Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority

Dark Horse wines at Dinner

Ashley and Craig Horlor of Dark Horse Estate Winery Estates

Wines from Dark Horse Estate Winery Inc. to be featured at 2017 Conservation Dinner gala charitable auction

28th gala event to take place on April 6, 2017 at South Huron Recreation Centre; Fine wines from Dark Horse Estate will help patrons toast Canada’s 150th anniversary

The Conservation Dinner Committee has announced that wines from Dark Horse Estate Winery Inc., near Grand Bend, are to be featured at the 28th Conservation Dinner gala charitable auction event on April 6, 2017 at South Huron Recreation Centre at 94 Victoria Street East in Exeter. “Guests at this year’s Conservation Dinner will have a chance to sample fine wines from Dark Horse Estate Winery and that is going to make the evening very special indeed,” said Mary Ryan-Allen, Co-Chair of the Dinner Committee. “As Canada celebrates 150 years since Confederation it is fitting that we will be able to toast this wonderful nation with superb Canadian wine from Dark Horse Estate Winery.”

Dark Horse Estate Winery Inc. was founded by Sue Ann and John Rasenberg and family. “The Rasenberg family has a long and proud legacy of supporting their local community and this year we are honoured to have the wonderful wines of Dark Horse Estate Winery Inc. featured at our charitable event,” said Mary Ryan-Allen. 

Dark Horse Estate is located at 70665 B Line, Grand Bend, right next to Drayton Entertainment’s Huron Country Playhouse. The estate winery is located in Huron County but it is very close to Grand Bend in Lambton County. “We’re quite honoured to be part of the Conservation Dinner,” said Ashley Horlor, Vice President of Operations at Dark Horse Estate. “We’ve been avid supporters for many years – it’s a great cause.”

This family enterprise is disproving any notion that “you can’t build an estate winery in Huron County.” The winery’s exquisite wines are featured in a number of restaurants and the impressive, expansive estate location, including a 31,000-square-foot-facility, is becoming a sought-after destination for weddings, conferences, special events, and for tourists wanting to explore a winery so close to beautiful Lake Huron. “The estate winery’s architectural details and impressive façade and commitment to quality are sure to anchor the growth of local wineries for years to come,” said Mary Ryan-Allen. The estate winery grounds include conference space that can comfortably accommodate 300 guests, state-of-the-art winemaking technology, and a guest area with a spacious full-service banquet and wine cellar (The downstairs Cellar Reception Hall at Dark Horse Estate Winery seats up to 80), tasting rooms, and VIP Lounge space for special guests. “It is amazing that this beautiful estate winery exists in our watershed and so close to Lake Huron,” said Janet Clarke, Co-Chair of the Dinner Committee. 

The firm’s website notes the fact that “it takes extraordinary people to make extraordinary wines.” Accordingly, the Dark Horse company team includes many extraordinary people from co-founder John and Sue Ann Rasenberg, to their daughter, Vice President of Operations Ashley Horlor, to Vineyard and Facility Manager Craig Horlor, to all the other dedicated staff. Then there is the talented winemaking and viticulture team behind the firm’s award-winning wines. Winemaker Marc Pistor and Viticulture Consultant Fred Di Profio, both of Vendimia North, have been instrumental in helping Dark Horse wines surge confidently out of the gates. Pistor and Di Profio are Oenology and Viticulture graduates from Brock University. Pistor has worked at some of the Niagara wine region’s most successful wineries. From historic vineyards in Italy to the rich terroir of the Niagara Peninsula Region, there have been three generations of winemakers in the Di Profio family.

The year 2017 in Canada marks 150 years since Confederation and organizers of the Conservation Dinner say the fine Ontario wines from Dark Horse Estate are ideal for toasting Canada 150. Patrons at the Dinner are to have a chance to taste Dark Horse Estate wines and their wines are to be on the tables for those same Dinner guests. The Conservation Dinner will feature two popular wines from Dark Horse’s Unapologetically collection: a red (Unapologetically Sinful) and a white (Unapologetically Brash). The white choice is described as an “aromatic, fruit-forward blend of Vidal, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer (that) exhibits an array of balanced fruit flavours (such as) tropical fruits, pear, and citrus ... with a hint of floral and spice.” The red choice is described as a well-balanced, medium-bodied wine that is “a blend of Baco Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc” that exhibits black fruit notes as well as smoky and herbal notes.

This charitable fundraising dinner helps support community projects such as accessible trails so it’s appropriate that this year’s wines are from a business known for being “a trailblazer determined to carve a new path.” The success of the charity auction has happened thanks to the volunteerism of local people. Dark Horse Estate is also creating success by building a memorable local experience. That local experience includes domestic vineyards, a tasting room where guests can witness winemaking first-hand, combining world-class quality with hometown Huron County hospitality, and pairing local fare with their Ontario wines. 

Dark Horse Estate Winery Inc. opened in the summer of 2016. The estate winery has been featured prominently in print and broadcast media. A Toronto Star article, for instance, called the estate winery “Ontario’s new destination for wine lovers.” Even as a relatively young winery, Dark Horse Estate Winery has already captured two silver awards at the 2016 National Wine Awards Canada. The Rasenbergs attribute some of the business’s early success to family, passion, and drive. “We chose the Dark Horse name for a few reasons,” according to the website at “One was for our love and passion for horses and the other was because we are the Dark Horse, we are the unexpected.”

The Dark Horse Estate wines have achieved success by understanding that people may be looking for different aspects in wines. For that reason, the estate winery offers three wine collections: Unapologetically; One Horse Town; and Valegro brands. “We have a wine for everyone,” said Ashley. “We have everything from younger wines to deep, full-bodied, rich, complex wines.”

When the Rasenberg family first began thinking of entering the wine business they had no intention of creating a winery complex as large as the expansive estate that exists now. However, when they looked to the future, they thought expansion was possible. They felt it was important to create a cohesive, unified look from the outset instead of adding later additions that might look inconsistent. The local family also wanted to create a beautiful banquet hall space that could accommodate larger gatherings – with capacity for up to 300 people – which could be used even in the winter months or ‘shoulder season.’

The extent of the estate winery’s early success was a surprise to the owners. “We’ve had a great response by the whole local area,” said Ashley. “It’s rewarding to see so many repeat customers.”

Ashley and her husband Craig, and children Tiernan and Kaelen, make Huron County their home and look forward to helping grow this family enterprise. As the first generation of winemakers, the Dark Horse name acknowledges this is an enterprise without years of history or expectations. If a dark horse is defined as a competitor not well known previously, reaching sudden prominence, and surpassing expectations, then this estate winery is aptly named. Sue Ann Rasenberg came up with the Dark Horse name and it was a fitting name from a family with a love of horses that goes back for generations. 

The vision of creating a new estate winery in Huron County was a family decision that combined a passion for quality wine, creating local opportunities in the community, and agriculture. Co-founder John Rasenberg has made a career over the past 35 years in the electrical and mechanical contracting business but as a kid who grew up on the farm he has never lost his love of agriculture so an agri-tourism business was a good fit for him and his family. Co-Founder Sue Ann Rasenberg brought her interior design flair and attention to detail to the enterprise and a new tourism destination was born. “She put a lot of heart and soul into this,” said her daughter, Ashley.

Dark Horse Estate Winery makes its wines at the estate near Grand Bend. The wines are currently made with grapes from the Niagara region; the winery will be harvesting their own grapes locally as early as this year.

The Exeter Lions Club and the Ausable Bayfield Conservation Foundation have worked together on the Conservation Dinner as a community fundraiser for more than a quarter of a century. If you would like to buy a ticket for this year’s gala charitable auction and dinner, or get on the waiting list when tickets sell out, phone 519-235-2610 or toll-free 1-888-286-2610. Tickets are $75 each. Patrons receive a charitable gift receipt, for income tax purposes, for a portion of that amount. 


About the Conservation Dinner

The annual charitable gala Conservation Dinner features live and silent auctions of art and other distinctive items including travel packages; sports and entertainment memorabilia; jewellery and more. The event also includes special raffles, general raffles, appetizers, wine tasting, fun and fellowship, and a wonderful meal.

Net proceeds from the event are split evenly between local projects of the Exeter Lions Club and the Ausable Bayfield Conservation Foundation. This community event has raised more than $1 million in net proceeds for projects benefitting people in this area, thanks to donors and businesses; patrons and guests; volunteers and artists.

The Conservation Dinner funds projects in local communities throughout the watershed. This gala charitable auction has provided financial support for community projects such as:

  • Busing for students and nature education and recreation programs at schools and conservation areas
  • Creating and maintaining accessible trails such as MacNaughton-Morrison Section of the South Huron Trail and Rock Glen Conservation Area in Arkona
  • Parks such as MacNaughton Park
  • Stocking fish in Morrison Reservoir (Morrison Lake) for the annual family-friendly fishing derby
  • Offering a bursary for youth
  • Providing work experience and employment opportunities for youth
  • Replacing a fishing dock replacement; accessible playgrounds and conservation area upgrades such as trail stairways and boardwalks; tree planting to enhance habitat; a new Woodland Reflection Shelter pavilion to pause along the trail and commune with nature and remember loved ones; and much, much more.

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