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Wine Industry mourns loss of pioneer Peter Van de Laar

Van de Laar planted some of the first Chardonnay and Gamay vines in Niagara in the 1970s

Peter Van de Laar, the 1985 Grape King and one of Niagara’s original pioneer growers of vinifera varietal grapes, has lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. He died peacefully in his sleep Dec. 6, just two days before his 80th birthday. 

Van de Laar planted some of the first Chardonnay and Gamay vines in Niagara in the 1970s, and went on to produce high-quality grapes that were used in many award-winning wines under the Inniskillin and Jackson Triggs labels.

“He knew that our industry needed to change,” says Matthias Oppenlander, chair of the Grape Growers of Ontario. “He was willing to take a risk back in the 1970s, a really good businessman, and an even better farmer. He’s one of those guys who set our industry on the right path.”

Peter Van de Laar was the youngest of seven children, all born in the Netherlands. The family immigrated to Canada in the 1950s, arriving first in Parry Sound before moving shortly after that to north St. Catharines. 

Peter’s son Chris Van de Laar tells The Local the family originally rented a farm at Bunting and Carlton Streets, where the Mandarin Restaurant now sits. Peter’s father turned down an offer to buy the land, and shortly after found the farmhouse on the Niagara River Parkway that the Van de Laar family still owns today. 

Peter was much younger than his siblings, and none of the older children took much of an interest in farming. In his 20s, Peter began doing most of the work on the farm, and that’s when he began to experiment with different varieties of grapes.

“At the time my father was one of the biggest growers for Chateau Gai Wines,” Chris says. “Paul Bosc was at Chateau Gai. Paul had been telling my father and another big grower, John Marynissen, to start experimenting with these vines because he was certain they could grow them here.”

Chris says his father loved the challenge of trying to nurture different grapes on the family farm. When people told him he couldn’t, that became the impetus to plant more. Though other pioneers from the same time garnered much attention for their risk-taking, Peter never sought out the spotlight.

“He never wanted notoriety,” Chris explains. “He was quiet and humble. He was an amateur winemaker, and he knew if it did take off that it would be a great thing for our business as well as for this industry.”

The Van de Laars’ original Niagara-on-the-Lake farm consisted of 20 acres, bought by Chris’ grandfather not so much for the farmland but because he and his wife liked the house. With Peter at the helm, they expanded by buying a neighbour’s property, tripling the capacity of the vineyards. Today, with Chris managing the farm, they hold 110 acres. 

One of Peter’s proudest moments came in 1985, when he was named Grape King, seven years after his good friend Marynissen held the honour. Chris remembers Ontario Premier David Peterson coming down from Queen’s Park and posing with Peter for a photo. 

According to Chris, though his father enjoyed being honoured, true to form, he didn’t so much like being the centre of attention.

“We went out and got him a personalized licence plate afterwards that said ‘KING 85’,” laughs Chris. “He told us years later that he was so embarrassed driving around with that plate that he wanted to throw the thing in the garbage. We told him to put it on his pick-up trick, but there was no way that was happening.”

Another proud moment for Peter came just four years ago, when Chris was named the 2018 Grape King. By then, the ceremonial garb had changed from the traditional royal cape and crown to the updated blazer and chain of office. As well, the demands on the current Grape Kings aren’t quite as heavy as they were back in 1985. 

Peter was, of course, pleased to see his son follow in his footsteps, but never really said much to Chris. 

“That’s just the way he was,” says Chris. “But I would run into people who would tell me how proud he was of me. He pushed my sister and me, he was a constant coach. When my daughter Erica (Blyth) became a lawyer, he asked her if she might be a judge one day. That was his way.” 

Peter first started feeling ill last February, but the cancer diagnosis didn’t come until July. 

“By that time it was too late for surgery,” Chris says. “It was stage four. He was reluctant to do any chemotherapy, but we were able to talk him into it. He responded very well to the treatments, and he lived longer than the doctors anticipated. A recent scan showed that the tumour had shrunk, but by then his body was just too weak.”

This fall, as the family’s seasonal workers were getting set to head back home to Jamaica, Peter insisted Chris drive him over to say goodbye. 

“He was in really rough shape,” remembers Chris. “He grabbed them by the hand, and he was crying. He thanked them for all their hard work through the years and their kindness. He wanted them to know that he enjoyed every single second of working with them. He told them it was an honour to know every one of them.”

He also had his wife Cathy drive him to McDonald’s one recent morning. Peter was one of a group of about 10 men who met there five or six times a week at 9:30 a.m. for coffee. 

“She brought him there in the truck,” says one of the group, Gord Paget. “She came inside, pointed to the truck, and asked us all to wave to him. He was too weak to get out of the truck. He is really going to be missed. He was a great father and a hard worker, such an easy-going person.”

“He was a very interesting guy,” adds another member, Hank Berg. “He had such fascinating stories, and he had taken trips all over the world. I’m going to miss him.”

Fellow Grape King (2007) Kevin Watson, whose late father John (the 1989 Grape King) was right beside Peter in the infancy of the Niagara wine industry, is devastated to see yet another of the pioneers, this one a close family friend, pass on.

“Chris and I are both very fortunate to have had our fathers plow through the field and make things a lot easier for us,” Watson tells The Local. “They were great friends, and it was a tight community. He always treated me really well, and when my father was sick he was always there with advice.”

“It’s such a big loss to our industry,” adds Oppenlander. “We’ve lost a lot of these pioneers lately. Peter had so much knowledge and wisdom, and he passed that down to Chris.”

Peter is survived by Cathy, his wife of 55 years, their children Chris and Dianne, their five grandchildren and one great grandson. Chris’ son Nathan is studying at the University of Guelph with the intention of continuing the family business into its fourth generation. 

A man of few words, Peter summed up his life to his son in his last few days. 

"He said it was good,” Chris says. “I asked him what was good? He said, ‘the farm, it worked out really well for you and your family, and nothing has made me happier than to walk out into the barn, or to drive out on the farm, or to jump on a tractor, my entire life. I’m glad it worked out that way."