“Friends, relations, tribe, nation, common people.”

I spent most of last week at a conference just outside of Phoenix. This was my view each morning:

Not bad, right? But with this trip coming right on the heels of the previous week’s trip to Boston, I was ready to come back to Toronto and have a couple of quiet weekends. Fortunately while I was away the long Toronto winter finally breathed its last. I arrived home Thursday to find runners and cyclists swarming the waterfront, leaves finally breaking out on trees, and the Canadiens playing their first playoff game.

As sure as those are signs of spring, so too is Hot Docs. My travel schedule kept us from seeing our usual five screenings this year, but we did manage to squeak in a few. First, after a bite and a beer at The Oxley followed by a few spectacular glasses of wine (my ’99 Peter Lehmann Shiraz really stood out) at Opus we took in a late screening of Blackfish. I get emotional every time I think about Tilikum or Dawn Brancheau or pretty much any other part of that film so I’m not going to describe it much more here. I’m just going to say this: SeaWorld can go fuck itself. So can MarineLand. So can anyone who goes there.

After our customary pre-Hot Docs stop on the patio at the Victory Café

…we hit our second screening: Which Way Is The Front Line From Here: The Life And Time Of Tim Hetherington. It was directed by the author Sebastien Junger, with whom Hetherington had shadowed an army platoon to create a book called War and a documentary called Restrepo. Not long after the documentary was nominated for an Oscar Hetherington was killed in Libya covering yet another war zone. Junger made the documentary to explain who Tim was, why he was so possessed with telling stories this way, and sharing more of his brilliance than we were likely to ever see otherwise.

After that we needed another drink. We made our way (slowly, happily) down to Bellwoods Brewery, which we’d shamefully not yet tried despite it being named the 3rd-best new brewery in the world last year. We had several tasty pints and ate bread and salumi and rosemary fries, and sat in the perfect inside-but-almost-outside weather.



An artistic composition

A couple of years ago, on our first visit to the Niagara wine region, we added ourselves to the mailing list at what would eventually become one of our favourite wineries — Thirty Bench. What we didn’t know is that doing so would add us to the mailing list of something called the Small Winemakers Collection. I ignored the emails they sent at first, because we were really still learning about wine.

Of course, we’re still learning, but now know our favourites well enough that we’re interested in branching out to what we may not have tried yet. And so, a couple of weeks ago Nellie and I finally took them up on one of their offers. They held a tasting at their offices featuring 14 producers from around the world, and we signed ourselves up.

We got there a little early, so the place was quite empty at first, but soon filled to bursting. We made our way around the tables ahead of the bulk of the crowd, sampling Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and finally Shiraz from multiple countries. Around the time that we hit the Shiraz, a gentleman stepped up to us and said, “Here, try my wine.” He introduced himself as Norm Doole, co-owner of Dowie Doole winery in Australia’s McLaren Vale region. We chatted about what took him to McLaren Vale (he’s from Canada), about our recent adventures in Australia, and so on. As it turns out, his Shiraz might have been the best wine we tried all night, so we ordered a case (and a case of Appleby Lane Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand) and set out to find some dinner.

As it turns out, the tasting took place a stone’s throw from Ruby WatchCo, which we’ve been meaning to try for ages. We walked in sans reservations; sadly they had no free table, but did offer us space at the bar —  rapidly becoming our preferred perch anyway. The fun of Ruby WatchCo is that you don’t have much choice about the menu…they set out a prix fixe each week and you eat what they give you. What I noticed right away is that they had a great selection of Ontario wine, and by the glass to boot, so we started there. The starter was a HUGE shared salad with shredded duck; the main was a large plate of slow-roasted lamb (Nellie’s comment: “It tastes…cute!”) that almost made me weep. I don’t exactly remember dessert. I do remember a large portion of cheese showing up, which we nibbled at but mostly took home. I also remember meeting and chatting with the couple sitting next to us at the bar; apparently it’s easier for introverts to make friends while drinking wine and breaking bread on bar stools. I should have started at age 12.

Anyway, that started me/us on a streak of trying new places for the next week or so. Last Wednesday I had a work dinner at Opus in Yorkville, a place I’d walked past (and hung out near) for years but not tried. I’m not entirely sure I’d go back without it being on a vendor’s dime either…the food was excellent and the service impeccable, but the wine list was both prodigious and pricey, and I’m not sure I could go back without ordering a bottle at least as good as the two 2007 Cakebread Cab Sauvs we cracked that night. Lots of old Forest Hill money at that place, so I felt a tidge out of place, but the staff wasn’t at all uppity, which made it nice. Anyway, good ‘event’ spot to keep in mind.

Then, on Friday, we decided to visit the reincarnation of an old friend. Smokeless Joe had been one of our favourite beer joints for years, but it closed back in June and moved up to College street, and we weren’t sure how this new version would stack up to the original. The physical space is certainly different — above ground, room to move, no optical-illusion-sloped-wall-with-marble — but some of the staff have made the move, the tap list has grown significantly (about 16, I think — I had a Black Oak Nutcracker, a Unibroue Maudite and a Hockley Valley Dark) and a lot of the food is the same. Even if I never order the peanut soup, I like to smell it while sitting at the bar. And yes, we sat at the bar again, just like we did at old Joe’s; there we met a guy named Owen who was clearly a regular and knew our friend Kaylea (who we met whilst tending the Joe bar) and with whom I have more than a few Twitter friends in common. Small world. Anyway, we don’t get up to College much, but at least if we do we know there’s a place where we can get a decent pint.

Oh yeah: last night we hung out with CBGB and took them their wine (we split our Small Winemakers’ haul with them) and ordered Thai from a place we’ve never tried before, but I don’t think that counts.