Everyone knows that the best parties always end up in the kitchen. Meet Chris Thompson, the Assistant Winemaker at Lighthall Vineyards in Milford, ON.
Tell us a little about how you became a winemaker.
I come from a restaurant background originally. When I was young, I wanted to be a chef, so I got into kitchens when I turned 14. I’ve always been naturally drawn to food, and like many, I feel a sense of nostalgia whenever I cook. By the time I was 22 or so I was a little disillusioned and burnt out, so I moved to the service side of things. After about 15 years of flip-flopping from the back of the house to the front of the house, I started studying wine and really enjoyed it. Working in wine seemed to bring together all my passion for food and beverage, but in a new way, and without the evening and weekend hours that come with restaurant life (harvest aside… jokes on me I guess). In 2018 I moved out to Prince Edward County to get my hands on some experience on the production side of wine and things have evolved naturally from there, which is how I am where I am today as the Assistant Winemaker at Lighthall Vineyards.
What is something about the winemaking process that people are often surprised to learn? Is there a particular part of winemaking that you find most exciting?
I find people are often most surprised to find that the juice in all grapes is actually white, and it’s the skins that bring all of the colour, tannins, and certain flavours.
What I find most exciting about winemaking is the stage of fermentation where things change from grape juice to wine. When the sugar starts to disappear, the alcohol comes in, and the profile of fruit flavours develop into something else entirely. While watching fermentation occur with yeasts bubbling away, it’s really easy to think back to ancient winemaking, before the days of science and a deeper understanding of the process, when the fermentation was deemed as some magic or divine intervention. Even with what we know, it still has that feeling of magic.
In addition to being winemakers, your team at Lighthall Vineyards also produces cheese. What’s your go-to wine and cheese pairing?
Our most popular wine and cheese pairing is probably our Progression (sparkling Vidal, Charmat method) paired with our feta cheese. All of our cheeses are made from 100% sheep’s milk, sourced from a single farm just north of Belleville called Siebenga Farm. Due to their higher fat content, the fresh cheeses especially are extra rich and creamy. The saltiness in the feta pairs so well with the Vidal, which is naturally high in acid. It’s similar to the famous pairing of Prosecco and Popcorn or Potato Chips, with the salt and acidity balancing the extremes in each other.
What are some innovative ways that restaurants can use and/or feature your wine and cheese?
Aside from the obvious, there is so much that can be done with the wines. Some see cooking with good wine as sacrilegious, but in the right context (and with enough wine left over to drink), a good wine can really elevate a dish, either by deglazing a pan or being used in a marinade, dressing, sauce, brine, etc.
We currently have about 9 or 10 cheeses on offer at Lighthall, and our cheeses are all great as they are, but many of them grow in intensity once melted. The fresh cheeses like the Brie get so creamy and practically liquefy, while our washed-rind alpine style cheeses that are similar to a Raclette or Gruyere get bubbly and gooey under a broiler. Our blue cheese is rich and creamy, but a more innovative use might be to freeze it and grate it with a Microplane like Parmigiano Reggiano for a more light-handed application.
What do you enjoy doing outside of your role as an Assistant Winemaker?
When not at the winery, I’m usually always seeking, dreaming, or making something tasty to eat or drink. I love cooking at home for my family, playing music, spinning records, going for a paddle, and playing with the dog.
What is your favorite dish to cook at home?
This is a question with a pretty fluid answer for me depending on the day of the week, but I’ve been experimenting a lot trying to perfect my fried chicken. Childhood favourites are so comforting and nostalgic as well, so plenty of sausage rolls, and a proper English fry-up on the weekend.
Do you have a favorite wine or cheese-related experience/event?
Here in PEC (in normal years) we have a fermentation festival in the summer, which brings together all the best of fermentation. The festival consists of tastings, workshops, and seminars. There is good wine and cheese, but also beer, cider, spirits, sourdough, kombucha, lacto-fermented foods, ginger beer, tempeh, shoyu, chocolate, you name it. Most people don’t realize how much of our food & drink comes from fermentation.
What’s the best part of working with Ontario food and drink?
I think with wine especially, there is so much opportunity to carve a path for ourselves as a region and industry. We are relatively new to the game in the context of wine regions, and we are still defining our styles. The idea that all of us as producers are having an impact on the direction that Ontario wines are taking is really exciting. I think it’s so important that producers across all of gastronomy collaborate and work cooperatively to help lift everyone around them. Share ideas, techniques, styles, and we can all learn and grow together. We have a unique climate here that really is willing to express its terroir through wine and food if we are adept enough to allow it to shine through.
Why is Feast On® important to you?
I really can’t underscore enough how important it is that we support our local farmers. It’s not about farm-to-table fads or a token trip to the farmer’s market once a year. That’s not enough. We all need to consciously be supporting our local farmers in every way possible, especially those practicing organic and regenerative practices. Both climate change and COVID have shown how broken and impractical our centralized and industrial food system is. Programs like Feast On work towards trying to put the power back in the hands of the local producer. It’s so important because if we don’t support them, they will disappear forever. It has to be a mindful choice to choose to drink local, support your local farmer’s CSA program, and eat at restaurants that source from local producers as well.
What does your ‘Perfect Weekend’ in Milford look like?
Broadly speaking, my perfect weekend in the county involves a trip to my favourite spots to eat, drink, and relax by the water. Aside from Lighthall, I’m definitely going to sip wines at Stanner’s and Hubb’s Creek, crush a few ciders at Stock & Row, and a few beers at Slake Brewing and Strange Brewing. Dinner at our favourite county restaurant Stella’s Eatery of course, with Slickers Ice Cream for some sweets. Intermittent trips to catch some sun at the beach or go for a paddle are also a must!