Monday, June 4, 2007

Report from: Tawse Winery Open House - June 2, 2007

I will fully admit that I have had a few cutting words to say about Tawse Winery over the years, majoring mainly in their wine prices - and minoring in the grounds; but on Saturday, June 02, 2007, I attended Tawse’s first ever public open house and was determined to walk in with and open-mind and no prejudged thoughts. I will tell you that I was super-impressed with the operation - which we all got to see, literally, from top to bottom. The tour, the facilities, the barrel cellar, the food matching were all top notch ... and I had nothing but positive things to say right up until the end, that's where the T. T. E. (Typical Tawse Effect) kicked in. But more on that later, here's a quick overview of the tour and wines tasted.

We all started at what could best be described as the loading dock at the top of the winery where the picked grapes are weighed and loaded into the winery; in Tawse terminology it's called the "crushing pad". This is where the picked grapes get sorted by hand to weed out the bad ones. Here their new 2006 Chardonnay Musque ($18.00) was served, complimented by a poached pear stuffed with foie and duck liver mousse (prepared by About Thyme Bistro - a hot new restaurant in the area). The Musque was fabulous, probably one of the best I've ever tasted and my review can be found on my website (just click the above link).

Moving inside, we found ourselves on Level 5, where the juice gets its start into winedom. Serving up their 2006 Carly’s Block Riesling ($25.00) paired with a whitefish cerviche (topped with coriander, pepper, chives and cilantro, with a dash of a lime and lemon juice) - a tasty little morsel thought up by Treadwell’s (another restaurant with a great reputation in the Niagara area). The grapes to make this wine come from 31 year old vines, and the wine has a subdued wildflower honey nose while being vibrant in the mouth with peachy goodness and yellow grapefruit tartness, followed by a good seam of acidity and minerality ... a crazy long finish that stuck around till we got to Level 4.

On Level 4, we found ourselves surrounded by tanks and were served the 2004 Beamsville Bench Chardonnay ($42.00). They paired this wine with a creation from the Vineland Winery restaurant - rich chowder of forest mushrooms with truffle pearls ... another perfect pairing. The wine showed smoky-oaky-grassyness on the nose, but in the mouth it came alive with vanilla, butterscotch, asparagus and some earthy tones ... the length was also long lived. This wine is still young and should find a hiding place in your cellar for some time.

Then it was off to the barrel cellar for our final stop. The temperature outside was a hot 31° - but here in the cellar it was cool and damp. Tawse does not cool their cellar in any conventional way; instead they trap the coolness from the winter and protect it through the summer months. The plea went through the crowd as we entered the cellar "last one in close the door." Here there were lessons on cooling techniques, barrel filling, barrel aging, costs, etc. Then finally we made our why to the back of the cellar, where The Stone Road Grill had prepared a Confit Duck a la “Bourguignon” with crispy shallots and Pinot Noir Jus to pair with the rarely poured 2005 99/1 Pinot Noir ($58.00). This is a first cru French Burgundy brought into the winery to mix with some Ontario pinot noir during the laxed restrictions of the 2005 vintage (where 1% Ontario fruit could be mixed with 99% foreign fruit to make “Cellared in Ontario” wine - not VQA, which is always 100% Ontario fruit). Moray Tawse went over to France and convinced one of the 1iere cru houses to sell him 99 barrels of pinot noir. Their pinot usually sells, in our market, for well over $100.00 a bottle, so at $58.00 it's a steal for Pinot drinkers. Tawse then added the one Ontario barrel making it the 99 – 1 blend. Tawse is a fierce supporter of Ontario viti and vini culture, but decided to take advantage of lax laws to bring attention to this one-percent absurdity. The wine had a supple nose of strawberries, raspberries and earth ... the palate followed through with beetroot and rhubarb flavours thrown into the mix along with the tartness of good tannin structure.

The tour ended with the guide telling us that we could pick up a flyer with the wines and pairings spelled out for us; all bottles were available for individual sale in the wine store along with any other wines we wished to taste, and finally there were some pre-made mixed packs of six bottles on display if you cared to take advantage of those. And voila the tour ended. At this point, you were free to wander through the winery and into the wine store. I had brought my mom along for this adventure because she’ll usually eat the mushroom laden foods that I seem to shun away from, and she's also good company (just in case you all thought it was for her mushroom eating prowess). I mention this because she took the opportunity to visit the ladies room and came back with a glowing report about the marble interior and the helpful washroom attendant. We were suitably impressed by our visit.

We then made our way to the wine store. Along the way, we discussed the purchase of the Chardonnay Musque, which in truth was by far one of the best wines served - unique, tasty, delicious and reasonably priced at $18.00 a bottle. Knowing that it was selling quickly, and that it would be perfect for summer, we each decided on two bottles.

The wine store was packed with wall-to-wall people; some at the tasting bar, some wondering around, and then we noticed a snaky line making its way from the checkout counter. Only one cash register was available, although there were three people behind the counter helping customers. We joined the line. We discussed the tour, the food, and the wines and came to a consensus that it truly was an interesting winery, unique concept (only winery to use wild yeast exclusively), and a fun little place to see in operation. I even decided that the way they do things does justify some of their higher prices for wine, though I did also mention I was happy to see wines in the $18 to $25 range; wines that were good as well as affordable. I also made mention of their new Echos line that will be available in restaurants and the LCBO in the fall, something I learned during Somewhereness. Twenty minutes passed as we waited in line ... then we got to the counter where we were to place our wine order. "Four bottles of the Musque please.” The answer I got was, "We aren't selling them individually anymore, only in six packs, because we don't want to open any more cases." (Tawse wines are sold in six packs regularly instead of twelves). Here’s where I begin my rant, skip the next paragraph and go down to the last if you want to walk away with the sweet smell of a successful event in your nostrils.

This is what I've come to call the T.T.E. [Typical Tawse Effect) – where they reach into your wallet for more. We were told during our tour that all the wines were sold individually ... then suddenly at the counter we are told "only in six's" - but that only applied to the Musque ... the only wine priced under $20. First off, that's an extra $36 we weren’t prepared to spend. It may not sound like a lot, but if you walk into five wineries in a day and each one wanted an extra $36 from you that adds up to some serious coin for most of us ($180 for those doing the math). Two, it's a bad customer relations practice to tell your visitors one thing during a tour (i.e.: you can buy everything singly), then after they stand in line for 20 minutes tell them the policy has changed and now that wine is only available in multiples of six. Put up a sign they can see before joining the line – tell them at the tasting bar or during the tour even, but don’t let your potential customers waste 20 minutes standing in line for something they’re not prepared to purchase; or at least give them time to think about it, don’t spring it on them at the check-out. And finally, the term you’re looking for here is called “bait-and-switch” ... technically it's an item advertised at a lower price and when you get to the store they don't have the item but they will substitute it with a similar, more expensive item. They baited us on the Crush Pad, told us we could buy as many as we liked, then at the counter we are told “nope” you have to buy this amount, same product, different quantity ... bait-and-switch. No pun intended here, but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth - and to me, it seems like a cash grab. Sure they're going to sell all the wine anyway, but this way it goes faster. The reason for this sudden policy change, I was told, was because they didn't want to crack open any more cases because "they were so busy they didn't have time to load the shelves with individual bottles." What stopped them from selling the bottles at the till and then sending you around to the pickup spot (which you had to pass to get your car) to pick up your bottles (with proof of purchase of course – i.e.: a receipt) is beyond me. I hate to say it but Tawse once again dropped the ball with this on-the-spot policy, and I left feeling under-appreciated as a customer, or potential customer, and empty handed. So instead of getting their wine into as many hands as possible and spreading good cheer and positive word-of-mouth, they got their wine into the fewest hands with deeper pockets ... and left me with another reason to tell people not to go (back). I was once told that Moray lives in a different snack-bracket than many of us, a bracket where my $36.00 dilemma would seem a trifle, so I am not sure he would see it my way - and if that's the clientele they want more power to them - but you also never know who's going to end up in your bracket one day down the road and your snub today could turn into their snub tomorrow. I guess Moray, and Tawse Winery, live in the Robert Herrick school of thought (“Gather ye rosebuds while you may”) with no thought about tomorrow.

I promised to leave those who skipped the above paragraph with a good sense of my Tawse adventure, and here it is: Tawse remains one of the marvels on the Ontario wine landscape, their winemaking practices are unique, and their wines are a testament to these practices. The open house was a good way to get people through the door and give them a good look around to see what makes Tawse truly unique. And the pairings, while not to everyone's taste, showed a real attempt to compliment the wines properly. If you wanna know the “but” read above ... otherwise it was a very good day at Tawse.


Geoff said...


I would love to try to wine, but I'm just not sure I'd enjoy supporting the kind of business practice that tells the client that they are just that unimportant.


Lady Chesterwick of Hastern-Bullworth said...

Just came back from Tawse and cannot say anything negative about the customer service, and I definitely have nothing but effusive praise for the wines! We visited 6 wineries yesterday, including Flat Rock Cellars and Thirty Bench, and Tawse literally blew these wineries out of the water as far as wine quality.

We tasted the 2004 Robyn's Block as well as Beamsville Bench Chardonnays. While the Robyn's Block Chard was wonderfully balanced, the butter and nut flavours typical of a Chard really came through on the Beamsville Bench. And the butter and nut flavours didn't at all obscure or distract from the lovely fruity and very slightly floral notes in the wine. Supurb balance, really.

We also tried the 2005 Merlot Cab Franc. What a fantastic wine! It's quite bold, but the way the flavours changed from being fruit forward (jammy blackberry and cassis notes), to having cedar and smokey notes, to having an earthy and slightly leathery flavour. It's very young and could age another 5 years in my estimation. Simply lovely.