Mason Vineyard is likely to sell out of wine quickly, so fans might have to go to the source and ask Mason kindly. She shouldn’t be hard to find—just keep an eye out for the flawlessly manicured vineyard.

Photography by Nataschia Wielink.