Saturday, February 26, 2011

Report from … Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake Days of Wine & Chocolate – February 2011

I come to the Days of Wine & Chocolate event, put on by the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake, as a chocolate fan, I love the stuff: milk, white, dark, semi-sweet, 65%, 75%, 85% cocoa bars, you name it I like it (though I admit I draw the line at 90% - too chalky for my taste).  So when the month of February comes rolling around I get excited for the weekends I can drive around sampling wine and chocolate (two of my favourite food groups).  But as the years pass by and more and more wineries are added to the passport program (as more wineries join the organization - now at 25 and set to grow for the next event), I have to agree with my wife (which may or may not be a good thing) that while still excellent value, by the mid-point I was getting all chocolate–bon-bonned-out (something I never thought I would say).

Let’s give a little background about the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s events.  They put on three a year that involve a passport-style tasting tour: you drive from winery to winery sampling inspired food and wine pairings.  In November, it’s Taste the Season, foods are inspired by the holidays, this is my favourite of the three.  Then in May it’s the Wine And Herb Festival, where the food served must incorporate and feature a different assigned herb in the recipe, inspired by spring and the time for planting gardens; this is my second favourite.  The third event, which takes place in February, is the Valentine’s Day inspired chocolate and wine pairing, here you travel from winery to winery getting served a bite of chocolate with a paired wine.  My third favourite of the NOTL events, and while it is still in the top three it sits at the bottom of the list.

This year, although we now live in the area, we decided to do the event like tourists, all in one weekend.  But by the end of the first day, and having hit only 9 of the 25 possible wineries, we really were all-chocolated-out.  Sure there were some nice chocolates: Cattail’s white-chocolate-raspberry and Jackson Triggs’ milk chocolate-caramel comes immediately to mind, there were still some that were boring, bland, and well … uninspiring.  Sure they looked good on paper:  white chocolate pistachio, milk chocolate cashew and dark chocolate almond raisin, and sounded like they’d be well worth tasting, until you got them in your mouth and realized no raisins, no cashews and the pistachio one … well, not to get too graphic here but it looked more like a piece of poop than a chocolate.  And while I know Willow Pastry (in NOTL) is doing the best they can, not all chocolates are winners … thankfully gone this year (for the most part) were the rock-hard, break-your-teeth chocolates of years past.

Has the Wine & Chocolate fest run its course?  Many winery workers I spoke with said that visitors dropped off with each passing weekend (my stats are up to the 3rd weekend) … it was also pointed out to me that there was a snow storm on each weekend in February – so maybe Mother Nature was also trying to tell organizers something.  This year I found the event uninspired and uninspiring.  But all is not lost, and I think I have the answer.

I look back at what I like about the Wine & Herb and Taste the Season and it’s the variety, the interesting recipes and food ideas that surround the event … while there is only so much you can stuff into a ball or square of chocolate, think of what you could do with a recipe that incorporated chocolate.  It’s time for the wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake to put their cooking and baking hats on and think outside the box of chocolates to cakes, pastries, pies, brownies, tarts and tortes.  Instead of chili with chocolate try chocolate in chili.  Peanut butter cups, white chocolate mousse cake, caramel chocolate torte, white-dark- and milk chocolate brownies (ooo that sounds good), the possibilities seem endless.  Treat chocolate like the food it is, not just the boring confectionary aspect of it, but celebrate it in all its forms.  “Milk chocolate almond” turns into milk-chocolate-almond-brittle; “white chocolate pistachio” turns into white-chocolate-pistachio-cake; and dark chocolate almond raisin … well the possibilities seem endless with that one.

It’s time to consider making the Days of Wine & Chocolate event more like the other two – a fun mix of food and wine that people want not only to come out for, but want to go home and emulate.  That would make the day a whole lot more interesting and fun.  All I ask is that when the Days of Wine & Chocolate turns into the “Days of Wine & Chocolate Desserts and Then Some” … you remember where the idea came from and keep in mind I’m a starving journalist – I’ll take my 5% like any good agent would.


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