From construction to cuvees

By Shelley Boettcher

The smell of the vineyards during harvest. Dust. Soil. The sweet scent of the grapes, like honey. The sound of bees, and the workers singing and laughing when they were finally finished picking for another year. 

That’s what Ermengildo (“Joe” to pretty much everyone) Giusti remembers about being a child growing up on a farm in Italy’s Veneto region. 

“Where I come from, the boys were always out in the field with Dad,” he recalls. “I grew up in the vineyards.”

Joe Giusti, in one of his vineyards

It was an idyllic childhood — catching frogs with his little brother, stealing sips of his dad’s homemade wine. But Giusti grew up hearing stories about family who had emigrated to Canada. 

“I always knew I wanted to go there,” he says. “I was always asking my mom where Canada was. She always pointed to the end of the vineyard. It’s there, she’d say.”

Giusti never stopped dreaming. And in 1973, he packed his bags and moved to Vancouver. He was an 18-year-old kid who couldn’t speak any English, only a little French and, of course, Italian. “I thought that would be OK,” he says with a laugh. “But you know, I have never spoken French to anyone here.”

Despite the language barrier, he quickly found work as a framer, building houses. And the following year, he set up his own business. “I wanted to be my own boss. I didn’t need much, just a truck and a few saws,” says Giusti, over fish and pasta with tomato sauce at Buon Giorno Ristorante Italiano, a bustling old-school Italian restaurant on 17th Avenue in Calgary. 

“It was the easiest thing for me to do.”

Business was good, and throughout the next four decades, Giusti built that initial company up to include several offshoots, all under the Giusti Group of Companies umbrella. Julian Ceramic Tile — named after one of his sons — was created in 1977; another, Viper Concrete, was created in the late 1990s. 

Then, in 2002, Giusti added an Italian winery to the list. It started small — a three-hectare plot of land that he and his wife were given by her family. The land was planted with grape vines — Glera, for making Prosecco.

Giusti liked it — so much so that he bought another that same year. Then another. And another. Prosecco vineyards. Pinot Grigio and Amarone vineyards, too, the best he could find.

Giusti Wines was born.

Giusti Wines

As of 2015, he had invested $40 million Canadian into rejuvenating the vineyards, hiring staff and renovating the properties.

Five years later, he hasn’t slowed down at all. “The passion that I have for wine goes back a long time,” says Giusti. “But it takes a lot of millions to do what I want to do.” 

One of the largest single-owner wineries in the region, Giusti Wines currently has 110 hectares of land, and 75 hectares planted with vines. 

While many wine lovers dream of one day owning a vineyard, few actually follow that dream. Equipment and salaries can be daunting. The price of land, too. It takes years, sometimes a decade or more, to turn a profit. 

But for Giusti, a winery just made sense. With the economic crisis ongoing in Europe, land prices in countries such as Italy are relatively low, he notes.

At the same time, he’s done well with his business in Canada. He declines to give figures on the net worth of the family-owned company.

But at its peak, in about 2011-2012, the Giusti Group employed about 800 people across Western Canada. These days, that number is about 400. Of that, seven Canadians work directly for the winery. (Another 100 or so work for the winery in Italy.)

One of those people is David Walker, a well-known Calgary sommelier whose previous gigs include wine director at the Fairmont Banff Springs as well as the proprietor of the former 100 Wines by David Walker wine store.

Walker and Giusti met by chance, after a fellow wine lover gave Walker a bottle of the Giusti Brut Prosecco. Walker was smitten by the quality and tracked Giusti down in his Calgary office. They met in the southeast industrial park, where the massive steel and glass Giusti complex is located. And they talked for more than three hours. 

“I was struck by his energy and enthusiasm,” recalls Walker. “I still remember being amazed at just how much he had accomplished in such a short period, in a country where nothing really moves that quickly. At that moment, I knew I wanted to be part of this project.”

Walker quickly signed on as Giusti Wine’s technical director, in charge of product seminars for trade and the public. That was seven years ago and, Walker says, “I’m more excited about our quality and where we are going as an extended Giusti family than ever.” 

Another fan is Rodney Clark, owner of the Rodney’s Oyster House restaurants in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. The friends met at a back yard party in Ottawa a few years ago, where Clark was shucking oysters and telling stories. Giusti asked if Clark would recreate that party in Giusti’s back yard the following year. The two have been friends ever since.

“I thought he lived a few doors down the street in Ottawa,” Clark recalls. “Little did I realize it was to be in the backyard of his family home, in Italy, where he grew up, with his family, his mother, and his friends.”

And Giusti wine, of course. The team, led by fifth-generation winemaker Mirco Pozzobon, makes nine wines —reds, whites and six sparkling wines — and grappa. 

More than 100 retailers across Alberta carry the full line, plus the grappa, an Italian brandy distilled from the leftover grape pomace.

The wines are now distributed around the world, including Canada, China, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, South Africa and Sweden.

Giusti and his team are seeing more and more visitors, mostly groups from Asia, Germany and Canada.

And there are now townhouse-style suites for rent at the main office, and more at another vineyard for overnight guests. 

Giusti’s brother, Fanio, manages the winery’s grounds. The pair — who are extremely close — worked together for 20 years in Canada, until Fanio moved back to Italy. 

“He knows what I want,” says Giusti. “Good enough is not good enough. I want the grounds to be perfect.”

The wines, too, which have won multiple awards at some of the greatest competitions in the world.

That’s music to Giusti’s ears, as he is clear he wants to produce Italy’s greatest prosecco, like what he remembers drinking as a youth in the region.

“We can produce great wine,” he says. “But to produce quality wine, you have to love what you’re doing and look after the land.”

Rejuvenating the region’s vineyards hasn’t been without challenges. Part of the land is believed to be an ancient Roman burial ground, and he hopes to one day soon fund an archeological exploration of the spot.

The area is very close to the Austrian border and was a battlefield during both World Wars. Remains of the trenches can still be seen and, in fact, unexploded landmines and bombs still show up from time to time when the soil is worked.

The Giusti team received UNESCO funding to help preserve an underground bunker, built by the Allies, on the winery’s Maria Vittoria vineyard.

And an ancient well outside the winery, where the Allies hid machine guns from the enemy during the First World War, has also been preserved, as has an ancient abbey, which was painstakingly restored and is now a popular wedding destination.

Giusti also commissioned a sculpture by an Italian-Canadian artist, Armando Barbon, to honour Donald MacLean, a young Canadian bomber who was shot down over the land and killed during the end of the First World War. It is on view now at the winery.

“This is part of our history and our heritage,” he says. “These kids came as volunteers to fight the war. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do that, at such a young age.”

These days, he and his wife, Maria-Vittoria Giusti, divide their time between their home at Case Bianche, overlooking Chardonnay and Prosecco vineyards, and their home in Southwest Calgary. They moved from Vancouver to Alberta at the start of the real estate boom in 1997.

“We really loved it, from Day One,” he says. “So we decided to stay.”

When he’s not working, he spends his time painting (“like Rembrandt,” he says with a chuckle), teaching his grandson how to catch pigeons, and designing each wine’s label. 

He holds honorary doctorates in construction and engineering from universities in Padua and Venice, Italy.  And he hits the road across Europe and Western Canada, helping to promote the wines every month. 

There are no shortage of stories to share. His family is Italian nobility, and Giusti can rightfully use a hereditary and rather grand-sounding title of “noble” that goes back to the 1600s.

“In the old days, that was very important,” he says. “They were the biggest landlord owners.”

Indeed, he admits he could have stayed on his family’s land and become a winery owner much earlier in life. But, he says, “we owned the land, yes, but we had nothing. We just had enough to eat.”

Everyone was poor in those days.”

Here in Canada, however, his three sons are all firmly ensconced in the construction side of the business. And they’ve worked on some interesting and varied projects: a processing plant and 1,500-worker camp near Fort McMurray for Husky Energy, the Husky Sunrise project at Fort Mackay, condo projects in Kelowna, sub-divisions in Calgary and Vancouver. 

Those same opportunities would have been impossible, had he stayed in Italy, he says. “Canada has been good to me.”