EPIC’s Thriving Winery Restaurant Scene

Keeping up with what’s new in the Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Escarpment regions each year usually means checking out new wineries. Keeping up with what’s new in the Erie, Pelee Island, Coast (EPIC) wine region means visiting old favourites that are kicking it up a notch and becoming destination wineries.

I’ve just returned from the region and here’s a taste (no pun intended) of what I’m talking about…

North 42 Degrees Estate

My first stop last weekend was to North 42 Degrees Estate Winery. A couple years ago they had posted artists’ drawings of the restaurant they were planning. It looked impressive from the drawings, but it also looked like it might take awhile to build. Then, at some point last year I thought I read an announcement that they had opened the restaurant.

So, in planning my trip, I went on their website to find out a bit about the restaurant – things like the menu and the hours. Their website made no mention of the restaurant, so I figured it wasn’t yet open. Just to be sure, however, I also checked their Facebook page. On it there was reference to various special events at Bistro 42, but nothing indicating they had regular hours of service. Curious to see what was going on, I planned to stop there.

To my terrific surprise, at the far end of the driveway I saw the new building. It looks as though it organically sprung forth from the ground. In the front there’s a trio of huge beams reaching up at odd angles to support a massive front portico. Similar beams support a glass room off to one side. The main part of the building looks like a two+ story glass cathedral.

From the inside, the feel is more intimate than you’d expect. The main floor features the tasting room and a room that houses Serenity Lavender, which is owned by the same couple who own the winery. When I visited the winery, the door to the lavender store was wide open and – though I love the smell of lavender – I wondered how folks at the tasting bar might find the clash of smells.

Though I couldn’t stay for a meal that day, the host graciously encouraged me to check out the main dining room upstairs and I’m glad I did. The view over the vineyard was lovely – even in the dead of winter. I can imagine it is spectacular in summer and fall.

Their menu features small and shareable plates, as well as a nice selection of salads and mains. As it was just after Valentine’s Day, they also had a special menu that weekend. From the crowds, it looks like it’s quite a popular spot. Now that I know it’s open, next time I’m headed to the region, I’ll make a reservation at Bistro 42 – I can’t wait to try it.

Oxley Estate Winery

The restaurant at Oxley Estate Winery keeps landing on different “best” lists. I think it’s been on Open Table’s list of best winery restaurants and most recently their list of “most romantic” restaurants. I’m really not surprised that it’s on so many “best of” lists. The atmosphere is casual (the restaurant was, after all, a barn at one point) but elegant and the service is friendly and knowledgeable. All those things are notable, but the food is really the main event here. Chef Aaron Lynn has been at Oxley for about five years. Over that time, he has created all sorts of dishes and he has really grown. His regular, seasonal menu is always interesting, but the special dinner menus really showcase his talent.

Crab Toast at Oxley Estate Winery
Bison Ribeye at Oxley Estate Winery

I was lucky enough to enjoy dinner there last weekend when they were featuring a Valentine’s Day menu. The Crab Toast appetizer was nothing short of divine. Huge chunks of crab with a luscious hollandaise atop a perfectly toasted brioche. Because rib eye is my all-time favourite cut, I couldn’t resist the bison ribeye. When I ordered it medium well, the server gently mentioned that the chef recommends rare or medium, as bison is so lean. I took the advice and I’m glad I did. It was perfect.

Potato Wrapped Halibut at Oxley Estate Winery

My dinner companion was equally happy with her choices of a Wild Mushroom Pastie as her appetizer and Potato Wrapped Halibut for her main.

Wild Mushroom Pastie at Oxley Estate Winery

Next time you’re headed to the region, make a reservation there. Trust me, you’ll be sorry if you can’t get in …

 

 

 

 

 

Other Notable EPIC destinations

CREW – Colchester Ridge Estate Winery – is right next door to North 42 Degrees Estate Winery. A huge new building is going up at CREW. Currently, their small tasting room is at the far end of their driveway in a non-descript building. The new building is far along, but wasn’t quite finished, so I didn’t snoop around. But, given its size and location in the front of the property, it wouldn’t surprise me if they too are planning a restaurant or some other food-serving facility.

As for new things happening at another winery I always enjoy – Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards – they are now making cider. (Cider is hard to come by in the region – it’s not taken off there like it has elsewhere in the Province.) Their Iler Road Cider, which is no doubt named after the street the winery is on. is made from 100% Essex County Apples. So now, in addition to their wines and The Vines restaurant, there’s yet another reason to visit Cooper’s Hawk Vineyards.

 

Taste the Season – Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake

As a friend mentioned the other day, November is kind of a buffer month – it’s a time to re-charge before the busy holiday season and, for many of us, time to start to think about what we might serve – both in terms of food and wine – at our holiday get togethers.

With all this in mind, the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake have a holiday tradition called “Taste the Season” – it’s one of their popular passport programs and it runs every weekend (Fridays through Sundays) in November.

I was given two passes to the event by the tourism folks and a girlfriend and I spent Sunday popping in to different wineries to sample their food/wine pairings. It was a dreary day, which might be why most of the places we stopped in at were not overly busy. Mind you, that was great as far as we were concerned because it meant more of an opportunity to speak with the folks at the wineries about the recent harvest, and about the wines and food.

The choice of which wineries we visited was based strictly on our route. We started at Niagara College Teaching Winery, which is right off the QEW. I hate to say it, but I was very disappointed with the pairing there. They were serving their 2011 Dean’s List Pinot Noir ($17.15) with a grilled zucchini, tomato, and Havarti tart. It sounded so promising, but was a total disappointment because the tart was stone cold. It’s true, it was early, so they had just opened, but no wine would taste good with the fat of the cold pastry dough. Too bad…

Fortunately, the day improved quickly at our next stop – Chȃteau des Charmes. They too were serving a Pinot Noir (their 2015 Estate Grown & Bottle Pinot) ($16.95). They paired it with a delicious smoked chili spiced meat ball served in a lovely little bamboo cup with some tomato fondue and parmesan cheese. (The food was catered by Vintage Inns.)

Taste the Season at Ravine Vineyards

Our next stop was Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery – always one of my favourite spots. The served their 2014 Sand & Gravel Redcoat ($18.95) paired with a beef stew with a parmesan pastry. I was surprised when they served the wine in a plastic throw-away glass, but I figured it’s because of the numbers of people that come through for the tasting. The server – clearly concerned about the presentation – gave us a card offering a complimentary tasting flight at the tasting bar where, he assured us, “they use proper glassware”. We promptly went over to the other room and one of the wines I chose to (re)sample was the Sand & Gravel Redcoat. I’m glad I did – though I enjoyed it well enough in the plastic cup, in a real glass is was quite nice. In fact, that’s the wine I ended up purchasing.

Taste the Season at Marynissen Estates

Another stop we made was Marynissen Estate Winery. They were serving a 2015 Gewürztraminer ($16.00) with a warm corn and red pepper bisque. The server made a point to tell everyone that it wasn’t a particularly sweet Gewürzt – I guess many folks are put off Gewürzt because they associate it with sweetness. I didn’t care much for the wine – I actually found it a bit too dry for – but the soup was delicious. Indeed, when we were re-capping the day, my friend and I agreed that the soup was our favourite of all the food samples.

Taste the Season at Inniskillin

Inniskillin Wines gets kudos for an innovative pairing: their 2015 Vidal Icewine ($29.95) paired with aged cheddar grilled cheese with a garden tomato chutney on top. I think it’s a terrific idea to show people that icewine isn’t just for dessert. They also get high marks for a very simple, but effective presentation. Though the server didn’t know we’d be taking a photo – he made sure that the name of the winery was visible on the napkin. (Nicely done!)

Taste the Season at Peller Estates

Our last stop was  Peller Estates. They were serving their 2016 Private Reserve Gamay Noir ($19.95) with a smoked pork and duck terrine. That pairing a true standout. The wine on its own was light and refreshing (as you’d expect from a Gamay) and it balanced the richness of the terrine quite well. (It was my friend’s favourite wine of the day, by the way) Also, there was a young chef (I’d guess a chef-in-training) serving the terrine and he happily answered my questions about the difference between terrines and pates. It’s opportunities to speak with folks from the wineries that are familiar with food and wine that make these events really enjoyable.

The Restaurant at Peller Estates

We ended the day with a long, late, relaxing lunch as the Restaurant at Peller Estates, which was lovely.

If all goes according to plan, I will be headed down to Niagara-on-the-Lake next weekend with another girlfriend to see what some of the other wineries are up to.  Stay tuned – or better yet – head out with some friends and enjoy Taste the Season yourself.

 

On being … a celebration of home

I write a bi-weekly blog called On being … that’s more general musings on life. Because my most recent post for On being … was inspired by a recent event at Oxley Estate Winery, I thought I’d share that post here…

On being … a celebration of home

I was visiting some friends who live in the wine region along the north shore of Lake Erie, south of the Windsor/Detroit area. It’s the kind of place where people often give the name of the county, rather than the town where they live, because they figure more people have at least heard of the county. It’s primarily an agricultural area, but it’s got more of a small town feel than a rural feel, if you know what I mean.

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Chef Aaron Lynn at Oxley Estate Winery

One of the highlights of the weekend was a special dinner at Oxley Estate Winery. The formal title was: Oxley Celebrates Home. If you guessed they were doing the locavore thing, you’d be right – but with a few added twists. It so happens their young chef (Aaron Lynn) is a local kid who went away for culinary training and, after honing his craft working in some fancy restos, he returned to the area last year. Lucky for Oxley Estate and for those who have a chance to eat at the winery.

Todd's Perch
“Todd’s Perch”

Not only did each of the five courses feature local ingredients, the chef named the dishes after the local purveyors – a nice touch, I thought. So, for example, we dined on Todd’s Perch (named after Todd, the local commercial fisherman the restaurant buys from), Rick’s Lamb, and Farmer Doug’s apples. But that wasn’t all. Before the meal, the chef introduced all of the local suppliers and asked them to stand so we could honour and recognize them as the people responsible for all the good things we were about to enjoy.

And, the celebration of things local didn’t end with the food. Ann, one of the owners of the winery, introduced the musicians who would be entertaining us. Turns out they too were from the area and when they’re not in town, they’re in Nashville working as backup musicians to some well-known country music stars.

During the dinner I was chatting with a woman sitting next to me. She was a local and so I was asking her a bit about the area. We talked about one of the bigger towns in the county and about how much it’s growing. The town’s population is up to about 21,000, which is pretty big, as towns go. And, like many Ontario towns, there’s a definite centre with some small shops, a few restaurants, a couple banks, and a library. But, the pickings were pretty limited in town. I wondered aloud where people go if they have any kind of serious shopping to do. She laughed and said that these days, she can get pretty much anything on-line. But, if there’s something she can’t order, it’s probably available in Windsor, which is “only about 25 miles away”.

Then I asked about grocery shopping. I had noticed that there are two well-known supermarkets, but I’m used to checking the weekly fliers of at least four major chains before I go grocery shopping. She said she didn’t care that other major grocers weren’t around. “I love shopping at those supermarkets. The people that work there are my neighbors and friends – why would I go anywhere else?” I was really struck by her response.

Later in the conversation, the topic of the refugee crisis came up. She mentioned she’s catholic and she said that in the next few weeks her church would be deciding on whether they will take in a refugee family, as the Pope has suggested. She said she’s going to push hard for them to do so.

I hadn’t heard about the Pope’s suggestion that every parish should sponsor one family, but it struck me as being in line with something else I read the Pope said about the current wave of refugees. He urged people to not see the crisis as involving hundreds of thousands because it’s just too overwhelming. Instead, we should respond to them as individual people – just one at a time. Though it’s such a simple idea, it’s about the most concrete, constructive idea I’ve heard from any leader about how to deal with the situation. I smiled at the idea of some refugee family settling down there and eventually calling themselves locals.

After dinner, I was thinking about how the theme of the evening could just as easily have been “the joy of human interaction”. Living in the city has its conveniences, opportunities, and even independence. But, if you’re not careful, city life can also bring with it a loss of connectedness. Fortunately, the condition isn’t irreversible. My weekend in the country reminded me that the best way to feel connected again is to celebrate what each individual brings to your life. If you do that, I think you’ll feel at home wherever you are.

© 2015 Ingrid Sapona

 

 

 

Easter Dinner at a Winery?

2014-04-02 22.38.31Don’t feel like cooking this Easter? Why not celebrate Easter at one of 20+ Ontario wineries that have restaurants – most of them will feature special Easter menus.

For a list of wineries with restaurants, check out the Dining at Wineries category in the App.