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Ontario wine maverick Gabe Magnotta Dies

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In the Ontario wine industry, Gabe Magnotta was a maverick. As head of Magnotta Winery Corp., he was the guy who took on giants, such as the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, and won. When the provincial alcohol retailer refused him shelf space when he opened in 1990, Magnotta and his wife, Rossana, fought back and found a way to open seven of their own stores across the Greater Toronto Area to sell products directly to consumers at cut-rate prices. When Magnotta heard LCBO employees were bad-mouthing his products, he launched an $8-million defamation lawsuit in 1999 and hired private investigators to pose as customers and tape conversations with liquor store workers. The lawsuit was settled, but the details were not disclosed. “This was a brave man,” Toronto-based wine writer Konrad Ejbich said. “He put everything up. He put up his livelihood and his family’s livelihood up for what he believed and he persevered and he won.” On Dec. 30, the 59-year-old wine entrepreneur died after a seven-year battle with Lyme disease, a tick-borne viral infection that can lead to disorders of the heart, joints or nervous system. Born in the small mountain town of Andretta, Italy, Magnotta immigrated to Canada when he was 11 years old, according to his obituary in a Toronto newspaper. He became a high school teacher after graduating from York University, but later found his true calling in business, the newspaper reported. By all accounts, Magnotta was a dedicated family man who had three children –Tommaso, Joseph and Alessia –and a granddaughter, Gabriella. He also had a passion for his publicly-traded company, and he was willing to defend its name, often by threatening or filing lawsuits aimed at everyone from the Vintners Quality Alliance of Ontario to wine writers, such as Ejbich. But Magnotta was adept at putting his product in the hands of the people. Bypassing hefty markups at the LCBO, Magnotta was able to sell his products at aggressive prices, primarily in the $6 to $10 range. The company’s icewines, which were eventually sold through the LCBO, are about half the price of other wineries. Within a decade of opening the Vaughan-based company, which has more than 180 acres of vineyards in Niagara and a retail store in Beamsville, the company became Canada’s third largest wine producer in volume and sales. “He really brought wine to the people,” said wine critic Tony Aspler, who has authored several books on the Canadian wine industry. “His wines were bargain priced and he upset his competitors by his pricing of icewine, certainly. He did a remarkable job in raising a business to become a third-largest winery in Ontario without the assistance of the LCBO.” Wine Council of Ontario chairman Ed Madronich said Magnotta carved his own niche in the industry and found a way of using the province’s liquor rules to his advantage. Magnotta bought up winery licences to be able to open more stores. “At the end of the day, the model he used is very different than everybody else’s, but he sold a lot of wine and had a lot of success.” Besides wine, Magnotta also sells beer, spirits and operates a home winemaking company called Festa Juice. As Lyme disease took hold of Magnotta, Rossana took over the reins of the company. The family also became strong advocates in raising awareness of the disease, which can be cured with antibiotics if detected early. The couple sold a selection of wines to benefit the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation.

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Tuesday, November 21, 6:23 am

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