Return to the County

We spent Saturday and Sunday in Prince Edward County. I kept telling people I hadn’t been there in two years. I was wrong — it’s been three years. No wonder it felt like such a different place.

We left Saturday morning, arriving in Hillier around lunchtime. I reckoned our first stop should be wood oven pizza at Norm Hardie’s, but that plan blew up when the line of cars extended so far down the driveway we knew we wouldn’t get a table. We didn’t even stop, just did a U-turn and came up with a plan B.

Since we were right there we tootled down the road to Rosehall Run. I’ve had both good and bad experiences with that winery, so I wasn’t sure which we’d get. Turns out it was the latter. The tasting room was slammed. It was tough to get someone to pour for us, and when they did they handed us plastic patio glasses. You know, the ones with the thumb groove. We mentioned that to a few other wineries, who reacted with horror. We didn’t like much of what we tried, but did leave with a 2014 JCR Pinot Noir.

I figured we might as well start the journey down Closson Road, and we started at Hinterland. I warned Lindsay that there are often one or more woohoo-y bachelorette parties at Hinterland; sure enough, one was occupying half the tasting bar when we got there. The other half was subsumed by picture-taking tourists. This was not the county I remembered. This was not the peaceful experience I’d described to Lindsay over the summer. We contemplated leaving, but then managed to squeak into one corner so Lindsay could try the sparkling. She already knew she liked the Whitecap; she bought a 2013 Blanc de Blancs to take away. Suddenly, the tasting room emptied (after the bride forcibly extracted her future bridesmaid Caitlin/Caitlyn/Catelyn/Kaitlyn/Katelyn from the bar so they could continue their reign of terror) and the County was peaceful again.

We decided to eat lunch at the County Road brewery/restaurant next door, which wasn’t even there in 2014, but was now packed to the gills. We shared tomatoes with sourdough and local mozzarella, and beer bratwurst with pickles, and Lindsay tried a few beer samples. While there we met up with our friend Duarte, who lives in the County now, bought some beer, and followed him to our next winery: The Grange of Prince Edward.

I’d been to The Grange before and hadn’t been impressed, but either their wine has improved or my palette has, because a few months ago we shared a bottle of their Estate Cab Franc and loved it. Duarte gave us the grand tour and we tasted through their wines; we eventually left with three bottles of the 2013 Estate Cabernet Franc, two of the 2012 Brut Rosé, a 2013 Estate Chardonnay, and a magnum (!) of the 2014 Pinot Noir / Gamay. The tasting room was mad — we were definitely getting the stinkeye from others who weren’t receiving the same personal attention, and there were no fewer than three bachelorette parties present — but it was a wonderful stop.

We drove down Closson with the intention of stopping at Closson Chase, but the swarm of cars out front warned us off. Instead we drove a little further to the peace and quiet (and delicious Pinot) of The Old Third. We chatted, reveled in the beautiful (and calm!) barn, and bought a bottle of their 2015 vintage. We were finally finding our County groove.

Our last winery of the day was one I’d never heard of until a few weeks ago (hot tip from Laura at Chez Nous Wine Bar) called Domaine Darius. The grounds look like a hobbit’s garden, while the tasting room, a small underground cave, does nothing to dissuade you from that comparison. But the wine? The wine was fantastic. So unexpected, and so different (for the most part) from what I’d expect in the County. We tasted all three they had on offer (2016 Gewurztraminer, 2016 Chardonnay, and 2015 Cuvée red blend), and bought two bottles of each.

Our plan was to head to our AirBnb in Wellington, but we’d been told about one last must-visit: Parsons Brewing, just north of Picton. We took the back roads and found a much bigger operation than I’d expected: a restaurant with a huge outdoor space, families milling about, a bottle shop, and a small bar where we parked ourselves. Lindsay tried a flight, but my favourite was definitely the Grandpa Miguel’s coffee stout. I ended up buying a bottle of that and the Rinda Rinda to take home with us.

Finally, we opted to retreat to our AirBnb, which sat right on Lake Ontario. We had an hour or so to relax, and spent most of it on the back deck. I was done driving for the day, thankfully.

Dinner that night was at Wellington stalwart East & Main. We split the salad and beef carpaccio. I had the pork chop; Lindsay had the pickerel special. We had all this with an outstanding Closson Chase 2014 KJ Watson Pinot Noir. Creme brulee and bread pudding and coffees to finish it off, and we were finished. On the way home we were robbed by a cab driver from Cronkie’s Cab Company, who charged us $25 for driving us 900 metres. So much for the county vibe.

Determined to have a good time anyway, we went back to driving ourselves the next day. First up: Norman Hardie, attempt #2. We arrived just a few minutes after 11, having skipped breakfast to make sure we were good and hungry. We each got a pizza (which meant we had far too much, and took a whole one with us in the car) and baked in the sun, because the kid who seated us didn’t understand that by ‘cover’ I meant ‘shade’ and sat us where there was decidedly neither. Only after we hurriedly finished, already sunburned, did we see the breezeway with shade. Anyway. We went to the nice, cool tasting room and bought two bottles: the 2015 Cabernet Franc and 2015 Cabernet Franc Sans Soufre.

From there we fumbled around the back roads a bit before landing at Trail Estate. The last time I was there they’d just opened; now they’re a bit of a fancy operations, having also landed Hardie’s former assistant winemaker as their own. We liked everything they poured, and took both a 2016 Wild Ferment Riesling and a 2015 Cabernet Franc.

Our last winery of the trip was Closson Chase, now happily uncrowded. We picked a few samples and sat ourselves the beautiful (shaded) backyard, enjoying the wine (we bought a 2014 South Clos Chardonnay and a 2014 Churchside Pinot Noir), playing with a dog named Bella, and taking in the beautiful view. It was a perfect note on which to end our County visit.

On the way out of town we stopped for some dirty roadside ice cream (which is to say, the best ice cream) and made it back to Toronto without much hassle. All that was left to do was unpack everything and tuck away the age-worthy bottles for another day.

 

"Honk if you've come for wine"

Sometimes your first trips to a place aren’t great, but you learn enough to make a fantastic repeat visit. Other times your first visit is a great one, and no return trip ever lives up to your first memories. However, once in a blue moon a first trip to a place so good it doesn’t seem repeatable is followed by a second trip that’s very nearly perfect. This past weekend, our second time in Prince Edward County (after a very good first visit in 2010) was just that: very nearly perfect.

Friday

That’s right, kids: we took the day off work to go drink wine. The night before we left we decided to have some extra fun on the way: we met our good friend Kaylea for lunch in Port Hope. She gave us a box of chocolates made right there in Port Hope and treated us to a tasty meal on the patio at Gusto overlooking the river, where we drank some Closson Chase Pinot Noir, gave her a bottle of Benjamin Bridge Nova 7 and her fiancé Matt’s USB charger (which we’ve had for months), and saw a deer run up-river.

We said our goodbyes and returned to our car not ten seconds before it was about to get slapped with a parking ticket. We hadn’t even noticed the meter behind a large sign. Or maybe the cop had seen our rental sticker and given us a break. Either way, it was an early bit of luck, and luck like that is what perfect weekends are made of. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We drove a little further and entered Prince Edward County at its west end, making our first stop By Chadsey’s Cairns. We’d never been before, and hadn’t planned on going this time either, but a friend’s request via Facebook to pick up a bottle swayed us. We pulled into the farmhouse, met Richard, and walked around the lane to the little apple house where they now sell their wine. We spoke with him a while, picked up a few atypical bottles (like their Gamay/Pinot blend) for ourselves and the friend-requested Chenins, and continued on down the road. Just then, it felt like a switch had been flipped: we’d been in the county less than ten minutes and already we felt right at home at this pace, among this scenery, with these people.

Our next stop was a favourite from the first visit: Keint-He. As we got out of the car we saw a deer, the second that day, on the edge of a field across the road. It stood stock still, and we wondered if it was a decoy the locals put up to make the tourists gawk. Self-conscious, we walked into the tasting room and ran their table, walking out with four bottles. The deer was gone. We sighed with relief and tried to look confident.

A few minutes later we checked in at the Newsroom Suites, our killer lodging find from the previous visit. Seriously: a roomy, convenient, non-frilly suite with free wi-fi situated directly across the street from the best restaurant in PEC. There wasn’t even a question of staying anywhere else. We dropped our bags and turned right back around, though — we had more wineries to hit.

We’d planned to visit Closson Chase next, but realized we’d drive right past The Old Third on the way. This had been a ‘maybe’ on our list, but a tweet from Rick Van Sickle (“Please don’t take all the Old Third Pinot!”) had piqued my curiousity, so in we pulled. And Rick wasn’t kidding about the Pinot…it’s all they sell (the sign outside didn’t say “wine” or “tasting room open”, it said “Pinot Noir”) and they do a magnificent job of it. We walked out with two bottles of their 2010 Pinot, got to the car, then realized we needed to go back in and get one of the few remaining bottles of the 2009. There wasn’t even a label on that one. I loved that.

Then: back toward Closson Chase, as planned. We loved everything we got there on our last visit, and all their wines we’d tried since. We left with four things: three bottles, and their opinion that the 2001 Chardonnay I won at auction a while back should be drinking beautifully right now. Thank heavens; I was worried I’d won some vinegar.

We had one more new winery to visit: Stanners. It was good. Not great, but good. And not expensive either, which is always welcome in PEC. We left with two bottles.

Our final stop of the day was the one most likely to be the busiest: Norman Hardie. We bought four bottles for ourselves and one for a friend, and dished some dirt with the employees about our mutual friend Duarte.

We had an hour or so to unload the car and relax in our suite before dinner at East & Main, definitely our favourite restaurant in the county, and right  across the street. We had a fantastic meal, even if we (okay, I) probably annoyed our server a little. Pro tip: don’t ask the vegetarians where they can buy cured meats. Anyawkward, here’s what we ate:

  • Dan
    • seared scallops w/ double smoked bacon, onion soubise, crispy parsnips
    • breast of moscovy duck w/ frites, fresh berry demi-glaze
    • maple crème brûlée
  • Nellie
    • fresh ravioli w/ braised beef, highline mushroom
    • 10oz grass fed striploin w/ celery root & potato purée, caramelized onion sauce
    • lemon tart w/ fresh fruit
  • Both
    • Biale 2007 “Party Line” Zinfandel from Napa (I know, I know: it was sacrilege to leave the County’s bottle list, but we couldn’t find a Pinot that we thought would hold up to Nellie’s steak. So we went with an old favourite from our Napa trip)

After dinner, relaxing in our room, all we could think was: that was one badass first day of vacation.

Saturday

We slept in a little, despite the bird outside our window that sounded like a car alarm, then got up and had breakfast just down the street at the Tall Poppy Cafe. Nellie had a “Bob”, which was kind of like a McMuffin for grown-ups, while I had some killer French toast. Suitably powered up, we resumed our winery pillaging.

We aimed for the southern part of the county, to some less-frequented but well-regarded wineries. The terrain changed again here: more twisting roads, more rolling hills. It felt a little bit like home…there was even a community named Athol. Along the way we saw yet another deer sitting calmly in a field, with only its head and neck sticking up, looking at us like we were interrupting brunch.

Our first stop in the area was Lighthall, a winery we’d never heard of until Kaylea recommended it earlier in the week. We weren’t expecting much, but…wow. Great find. Glenn, the winemaker, was so friendly, so informative, so helpful, so funny. And the wine was terrific: we left with two bottles of wine and two, ahem, bundles of top-secret material about which we’re sworn to secrecy. We’d thought about picking up a bottle of the 2009 Reserve Pinot Noir, but it was slightly pricey for something we couldn’t taste, especially when we’re already so well-stocked for pricey Pinot.

We finished our time in that part of the county with a visit to Exultet (where we got a nice crisp white and a top-flight Pinot that’s going straight into the wine fridge) and Long Dog (where we found zero dogs, sadly, but one very affectionate cat, a loud and somewhat annoying tour group, and a few nice bottles of plonk) before turning back to the north.

Since Fifth Town Cheese is now out of business we stopped in at Black River Cheese, but — apart from the ice cream-loving biker convention outside — it was pretty disappointing. As was Waupoos, by the way: it certainly offered a pretty venue, but when we parked the car and looked inside the tasting room we just…we couldn’t do it. It was too crowded, too touristy, too much. We started the car and got back on the road. Nearby tourist attraction Lake On The Mountain wasn’t terribly impressive either (looks-wise, at least…it’s still kind of interesting), but the views of the Bay of Quinte from up high were worth the stop.

At this point we were getting hungry, so we stopped for lunch in Picton at Buddha Dog, a magical place where tiny hot dogs come covered in interesting sauces like jerk and red pepper jelly and beef chili. We listened to 80s music (Frankie Goes To Hollywood!) and drank local root beer, and had three dogs each, and it all hit the spot perfectly. Full of mini-dog, we rescued our car from the Giant Tiger parking lot and pressed on.

We stopped briefly at the Marshmallow Room in Bloomfield to arm ourselves for dinner that night: meat, cheese, bread, and preserves to go with the dessert we’d picked up that morning at the Tall Poppy. Our plan was to have a simple meal at our place that night along with some of the wine we picked up that day.

But first, we had three more wineries we wanted to visit. Hinterland was all about sparkling, so not my bag, but certainly right in Nellie’s wheelhouse…and also appealing to the bachelorette party that came in after us. Grange of Prince Edward was disappointing — busy, touristy, and with lacklustre wines. Frankly, when we pulled into Karlo next we were expecting more of the same given all the cars and tour vans, but we were pleasantly surprised — we left with three bottles (though they charged us for only two, for some reason) including a Petit Verdot. And this helpful crowd control tip:

We passed a few hours back at our hotel, snacking and drinking wine on the porch. We watched the staff of East & Main get ready for their dinner service across the street, thinking back to how great our meal had been the night before. We kept thinking about it, and thinking about it, and comparing it to how our compilation-of-the-county dinner was going to be, and before long we said “fuck it” and called East & Main to make a reservation for that evening. That’s right, the same restaurant two nights in a row. Don’t judge us.

Our second dinner there was even better: the food may actually have not been quite as good on the second go-round, but two other things really made the night: first, they had the Lighthall ’09 Reserve Pinot that we’d eyed earlier in the day; second, our server was amazeballs.

Ze lineup:

  • Dan
    • fresh ravioli w/ braised beef, highline mushrooms (yup, we just flipped the apps from the night before)
    • pork loin w/ grilled vegetables and lentils in a mushroom and merlot reduction sauce
    • cinnamon apple pie ice cream
  • Nellie
    • seared scallops w/ double smoked bacon, onion soubise, crispy parsnips
    • fresh rigatoni alfredo w/ shrimp, grilled red onion, highline mushrooms, spinach, garlic white wine cream
    • lemon sorbet (but only because they were out of the lemon tart)
  • Both
    • Lighthall Vineyards 2009 Pinot Noir Réserve (Having visited Lighthall earlier that day and seeing what this bottle cost retail, we knew that it was a STEAL here)

Like I said, our server — Laura — was sweet, and seemed to find us amusing, and really looked after us. At one point we forced her take a bite of my dessert even though it’s against the rules, just because it felt like we should. Years ago we realized you get far more out of being great to the people looking after you in bars and restaurants (sometimes they buy you lunch and give you chocolates and invite you to special occasions) than you do by being mean or bossy, and this was a perfect example of that tenet. Even though the meal didn’t quite measure up to what we’d had the night before, I’d rank it among the best dining experiences we’ve ever had.

Sunday

I let Nellie sleep in Sunday morning while I went for a somewhat greasier breakfast back at the Tall Poppy. Bacon, eggs, toast, cappuccino: everything a growing boy needs. We took our time getting ready, packed, and loaded up the car with our wine purchases (at this point we were pretty close to the three dozen mark) and took off. Our only plans for the day were to visit a lavender farm (seriously), eat some pizza, make one more winery stop on the way out of the county and make haste back to Toronto.

We stopped at PEC Lavender, where they had lots of (brace yourself) lavender, as well as a well-maintained Farmall that reminded me of my youth, even if it wasn’t quite the same model I grew up with.

Not long after that we were sitting outside at Norm Hardie’s winery, eating thin-crust pizza baked in wood-fired ovens, drinking glasses of his Chardonnay, chatting with a lovely British gentleman named John. The pizzas were superb, the weather was perfect, and the wine was — as always — immaculate. We bought a lone bottle of the Melon de Bourgogne, re-packed the trunk to minimize bottle-sliding and bid John and the rest of Hardie adieu.

Nellie did have a few more sips of wine, at Harwood, a winery on the way to the 401. Our main reason for stopping was to pick up a bottle of Pinot Gris for our friend but Nellie also decided to take a bottle of their St. Laurent, something you don’t see every day. I opted not to sample — I was driving, and anyway, I couldn’t think of a better final taste of the county than the Hardie chardonnay I’d paired with lunch.

Our drive home was easy, and we listened to Allo Darlin’ and Sloan, and made fun of other drivers, and talked our next trip. Woofstock caused a minor inconvenience when returning the car, but it was worth it for the rampant cuteness we saw on the way home. And then came the unpacking:

In total, that’s 32 bottles from 13 different wineries:

  1. By Chadsey’s Cairns 2009 Gamay/Pinot Noir
  2. By Chadsey’s Cairns 2011 Muscat
  3. Closson Chase 2009 Churchside Pinot Noir
  4. Closson Chase 2009 S. Kocsis Chardonnay
  5. Closson Chase 2009 K.J. Watson Chardonnay
  6. Exultet 2009 Pinot Noir
  7. Exultet 2011 White Light Vidal/Pinot Noir
  8. Grange of Prince Edward 2007 Victoria Block Chardonnay (which we drank last night)
  9. Harwood 2009 St. Laurent
  10. Hinterland 2009 Rose
  11. Karlo 2010 Choa Chardonnay
  12. Karlo 2010 Cabernet Franc
  13. Karlo 2010 5th Element Petit Verdot
  14. Keint-He 2008 Pinot2 Pinot Noir/Pinot Meunier
  15. Keint-He 2008 Pinot2 Pinot Noir/Pinot Meunier
  16. Keint-He 2009 Little Creek-Benway Pinot Noir
  17. Keint-He 2008 Pineaux Sauvage Pinot Noir (Botrytis-affected)
  18. Lighthall 2009 Cabernet Franc
  19. Lighthall [**REDACTED**]
  20. Lighthall 2011 Progression Vidal
  21. Long Dog 2007 Otto Riserva Pinot Noir
  22. Long Dog 2008 Bella Riserva Chardonnay
  23. Norman Hardie 2008 Cuvee “L” Chardonnay
  24. Norman Hardie 2009 County Pinot Noir
  25. Norman Hardie 2010 County Chardonnay
  26. Norman Hardie 2011 County Melon de Bourgogne
  27. Norman Hardie 2011 County Pinot Gris
  28. The Old Third 2009 Pinot Noir
  29. The Old Third 2010 Pinot Noir
  30. The Old Third 2010 Pinot Noir
  31. Stanners 2010 Cabernet Franc
  32. Stanners 2010 Lincoln Lakeshore Chardonnay (which we drank on our front porch Saturday afternoon)

We also picked up a few bottles for friends: 2010 & 2011 Chenin Blanc from By Chadsey’s Cairns, a Harwood 2010 Pinot Gris, another [**REDACTED**] from Lighthall, and a Norman Hardie 2010 County Chardonnay.

So yeah…this might just have been the perfect weekend getaway. We had amazing weather. We had incredible dining experiences, on and off the table. We picked up plenty of our favourite wines and were surprised with some fantastic new finds. Our car & hotel rentals were problem-free, which is pretty much all you can ask for. We saw beautiful scenery, and felt relaxed practically the moment we arrived. We even managed an impromptu visit with a dear friend. Best of all we returned refreshed, relaxed and loaded down with tasty wine. What the hell else do we need out of a weekend, I ask you?

Rien. Absolument rien.

Image by Jace XIII, under Creative Commons License

May and June appear set to come up Milhouse

It occurs to be that we have a surplus of awesomeness lined up for the rest of this month:

June isn’t looking too shabby either, what with a Picasso exhibit at the AGO, a long weekend in Prince Edward County, the Flaming Lips playing (free) at Dundas Square, Session 99 craft beer festival and a 5-day trip to New York.

Also: today was the first beer-on-patio day of the year!

Life? Good.

.:.

Image by Jace XIII, under Creative Commons License

And the final tally is…

16, not counting the two we’ve already knocked off.

Since you can’t see them all, that’s:

  • Casa-Dea CD Rosso 2008
  • Closson Chase Aberdeen Chardonnay 2007, CCV Chardonnay 2005 and S. Kocsis Chardonnay 2007
  • Huff Estates Riesling Medium Dry 2009 and Huff Estates Vidalesco Sparkling 2009
  • Keint-He Little Creek Pinot Noir 2007 (x2)
  • Lacey Estates Gewurztraminer 2009
  • Norman Hardie Chardonnay Sans Barrique 2008, Unfiltered Chardonnay 2008 and County Pinot Noir 2008
  • Rosehall Run Cabernet Franc 2007 and Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
  • Sandbanks Dunes Vidal 2009 and Foch Reserve 2008

Of all those we tried I’d say Norm Hardie, Closson Chase and Keint-He were the best and worth visiting again. Not that the others were bad — they’re still far better than most of the plonk you find in the LCBO — but those three really stood out.

The county

In keeping with our recent tendency to only visit wine regions we took today off and drove east to Prince Edward County. Friends of ours had visited and liked the laid-back feel, so we made some reservations, picked some wineries to visit and got underway.

Today we visited Huff Estates, Keint-He, Rosehall Run, Casa-Dea, Norman Hardie and Sandbanks. All told we cam away with 13 bottles, at least two from each, but Keint-He and Norman Hardie were far and away our favourites.

We also had two very good meals: a nice little lunch at the Bloomfield Carriage House, and an exceptional dinner at East and Main. My duck, and Nellie’s pasta, were spectacular, especially since they were paired with a bottle of Norm Hardie’s County Pinot Noir. And the beautiful finishing touch: the restaurant is literally across the street from our hotel, the Newsroom Suites. The place is hard to describe, really…it’s a 4-room suite above the local newspaper office, and when the newspaper stops operations for the day we’re left all alone in the building. Weird, but quaint, and the suite itself is really quite nice.

So far it’s been an excellent trip. For tomorrow we have a good-looking local breakfast place lined up and a few more wineries, then back home.

Taste Ontario

Sandwiched in between all these Project FiftyBrew excursions Nellie and I found ourselves on a wine mission last week: the Taste Ontario event at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It was three hours in which to sample a few wines from more than 30 of Ontario’s producers.

By the time we arrived the crowd was at full throng, making my tasting experience somewhat more claustrophobic than I’m used to. Luckily there was food…piles and piles of food. We filled our plates with meats and veggies and sausages (mostly sausages), and didn’t even make it over to whatever risotto they had cooking, and whatever was making that lobster smell (lobster risotto??) as it was too crowded. Anyway, we were there to sip wine, not eat.

We’d already planned out what we were going to do (of course we did!): in the limited time we would ignore the wineries we knew and loved (Fielding, Hidden Bench, Tawse, Southbrook, Stratus) as well as the wineries who’ve just never impressed us (e.g., Jackson-Triggs, Colio, Angel’s Gate) and those which offend our snob sensibilities (Wayne Gretzky, Mike Weir). This was our chance to try something new. It was also a good chance to try some wines from Prince Edward County, which we’d not had much exposure to yet.

Our favourites on the night were:

  • Château Des Charmes Old Vines Riesling 2007 and Equuleus 2007
  • Creekside Estate Laura Red 2007
  • Konzelmann Late Harvest Gewurztraminer 2008 and Reserve Pinot Grigio 2009
  • Megalomaniac Cabernet Franc 2007 (surprising, since I didn’t like anything I tried at the winery)
  • Reif Estate Gewürztraminer 2008
  • Norman Hardie County Pinot Noir 2008
  • Closson Chase S. Kocsis Vineyard Chardonnay 2007 and South Clos Chardonnay 2008

Nellie also liked the Reif Estate Silver Meritage 2007, the Malivoire Musqué 2009 and the Grange Of Prince Edward Sparkling Brut 2007, but none were really my thing.

We ordered a bunch of those, and planned to buy a few more in the LCBO when they hit the shelves.

All in all, a pretty enjoyable event. We eventually ran out of a) wine to try, and b) patience the crowds, and decided to get a proper meal. We stopped at reds on the way home, pleaded with the sommelier to let us have the Norm Hardie County Pinot by the glass (no dice) and got some advice on a New Zealand side trip when we visit Australia next year.

Right, that’s done. Back to beer then.