Sipping wine and strolling vineyards with the Jost Vineyards co-owner
Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
Within the first 10 minutes of meeting Donna Sparkes, co-owner of Jost Vineyards, I knew this would be about as much fun as one could have on a Tuesday morning. Her Newfoundland roots, combined with an infectious ease, made me feel like we’d been friends for years. We sat slurping chowder and sipping an aromatic Mercator Tidal Bay in the Seagrape Café at the vineyard. I hear stories about her remarkable life, relayed in an easy cadence, and how she and her husband, Carl Sparkes, have amassed a portfolio of world-class wines from their corner of the world on the shores of the Northumberland Strait.
I remark that, as far as I can tell, I’ve never seen an interview or profile piece written exclusively about her before. This surprised me, given that Donna and Carl Sparkes are the owners of not only Jost, but also Gaspereau and Mercator vineyards in the Annapolis Valley, as well as The Mercantile Social restaurant in downtown Halifax.
There have been, in fact, other articles.
“A newspaper in Newfoundland did a feature on me in 2014, and the last question they asked me was, ‘Who would you most like to have lunch with?’ and I said John Cleese,” laughs Donna. “So, last year, when he came to Halifax to perform at the Rebecca Cohn, I got a copy of the article, circled my answer, and sent it to his people along with a note, asking if he would like to meet me for lunch. And he said yes! So, we met at The Mercantile on Hollis Street. What I thought would be an hour’s lunch ended up being the entire afternoon. He was such a riot and just as funny in real life as he is in Fawlty Towers and Monty Python.”
But being in the media is not particularly Donna’s style. Instead, she prefers the sanctity of her vineyards in Malagash and the Annapolis Valley. She’s more interested in engaging one-on-one, paying meticulous detail to all aspects of the enormous wine and hospitality business she’s helped build, and giving props to her team at every opportunity.
She introduces me to winemaker Gina Haverstock.
“She’s the real star of the show and the person you need to write a story about,” says Donna. “Gina is our head winemaker, and she is just incredible. I think she’s done much to put Nova Scotia wines on the map. She’s like a little Energizer battery bunny.”
It’s harvest time and the winery’s busiest time of the year. Still, in muddy rain boots, her sleeves stained with grape juice, Gina is beaming. Despite the devastation from Hurricane Fiona, where 50 tons of grapes were lost, it has been an excellent harvest, and they will emerge victorious from this very challenging year.
The production from all three vineyards is now mainly concentrated at Jost Vineyards, where the umbrella company, Devonian Coast Wineries, produces 90 different wines from 150 acres of vineyards. This is an astounding achievement, given that the Sparkes have only been in the wine business since 2011.
“When I married Carl 36 years ago, he told me it would never be boring. And my God, he was right,” says Donna.
Born and raised in Newfoundland, each of them from families of six children, the couple met in Halifax in 1984. Carl was a geologist studying for his MBA, and Donna, with a background in writing and TV, had just been made the creative director of C100/CJCH. As they built their lives and careers, the Sparkes moved across Canada, including a stint in Toronto for 12 years as Carl took on executive positions at Canada Bread, Oliveri Pasta, and later Bento Sushi. But at their core, they remained rooted to the Maritimes.
“Wine has always been our passion,” says Donna. “When we travelled, it would be to explore wine regions worldwide.” And at last count, they have visited more than 400 wineries. “In 1989, we met wine merchant Marc Chapoutier at a wine dinner in Moncton, N.B. He sat at our table, and we spent the night talking about wine. He said, ‘If you’re ever in France, stop by the winery.’ And we did exactly that,” laughs Donna.
“He was very gracious and showed us all aspects of the Chapoutier Winery in the Tain-l’Hermitage region in the Rhône Valley. He introduced us to his brother Michel, who was the winemaker. It was just gorgeous and historical, and the wines were fantastic. Chapoutier also connected us with a few other wineries to visit on that trip, including Georges Deboeuf. The whole experience affirmed our passion for wine. After the visit to Deboeuf, Carl said, ‘We’re going to own a winery one day. Twenty-three years later, here we are at Jost about to celebrate the winery’s 40th anniversary next year.”
In 2011, when Jost came onto the market, it was the perfect fit for the Sparkes, so they purchased the winery, along with Gaspereau Vineyards, and moved back to Nova Scotia to start life in the wine business.
“Jost was exactly what we were looking for,” says Donna. “We knew we could take this beautiful, family-run boutique winery that Hans Christian Jost had built and elevate and expand it into a world-class winery. But it was a massive undertaking, and we hit the ground running from day one. The wine business is difficult, and there are many moving parts. Ultimately, we’re in the agricultural business and always at the mercy of the elements,” she says.
Donna juggles hundreds of tasks daily and wears many different hats. But, she will tell you, without skipping a beat, that what she loves the most is meeting people.
“There is this vast chain of people in this business. From customers visiting the winery and eating in the restaurant to our team, our suppliers, and marketers. I love the interaction,” she says.
When lunch is over, I’ve lost count of how many Jost staff members Donna has enthusiastically introduced me to. It feels natural and authentic. Carl also stops by the table, and Donna introduces us, telling him I am from South Africa.
“I first told Colleen we had never travelled to South Africa. But then, a few minutes later, I remembered we had. What is wrong with me!? We loved South Africa,” she says, scrolling through her phone and holding up photographs of Stellenbosch vineyards, penguins in Simonstown, and a safari at Sabi Sabi.
“How can you forget that? It was one of our favourite trips,” laughs Carl.
“I know, I know. I feel like my brain is firing at a hundred miles an hour, and I am going off on a tangent,” she laughs.
Many countries and countless stories. It’s been a busy life.
Donna takes me on a winery tour, pointing out the extensive renovations, craftsmanship and dedication to detail. Wood from 100-year-old barrels was rescued, restored, and incorporated throughout, including the solid wood tasting table she asked me to try and lift. The cellars below are a bustle of activity: pressing, fermenting, analysing, and barrelling. The air is filled with that heady waft of musty-woody-boozy aromas. Finally, the new harvest is in, and a brand new vintage of wines is being produced.
We head outside to stroll amongst the bucolic vineyards, and Donna tells me to brace myself. “It’s like walking onto the set of The Hunger Games,” she says. And within seconds, I understand what she means. Loudspeakers strategically placed on poles all over the vineyards are belting out wolf calls that echo across the landscape.
The birds can decimate an entire vineyard, so this is a deterrent to some extent. As we stroll down the paths that cut through the vineyards, we pick the sweet violet grapes hanging from clusters left on the vines to concentrate their sugars. Rows and rows of vines, Donna points to the names of each, Marechal Foch, Leon Millot, Seyval Blanc.
“This is my vine,” she says, pointing to a gnarled old growth that has twisted around an electrical pole, dripping in purple-black grapes. “This is the one they leave for me to pick every year. It’s a race against the critters, but it’s incredibly gratifying when I get to pick.”
We continue walking past the original old farmhouse on the property. A beautiful black-and-white structure oozes character and charm, and I suggest turning it into an inn. “I’m trying to simplify my life, not add more,” says Donna. “It would make a great museum, though. We have so many beautiful old pieces from the winery that should be displayed.”
It’s settled, then — an inn and a museum.