By Olivia Boynton | Photos Courtesy of Kelham Vineyards
Hamilton Nicholsen and his brother, Ron Nicholsen, were introduced to the joy of wine at a young age. Their stepfather Rawson Kelham’s parents bought a vineyard in the 1960s. “He [Kelham] brought us up, taught us everything about making grapes and building homes,” says Hamilton. Kelham and his sister lived and farmed the property full time from the 1970s until 1998, when the Nicholsen boys took over after each attended college, Hamilton attented culinary school and Ron received a degree in architecture.
Growing up in Oakville, surrounded by vineyards and wineries, visiting friends was never only to play, says Hamilton. “You had to help in the vineyard or winery first. We learned everything we know from [having] these responsibilities.” In high school, the brothers would visit their friends’ homes, and their friends’ fathers would educate them on fine wines. “Our close friend’s father would tell us, ‘If you are going to drink a French wine, you drink with me. Go choose a wine to have with dinner.’ He’d ask what vineyard and what year it was from. It’s an upbringing, to drink to enjoy and have a meal with family and friends.” Every Thanksgiving, the Nicholsen family would pick all of the crop for port and then would make it in the back hallway of their laundry room. Hamilton and his mother, Susanna Kelham, recently revived this tradition.
In 1997, the Nicholsen brothers bought the vineyard from the Kelhams. Hamilton joined his brother, and together they took the reins, turning their hobby into their business. As the Nicholsens signed contracts, the Kelhams encouraged and supported them throughout the process. Building the French winery from the ground up took 20 years, but now it features a lovely outdoor and indoor pavilion for wine tasting.
A family-run affair, Hamilton, Ron, and their mother harvest, press, ferment, age, bottle, and pour each glass of wine themselves. “My mom is really the queen bee and backbone of the family winery and vineyard. She works six days a week, and people call just to talk to my mom.” Susanna Kelham focuses on the customer service, marketing, and events side of the business while Hamilton and Ron are out in the field, attending to the vines or making wine.
Some of Hamilton’s current favorites off the vine are the 2008 vintage Cabernet and the 2008 vintage Merlot. The 2009 vintage Cabernet will come out this year as well. The vineyard has about 3,200 cases of aging wine, two vintages ready to go in barrels, and eight vintages in bottles, with each wine aging for ten years—a rare practice in modern winemaking. “The wine is made in the vineyard,” Hamilton explains, and because the family monitors the process from vine to bottle, they ensure the highest quality of wine as they gently guide the young grapes to become better with age.