Wayne Gretzky; a name hockey fans have known for decades is also a name increasingly noticed by many that have never seen him play. There is no doubt that Gretzky first received recognition and fame as a talented hockey player. But it is arguable that he is now appreciated for the award-winning Gretzky brand wines, newly constructed Wayne Gretzky Estates (WGE), the unique No. 99 Canadian Whisky, and his ongoing commitment through all of this to give back to the community. Wayne Gretzky is making his mark in Canada and across the world that will last longer than his hockey career ever could.
Gretzky began his life as a ‘typical’ Canadian kid living in Brantford, Ontario. He even learned to play hockey on an ice rink in his backyard. Skill and determination paired with an intense passion for the sport quickly grew him into one of the world’s greatest athletes. In 1978, at only 17, he signed his first professional contract. The following year, he began his career with the National Hockey League (NHL) and the Edmonton Oilers. It wasn’t long before ‘The Great One’ got his nickname.
Gretzky’s influential career saw him play a total of 20 seasons for four teams. He received numerous accolades, awards and recognitions along with many long-standing record-breaking statistics before he retired in 1999. Shortly afterward, his well-known jersey number, 99, was the first (and to this date the only) to receive the honour of also being retired league-wide! The number 99 and Wayne Gretzky have become synonymous. Gretzky extended his career to coaching positions, including Olympic Team Canada appearances and team ownership for a time before stepping back from professional hockey. Hockey would remain a big part of his life but Wayne was then able to apply more time as well as a lot of the same skills, passion, and focus into a new life in business.
His First Wines
It was eight years after his hockey playing era had ended that he fulfilled a dream of launching his own brand of wine. In 2007, his self-named wines were introduced by Creekside Estates, with Australian Craig MacDonald as winemaker. The following summer, still partnering with Creekside, Wayne Gretzky Winery opened in Vineland, Ontario. They had some of the expected hockey memorabilia on site but also a full selection of wines. His name on the bottle would initially help sell the wine, but consumers had to actually like it to buy that second bottle and Gretzky was known to take an active interest providing input into blends and the final products. It wasn’t long before the hockey legend was increasing his popularity amongst wine enthusiasts and the No. 99 wines were available for purchase in every province across Canada.
The partnership with Creekside dissolved and the doors to the Vineland property were closed. But not before Gretzky’s desire to create and sell world-class wines had come to fruition. The No. 99 VQA labels, like their namesake, were winning awards on an international stage. This brought the name Wayne Gretzky into a new network. Over their years in Vineland, Gold Awards decorated several of their wines. Accolades included the Ontario Wine Awards and the Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits competition. When the winery closed in October of 2011 the Gretzky label was still available online, in Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL), and across Ontario. It was during this time that they transitioned to Andrew Peller Limited. MacDonald continued on as the winemaker and the brand continued to grow during the shift. It was nearly four years later when the plan for the new and current WGE location in NOTL was finally unveiled.
Wayne Gretzky Estates
After much anticipation, the official opening of WGE took place in the spring of 2017. The new facility proudly bears the Gretzky name and is modeled after the Gretzky family farm. MacDonald still at the helm as the winemaker along with tributes and nods to the Great One throughout the property draw in both wine lovers and hockey fans. Open year-round for tours and tastings, guests can make reservations to join a guided tour program, taste the current products, browse the shop, or even plan a custom event with private function spaces available.
No visit is complete without seeing what has to be the most unique feature, the custom ice rink! Open to the public, guests can rent skates or bring their own. And although it is dependent on the weather, there are cooling systems in place to help keep the ice frozen as temperatures begin to rise. Frozen or not, guests can still enjoy the rink as it is transformed into a beautiful water feature during the warmer months. Catering to all of their guests, there is also a year-round patio alongside the rink. Heated during the cooler seasons, guests can order hot or cold beverages, cocktails, a bite to eat from the seasonal menu, and of course Gretzky wine or whisky. It is a great space to take a break before continuing to explore this property with the onsite distillery!
The Wayne Gretzky Distillery showcases even further expansion of the Gretzky brand. The whisky is blended by Master Distiller Joshua Beach who has a Masters’ in brewing and distilling. Gretzky has taken care to protect the integrity of his name and label with working alongside Beach. As with the winery, guests can tour the facility, taste, and purchase new products onsite. They can also visit the custom ice rink and year-round patio which are both still only steps away. The unique whisky tour will take guests through the property. The tour includes the production area, and a unique space for an in-depth tasting of several whisky products.
One of the products guests may have the chance to sample is the ‘Red Cask’ Canadian Whisky. A small batch whisky first released in 2016 is named for the finishing process in red wine casks from Gretzky winery. This technique makes for a truly unique taste and for a whisky that is already award-winning. This is only one of the many no. 99 products that are available and reaching a whole new market with the name Wayne Gretzky. Remaining involved with the winery and distillery is a reflection of Wayne Gretzky’s enthusiasm for everything he does. He demonstrates a similar dedication in his compassion for people and diligently gives back to the community. (See our article on Canadian Whisky Cocktails to learn how to use Gretzky Whisky in your next recipe!)
Over the years Gretzky supported a number of charities such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Arthritis Society of Canada, and Celebs for Kids, and continues to do so. But in 2002 he established a cause a little closer to his heart. The aptly named Wayne Gretzky Foundation brought his devotion to hockey, tenderness for people, and love of wine together.
The foundation was founded on the knowledge that hockey instills positive life skills and promotes the well-rounded growth of young people. This stems from his own passion, values, and experience. Its focus has always been to provide less fortunate youth with an opportunity to experience the sport of hockey. They support an ‘every child deserves a chance to play’ philosophy. But, for maximum reach, the foundation supports a variety of programs. Along with donations of hockey equipment and ice time, Gretzky helps provide the opportunity for young people to attend professional hockey games.
Give Back, Buy a Bottle!
With the launch of Gretzky wines, the two worlds would collide as he saw another opportunity to give back. A portion of the proceeds from each bottle of wine or whisky sold go directly to the foundation. This is all the more reason to open a bottle and enjoy a glass of No. 99 knowing that it is supporting such a purposeful cause. Annual fund-raising events, a portion of the registration fees from his hockey school along with donations from celebrities, corporations, and a variety of other sponsors have also kept this foundation growing.
To date, the Wayne Gretzky Foundation has raised well over a million dollars. This money continues to be used to help give every child a chance to play or experience hockey. The Foundation is exposing the name Wayne Gretzky to a whole new generation of fans that may not have otherwise heard his name. While the foundation will expose them to the sport these children will likely remember The Great One more for his generosity than they will for his hockey career.
The Legend Continues
The public shows love towards Gretzky first as a hockey player and philanthropist. But that has easily overflowed into their enjoyment and appreciation of his wine and now whisky. The name Gretzky is no longer identifiable just because he’s one of the greatest hockey players of all time. Sure, it helps make it easier to remember when looking for a bottle of his VQA wine or whisky. But wine lovers and the children benefiting from his charitable contributions are not comparing hockey stats. Wayne Gretzky has taken his place as a Canadian icon, along with his number 99. Generations to come will recognize and remember him for all of his accomplishments, both on and off the ice.
By: Rebecca Hare
Group Sales and Guest Services Coordinator