‘I think I spot the trailhead this way,’ Liz calls to me from the edge of a tree-lined glade – anticipation in her voice. Our three-year-old husky, Ellie, and four-year-old malamute, Mot, pull at their leads – enthusiastically ‘encouraging’ her toward the entrance of the route. Leaving behind the tasting room and bottle shop that had lured me inside, I jog across the gravel parking lot toward this most photogenic threesome – juggling a tall can of McQuade’s Black Current Cider in one hand, a neat stainless tumbler filled with ‘non-alc’ rosé in the other, and my camera and lenses somewhere in between. When I catch up with Liz and the dogs they’ve arrived at the mouth of the footpath. I note a quaint wooden sign nailed to a mature tree marking the way ahead: ‘Annaviv Trail’. An appropriate wayfinder, I think to myself, recalling that this place’s proprietor – vintner Adrian Trochta – has twin daughters named Anna and Vivian.

Liz, Ellie, Mot, and I begin our way along the the picturesque route as autumn leaves – all iridescent yellows and oranges and reds – fall softly from trees across our lines of vision and onto the ground. I hand Liz her rosé and crack my can of cider. ‘This is going to be a fun afternoon,’ I announce, raising my drink in the air. Ellie, in her element out here in this natural habitat, lets out a spirited howl in agreement. And down the trail we go. 

It’s a chilly Saturday afternoon in mid-October, and Liz and I (along with our dogs) are visiting Cox Creek Cellars – a fifty-five-acre winery and cidery located along the six between Guelph and Fergus. We are looking forward to a relaxing (and relaxed) few hours of hiking, tasting, noshing, and fireside lounging. Our mission: to experience most everything that the latest incarnation of this idyllic spot has to offer. For while many folks around the region might be familiar with Cox Creek as it existed when Adrian’s parents, Kamil and Jerry Trochta, owned and operated the winery since they opened it back in 1998, the place is almost unrecognizable in its current iteration under Adrian’s ambitious vision. The ‘Annaviv Trail’, a two-kilometre route (to be extended at least another kilometre in the future) which Cox Creek patrons are encouraged to explore with a tumbler of wine, or a can of cider, or a dog or two, or loved ones, or, in our case, all of the above, is just one small element of Adrian’s fresh vision. 

We’ll encounter and savour other innovative elements as our afternoon unfolds. 

‘We’re coming up to the end of the trail,’ I call back to Liz as I navigate my way past thick brush and cross the threshold of the dense forest (with its idyllic ponds and mossy logs and the remnants of what appears to be an old sugar shack) into an open field. We’ve been walking for about thirty minutes. Ahead of us, rows of black currant bushes (which find their way into Cox Creek fruit wines and the aforementioned McQuade’s Black Currant Cider) stretch into the distance. Just beyond the black currants, raspberry bushes (also used for Cox Creek fruit wines) find space in this flourishing landscape. And to our left, acres of recently-planted grapevines stretch out across the edge of the property. While Liz and the dogs beeline to the season’s few remaining raspberries, ripe and ready for snacking, I make my way to the acres of grapevines – for it’s the presence of these crops that most fully represent the new direction this winery is taking. 

You see, until recently the production of Ontario grapes wines was limited to three distinct regions: Niagara, Prince Edward County, and Lake Erie. For the better part of its existence, then, Cox Creek was by default forced to produce wines crafted solely from fruits other than grapes: apples, black currants, raspberries, strawberries, and more. And while Cox Creek fruit wines have received their fair share of awards over the years, this certain hamstringing (fair or not) meant that our local winery was never able to reach its full potential. 

Until now, that is. The rules have softened and the production of grape wines in Ontario is encouraged wherever the climate permits – including here, at Cox Creek. The only stipulation: that a winery possesses at least ten acres of planted grapevines on its property. So, in the past couple of years, Adrian and the Cox Creek team have set to work to plant acres of Marquette grapes (and to re-vitalize the Baco Noir vines that were first planted two decades ago by Adrian’s parents) for a current total of just over ten acres of grapevines. And while these vineyards remain at least a few years away from maturation (right now, the winery produces its grape wines with Niagara-area fruit, a common practice among all sizes of Ontario producers), their place on the land is an impactful visual cue signaling the winery’s innovative momentum. 

Cox Creek’s main buiding also reflects the winery’s new direction, with its renovated tasting room and bottle shop in front, production area behind, and event space upstairs with a balcony overlooking the vineyard. As we make our way back to this heart of the establishment, I notice that the cool autumn air is imbued with the distinct scent of campfire. It doesn’t take me long to spot – in the field just below the main building – a fire being stoked by Cox Creek Operations Manager Diane Finoro for our afternoon reservation. ‘Hey’, I call excitedly over to Liz and the gang, whose tongues are stained red with raspberries, ‘they’ve got our fire going.’ 

One thing’s for certain: you don’t have to ask us twice to relax by an outdoor fire. There’s something meditative about it. Primal. Communal too. At Cox Creek, Adrian and the team have done a fantastic job setting up several stainless Solo Stoves (check these out if you haven’t before), each encircled by sturdy bright red and jet black Muskoka chairs. While most of these inviting fire centres are scattered throughout the field, surrounded by apple orchards and plots of berries, and large mature trees, a couple are positioned closer to the building, sheltered from the elements by sturdy all-season gazebos. 

Our own little outdoor hearth, positioned in the field abutting one of the winery’s apple orchards, is a dream. There’s the blazing fire, of course, along with a stockpile of chopped wood neatly stacked close at hand. And luxurious Cox Creek-branded blankets for added warmth. And a hearty charcuterie board – loaded with an assortment of Millbank Cheeses (from Perth), Italia Salami meats (from Guelph), olives, crackers, veggies, and more. And drinks, too, of course. A flight of Cox Creek’s ‘ultra premium’ wines (including the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meritage) for me, a glass of its non-alc rosé (for Liz), and a couple more cans of McQuaide’s to boot. 

While Liz and I settle into the rhythm of the flames and the dogs snuggle at our feet, Cox Creek staff remain attentive to our needs – visiting us regularly to make sure we have everything we need. Which we do. At a neighbouring cluster of Muskoka chairs, another couple shares a flight along with hearty laughs. A bit further afield, a larger group of friends – dressed in matching plaids and western hats and cowboy boots – get cozy by their own blazing fire. I recall Diane telling me that the winery plays host to a load of private events – from birthday parties to bachelorette celebrations to showers, weddings, car meet-ups, and beyond. I try to imagine what has drawn this group together. And, as I munch on a Millbank cheese curd and bit of prosciutto, I envisage more excursions to Cox Creek. With a larger group of friends, maybe. Or with my parents, who would love the place. I might come by bike (as the winery is situated as an ideal mid-ride stop). Or simply with Liz and the dogs again. 

Because I really can’t begin to imagine how an afternoon like this – driven by Adrian’s clear vision of this re-invigorated winery and cidery – can get much better.