Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Report from: FEW-esta Tomato – August 26, 2007

What causes a winery to think outside the box? What makes them think that something unrelated to their field of expertise will work? Nobody really knows what made Fielding believe that a tomato festival would work at a winery … but it worked so well the first time, they brought it back again.

I was asked more than a half-dozen times over the past few weeks where I was heading this weekend and each time I said, “I’m going to Fielding for a Tomato Festival” the incredulous looks I received and comments I heard ranged from “at a winery?!?” to “a what where?” made many people, including myself, snicker. “I guess they just love tomatoes,” I would reply.

Now here’s th
e funny thing – I’m not a raw tomato fan – what that statement boils down to is “I love the by-products of tomatoes”: ketchup, tomato sauce, bbq sauce, salsa, soup, juice, the list goes on and on; but I don’t like the taste and feel of a raw tomato in my mouth. Might sound weird, but I know that one of the Fielding staff has the same feeling about cheese. So here I am surrounded by tomato fans scarfing down green tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, striped tomatoes, little tomatoes, big tomatoes, phallic tomatoes – over 50 varieties must have been on hand; plus there’s the booth selling baskets with an assortment tomatoes. There was tomato basil bread, tomato rugulah (dessert pastry), vinegars flavoured with tomatoes, tomato-based jams, jellies and sauces … the only thing not tomato related was the Upper Canada Cheese Company serving cheese – though somewhere along the line I’m sure tomato and cheese fit together too.

Lunch was served by Hog Wild Catering and consisted of Tomato Gazpacho, Tomato and Cucumber Salad, Pulled Pork with BBQ sauce, Chicken Tomato and Basil Sausage, and for dessert Tomato Sugarplum and it was delicious (rumour has it that the pulled pork was pulled the night before by the Fielding staff, all 60lbs of it). Served up under a tent at the top of the hill to the left of the Fielding winery building. At the bottom of the hill, under their own private tent, local band called Flat Broke played everything (and I do mean everything) from adult contemporary (James Taylor) to disco (Abba); new rock (the Killers) to old rock (Steve Miller); and even some country (the Johnny Cash impression was bang on, I thought the Man in Black himself has risen from the grave just to perform at Fielding). Everyone I talked to commented about how good they were.

Inside, Christopher Waters (Vines Magazine) gave a seminar about wine and food pairing (you guessed it, tomatoes) – pouring the new Fielding Sparkling, newer Fielding Viognier and newest Fielding Pinot Noir (available on pre-release for the day). Of course, the tasting bar was pouring all their other wines. Outside, they poured their most popular wines for the FEW-esta crowd: Unoaked Chardonnay, Semi-Dry and Dry Riesling, 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2004 Meritage. The best part had to be the absolutely beautiful day they custom ordered from Mother Nature herself; after two pretty gloomy days and one of off-and-on rain, the sky cleared to a beautiful blue with fluffy white clouds that drifted by harmlessly. “We kept seeing that sun on the weather forecast for Sunday and our fingers were crossed that it would stay there,” Marg Fielding (owner) told me. “It’s a lot of work but a fun event and we got great weather,” son Curtis re-iterated; while his wife Heidi (as if to prove his point) ran around making sure everything was topped up, filled up and everyone was happy.

The only thing missing was the tomato fight … I almost talked a few people into starting one with me, just to see how it would progress – but in the end it was too hot and too beautif
ul a day … plus by the end of the day, we were all out of tomatoes. And another thing, we didn’t want to interrupt Flat Broke, who were really good. Not sure if they knew how to play that song by the Irish Rovers “Wasn’t that a Party”, but it would have been the fitting end to a perfect day.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Report from: Featherstone Estate Winery to see the sheep - August 25, 2007

The rumours of livestock at Featherstone were and are true ... here's the proof:

Sure it's a funny sight to see here in Canada, but in New Zealand it's par for the course.
Pinot Noir Grapes await their turn for some pruning.
Playing Peek-a-Boo in the Vineyard.
Sheep eat the low hanging leaves and, of course, help to fertilize.
The blue box is their home where they can catch a nap and escape the heat.

It's not just about the leaves, it's also about the weeds.
Next year you'll see a "Black Sheep Rielsing" in honour of this little guy

Report from: Reif Estate Winery Sensory Garden - August 25, 2007

Reif’s Sensory Garden is now open ... I visited just the weekend of August 25th and was impressed with the smells available, and I really did smell chocolate mint, vanilla, strawberry and ginger in all this greenery. Clay pots line the paths of the garden and the smells, that you are suppose to get from these a seemingly innocuous green plants, are clearly labeled. Here are some of the pictures I took:

Entrance to the Sensory Garden
Vanilla scented plants ... pots arte pretty low down so you'd better like to bend.

Now this one I just had to sniff - chocolate mint ... and what'dya know it actually had that smell.

Let the debate end here: Coriander and Cilantro are the same thing.

A bunch of spicy little plants.

No strawberries to pick or eat - but the smell was there.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Report from: Lake Erie North Shore Vintage Tasting 2007 – August 11, 2007

For the last few years I have been telling you to get yourself down to the Lake Erie North Shore area. I don’t know how many of you are actually listening or paying attention, but seriously the time in nigh. On August 11th, I trundled my way down there again (was there for a brief tour in July) to check out what’s happening at the (New) Vintage Tasting at Erie Shore Vineyard (on County Road 50 in Harrow) … last year you may remember the event was held at Viewpointe Estate (read review) and next year I’ll be attending the same event at Mastronardi Estates. If you’re paying attention you’ll notice this is a roving event held annually, which means each winery gets a chance to host it, and therefore the opportunity to sell their wine – the rest you have to visit directly, and all 13 wineries attend the event.

Erie Shore put on a wonderful event – the tasting of both food and wine was held under the big top, with a complimentary horse and buggy tour of the vineyard if you so desired, pair that with the proper glass of wine and you have yourself a romantic little 11 minutes – the length of the tour – for two; and being at the Vintage Tasting in the Lake Erie North Shore, the “right glass of wine” is not far away. Many of the wineries were showcasing their ’06 whites and their rich and ripe ’05 reds. Some wineries like Sanson and D’Angelo, paraded out some great back vintages from 2002 – a Bird Dog Red blend and Cab Franc respectively; while Mastronardi had something bottled just for the event (a’Dorah), and Pelee, had 3 wines put in bottle just in time (3 Vinedresser wines: Shiraz, Cab Sauv and Pinot Noir). The food was also very tasty and plentiful, and there was something to tempt everyone’s craving for a nibbly, there was a food station for each corner of the tent. I shied away from the frog’s legs, but relished in a marinated pork tenderloin and Asian coleslaw made by Jim and Judy (more on that later).

If you weren’t at the event you missed out … big time … so for those of you who weren’t in attendance I am going to give you the highlights of the afternoon. I tried to keep my notes brief and stick to one wine per producer – some producers I visited in July and reviews appeared in my most recent newsletter, namely Colchester, Viewpointe and Sprucewood, so they will not be included here.

The Host With the Most …
Erie Shore was pouring 5 or 6 wines, but their standout was the 2006 Summer Sun Rosé. 100% Cabernet Franc in the prettiest pink colour you’ve ever seen, and for $12.45 it’s a bargain. A nose of strawberries and cotton candy followed by a taste reminiscent of raspberries, strawberries and sweet red cherries … delectable, and only a one on the sugar code, but crisp clean acidity make it taste and feel sweeter on the tongue. The 2006 Riesling was also a standout.

Kickin’ It Off With Bubbly …
Mastronardi has released their first ever sparkling wine. Made with Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling, this bubbly is truly an occasion unto itself: apples, honey, floral, lychee and toasty – an exquisite, slightly sweet (1) sipper good for afternoon get togethers, moonlit nights on the beach, and everything in-between. And the price for this romance in a bottle … wait for it … $15 (get out! I swear.) – buy two or three. The 2005 Gewurztraminer also has many redeeming qualities, and its $13 price tag is just the beginning.

An Array of Whites to Choose From …
On this hot August afternoon, white wine was the mode du jour and a welcoming libation; good thing there were plenty to choose from: like Sanson Estates 2005 Sauvignon Blanc ($15.95) with citrus, gooseberry and grass on the nose, a sweet grapefruit taste and good acidity holding it all together.

Smith and Wilson has produced the regions first Viognier (2006 - $12.00) … a great aromatic nose with apples and peaches as the most prevalent smells, but has a much more complex taste that includes great fruity flavours: white peach, apples, pears and ripe pineapple. The Viognier comes from 4 year old vines, was made in stainless steel and not a grain of sugar was added … the wine ranks on the sweetness scale somewhere between a .5 and a 1. This is a tasty little sucker and for $12 how can you pass it up.

The Muscedere boys are one of the few proud Canadian/Ontario wineries using Canadian oak, and with good results. Their 2005 Canadian Oaked Chardonnay ($20) has wonderful tropical fruit, vanilla and detectable coconut notes … cool.

A Red By Any Other Name …
Pelee Island Winery unleashed 3 Vinedresser wines at the tasting, these are their reserve wines, and all three get high marks from me; but none more so than the peppery, spicy and black fruit dominated Shiraz ($18.95), which spent upwards of 20 months in oak. Certifiably yummy, somebody get me a steak – pronto!

Not Just Wine …
Harold Wagner, of Wagner Estate, has done it again – this guy continually takes fruit wine (and products) to a new level. This time it’s cider, Pug’s Head Cider ($6) to be exact. He uses green Mac apples (those that didn’t turn red because they were on the inside of the tree) – ferments them using brown ale yeast, which gives him a super slow fermentation that lasted all winter long. This cider is crisp, clean, with great apple flavour and it mixes well with his Black Ice (black current) and Framboise (raspberry).

Something Sweet to Tempt the Palate …
Colio choose this event to launch their new 2006 Late Harvest Vidal ($11.95). With longer than usual hang time for these grapes (late January) the grapes had time to concentrate their flavours and develop a lot of icewine qualities – except for the sweetness (6) and the price … but the flavours and smells are unmistakably icewine like.

And for you Foodies …
Finally, a special shout out to Jim and Judy, who’s marinated pork tenderloin (in a honey garlic ginger sauce) and Asian coleslaw were a huge hit. With the few restaurants in attendance serving chicken, pork, spring rolls and frog’s legs, this couple stood head and shoulders above everyone, their combination of flavours not only inspired people to talk about them throughout the tent, but inspired many to go back for seconds, thirds and fourths (myself included). Now here’s the kicker – they aren’t restaurateurs nor are they caterers, just friends of Alma and Harvey (owners of Erie Shore Vineyard) who asked to attend because “they love to cook”. Bring ‘em back next year.

Speaking of next year, did I mention Mastronardi will be hosting, should be an awesome time. Until then, many thanks to Erie Shore who put on a party extraordinaire with the other wineries from around the area – and if you didn’t get yourself down here to try the wines this time you still have a chance to catch all these wineries in one place at the Shores of Erie International Wine Festival in September … or just come down anytime, you’re always welcome.

There really should be more hype about this wine region … top-notch wines, beautiful part of the province, everything’s near water so there’s always great scenery and did I mention the wine. See you at Mastronardi in 2008, or on the trail throughout the year.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Report from: Wines of Spain on the General List Tasting – August 9, 2007

Of late I have been extolling the virtues of Spanish wine in my Vintages Release reports and tasting notes: the value, the ageability, the flavours and aromas and most importantly (to me lately) real wine aging laws. Spain is one of the few countries with the word “Reserve” canonized into their wine laws with minimum aging lengths and acceptable terminology. To use these words you have to follow certain regulations (see my rant in Newsletter #58). If the word “Crianza” appears on the label of a bottle of Spanish wine it means the wine has been aged a minimum of 2 years (24 months) from harvest date and at least 6 of those months in oak. “Reserva” is a minimum of three years, with a year in oak; and “Gran Reserva” is wine that’s a minimum of 5 years old with 2 years in oak and three years in bottle. You’d think with all this waiting time, minimum oaking requirements and tied up capital that Spanish wine would be expensive, but surprisingly they offer some of the best wine deals on the general list at the LCBO and some of the best aged wines (that you can still age longer). On Thursday August 9th, I got a chance to try almost all of the general list wines from Spain – which means most of these are readily available at an LCBO near you. 26 of a potential 33 wines were on display – here are the best of a good lot (there are 7 and none will break the bank; best of all, they will leave you smiling and wanting more).

Under $10 Bargains:

You would think that a wine under $10 these days would be something they scraped off the bottom of the barrel – but not so when it comes to Spanish treasures like these two. Candidato Oro ($8.15 - #523811) – great value, with hints of vanilla, red fruit and spice on the nose; easy drinking, smooth and quaffable as all get out with a tasty red fruit palate. The other bargain is one of my favourites from years gone by when I regularly kept my wine purchases under ten bucks. Rene Barbier Tempranillo-Merlot ($9.70 - #640193), I think it’s gone up a couple of dollars over the last few years but still represents excellent value. Smooth, easy drinking and chillable – some vanilla and spice with subtle oak flavours – not too complicated. Great for sitting outdoors in the backyard, around the BBQ or practically anytime you need a red wine that won’t tax the palate.

Best Selling Spanish Wine:

This just over $10 red ($10.10 to be exact) has the added bonus of being the best selling Spanish wine on the general list at the LCBO: Castillo De Almansa Reserva (#270363 – I tried the 2003). Aged mainly in American oak, giving it dark fruit and spices along with some cinnamon character. It’s rich yet mellow and smooth with good tannin structure.

Excellent Value:

I could give all the wines I’m recommending the above title but this one is an absolute steal: Hoya de Cadenas Reserva ($11.55 - #620989 – I tried the 2002). Fruit forward with dark fruit character, chocolate, good oak integration and fine tannins; and a great cinnamon finish. I also tried the 2003 version and found it to be a bit smoother in the mouth. Both wines should age well over the next 3-5 years. I bought three of these on the way home, 2 – 2002 and one 2003.

Another Tasty Buy:

Speaking of wines I bought on my way home, I also picked up 3 Conde De Valdemar Crianza ($14.95 - #356089 – I tried the 2003) from Spain’s most famous wine region, Rioja, which is why you’re paying a few extra shekels for this one. This wine’s a good and dark – in both colour and taste – a wonderful nose, good aging potential, cinnamon and spice on both the nose and taste with red fruit and raisin on the finish.

A Little More New World in Style:

Dominio De Malpica Cabernet Sauvignon ($14.95 - #32011) is smoky and earthy on the nose, but the palate is rich in red fruit with some spicy cinnamon kick. The tannins are right there and awaiting a few more years of bottle age to smooth out.

So far we’ve looked at 6 wines all under $15 … but now let’s check out our seventh wine worth $20.15 (which means it was $19.95 before bottle deposit came into effect) – Castillo De Almansa Seleccion 2001 (#16535) – a lush smooth delicious offering from La Mancha (as in Man From …) dark chocolate and dark fruit with nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper and other tasty spices.

Check for these wines at your local liquor store and prepare to be amazed, what’s that Swiss Chalet slogan - “Never so good for so little” – when it comes to Spanish wines you’d better believe it.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Report from: Jackson-Triggs Twilight in the Vineyard with the Philosopher Kings – August 3, 2007

An event like no other you’ve experienced; when me and 500 (or so) of my closest friends brought lawn chairs and a love of music to the Jackson-Triggs amphitheatre, located behind the winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, to watch and listen to the Philosopher Kings. The amphitheatre is a beautiful, intimate venue, nestled at the back of the vineyard, where, as promised, “there isn’t a bad seat in the house”; and the canopy is the star-filled sky – which after dark was a sight to behold, unlike, say, at the Molson Amphitheatre in downtown Toronto where the closest thing to a star you’ll see is an airplane making its way slowly across the sky.

The night starts at about 5:30 when the venue opens and you can start to select your “seats” … at 6:00 you have a choice for dinner (a choice you made at time of ticket purchase) of either the Vineyard Grille or the Barrel Cellar. Choosing the more relaxed option of the Vineyard Grille, I would have to say was relatively satisfied and slightly disappointed at the same time. Arriving within the amphitheatre compound at about 6:30 I chose my seat, of which good spots were still available, and ambled up to the Grille at the back of the concession tent. A three sided bar was set up: the front was for wine service; the left side empty and the right side had the Grille spread: mixed green salad (with a great dressing), vegetable couscous, salmon skewer (with a cube of salmon, a tomato, mushroom and yellow pepper), sliced tomatoes with feta cheese, and an assortment of cookies, macaroons and brownies for dessert. There was also a tiny chicken burger on offer, but by 6:30 they had run out, and by 6:45 there was no food left at all. When I arrived, there was a Jackson-Triggs employee policing the Grille spread – but I suspect he had not been there the whole time; as I looked over the crowd there were plates piled high with untouched mini-burgers and cookies – which lessened the options for latecomers … so arrive early. I did hear some grumbling about the lack of food from some patrons and my friendly, bubbly and talkative neighbour pointed out she would have been happy with “simple burgers and dogs and not so much of the fancy stuff.” But again the best advice I can give is: arrive early for best selection.

The Philosopher Kings set the stage ablaze at 8pm (or was that the setting sun) and provided the audience with a live show that rivaled the best I’ve seen. The intimate setting managed to enhance the performance. Last year the Philosopher Kings played to a rain soaked crowd in a torrential downpour on the Labour Day weekend, as the remnants from some of those hurricanes passed through the Niagara area. This year there was not a cloud in the sky – the stars were bright and the music was lively and energetic; Jon Levine, keyboardist, played the piano with palms, elbows, fingers and even his nose. While lead singer Gerald Eaton had good stage presence and knew how to play to the crowd, he led the band through its paces and let each player take the spotlight. Proving the power of good music, even the 70 year-old usher, who looked sorely out of place, got his jitterbug on by shows end.

The wine flowed freely with a selection of 2 whites (Gewurzt and Sauvignon Blanc), 2 reds (Pinot Noir and Meritage) and a rosé … and helped lubricate the crowd into a boisterous ovation for the band. I particularly enjoyed the Sauvignon Blanc, which proved to be more than adequate on this warm summer’s eve.
Overall, except for not getting a full belly at the Grille, the Jackson-Triggs twilight in the Vineyard experience was a rousing success and one I would recommend to anyone – as long as you like the performers that are coming. Still to come this year are Paul Brandt and Chantel Kreviazuk – both sold out … but keep your eyes open for next year’s line up.

Your favourite Canadian band under the stars at this small venue is a refreshi
ng change from the monster venues of the big city shows, where if it weren’t for the screens you wouldn’t be able to see a thing, and the intimacy factor is somewhere around nil. These JT shows sell out quickly, so if you want to go don’t “think about it”; as Nike says “Just Do It” – you’ll be glad you did. Heck I’m still singing the songs and wishing for another glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and its only 7:52 in the morning (the next day). It’s small, intimate concert events like these that truly make attending one worthwhile.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Report from: Six Barrels for Six Chefs – Huff Estates – August 1, 2007

Huff Estates … a beautiful August evening in the county … a cooling breeze blowing through the vineyard … the smell of wood burning fire and cooking foods wafting in the air. Billed as “The Event of the Year” and for here in the county it just might have been: Six Barrels for Six Chefs featured two wines, one from Huff Estates and one from Norman Hardie, taken out of six different barrels with food pairings done by local, celebrity and renowned chefs. In attendance this evening were Bryan Steele (The Old Prune in Stratford); Jamie Kennedy (JK Restaurant); Ryan Crawford (Stone Road Grill in NOTL); Hiro Yoshida (Hiro Sushi); Michael Stadtlander (Eigensinn Farm) and Michael Potter (Harvest Restaurant).

Six Barrels/Six Chefs was the brainchild of Frederic Picard (winemaker for Huff) and Bryan Steele who, as legend has it, over a barrel tasting, thought it would be interesting to “Illustrate the nuances between the same wine aged in different oak barrels and how each one could be elevated when paired with food prepared by a great chef.” And what a fun and fantastic evening of food and wine it was – and educational at the same time, though I doubt most saw it that way.

Before I go any further, allow me to get a bias out of the way: I am not a huge proponent of food and wine pairing; my philosophy has always been: pick a wine, open the wine, drink the wine, then decide what to eat – not based on the wine, but instead what you feel like eating. If I like the wine and I like what I have prepared for dinner, the question of “do they pair well” is moot. That said I have had one great food and wine pairing in my life, where the food and wine enhanced each other to “oh wow” proportions (for the record it was at Stoney Ridge with an old Chardonnay and a pear soup). Tonight I did not have an “oh wow” pairing moment … some of the wines were “wow” and some of the food was “wow”, but the two did not meet … and many who tasted along with me felt the same way. The other thing to mention about the wines is they are not finished wines but instead wines in progress – many of the wines we drank will be blended with other barrels to create a finished product. Hence the wines were a curiosity and learning experience to see what a barrel can impart into a wine.

The Evening: Check in was at Huff’s main building. Then you were handed a glass, a menu, your cutlery and away you went. The food stations were placed around the property and in the vineyard – set up in such a way that by starting at booth 1 and proceeding to booth 7 (dessert) you would tour the property: see the inn, walk through the vineyard and back to the main building where dessert was served on the upper patio … all the while tasting 6 wines (seven if you include the dessert wine).

The Wines: The wines were all from the 2006 vintage … Huff provided the Chardonnay, while Norman Hardie brought the Pinot Noir. Each station had a different wine, the first three were Chardonnay but aged in different barrels, with different toast levels (charring of the barrels’ interior), from different cooperage houses (makers of the barrels), and in some cases different sizes (228 liters or 500 liters) … some or all of these factors were different for each wine – the same applied for Norm’s three. The barrel differential was more noticeable with the Chardonnay then the Pinot Noir – in some cases it was hard to believe they were the same grapes, same year and that only their housing was different.

How’d it Taste: The best tasting Chardonnay (Huff) was Barrel #2 – a 500L barrel from Dargaud et Jaegle (cooper) with a medium toast. The larger barrel allowed the wood to integrate more slowly with the wine, giving it creamy vanilla and melted butter aromas with some citrus and asparagus backing it up. The taste followed the nose, but shucked the asparagus for white peach; a good round mouthfeel and pleasant finish made this one the heads and tails winner. Barrel #3 (heavy vanilla notes, well rounded) and Barrel #1 (too green) followed in that order.

In the Pinot department (Norman Hardie) Barrel #5, a 500L Mercurey (cooper) “grand cru” toast barrel was the stand out. A sweet nose of smoked choke cherries and strawberries while the taste was similar to the nose with cherry, strawberry, cranberry and some earthiness; fine tannins and an easy dry finish allowed this wine to flow through the mouth and end with a lip-smacking smile. Barrel #6 (cherry, strawberry, smoky earth) and Barrel #4 (beet root and cranberry) followed … all were very close in taste with very subtle differences, unlike the more striking differences between the Chardonnays.

The Food: All 6 chefs did an amazing job, cooking outdoors on some very primitive cooking surfaces like a BBQ station with the grill held up by a pile of rocks and the fire built on top of a flat-rock-table-top. Presentation was on a paper plate, except for Michael Stadtlander, who presented his on white pine bark – sometimes messy but so cool.

How’d it Taste: Winners on this night were Jamie Kennedy who made a delicious Yellow Perch which was encrusted with spices in a sauce that brought out the best tastes of both the crusting and the perch. And Michael Stadtlander, whose roasted pork served with green beans and roasted potatoes, was a highlight in taste and presentation (see at right).

The After Party: Back at the main building, a four piece live jazz band played on the lower patio – the musicians, I’m sure weren’t old enough to drink, let alone shave, but they were enjoyable and set the relaxed mood for the twilight hours. On the upstairs patio Huff’s First Frost dessert wine was being poured along with cake, coffee and water. The atmosphere was lively and the difference in people’s attire was amazing to behold. Some saw it as a more formal occasion wearing shirts and ties, while others took it as a summer evening out with shorts, t-shirts and summer dresses. But no matter how you were dressed everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves - laughter and the cacophony of conversation filled the air.

As I drove off down the long Huff driveway away from the event the chefs’ and their crews were cleaning up; bottles were being put away and staff nibbled on leftovers and sipped the remaining wine from glasses. As I turned onto Highway 1 for my journey back to the big smoke the sun was setting behind the main Huff building – silhouetting all who were left in attendance and basking them in the light of a beautiful summer’s eve.

Report from: Finger Lakes Wine Festival – July 21, 2007

The Finger Lakes … an area loaded with summer homes and cottages, beautiful scenery and I don’t know how many wineries (it seemed like there was a winery on every corner). It’s also home to the Finger Lakes Wine Festival, held every July, and as the Irish Rovers are apt to say “Wasn’t That a Party!” My count from the official “Tasters Guide” puts the number in wineries in attendance at 98, plus the food venders, wine paraphernalia vendors and kitsch vendors … that’s a lot of booths and a lot of things to do; no wonder they sell three day passes to this event. The event itself is held at the Watkins Glen International Race Track, and it’s a good thing too, because they need all the space they can get. Three long tents house the wineries and a majority of wine related booths … the rest are outside the tent encircling the main area. There is also a seminar area where you can rest, relax and learn … I stopped in for a wonderful chocolate and wine presentation (and I’m not just saying that because I knew the presenter). We like to slag our neighbours to the south as loud, obnoxious and, in wine circles, we blame them for their predominantly sweet palate, but they sure do know how to put on a wine festival that: 1) everyone wants to attend and 2) all the wineries want to participate in … I’ll have more on that in an upcoming newsletter, but suffice it to say the liquor laws and the regulation of sales, aren’t governed by a lone monopoly who holds all the power.

So what were the highlights and my comments from the festival? In no particular order here they are:

1) The Americans palate is still sweet; especially at events like this and the wineries in attendance know it – a majority of the wines poured had a residual sugar level well above 2%; and I would guess sales for sweet versus dry wine was 10 to 1 (if not higher).

2) Riesling is everywhere; but if you’re looking for “dry” Riesling, look elsewhere. “Dry Riesling” down here is sweet, “Semi-Dry Riesling” is sweeter, and “Dessert Riesling” is just plain good.

3) Keuka Overlook makes a 2005 Johannisberg Dessert Riesling that has the smell and taste of white chocolate and sells it for a mere $10.50 (375ml) – yawzah! This was a definite purchase – I also made a point of visiting the winery the next day.

4) Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery seems to be a hallowed place to many. He makes some very nice wines, including a 2006 Dry Riesling, which actually is dry (peach, lemon/lime with good follow thru) $17.99; and a 2004 Merlot, which is a dry easy sipper with tons of black fruit. I found a lot of his stuff to be expensive, but what do you expect for serious wine … and next to that $6 bottle of sugary booze water or course it’s expensive.

5) Ravine Wine Cellars makes good, no nonsense wines with very little sweetness (only one of his 9 wines has any perceptible residual sugar). This guy is serious about making wine – the 2006 Cerise poured at the show was spectacular. Another one I was prompted to visit the next day.

6) I notice a lot of wineries make “port” or “port-style” wines, and many are quite good though few match up to the real thing from Portugal.

7) I almost dropped a load when I found a Zinfandel and Syrah at a place called Long Point Winery. Turns out they don’t grow them but maybe, hopefully one day they will. The grapes are sourced from Lodi, California, and Zin making is a family tradition that spans generations: grandpa made it, dad made it, and now son, Gary Barletta, makes it. It was my favourite red at the show (I bought three bottle - $15.99 each, minus 10%) – the 2005 is suppose to be even better.

8) There are lots of farms that have turned to grape growing, winemaking and finally turned into wineries.

9) There is something afoot on the other side of the border from Niagara, Ontario – they call their area the “Niagara Escarpment”, it’s one of their newest recognized regions, and they’re making something fabulous at a place called Warm Lake Estate: Pinot Noir, damn good Pinot Noir. I tried the 2004 Warm Lake Estate Pinot Noir ($29.95) and was blown away by the good earthy, strawberry nuances of the wine. And Pinot Noir is all they do; witness the Glace Noir, a port-style wine made from Pinot Noir grapes, fortified to 19% alcohol and 10% residual sugar: fabulous cherry and strawberry on the nose and taste. This place may require a hop over the border to witness more.

10) The place was packed … even arriving at 10:30 in the morning I couldn’t avoid the crowd, but many seasoned attendees will tell you “Saturday is always busy – Sunday is quieter, more elbow room.”

11) Finally, and a brilliant idea – the “sleep it off station” … as you were leaving the venue the police were posted at the exit gate from the grounds. They stopped every car and gave each driver a Breathalyzer test. If you blew over, you weren’t going any further than those gates – and with no designated driver you camped out on a cot until you were ready. I took my first ever and blew a double zero – proving I’m a seasoned veteran, or didn’t blow properly.

Lots of fun, lots to taste, and lots to discover; I hit a handful of booths in each tent and I feel I barely scratched the surface. But what a great event, on so many levels.