(7 x 7 – 1) = 48 = we need a bigger condo

“It’s always exciting for Niagara wineries when you come to town!” –Rick VanSickle

It’s been more than eight months since we last visited the Niagara wine region, and guiding our friends CBJ+M around seemed like a perfectly good excuse. Last weekend we decided to see what kind of fun we could get up to with thirty hours and an Autoshare Prius.

We decided to keep it to a very respectable five or six wineries per day (what?), and give them a mix of small and large wineries. Within reason, mind you; we can’t deal with the crowds at Jackson Triggs or Inniskillin or what have you. We started with Southbrook, then did a tasting at Ravine before eating lunch there (next to Jason Spezza), then moved on to Five Rows and Colaneri.

Five Rows (whose website I would link to except that it seems to be infected with malware) might have been the highlight of the whole trip. It was only our second time there, and it was as every bit good as the first. We had a great chat with Wilma Lowrey; we recounted our first visit and she told us no end of stories while pouring us wine. We learned the history of their labels (best: their ‘Single Press’ ice wine) and bought an 08 and 09 Cab Sauv. She actually gave us bottle #1 of the 09 (they hand-number the labels of all their bottles so customers can record them on their website) and we can’t wait for the day we’re able to open it up.

After that stop we did a 180 and hit Colaneri, the palatial and showy winery a little further west. Sure, it looks like a Disney-fied Tuscan villa from the outside, but we’d heard they were making good wines lately. I thought the wine was okay, but the tasting room rammed with tourists (and Jason Spezza again!) was hard to deal with after the personal, intimate experience we’d had at Five Rows. Nice bathrooms though. We grabbed a bottle or two and moved on.

Our penultimate stop was Kacaba, where they were happy to have interested, paying customers at the counter and not party-goers trying to scam multiple samples. Us, we left with a case. By this point we were running out of afternoon, so we zipped up to Vineland Estates to hit their tasting room. Again, we quickly became staff favourites for not asking bizarre questions or trying to scam free tastings. We delved into the Pinot family: Grigio, Blanc, Meunier.

We figured that was enough wine for one day (we had 24 bottles already; guessing CBJ+M had about 10) so we drove the few clicks to Black Walnut Manor, our B&B. We were greeted warmly, taken to our rooms and prompted to come have wine and cheese and cantaloupe jam by the pool. So we did. We said hi to the other guests and played with their dogs and took long, cooling swims and felt pretty goddamn happy, thank you very much.

For dinner that night we returned to Vineland Estates, and ate on their patio under that huge tree, overlooking the vines and trees and lake in the distance. I had east coast lobster bisque w/ vanilla chantilly; Upper Canada ricotta gnocchi w/ Cumbrae smoked chicken, grilled zucchini and rich cream; and marinated lamb loin w/ sous vide lamb sausage, celeriac and salsa verde. Nellie had the lobster bisque; fresh linguine w/ roasted peppers, sea asparagus, eggplant caviar and Toscano shavings; and Cumbrae beef tenderloin w/ blue haze, smashed mini reds and Shiitake reduction. Most of us split a bottle of Vineland’s 05 Cabernet; alas, I was driving and couldn’t have much. None of us had room for dessert; in any case it’d grown sweltering hot outside around the second course, so I was ready to head home to some air conditioning and chilled wine. We spent a few minutes on CBJ+M’s deck, drinking the Pinot Grigio we’d picked up at Vineland that afternoon and trying not to wake the other guests with our talk of Gordon Lightfoot and Stan Rogers.

The next morning, after another swim, we inhaled Carole’s unbelievable breakfast, featuring sausage and ricotta-stuffed french toast made from a chocolate croissant. Followed by a sticky bun. Even for a guy with an industrial-strength sweet tooth it was pretty rich, but I’d asked for it in a tweet about a month before, so I couldn’t very well back down at the moment of truth. I must say though, my oatmeal this morning was a sad replacement indeed.

We had five more wineries to hit, so we said goodbye and went on our way. We stopped at Tawse so they could ooh and aah at both scenery and wine, and then drove up the hill to Megalomaniac for more scenic views and a tour of the cave. We snapped them back into quiet low-key winery mode with a visit to Daniel Lenko (where we snapped up another case), and finished them off with stops at Hidden Bench and Fielding. By this point the trunk was full to bursting; we either had to come home or start carrying boxes on laps.

We stopped at Good Earth for some lunch — inside, alas, since the fly epidemic remains. After that it was a pretty uneventful ride back to Toronto, except for the last few kilometres when we drove into yesterday’s miniature monsoon season on the Gardiner. There was standing water being shot every which way by speeding cars, waves crashing over the median…it was nuts. It took us a little longer to drop CBJ+M and unload our wine at home than we’d planned, but that’s the joy of Autoshare. A few clicks of the Android and we had an extra hour. Once we dried off we took stock of the new additions, and set about trying to find them a home in the various fridges and racks.

Here was the final haul, not including the bottle we got for Nellie’s mom and a gift for another set of friends:

  • Colaneri 2009 ‘Unita’ Cabernet Franc
  • Colaneri 2010 ‘Cavallone’ Pinot Grigio
  • Daniel Lenko 2007 Signature Chardonnay
  • Daniel Lenko 2007 Old Vines American Oak Chardonnay (x2)
  • Daniel Lenko 2007 Viognier
  • Daniel Lenko 2008 White Cabernet (x4)
  • Daniel Lenko 2008 Unoaked Chardonnay
  • Daniel Lenko 2008 Unoaked Chardonn(g)ay
  • Daniel Lenko 2009 Reserve Riesling (x2)
  • Fielding 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Fielding 2010 Viognier
  • Fielding 2011 Lot 17 Riesling
  • Fielding 2011 Pinot Gris
  • Fielding 2011 Gamay
  • Five Rows 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Five Rows 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Five Rows 2009 ‘Single Press’ Icewine
  • Hidden Bench 2008 Felseck Vineyards Chardonnay
  • Hidden Bench 2009 Felseck Vineyards Pinot Noir
  • Hidden Bench 2009 Nuit Blanche
  • Kacaba 2007 Reserve Meritage
  • Kacaba 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Kacaba 2008 Cabernet Franc (x3)
  • Kacaba 2008 Syrah
  • Kacaba 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (x3)
  • Kacaba 2011 Reserve Riesling (x2)
  • Kacaba 2011 Rosé
  • Megalomaniac 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Megalomaniac 2011 ‘Pink Slip’ Rosé (x2)
  • Ravine 2009 Sand & Gravel Sauvignon Blanc
  • Ravine 2010 Piccone Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Franc
  • Southbrook 2010 Triomphe Chardonnay
  • Southbrook 2011 Connect White
  • Tawse 2010 Sketches Riesling
  • Vineland Estates 2008 Pinot Blanc
  • Vineland Estates 2011 Pinot Grigio (which we drank Saturday night)
  • Vineland Estates 2011 Pinot Meunier

That settles it, we need a bigger place

Yup, I know we just got back from a 3-week trip and our to-do list is still blazing out of control, but the hell with it…we felt like driving down to Niagara and stocking up on wine for the fall and winter. The weather gods were certainly with us — it was a beautiful, sunny fall weekend. We hit nine (!) wineries on Saturday and had an amazing lunch at Stone Road Grille as well as dinner at On The Twenty, across the street from the Inn On The Twenty in Jordan where we stayed. The soup we had at the former and the duck at the latter were among the best things I’ve eaten all year.

On Sunday we had a bit of a stroll on the Twenty Valley Trail, and then visited seven more wineries, including Vineland Estates — where we ate yet another spectacular meal. After pillaging the region for all it was worth we drove home, dropped the car and produced the final tally:

  • Calamus 2009 Gewurztraminer
  • Calamus 2010 Pinot Gris
  • Cave Spring 2008 CSV Riesling
  • Creekside 2007 Shiraz
  • Creekside 2007 Laura’s Red
  • Featherstone 2010 Four Feathers
  • Flat Rock 2008 Chardonnay
  • Hidden Bench 2008 Felseck Vineyard Chardonnay
  • Hidden Bench 2009 Nuit Blanche
  • Kacaba 2008 Cabernet Franc
  • Kacaba 2008 Meritage
  • Lailey 2008 Cabernet
  • Lailey 2008 Old Vines Chardonnay
  • Le Clos Jordanne 2009 Village Reserve Pinot Noir (x2)
  • Le Clos Jordanne 2009 Le Clos Vineyard Pinot Noir
  • Le Clos Jordanne 2009 Claystone Terrace Chardonnay
  • Le Clos Jordanne 2009 Village Reserve Chardonnay (x2)
  • Malivoire 2007 Moira Pinot Noir
  • Malivoire 2010 Pinot Gris
  • Megalomaniac 2008 Bravado Cabernet Sauvignon (x2)
  • Southbrook 2008 Triomphe Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Southbrook 2004 Poetica Chardonnay
  • Staff 2009 Cabernet Merlot
  • Staff 2008 Riesling
  • Stratus 2008 Voignier
  • Stratus 2008 Sauvignon Blanc
  • Stratus 2006 White
  • Stratus 2007 White
  • Stratus 2010 Red Ice Wine
  • Thirty Bench 2008 Cabernet Franc (x3)
  • Twenty Twenty Seven Cellars 2009 Queenston Road Pinot Noir
  • Vineland Estates 2010 Pinot Meunier
  • Vineland Estates 2008 Pinot Blanc

We had two purposes on this trip: stock up for the winter, but also try some places for the first time. Calamus, Creekside, Featherstone/2027, Kacaba, Lailey, Malivoire, Staff and Vineland Estates were all first-time visits for us. Flat Rock and Megalomaniac were more proximity plays since we had to drive right past them to get to others on our list and we knew each had wines we wanted to pick up. Hidden Bench, Jackson-Triggs (for the Clos Jordanne), Southbrook, Stratus and Thirty Bench are practically must-hits whenever we’re in the area. And, in case you’re wondering, Cave Spring only happened because it’s the house winery at Inn On The Twenty and we felt bad leaving without one.

I’d classify most of the new places as good, not great. Only Kacaba really wowed us…their reds were terrific, and very reasonably priced. And it wasn’t even in our original plans for this weekend — several people responded to my tweet announcing our agenda, telling us not going to Kacaba would be a miss. They were right, and we left with two bottles. And there may be a case in our future. I should also point out that we didn’t spend nearly enough time at Vineland tasting their wine; we just tried three in the few minutes before our lunch reservation, but liked two of them enough to buy bottles, so more investigation is probably warranted.

And now, the classic follow-up problem…where do we put all this freaking wine?!?

With the grain

Oh, it’s been some kind of long weekend so far, yes it has. My brother and his wife arrived early yesterday morning; we met them at the airport and — a little car-location trouble aside — got on our way down to wine country. Traffic was pretty awful with all the people headed for (presumably) the border, but once we jumped off the QEW we were fine. We stopped at Hidden Bench, where they also had sausages and burgers on the grill, followed by Fielding, Thirty Bench, Rosewood, Daniel Lenko, Tawse and Megalomaniac. We filled our bellies with charcuterie and cheese from Good Earth and then boogied back to Toronto.

That’s eleven different bottles plus a case of Daniel Lenko White Cabernet for Nellie. Not bad for an afternoon’s work.

The wine theme continued that night as we settled in for dinner at Wine Bar. Excellent as always, with the scallops and short ribs being the stars of the night, along with a German Riesling whose name escapes me. We came home full and happy.

Today has entailed: greasy breakfast, St. Lawrence Market, the Distillery District, food trucks (too crowded, alas), Soma drinking chocolate and lunch at Against The Grain Urban Tavern, a new pub down by the waterfront. They have one of the few lakeside patios I can think of in the city, and a very good beer list, and pretty decent food on top of that. It’s a bit of a hike — perversely, Toronto’s waterfront isn’t easy to reach — but I can see that we’ll be back soon.

Tonight we head to Fieramosca, where I am required by law to bring any family members within Toronto city limits. So…blogging may be sparse tomorrow.

23…is that a winemaker's two dozen?

Coming to Niagara back in May might have been a mistake. I fear I’m hooked now.

Friday after work Nellie, T-Bone, The Sof and I drove to Niagara-on-the-Lake to begin a weekend of good food and flowing wine. After fighting off traffic we had a drink and some lobster poutine at the Shaw Club hotel’s bar, then left for our dinner reservations at Stone Road Grille. We’d enjoyed it so much last time that T-Bone wanted to try it too. Lucky for her, it was even better this time. All four starters — my scallops wrapped in duck breast bacon, The Sof’s poutine (he is from Montreal, after all) and the sweet corn, chantrelle and lobster risotto that Nellie and T-Bone each had — were fantastic. The mains — perfect flank steak frites for me, T-Bone’s shepherd’s pie with lamb, Nellie’s halibut with sea asparagus and The Sof’s duck confit — were also top-notch. We all took the easy way out and just did their suggested wine pairings, but they really did work perfectly. None of us had room for dessert; most of us had dessert wine, but then they brought out some cotton candy (!) for us to share, so…sweet overload. Quite a meal. We wisely decided to walk it off, but then foolishly decided to drink a bottle of Megalomaniac cab sauv when we got to the hotel. Ah well. When in Rome.

Saturday morning we again ate on the beautiful patio at the Shaw Club, then began the wine touring. We started with Stratus, whose wines were good and whose tasting room is gorgeous. Like, I want to live there gorgeous. Next was Southbrook, where our pouring needs were attended to by the most delightful Scottish lady. At this point we were getting hungry so we drove to Port Dalhousie where we had reservations at Treadwell. Our lunch there was excellent: a charcuterie plate to start, then fish & chips, soup, sandwiches and wine, all of it local. Oh, and our patio seats overlooked the water. So, yeah…pretty nice. But no time to rest, we had more wineries to visit.

We stopped at A Foreign Affair, then Alvento, then the beautiful cellar at Tawse, then the room at Megalomaniac tucked into a hill. By this time our trunk was full of wine and our energy levels flagging, so we checked in to our little inn, the Black Walnut Manor. The owners poured us another glass of wine (mercy!) and put out some brie and crackers and red pepper jelly and we sat and ate it on the deck under an enormous tree and felt sooooooooo relaxed. We sat by the pool and dipped our feet and played with dogs and wanted to stay forever or make them an offer to buy or maybe just have a nap or whatever. But we were happy.

A more casual dinner was in order, and luckily the proprietor was able to sneak us into About Thyme at the last minute. It didn’t look like much on the outside, but had good food and a great wine selection. Nothing about anyone’s meal was too remarkable, except Nellie’s steak with an atomic pile of mushroom poutine and my first experience tasting NYARAI‘s wines, but it was a very solid meal. It also provided a very relaxed atmosphere, conducive to us crashing immediately after dinner following the 2km walk home. I, for one, slept like the freaking dead.

The next morning was my happy place. I awoke at 8 to find juice, tea, nectarines and a newspaper outside our door. I adjourned to the balcony with laptop and wi-fi in tow, enjoying the fresh air. I luxuriated in my warm, quiet morning  until it was time for breakfast, prepared by the owners. Sitting with the four other guests (two different couples, both from Cincinnati oddly enough) we were treated to pancetta & melon, chocolatines and broccoli + cheese frittatas. But enough dilly-dallying: we had wineries to visit.

Zipping west to Beamsville, we started at Rosewood. Next was Thirty Bench, just across the street, where we loaded up on the cab franc. Then quick visits to Fielding and Hidden Bench (where we didn’t buy anything, but T-Bone did) followed by an experience at Daniel Lenko. Actually, it’d be more accurate to say an experience with Daniel Lenko, as he was the one pouring the wines right at his kitchen table. Sadly he was sold out of his white Cabernet, which was Nellie’s one required purchase for this trip. Major sad face.

Food was next on the agenda, so we took our innkeeper’s advice and visited The Good Earth for lunch. What a recommendation it was: nestled in this beautiful space among the vines and fruit trees, they served us lunch outdoors at a harvest table next to a wood-fired oven. Yet another charcuterie plate to start, and then a pile of meat for T-Bone and pizzas for the rest of us. The tomato, bocconcini and basil pizza was good, but Nellie’s prosciutto, peach and blue cheese pizza kicked ass. The food, the wine, the setting, the people, the day…none of us wanted to leave. And yet, it was time to go. The trunk could hold no more anyway. An hour later we were back in Toronto, wondering where the hell to put all these bottles. Storage issues aside, though, it was just a fantastic weekend. And so, I present the spoils:

This is what we bought:

  • Stratus 2006 White
  • Stratus 2008 Ice Wine White
  • Southbrook Whimsy 2007 Cabernet Franc
  • Southbrook Whimsy 2007 Lot no. 20 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • The Foreign Affair 2007 Chardonnay
  • The Foreign Affair 2008 Riesling
  • The Foreign Affair 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Alvento 2007 Viognier
  • Tawse 2007 Meritage
  • Tawse 2007 Chardonnay
  • Megalomaniac 2007 Narcissist Riesling
  • Rosewood 2008 Pinot Noir
  • Rosewood 2008 Trois Femmes Rosé
  • Thirty Bench Small Lot 2009 Triangle Riesling
  • Thirty Bench Small Lot 2009 Gewurztraminer
  • Thirty Bench Small Lot 2007 Cabernet Franc (x3)
  • Fielding 2007 Sauvignon Blanc
  • Fielding 2007 Chardonnay Musque
  • Daniel Lenko 2005 Meritage
  • Daniel Lenko 2007 Old Vines Chardonnay (French Oak)
  • also: a Thirty Bench Merlot, which we intended to give away as a gift, because there will be no Merlot in this house

11 whites, 9 reds and 2 others. Probably a more even mix than I expected. I did not expect to come home with four chardonnays though.


No blogging for the next few days as I’m off for a weekend. If you’re looking for me I’ll be with Nellie, T-Bone and The Sof, seeing Beamsville and Niagara from their lovely tasting rooms, celebrating the end of my 35th year as a human.

Cheers, everyone.

"Better a drop of the extraordinary than an ocean of the ordinary."

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’ve lived in Toronto since 1997 and I’ve never seen Niagara Falls. One of the natural wonders of the world ninety minutes away and I’d never gone to see it. I’d also never visited the Niagara wine country, but that’s a little less shocking since it was only a few years ago I began to care that there was a wine region nearby. So, we thought we’d cure both ills at once. We took the day off, rented a car and set sail.

The weather wasn’t bad when we left Toronto, passing Mississauga and Oakville (first time past highway 403 woo!) and crossing the lovely skyway bridge to…to…oh my GOD Hamilton is ugly. Ugh. I closed my eyes until we reached Beamsville. We stopped there as I had it on good authority that there are three fantastic wineries there, practically next door to each other: Fielding, Hidden Bench and Thirty Bench.

As we walked into Fielding (whose tagline constitutes the subject of this blog post, by the way) Nellie said that it felt to her like going to church. We’ve never tried a Fielding wine we didn’t love, and their building is rather like a cathedral. The staff was awfully nice, very helpful and fairly convincing: we tasted nine wines, and left with bottles of the Lot 17 Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Meritage, and White Conception.

Hidden Bench, just around the corner, was different: smaller, quieter, more intimate. The lady working the tasting counter took a chunk out of her day to talk all the about the wines, the history of the winery and the vines. Their wine tasted so clean that we ended buying three bottles: a Fume Blanc (which Nellie realized later we’d drunk before) and two bottles of their Terroir Caché Meritage. We’ll drink one soon, and stash one for a few years.

We loved Thirty Bench for two reasons: the clever tasting notes (see above) and the more structured tasting. We’d enjoyed the benefits of near-empty tasting rooms at all three spots, but at 30 Bench they brought us to the comfy tasting bar and threw seven (!) samples at us. We settled on their Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, and left startled that we’d so far collected more red than white.

The lady at Hidden Bench had recommended a spot called August for lunch, and when a local with good taste recommends a spot for lunch, you go. We weren’t disappointed; my pasta with andouille sausage in a pesto sauce was very good, as was Nellie’s salad. Happily she was able to get a glass of Daniel Lenko white Cabernet to go with it, and I had a glass of Creekside Pinot Grigio. All was right with the world.

On we drove (don’t worry, I was sipping and spitting, not drinking) to Niagara on the Lake. We checked in to the one hotel I could find in NotL that didn’t fit the dictionary definition of “frou-frou”: The Shaw Club. Beautiful hotel, beautiful room, just top-notch all around. Highly recommended if you’re staying in that town. That town, by the way, is a little too precious…a walk up and down the main strip was like one long gift shop. On the stroll back to the hotel we decided to stop in at the Olde Angel Inn and get at least a bit of the local quaffing culture. Despite my tasty Amsterdam Two-Fisted stout, I was miserable as a headache was hitting me with both barrels. We went back to the room to relax before dinner.

Dinner was at Stone Road Grille, the de facto NotL dining champion according to Chowhound. The joint was packed when we arrived and, despite the fact that we’d made reservations a month ago, we had to wait half an hour for a table. My mood might have been soured had the host not been a bizarre combination of charming and unhinged…if I didn’t know better I’d swear he was from Newfoundland.

Anyway, the meals. In a word: superb. I started with — and I’m quoting from the menu here — the scallops wrapped in smoked duck breast bacon, sweet onion puree, mache salad, icewine salmis vinaigrette, paired with…well, with the giant glass of Fielding Pinot Gris the host had poured me while we waited. Nellie had a truffle and asparagus risotto paired with a 13th street sparkling white. Nellie declared it the best risotto she’d ever tasted. As for me, I don’t even really like scallops and I loved this.

My main was the Charlie Baker fried chicken with buttermilk potato puree, braised leeks, sauteed greens and bubbly sauce, while Nellie had the grilled flat iron steak frites with sauce béarnaise and garlicky beans. We sought out a wine that would work with both (!) and settled on a 2007 Southbrook “Whimsy” Cabernet Franc. And wow, did it work. We were still enjoying it when our strawberry & rhubarb clafouti arrived.

Perhaps the oddest part of the night was when we asked for a cab. Despite being warned by T-Bone about the scarcity of cabs in the city, we were hopeful…and we were to be disappointed. The nearest one was 30-40 minutes away. So, much to our amazement, the semi-crazy host pulled around in a giant purple minivan and offered to drive us home. Weird, but pretty cool too. More than made up for the long wait for a table, and also made for a great laugh the next morning.

Day two started with an excellent breakfast at the Shaw Club’s restaurant before checking out and driving south to see Niagara Falls itself.

Never mind the schlocky shops on the way into town, the outrageous cost of parking, the mind-numbing tackiness of the gift shops you’re forced through to gain a vantage point…the falls are amazing. I could probably stand at the river’s edge all day and watch the water plunge over, but not today…it was freezing, and spitting rain. We stayed long enough for me to really soak it in, get some pictures and get even wetter from the spray, and then walked back to the car. A sudden storm burst just long enough to soak us as we ran to the car. It wouldn’t be the last time.

We did have a break in the rain long enough to visit Ravine Vineyards, another recommendation. Their tasting room wasn’t quite open yet so we had some tasty treats at their bakery first. Once the sun was over the yardarm we picked up a bottle each of their 2006 Cabernet Franc and their Redcoat blend, and got some recommendations from their staff about the next stop on our tour.

Southbrook‘s beautiful LEED-certified building suits their organic and biodynamic wine. We’d already decided to pick up a bottle of the Whimsy, since we’d loved it the night before, and while we expected to walk out with their rosé, we instead left with a bottle of their “Fresh” white blend, which won us both over during the tasting.

As we’d pulled into Southbrook the weather had turned vile. Rather than visit one more we decided to take nature’s hint and just hit the road. When the rain comes in sideways, it’s time to go home. It was tough going just outside of Niagara on the Lake because of the driving rain, and then on the Skyway as we passed Hamilton the wind actually blew our car halfway into the next lane. All the dreary, windy driving made us both sluggish, so we dropped the wine, dropped the car, helped an Australian man figure out how to adjust the seat in his rental and happily deposited ourselves on our couch and admired our new wine collection.

13 bottles of wine, 3 great meals and a wonder of the world…not bad for 28 hours.