You Win Some, You Lose Some

A hot summer Sunday with no plans. What better time to pop into a winery, I thought. Since I was in Niagara-on-the-Lake last week, I thought I’d check out something in the Niagara Escarpment region.

I decided on Henry of Pelham Family Estate because, according to their website, they were having live music (Ron Hoover, apparently) from noon to three p.m. and because The Coach House Café, which is run by Chef Erik Peacock, is open.

I got there at about 1 p.m. and parked and didn’t see where the music might be. I stopped in the tasting room and asked and was told there was no music today – it was yesterday. I mentioned that I thought I read it was going to be both Saturday and Sunday. The woman explained that unfortunately, the musicians told them yesterday that they wouldn’t be returning today.

I was very disappointed. I get that it’s not the winery’s fault – and maybe I should have phoned before making the 100+ km drive. But, I figured since it was on their website, I would just be bothering them if I phoned, especially if they’re busy.

Anyway, music or not, I could still enjoy some wine and a bite. So, I ordered a tasting flight. I’ve always loved Henry of Pelham’s Baco Noir so I ended up with a sample of their 2019 Old Vines Baco and their 2019 Spec Family Reserve Baco Noir, in addition to a sample of their Cuvée Catharine Rosé Brut. I told them I wanted to have something at the Café and they graciously brought the flight out to my table.

The Café menu was limited, which is not unusual. I was intrigued by this starter: Nachos, Lobster Queso, Cotija, Pico de Gallo, Avocado Salsa Verde, Lime Crema. I thought perhaps there was a comma missing between “lobster” and “queso” and I asked the server. She explained that it’s not a typo – it’s melted cheese that’s flavoured or infused with lobster. She assured me it didn’t taste fishy and I assured her that wasn’t a concern, as I had hoped there might be actual lobster on the nachos. She said no, but that the lobster queso is pink from the lobster and is very good.

I wasn’t sure about the lobster queso, so I decided to order one of the sandwiches instead. When I said I wanted fries with it, she said that they don’t have fries but that they have potato chips instead. Man – it wasn’t my day…

Rather than a sandwich and chips, I decided that the nachos sounded different enough that I should try them – after all, chefs are quite inventive in ways I’m not. Well, when the bowl arrived it looked interesting, though what I thought was probably the lobster queso was more like Velveeta orange than pink. Sadly, there was nothing that made you even imagine lobster had anything to do with it. The nachos were pretty much ball park nachos in a nice bowl. Very, very disappointing. I thought about ordering something else, but I didn’t have a lot of faith that anything else on the menu would be worth trying and I certainly didn’t want any more disappointments.

No Disappointment with the Wines

Luckily, the wines didn’t disappoint at all. They do a very nice job on their traditional method sparklings and both Bacos were delicious. In the end, the one I enjoyed the most was the 2019 Old Vines Baco. They were out of the 2019 in the wine shop, but I’ve heard the 2020 vintage in Ontario is one of the best, so I brought home some 2020 Old Vines Baco Noir.

All the way home I debated about whether to do a post about my visit today. I try to accentuate the positive, but I’d be lying if I didn’t express some of my disappointment. In the end, I decided to write about my experience today because readers deserve to know that sometimes visits to wineries are not all you’d hope.

Bottom line – Henry of Pelham Family Estate is a lovely spot and worth going to for their wines (if not for the Café or any kind of entertainment that may be scheduled). There’s a lot of history there too, so be sure to walk around and definitely try their Baco Noirs – they are exceptional.

Sunday Fun – Enjoying Big Head Wines and a Variety of Pies

I’ve always been a fan of Big Head Wines and so when I got an email blast about a weekend event at the winery, I was intrigued. They were hosting a pop-up featuring General Assemblies Pizza. I had heard about GA pizza (as they are known) from some foodie friends but I’d never tried one.

So, a girlfriend and I decided to make a day of it. Given that traffic is back to pre-pandemic levels (even if other things aren’t quite), we headed down early on Sunday. I waited a bit too late in the week to get a reservation for a structured wine tasting, but they put our name on a waiting list. So, we agreed it would be good to arrive on the early side. They opened at 11.

Well, we were a tad earlier than necessary so we decided to go for a coffee. My friend knows Niagara-on-the-Lake like the back of her hand, so she suggested coffee at the Pie Plate. I had been there before and thought it was a brilliant suggestion. To our surprise, when we got there, we found out they moved. To our relief, we were told it’s now just around the corner at 1607 Four Mile Creek Road (rather than on Niagara Stone Road).

The new place is huge and it was hopping, which was nice to see. I have to say, as we watched people leave with two and three pie boxes each, I wondered whether there’d be much of a selection left. There was plenty to choose from and we could see a team of four busy rolling out dough for more pies in the glass-surrounded kitchen area. With my coffee I had a fabulous peach pie in tart form and my friend had a bacon and date scone.

Then we headed to Big Head Winery on Hunter Road. The pizza oven was set up next to a large tent where the sour dough, naturally leavened pizzas are crafted. Nearby there were stand-up tables where people could enjoy a glass of wine with their pizza.

I mentioned to the person who greeted us that we didn’t have a reservation for a tasting, but that we were on the waiting list. I told her we were happy to wait to see if there were any cancellations or if they could accommodate us. Andrzej Lipinski, the winemaker and owner, was at a nearby table speaking with a guest. We had met before and – though I don’t think he had any reason to remember me – so when he was free, we went up to him to say hello.

I asked him how the grapes are doing this year and he said, “So far, ok – but it’s too early to know.” He said he likes to pick late and there always the concern about possible downy mildew if there’s too much rain.

We talked about the fact that, though most Ontarians will remember 2020 as the year of the pandemic, for winemakers in Niagara, 2020 will be remembered as one of the best vintages ever. This year, in contrast to the lower yields of 2020, the vines are full of grapes. So full, in fact, that he’s had to prune bunches out. He also mentioned that 2021’s been a busy year for Big Head because they’re moving from their current location to a new place they’re building on Concession 6. They hope to be in there sometime this fall.

A new way of experiencing bubbly

Waiting a bit paid off. When space opened up in the tasting room, Andrzej led us through a tasting. He gave us the tasting menu, but I prefer to let the winemaker decide what to pour. He asked if we like bubbly and we both quickly confessed we do. (It’s my favourite thing to drink.) So, he started us with their non-vintage Big Bang Black, which spent 68 months on the lees.

He served it in a regular glass and with the wine sitting in the bottom of the wide bowl, it was difficult to see any bubbles. He scoffed when I mentioned I would have liked to have tried it in a flute because I thought it would be easier to see the bubbles. He explained that what matters is tasting the bubbles on your tongue – not seeing them climbing up the wall of a glass. So, we took another sip with this in mind. It was very interesting… I had never really thought about experiencing bubbles on my tongue. By the third sip, we were both sold. Not only did I leave with a bottle of Big Bang Black, I left with a new way of experiencing bubbly.

We ended up trying a number of reds and whites, with both of us preferring the reds. I think my friend might have been a bit concerned with my candor when he described a few of the whites as being very aromatic and I disagreed because I didn’t get much of a nose on a couple of them. I don’t think Andrzej minded though because he thinks that each person perceives different things in each wine. Mind you, he did tease me at one point saying maybe my nose is broke!

Always new things to learn

One of the reasons I love doing to tastings at wineries or with winemakers is to hear about various decisions they made for each wine. For example, I find it interested to hear why they decided to ferment in steel, or clay, or concrete, and so on. And, if they mention a term I’ve never heard, I don’t mind asking them to explain a bit about it. Most of the time they don’t mind answering because they appreciate people taking an interest in their work.

So, when Andrzej described that the 2018 Raw Malbec underwent “carbonic” and was fermented in concrete, I asked what carbonic means. He explained it’s where – before pressing – whole grapes are placed in a tank and fermented using carbon dioxide for a certain period. That basically starts the fermentation. It was also interesting to learn that Big Head’s “Raw” series are all unoaked.

Andrzej was very generous with his time and as it started to get busy, we realized others might want to speak with him too. So, we thanked him and said next time we’d see him in the new location. After putting the wine we purchased in a cooler in the trunk, the next decision was about pizza.

Choosing from a list that all sounded good

With a long list of options, we decided we’d order two pizzas and share them. We got the King ‘Shroom, which featured mushrooms with gorgonzola and mozzarella, and Loving Cup, which featured a ridiculously delicious amount of pepperoni, mozzarella, and parmesan. We also shared a glass of the Big Red, which we figured would be good with both.

The pizzas were fantastic. The crusts were about as thin as you can imagine while still being sturdy enough to support all the toppings. As we were starting on our second pieces, the person who brought the pizzas to our table passed by. I stopped him to ask what their top seller is. He thought for a moment and said, “To be honest, I think the two you ordered are our most popular. But you know, next time you should try the Dilly Goat – it’s amazing.”

I had seen a photo of it the Dilly Goat – it’s a sea of a green rappini-based sauce with goat cheese and zucchini and then grated cheese (I think it was Grana Padano, but I’m not sure) and a ton of fresh dill. Based on the recommendation, we figured we should try the Dilly Goat too, so we ordered a third pizza! It too was delish…

Taste of Normal

Our day at Niagara-on-the-Lake was fun and relaxing – a nice change of pace after many months of staying close to home due to the pandemic.

August and September are the perfect time to visit Ontario wineries. The vineyards are spectacularly lush right now and winemakers are around but not yet crazy busy with harvest and the crush.

Good Earth Vineyard & Winery made our Monday!

When a friend phoned me yesterday to see if I wanted to take a drive toward Niagara to have lunch at a winery, my first reaction was: SURE! Of course, I knew he expected me to figure out where we’d go.

My mind went into overdrive, thinking about which wineries between Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake have restaurants. A few popped into my head immediately, and I went to their websites to check hours and see if they expect you to make a reservation. 

After checking three or four, I realized that it was a Monday – a day that many restaurants – not just those located at wineries – are closed. The Good Earth Bistro at Good Earth Vineyard & Winery, however, appeared to be open. I say “appeared” to be because they didn’t answer their phone, which I found a bit disconcerting.

On their website I was able to book a reservation (through OpenTable) and so my friend picked me up and we headed there. (Not to harp on the phone thing, but their website makes it clear that they hold reservations for 15 minutes only – which is completely understandable – and they ask that you phone if you’re running late. Well, if they don’t answer their phone, what’s a person to do? Anyway… we got there 10 minutes after our appointed reservation time and it was no problem.)

In line with Ontario’s Covid restrictions, they’ve moved all of their dining outside. They’ve been very creative using their space and so we had our choice between covered and uncovered. We chose a bright table adjacent to the garden that overlooks the vines. On looking around, my friend commented about how busy it was – but then they are one of the few restaurants serving on a Monday.

The menu had an interesting variety of options – some Asian-inspired and some traditional bistro fare, with some seasonal features and gourmet twists. One such twist caught my eye and proved irresistible to me and my friend: Steak Frites with truffle parmesan aioli. The medium steak was cooked to perfection and the frites with the aioli were to die for. We also shared the Panzanella salad, as you don’t find that on menus too often.

I am not a huge rosé fan – partly because they vary so much. But, when the server assured me the Aria Sparkling Rosé was dry, I decided to give it a try. I was surprised by both the fact they serve it in a stemless wine glass and by how delicious it was. I believe the server said it is a pinot noir/pinot grigio blend. My second glass (I wasn’t driving) confirmed how much I liked it and that I’d be taking a bottle to enjoy some summer afternoon at home.

I hadn’t been to Good Earth for a long time – too long, I realize. It’s definitely a place I’ll return to and a place I’d recommend to anyone looking for an Ontario winery to spend an afternoon over a glass of wine and a bite to eat – even on a Monday!

Your Chance to Recognize Folks in the Canadian Wine Industry

Occasionally I’m asked to spread the word about something related to the Canadian wine industry. Along that line, I got an email the other day from Wine Growers Canada (WGC) about the nomination process for their 2021 Canadian Wine Industry Awards. (If you’re like me, you may not have realized that the Canadian Vintners Association was re-branded as Wine Growers Canada in January 2020.)

Due to the pandemic, Wine Growers Canada, which is a trade association whose aim is to advocate on public policy initiatives of interest to its stakeholders, did not issue awards in 2020. So, they are keen to publicize the 2021 Canadian Wine Industry Awards.

At this time, they are seeking nominations for three awards:

The Award of Distinction – this award honours an individual who owns, managers, or is directly employed by a Canadian winery. The award is for demonstrating outstanding leadership, commitment, and passion for the advancement of the Canadian wine industry.

The Wine Industry Champion Award – this award honours an individual who has provided exemplary support for the Canadian wine industry thought media, research, policy and regulation, education, or advocacy that significantly contributes to the overall strength and long-term viability of the industry.

The Karl Kaiser Canadian Winemaker Award – this award honours an individual who works for a Canadian grape winery (as opposed to, say, a winery that specializes in fruit wines, I imagine). The winner is someone who has exemplified leadership in winemaking and has exhibited mentorship with fellow winemakers and others in the industry, and who has invested time and energy toward winemaking excellence.

Though it’s not 100% clear from the nomination form, I confirmed with someone from WGC that anyone can submit nominations for these awards. In other words, you need not be in the wine industry or in WGC to nominate someone. Furthermore, I confirmed that the awards are not limited to people working for, or affiliated with, WGC members. (So, for example, you can nominate your favourite winemaker even if he or she works at a winery not on the WGC member list.) And remember – the nominations are open to folks who work in any Canadian winery – not just Ontario wineries.

The deadline for nominations is February 26, 2021 and the awards will be announced at a ceremony in July.

I think it’s nice that Wine Growers Canada is providing this opportunity for regular folks like you and me – who appreciate and support the Canadian wine industry – to participate in a process aimed at recognizing the talents and hard work of the folks involved in the Canadian wine industry.

Enjoying a picnic at Creekside Estate Winery

Three girlfriends and I rendezvoused yesterday at Creekside Estate Winery in Jordan. I knew they have a good-size deck (patio) and that the Creekside Kitchen & Grocery was featuring box picnic lunches that you can enjoy on the patio along with a glass of wine (or a flight, as we did). It was hot, but the well-shaded deck made for a relaxing afternoon. I had pre-booked the lunches because we were converging from different places, but clearly other folks took their chances and dropped in.

So – if you’re doing a staycation but you’d like a bit of a change of scene – check out Creekside Estate Winery … a great place to relax and enjoy some summer sipping. The box lunch included a huge sandwich (there were two choices available), two side salads, and a tiny taste of dessert for $18+tax. They also have charcuterie boards available for $32+tax. They serve wine by the glass or pre-set flights of three wines for $15+tax.

A Visit to Queenston Mile Vineyard

Queenston Mile Vineyard is one of the newest wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It opened in November 2018.

I had read that Rob Power is the winemaker at Queenston Mile and I wondered if that meant he’s moved on from Creekside Estate Winery, where he’s been winemaker for years. Indeed, that was one of my first questions when I visited. Jodie Larmond, who was minding the tasting when I visited, explained that Creekside and Queenston Mile are sister wineries (owned by the same group) and Rob is the winemaker at both.

Queenston Mile has a very different vibe than Creekside. It’s housed in a warehouse-looking building that was on the property before the winery took it over. The tasting room is quite large, but it has a comfortable feel, with clusters of tables here and there, and private space in a loft area. Currently, they aren’t serving food, but Jodie thinks that’s in the works (likely something along the lines of the casual fare available on Creekside’s Deck). So, stay tuned…

 

Queenston Mile specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They also make a variety of sparkling wines, including one made using the Pét-Nat method. I’d never heard of that and Jodie was kind enough to explain it. Pét-Nat stands for pétillant naturel. It’s an ancient method that involves bottling wine that’s partially fermented. That means that the first and only fermentation continues in bottle and the gas absorbs into the wine quickly and is ready to be drunk within a shorter period of time than other methods.

Queenston Mile’s Pét-Nat Pinot Noir Rosé is a vibrant, dark rosé. Because it’s unfiltered, there’s a fair bit of sediment, making for a cloudy, deep rose.

 

 

Here’s a video of Jodie talking about the winery and demonstrating the decanting of their Pét-Nat Pinot Noir Rosé.

An EPIC Detour

I was in Cincinnati last weekend for a family event and on Victoria Day, I drove back to Toronto via Detroit/Windsor. I decided on that route because I figured it’d be an opportunity to have lunch in the EPIC (Erie, Pelee Island, Coast) winery region. It proved a delightful detour.

I wasn’t sure what my timing would be, so I didn’t want to make a reservation. My plan was to have lunch at the Bistro at North 42 Degrees Estate Winery . Fortunately, I was a bit on the early side for lunch and it wasn’t too busy at that point, so getting a table wasn’t a problem.

North 42 Degrees Estate Winery

I had stopped in to see the Bistro last time I was in the region. The new building (opened in late 2017) is unique and quite impressive. It’s designed to be a compass rose, with angles jutting out over the vineyard. On the first floor, there’s a large tasting room and lavender store featuring product from Serenity Lavender, which adjoins the winery. The main dining area for the bistro is on the top floor, which means it has panoramic views of the vineyard.

The menu is pretty standard bistro fare, including “small and shareable” plates including a cheese board and charcuterie board, mussels, shrimp, and so on. The mains were also pretty standard – a pasta dish, a chicken entrée, salmon, a steak, and a lamb shank. In other words – something for everyone.

I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed at the menu’s lack of creativity and the fact that there was nothing that was particularly local (or even regional) or seasonal. (I was hoping for some perch, as I know it’s local and available now.) Indeed, seems the Bistro’s menu hasn’t changed much since November.

That said, I ordered the stuffed chicken and my friend ordered the daily gnocchi, which featured four types of mushrooms. After we placed our order, the server brought a bread basket that featured three different types of breads – all house made. The focaccia was good, but the miniature corn muffin was exceptional. Hmm, I thought… things were looking up despite the standard menu choices.

Stuffed Chicken at the Bistro at North 42 Degrees Estate Winery

The chicken turned out to be very good. And, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw a square of au gratin potatoes rather than just a few fingerlings. My friend reported that her gnocchi were delicious. Indeed, she’s been to the Bistro two or three other times and she said the gnocchi was one of the best things she’s eaten there. Because I needed to get back on the road, we didn’t take time for dessert.

The Bistro at North 42 Degrees is definitely worth checking out. The service is friendly, the food is tasty, and the view is relaxing. Yet another reason to explore the EPIC region – or even just stop on your way through the region, as I did on my way back to Toronto!

Late – but encouraging – signs of spring

Bud Break at Oxley Estate Winery May 2019

While in Harrow, I also stop at Oxley Estate Winery  to check in with Murray and Ann Wilson to see how the vines are faring.  Of course, I could see for myself that the buds are out and leaves are just starting to pop – such a happy sight. The region’s had a cool, wet “spring” which seems to have delayed things quite a bit, but the Wilsons aren’t concerned. They’ve heard from other growers across the province and this year all crops are delayed.

Bud Break at Oxley Estate Winery May 2019

As Murray pointed out, a late start isn’t that critical for the EPIC region because they’re so far south, grapes usually have extra time to ripen at the back end of the season (late summer and fall).

Requirements for being organic

The last couple Vintages bi-weekly catalogues have had some interesting copy. (Not sure if I’d call it articles – especially since no by-line is given – shame on Vintages.)

In the catalogue for items available April 13, 2019 they’re featuring organic wines. So, interspersed in the catalogue is interesting snippets of info about what it takes for a winery to be considered organic.

One of the pieces of information that was news to me was that: “For certified organic wines, local yeasts must be used in fermentation.” (p. 4) I’d not heard that about requiring use of local yeasts… Mind you, I there are different certification bodies out there and the Vintages catalogue doesn’t specify the certification body, but still, it’s interesting. (Note: on p. 9 it says all products sold as organic at the LCBO is vetted by their Quality Assurance department. And, if you follow the link they provide, they say that the LCBO QA department requires the Canadian Organic Regulations be satisfied.)

Anyway, the reason that comment about the yeast caught my eye is because I typically think about the vineyard management aspects of being organic – not so much on the production aspects.

What about you? Do you shop for wines that are certified organic?

Prince Edward County’s Craft Distillery: Kinsip House of Fine Spirits

On a recent visit to Prince Edward County friends and I stopped in at Kinsip House of Fine Spirits. It’s at 66 Gilead Road in Bloomfield. If that address rings a bell, that’s because it used to house Gilead Distillery. The distillery was re-named Kinsip when it was sold a couple years ago.

Jamie Moody, Retail Manager at Kinsip House of Fine Spirits

I had been to the distillery in its previous incarnation and I wondered whether it had changed much. I’m happy to report the cozy tasting room is still in the same historic farm house. According to Jamie Moody, the retail manager, Kinsip has continued to use some of Gilead’s recipes, but it has also crafted new products. My friend Sandy was glad to hear it, as she was especially fond of the Gilead’s Duck Island Rum, which they still make.

Jamie led through a quick tasting flight that included the Duck Island Rum, their Maple Whisky, and County Cassis. Sandy confirmed that Kinsip’s Duck Island Rum is as good as when it was made under the Gilead name. I was especially interested in trying their Maple Whisky to see how it compared to my favourite – Sortilège from Quebec. Kinsip’s Maple Whisky is quite a lot lighter on the maple than the Sortilèege.

And then there was the County Cassis. We decided to try it based on Jamie’s description. Well, I’m so glad we did. We were all pretty blown away by it. Its a silky smooth, delicious sipper.

Though Jamie had described the County Cassis it before we tried it – after tasting it, we all wanted to hear the description again. Jamie was kind enough to let me shoot a short video of him describing it. Click here to see the video.

If you’re in the County and you like fine spirits, you owe it to yourself to stop in at Kinsip. They craft a variety of spirits, liquors, and bitters – there’s bound to be something to your liking.

Sugarbush Vineyards’ Experience with Geotextiles

Geotextiles Covering Vines at Sugarbush Vineyards, PEC

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Oxley Estate’s current experiment with geotextiles. Murray and Ann Wilson of Oxley had mentioned that in researching the idea they met with – and learned from – a winery in Prince Edward County that has been using them. That winery was Sugarbush Vineyards.

Last week when I was in the County, I stopped in at Sugarbush to speak with Rob and Sally Peck – owners of Sugarbush – about their experience using geotextiles to protect their vines. They’ve been using them since winter 2011-2012. Rob explained that they tried them because they were looking for an alternative way to protect the vines because he doesn’t think burying them – which is standard in the County – is good for the vines or the soil. (Wineries in the County have bene burying their vines for years to protect them from the cold, harsh weather that often moves through Prince Edward County.)

Rob was generous with his time and was kind enough to allow me to video him answering my questions about geotextiles. Click here to see the video.

Their wines

After the chat about geotextiles we had a tasting of the three remaining wines they have in stock: Viognier, Riesling, and Cab Franc. (They’re running low but Rob assured us that they’ll restock soon – it’s just they’ve not had a chance to do any bottling!)  Of the three, we all went home with some 2017 Riesling – it was flinty and refreshing.