In some parts of the world, donkeys were used to help harvest winery grapes, but in Niagara-on-the-Lake's Colaneri Estate Winery, they’re serving as companions for vineyard tours.
Earl and Phyliss are two Mediterranean donkeys who were hired by Colaneri Estates to join visitors on their tour of the estate, as part of their Discover the Vineyard with Donkeys program.
“At first it seems out there, but for us it was a connection with the old world,” said director of operations, Chris Colaneri. The Colaneri family is of Italian descent and has worked in winemaking well before their move to Canada.
“One of my father's last memories of being in Italy was donkeys taking the grapes up the slope of the vineyard,” Colaneri said.
He said that though some visitors are initially confused as to why the choice of donkeys, once he explains the connection, they tend to enjoy the donkeys’ company.
“As soon as they get close to them, it's over.” Colaneri said, describing both donkeys as “friendly” and “cuddly.”
As restrictions ease, the winery has slowly increased operations from serving just wine to now serving food and wine on their patios. Despite the limitations, Colaneri said that business is doing well.
Melina Morsch is the owner of Foxden Goat Yoga, and the owner Earl and Phyliss. She said the idea of having her donkeys be part of a winery experience was inspired by a popular European endurance sport called donkey trucking, where an athlete and their donkey companion navigate a difficult terrain in a race against other athlete-donkey duos.
“So when I realized I wanted to put donkey tracking into Niagara-on-the-Lake, to approach the only Italian winery, it made so much sense,” Morsch said.
Earl and Phyliss are a bonded pair of donkeys. When donkeys are bonded, this means that they’ve established a friendship of sorts, requiring the two of them to constantly be together. This relationship isn’t limited to breeding, according to Morsch, who said that sometimes donkeys of the same sex can often be bonded, or in the case of Earl, a neutered male will still maintain his friendship with a female as her bonded partner.
She said she named them Earl and Phyliss after her grandparents, who shared a very close bond. She said Mediterranean donkeys are known to be “fiercely loyal” and obedient to the people that take care of them.
“They love me. They'll do anything (for me). We have four tours a day. They gladly put on their pack saddles and walk around with the tourists,” Morsch said. “If they were not enjoying the process, I wouldn't force it on them.”
Moosa Imran, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grimsby Lincoln News