Photo courtesy of Sherry Smith.
Steve Byfield enrolled in York University in hopes of learning to be a musician, but it seems he was destined to be a winemaker.
In 2008, Byfield and his business partner founded Nyarai Cellars. “Nyarai” is derived from the Southern African Shona dialect meaning “humility.” Indeed, it’s a word that aptly describes Byfield himself: he paid his dues, absorbing as much knowledge as he could and tackling every challenge and opportunity head-on to reach this point in his winemaking journey.
Now, Byfield is the only Black winemaker in Canada. Though that title isn’t lost on him, Byfield assures that it’s foremost about the wine. With each bottle, he says: “I can present to you and convey the story of [Nyarai Cellars]. That’s the whole experience.” Nyarai Cellars’s wine can be purchased from the business’s website, nyaraicellars.ca.
Before you were making wine, you were studying jazz music at York University. That’s a big leap in industry! What inspired you to change direction?
I was looking for a part-time job between classes. I took a job with a gentleman who put up an ad at the university student unemployment office for consumer help at a “you-brewery” — a place where you, the consumer, can make beer and wine and someone helps you basically do everything except the one critical act of [fermentation.] I had no winemaking experience but didn’t mind wine. I was a mature student then, and the gentleman saw that, and we talked about what he wanted in terms of help, assistance, and duties. We just hit it off. After the interview, he said, “When you come back next week, we’ll try it out.”
Shortly afterwards, I really got fascinated by the whole concept of winemaking, and I did that [job] until I graduated from university. Then, I took a part-time job with SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers of Canada) just to utilize the music degree that I earned. But I always had, in the back of my mind, the idea that it would be cool to see winemaking from the commercial end.
A year later, I approached a few wineries in north-end Toronto, asking about openings. Three of them said no, but Southwark Farms was looking for somebody. I was hired mostly on-the-spot to help out in their retail store as a product consultant. It helped that I had some winemaking experience (albeit as an amateur winemaker). Several months later, the winemaker, the store manager, and the property owner of Southwark Farms approached me, asking me if I would be interested in apprenticing with them.
It wasn’t anything I really aspired to do. I just fell into it. But by the time I did my first harvest with them (I remember this moment vividly), we were processing pinot noir that came from Niagara Lake. I remember being in front of the press, covered head-to-toe in grapes, juicy skins, seeds, and mush, and thinking, “I don’t want to be anywhere but here.” I knew I found my calling.
[I spent the following years climbing the ranks from apprentice winemaker to assistant winemaker, and taking online courses in oenology, grape-growing, chemistry, etc.] and that kind of helped me gain confidence and definitely fuelled my desire to stretch my wings and leave Southwark and pursue other winemaking jobs. I got an opportunity to become a winemaker at a small boutique winery, which was where I met my now-business partner. We started Nyarai Cellars a year and a half later.
Nyarai Cellars is a virtual winery, which is a winemaking model that a lot of people might not know about. How would you define what a “virtual winery” is?
Good question, and I would answer that by saying, a lot of people may not know [what a virtual winery is] just because we’re North American. The whole concept of a virtual wine operation is based on the French term garagistes, which refers to “garage winemaking.” It’s an arrangement or a situation where someone wants to make wine but can’t because they need money to buy land, equipment, a license, and so forth, so a winery owner [will offer] space in their own cellar or vineyard for that person to produce wine.
[A lot of major labels today] started off as virtual labels, so when I started Nyarai in 2008, I told my business partner, Rod Ingram, that I wanted to base it on what [the major labels] first did.
You’ve said before: “It’s easy to make the wine. Anyone can make wine. It’s much harder to sell the wine.” Can you talk about why that is so?
The winemaking process is important in terms of trading, getting, and receiving grapes. I normally tell people that 90 per cent of the winemaking happens out in the vineyard because the grape-grower has to spend, basically, 12 months to make sure that the vines get through the winter and are prepped to go into dormancy. Essentially, the winemaking is only as good as the fruit or the materials that received them in the fall.
Once the wines [hit the shelves], a lot of people say, “Okay, my job’s done. We’ll see if it sells.” I think a lot of people don’t really understand that [winemaking] is just half of the journey. There’s a whole other aspect: you now have to take that product and have an idea as to how you’re going to brand that product. The whole thing is to convey the whole story, the whole journey of what happened in the fields, the processing, the cellar-ing, the aging, the maturation in bottles and on the shelf, and then relating that to the consumer.
I really enjoy talking to people who [visit], who want to buy our wine and talk to me. I take a little bit of pride in saying, “I did this. I did that.” I can present to you and convey the story [of Nyarai Cellars]. That’s the whole experience.
Jericho Tadeo | Contributing Writer