Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Brian Schmidt - Vineland Estates - Winemaker Profile

Brian Schmidt Vineland Estates
Brian Schmit - Photo by Carole Bozzato
When Brian Schmidt, winemaker at Vineland Estates in Niagara, posts a new photo on his Twitter or Instagram feed, it’s hard not to find yourself daydreaming over the beauty of the place he inhabits. Vineland sits on a gorgeous piece of property in the Beamsville Bench area, with lush vineyards surrounded by rolling lawns and sporting beautiful stone buildings that house their winery, restaurant and carriage house.

Brian fills his social stream with photos that capture his life on the Bench beautifully – landscapes, storm clouds, grape vines, they all make regular appearances as he chronicles his day. Following along, you learn not just about the beauty of the region, but about the hard work of the vineyard, the long days, the weather headaches (his icewine picking posts are always shiver-inducing) and the actual labour that goes into making all those bottles of Vineland wines.

Brian is the reason I blog about wine. I’ll put that out there right up front. I was sucked in by his photos, by the #CabFrancTuesday hashtag he and Tinhorn Creek’s Sandra Oldfield cultivated a few years back, chronicling a year of growing Cabernet Franc in Niagara and the Okanagan. I reached out via Twitter, Brian responded, he invited me into the world of Canadian wine and, because of that, I found my place in the world.

Brian Schmidt Vineland Estates
Photo courtesy of
Within the wine community on Twitter, Brian is beloved. Not just because his wines are good (they are), but because he’s gone out of his way to make people feel welcome – like they are part of the Vineland Estates family. Responding to people on social media, he explains to me, is like being at a dinner party. “If you ignore people who interact with you, they will retreat, just like at a dinner conversation.” For him, social media is a huge conversation that he’s happy to take part in.

This attitude imbues all that Vineland Estates does. Their wine club is one of the most popular and loyal in the region (they have an almost zero attrition rate). The wine club is a special one. They host parties, send wines from other wineries alongside their own, even host trips to Germany with members. “We know there are world class wine experiences everywhere,” Brian says. “There are world class wine experiences down the road at Tawse, there are world class wine experience is Italy and Spain and France, no matter where you go, there’s going to be fantastic food, because great food always exists symbiotically with great wine. The only way we can differentiate ourselves from all these other great experiences is by creating an emotional connection.”

Vineland Estates Winery Niagara
Vineland Estates
And that’s where Vineland excels – it’s about so much more than selling a bottle of wine, it’s about creating an experience. “We’re not in the wine business, we’re not in the restaurant business,” he explains of his philosophy, "we’re in the business of creating memories.” And from the impeccable restaurant, to the storybook grounds, to the sense of fun and family when you visit, that’s what you get. And it works because it's genuine.

Shawn and I celebrate many of our big moments with a bottle of Vineland Estates Elevation Riesling—it reminds me of how I first fell in love with wine, how that first sip of Vineland Riesling exploded on my tongue and I understood that terroir and winemaking came together so that Brian was able to create this wine that spoke right to me. Sure, I’ve since had $150 bottles of California Cabernet and vintage champagne that made me swoon, but it’s always your first love that holds a place in your heart. For many in the Ontario wine community, Vineland is the place that always feels like home.

Brian Schmidt Vineland Estates
Photo courtesy of
It’s no surprise that Brian is so adept at producing that feeling in those around him. He practically has wine flowing through his veins. A third generation winemaker in a country that has only been producing wine for about three generations, Brian was born and raised in B.C’s Okanagan Valley, growing up in a vineyard. His grandfather had homesteaded the land and planted vines in that first vineyard, which still exists, but has since gone through a number of owners and names.

Brian Schmidt Vineland Estates
Photo courtesy of uncorkontario
His father went on to work at and own several wineries, at one point co-owning Sumac Ridge, an estate that held a winery, restaurant and golf course. The economy put an end to his part in that business, but winemaking still ran deep in the Schmidt family. Brian and his brother Allan had grown up planting vines, digging up rocks in the vineyard and helping make wine.

When Brian’s father sold his interest in Sumac Ridge in 1986, Allan stayed on as winemaker, but Brian was done with wine. He had seen the angst and financial troubles that could come with owning a winery and he wanted out. He spent four years working as a commercial scuba diver in B.C. Allan, meanwhile, accepted an offer to move to Niagara and work with German winemaker Hermann Weis.

For years, Brian’s father had been selling cuttings of Hermann’s vines in Canada’s Okanagan Valley and Hermann had been trying to break into the Niagara region. But local winemakers felt that it was too cold for vinifera, especially Riesling, in Niagara. So Hermann, determined to show that the terroir was perfect for Riesling, bought land on the Beamsville Bench and turned an old Menonite home into a winery. Vineland Estates was born.

Vineland Estates Winery Niagara
Vineland Estates
Meanwhile, Brian was starting to feel terribly mortal. He’d experienced the death of several close friends and was starting to realize that scuba might not be the right long-term career move for him. He accepted Allan’s offer to join him at Vineland to help with harvest. “I was just going to help for two weeks and I’ve been quoted as saying it’s the longest two weeks of my life because I’m still here,” he says with a chuckle.

Arriving on September 12, 1991, Brian took over winemaking duties in 1993 and hasn’t looked back since. He has become well-known for helping other wineries get their start and for being an enormous champion for Ontario wine.

He plans to continue documenting his adventures in winemaking across his social media platforms so that friends and fans can follow along with the journey from farm to table (his recent harvest photos have shown just how much hard work goes into every bottle of his wine). Vineland Estate wines are available across Ontario at the LCBO and at the winery.

* A huge thanks to Rick Van Sickle from and Shawn McCormick from UncorkOntario for allowing me to use some of their photos in this article. I highly recommend both their blogs.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hamburg, Germany's Heart Attack and Wine

Having spent a week exploring the Mosel Valley in 2013, Shawn and I expected it would be easy to find good German wine during our recent visit to Hamburg. We were surprisingly off point on that one. Not that there isn’t good German wine to be had in the city, which we are both quite smitten with, it just wasn’t quite as easy to come across as we hoped.

Almost all of the restaurants we visited during our three nights in the city had no wine list  at all and a house wine that was both cheap and Italian. Shawn had no issue with this, since he was happily choosing between dozens of ales and lagers on the ten-page beer lists many offered instead. I had researched potential wine-based restaurants and did enjoy the wine at one, but Shawn said it felt like he was at an awkward business dinner with exceptionally slow service. He had a point.
So when I saw the sign for Heart Attack and Wine during a walk along the Hamburg waterfront, I was primed for disappointment. Instead, I found a perfect German wine oasis. Part wine shop and part wine bar, Heart Attack and Wine is the type of place where you can buy a glass of wine and sit outside enjoying the sunshine or pop in to grab a reasonably-priced bottle to go.

With a name taken from the Tom Waits song “Heart Attack and Vine,” this place has a hip, urban quality, but also comes across as friendly and relaxed. I happily quizzed the proprietor about the German wines he suggested. We tried four wines altogether (two half glasses each) and the selections were a good fit for wine geek vacation patio sipping.

Shawn and I are both fans of German Riesling, but we are also excited by the many other grape varieties growing in the region. In this case, the Riesling was a favourite for both of us, but we also really enjoyed the Muskateller. I liked the 2014 Juliusspital Silvaner so much, I bought a bottle to bring home.

For wine fans planning a visit to Hamburg, I highly recommend stopping in. It’s a great addition to a trip to the waterfront and is just a few blocks away from Hamburg’s famous fish market.

Do you have any favourite wine bars in Germany? Share them in the comments or on social.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Concession Road Restaurant and Wine Program

Beef tartare at Concession Road in Toronto
Last year, I had the opportunity to try Pukka on St. Clair West and was impressed with how they are elevating Indian cuisine and incorporating a serious wine program. When I learned the owners had opened a new restaurant – Concession Road – on the same St. Clair West strip in Toronto, I was eager to check it out. Luckily, I got the chance at a recent blogger dinner.

And it didn’t disappoint – Chef Masayuki Tamaru has elevated French cuisine with a global twist and the results are delicious. As always, I’m told I missed out on the best items because I don’t eat red meat, but I actually sampled a large amount off this menu - there were lots of options featuring chicken, fish and/or vegetables - and confess to enjoying each bite.

Absinthe service at Concession Road in Toronto
Zweigelt and Rose wine bottles
Concession Road also boasts a stellar wine and cocktail program. Their absinthe service is unique and fun – a little bit of ceremony and fuss that goes a really long way. And the cocktails are complex, well-made and tasty. But I'm all about the wine list and this one certainly didn't disappoint. As with Pukka, top Toronto sommelier Peter Boyd has put together a well-curated wine list that holds something for every taste and budget.

“It’s a concise list, built from Masayuki’s menu, with some wines chosen for customer familiarity and ease, but with a few more novel options, like Marche Pecorino or Austrian Zweigelt, for the more adventurous,” explains Boyd. “Given the fare from the kitchen, it was important not to load up with a lot of heavy wines but, of course, we made sure there were a few heftier choices for those who prefer fuller-bodied wines.”

Steamed Portuguese rockfish at Concession Road in Toronto
And, for the most part, this is a menu that screams out for delicate sipping. The shrimp bonbon with citrus salad and red pepper gastrique is light and bursting with flavour, the steamed Portuguese rockfish with tomato beurre blanc and fresh dill is melt-in-your mouth lovely.

Vegetable stuffed chard at Concession Road in Toronto
I was a big fan of the ‘JFC’ Mennonite-farmed fried chicken, buttermilk mash, tomato and preserved lemon mayo, as well as the vegetable-stuffed chard with vegetable sauce, chive oil, beet crisps and toasted pumpkin seeds. All of these dishes were flavourful and well-made – perfect for a lively dinner with friends (like this one) or a romantic date night. For me, I’d want a versatile white or rosé with this meal (and luckily enough, that’s what was served), but there are plenty of bottles and by-the-glass options to explore.

Cocktails at Concession Road in Toronto
Concession Road is a great stop for wine and food lovers in Toronto – for me it’s more than worth the trip out to St. Clair West (and a reminder I need to get out there more often).

Have you been to Concession Road or Pukka? What to you think of the suggested pairings? Share your thoughts in the comments or on social.

* While my meal was complimentary, all opinions are my own.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Excellent Ontario Cabernet Franc Options

Ontario Cabernet Franc Wine Bottles
* This is a cross-post that also appears on Uncork Ontario's 30 Days of Blogging Series - check it out for a deep dive into the Ontario wine scene.

It’s quiet at Archive Wine Bar on the afternoon of André Proulx’s recent Ontario Cabernet Franc tasting. Each of us seems slightly awed by the 47 bottles of Ontario Cabernet Franc lined up across the entire length of the bar – bottles sourced from wineries in almost every region in the province.

There is sipping, swirling and spitting, then furious note-taking as we try to capture thoughts on each wine. Are there hallmarks of the grape that are unique to the region? Does Ontario Cabernet Franc differ significantly from other Cab Franc’s we’ve tried from around the world?

Discussion happens in fits and starts – someone suggests we have to try a certain bottle, noses are turned up at another, I spill wine (of course I do), winemaker styles are compared, new wineries mentioned. It’s the sort of day made for wine geeks – a chance to really, truly explore one of the best grapes grown in this region, a grape that grows well in a cold-climate and produces some top notch bottles every year.

Bottles of Ontario Cabernet Franc wine
As a student of wine, this is an incredible opportunity and one I appreciated immensely. Cabernet Franc was the grape that pulled me into the Ontario wine scene, but I had never experienced the nuances of the wine in such a strong way before. This province is making some truly great wines right now and tasting side by side was the best way to learn about them.

Cabernet Franc is a wine that works best with food and I’d highly recommend any of the wines below to accompany your meal – especially something that goes well with the wines earthy notes. Steak, mushrooms, roasted chicken? All would work well, in my opinion.

Cave Springs 2013 Dolomite Cabernet Franc
So what wines made my heart sing and should send you straight to the winery to source a bottle? Here are a few of my favourites:

Cave Springs Cellars Dolomite 2013
– A fruit-forward nose with strawberry, cherry and a bit of green pepper. Ripe berries and spice on the palate. A long finish that left me wanting more. 

Chateau des Charmes 2012 Cabernet Franc
Chateau des Charmes 2012 – This one elicited much conversation about how it punches well above its weight in terms of quality for price. A very well-made wine with raspberry notes on the nose and a palate pleasing peppery fruit finish. At $13.95 it’s an absolute steal.

Dean's List Cabernet Franc wine
Niagara College Teaching Winery 2012 Dean’s List – They make some pretty amazing wines at the Niagara Teaching Winery and this Dean’s List pick is a great example of some of the winemaking talent coming from the school. There’s some real heat on this one, good tannin and lots of cherry and raspberry notes. A reminder that I need to visit again soon.

Norman Hardie Unfiltered County Cabernet Franc wine
Norman Hardie Vineyards 2013 – One of two wines that we tasted blind, this had lots of smoked meat and red fruit on the nose, great acidity and a unique smokiness on the palate. Very different than the other wines I favoured, but very good. Best with food.

Pondview Estate Bella Terra Cabernet Franc wine
Pondview Estate Winery 2012 Bella Terra – My favourite of the day, I confess to drinking a glass (or two) of this with dinner that night. It held up just as well when I went back for another glass the next day. Raspberry, licorice, smoke and pepper on the nose, this has sweet, ripe fruit on the palate alongside earthy vegetal notes. Can I just write “nomnom” and hope you’ll get how much I liked this?

Southbrook 2013 Triomphe Cabernet Franc organic wine
Southbrook Vineyards 2013 Triomphe – Cherry, raspberry, smoke and earth combined on the nose and palate into a very enjoyable, eminently drinkable wine.
Southbrook 2012 Whimsy Cabernet Franc organic wine
Southbrook Vineyards 2012 Whimsy – Dark cherry, plum and anise on the nose, well-balanced body and palate-pleasing fruit. I’m really liking what Southbrook is doing with Cabernet Franc right now (evident since they’re the only winery with two bottles on the list this time).

Tawse 2013 Growers Blend Cabernet Franc wine
Tawse Estate Winery 2011 Grower’s Blend – Earthy nose with smoked meat, tar, vanilla and smoke. Ripe fruit with hints of vanilla on the finish. A very good wine now, an even better one in a few more years.
Vineland Estates Winery 2010 Reserve Cabernet Franc wine

Vineland Estates Winery 2010 Reserve
– Smooth on the palate, good body, lots of ripe, red fruit and hints of pepper on the nose. Drinking well now, drinking better in five years.
What do you think of these choices? Do you have a favourite Ontario Cabernet Franc? How would it stand up side by side with other Ontario options?

Many thanks to André for organizing this amazing tasting experience – you can (and should) read André’s blog here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Things to do in Corning, NY

Glenora rose wine and sorbet from the Finger Lakes
Sitting in Riverfront Centennial park, in the Gaffer District of Corning, NY, dipping my spoon into a second helping of an incredible sorbet made from Glenora Estates rosé, I was definitely in my happy place. Is there anything better than a cool treat on a hot summer night? I’d argue that making that treat with rosé was the cherry on the sundae. The sorbet was from Dippity Do Dahs, a popular local ice cream store, and Shawn and I were attending an event in the park to welcome the Wine Bloggers Conference attendees.

Corning, NY was the location of this year’s conference. It’s about a 30 minute drive from the bottom of Seneca Lake (where the wineries are situated), so it’s not the closest city to wine country, but it’s near enough to make wine touring very easy. It’s also a really lovely place to visit. We stayed at the Radisson Corning in the Gaffer District, which is a hub of local shops and beautiful parkland.

Sculpture at The Corning Museum of Glass
While the Conference keeps attendees very busy, Shawn and I made a point of exploring this area and spending some time in what might have been the most welcoming city I’ve ever stayed in. Thanks to all the local businesses for making us wine bloggers feel so very welcome.

Hand + Foot – A quick scan of the restaurant options in Corning can be overwhelming – there are a lot of places to eat! Hand + Foot impressed us with their eclectic menu, so we decided to give them a try. The food was fun, filling and jam-packed with flavour; the wine, beer and spirits menu was extensive and well-curated and the staff were just lovely. Owner Dan Morton has made a point of putting together a beverage list that works perfectly with his menu and we were thrilled that he took the time to help us pick the right beverages for our meal and fill us in on the best local and international options available. I think we recommended this place to everyone we met over the weekend and Shawn and I are both looking forward to eating here again in the future.

Dippity Do Dahs – As mentioned above, this place stole my heart with its rosé sorbet – and I may have gone back to sample another flavour or two. A family-run business with some of the best ice cream I’ve tasted, this is a must-do on Market Street and the perfect end to a busy day of wine tasting.

Volo Bar – There was plenty of wine on hand at the conference, but at a certain point both Shawn and I were ready for a break. Volo was just steps from our hotel and had the nicest group of people behind the bar. They drew us in on Thursday night by offering free tastings of local wines (which I enjoyed while Shawn opted for a local beer) and we had to come back to try their excellent cocktails on Saturday. While I was spitting most of my wine, I will confess to drinking every drop of their excellent Moscow Mule.

The Corning Museum of Glass – When we were offered a tour of The Corning Museum of Glass, I was happy to agree (glass is beautiful), but I was thinking it would be a small museum and a quick walk-through. I was completely wrong. This museum is enormous - and stunning. Their new contemporary art wing is a dazzling display of elaborate glass sculpture against sweeping white walls, and the sheer size of the entire museum is staggering. Our host, Kimberly A. Thompson, the museum's Public Relations Specialist, said the average visit is four- five hours and I can completely understand why. This is a must-see that will impress even the most museum-jaded in your group. And, if like many people I’ve met, you toured it twenty years ago – go back. You will be pleasantly surprised to see just how much this museum has grown.

I suggest leaving an entire day in Corning to fully experience the museum (including the edge-of-your-seat drama of the glass blowing demonstrations), have a meal at a local restaurant and spend some time walking through the Gaffer District. It makes a great hub for your wine touring and is a short drive from several National Parks and NASCAR locations.

Have you been to Corning? What were your favourite things to do? Share your thoughts in the comments or on social.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Upkeep Updates: What I’m Thinking and Drinking Right Now

It’s been a little while since I did this—I feel like there’s lots to share!

First and foremost, you will likely be reading Shawn’s name a lot more in the future. While I will remain the main voice of the blog, he will be increasing his role. Expect to see his thoughts on craft beer (not my strong suit), food, wine and  more. For example, we have a coffee cocktail post coming up that will feature some of his fun concoctions!

I won’t be sampling his experiments anytime soon, though,  because 1) I’m celebrating nine months coffee-free in September and 2) I’m taking on a Sugar-Free September challenge for the month. Some of you know I gave up refined sugar for a year and a half a few years back. I felt amazing. But then I got back on the sugar train and I haven’t been able to hop off since. And sugar is my Achilles heal. If you told me I could only spit wine for the rest of my life, I’d manage. But give up candy? Can’t do it. So I’m going to. From the day after Labour Day until October 4th, I’ll be avoiding desserts, candy, sweetened drinks, etc. No, don’t worry, I’m not giving up wine, since most of those sugars are naturally-occurring, but I will be avoiding sweet wines. Hopefully this will lead to some lasting and positive changes for my health!

And, because I get asked this question a lot lately, no, I’m not currently enrolled in wine school. I took last year off to manage a much more hectic schedule and that’s left me wondering where to go next. Not that I haven’t been spending my time learning about wine – check out the stack of reading material I’ve been working through in the photo to the right! But I do have to make some decisions about next steps.

Part of me wants to concentrate on getting my WSET or finishing my Wine Specialist course at George Brown, but the other part of me wants to continue home schooling myself. At this point, I don’t think I want to work in wine (this blog remains my very expensive hobby), so putting the time and money into wine school is tough to justify. The wine nerd in me is absolutely addicted to learning and loves the thought of taking more classes, my practical side wants to know what exactly I’ll be doing with all that pricey education. What do you think? Please share your own thoughts and experiences in the comments or on social.

So what have I been drinking? Here are a few affordable options I’ve sampled lately that I wanted to share with you.

Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc – New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is one of my go-to white wines, so I was happy to try this new release to the LCBO. A best-selling wine in the U.S., this is a crisp and refreshing sipper. While it is not as nuanced as some of the more expensive NZ Sauvignon Blanc on the market, this definitely hit the spot at their launch party on Oliver and Bonacini’s patio (during a very uncomfortable heat wave). Pairs well with oysters and veggies, so a good option for light meals. I enjoyed it.

Brugal Rum – Rum-infused stilton? Learning to make my own cocktails? A recent Brugal Rum event at The Rum Exchange was an opportunity for this rum-novice to learn that this spirit has a lot more to offer than cola companionship. Did you know rum can be paired with cheese? I had no idea. I also didn’t know how rum was made, or that aged rum is a real treat. While this spirit is off my list for September (it’s made with sugar cane), I look forward to trying it again in the future. I left wanting to infuse my own cheese and with some newly acquired cocktail-making skills – I’m guessing I’ll get to put my shaker to use again soon. 

Colio Estate Methode Cuve Close Lily Sparkling – I'm a huge fan of sparkling wine. I think it’s perfect for pairing with a celebration or snack food. Dry sparkling is my go to for movie nights when we break out the popcorn or potato chips and I would happily drink bubbly more often if the price point was better. Colio’s Lily is a good option if cost is a consideration for you too. At $16.95 (LCBO), it's well-priced and it’s a bit sweeter (leaning towards off-dry), which makes it nice all on its own or with a salty snack. It's a fun wine for your everyday celebrations and I’d love to try it with a splash of Blueberry Hill Estate’s blueberry dessert wine – I think that would be a pretty darn perfect Ontario's Southwest sparkling cocktail.

Paul Mas Estate 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot – Shawn and I tried this at a recent fashion and wine event. Combining the spirit of red wine with vineyard-inspired fashions, this was a fun and chic event. It was also a nice opportunity to enjoy a well-priced French wine with friends. Available at the LCBO for $13.95 this is a good entré into the world of affordable French wines and a wine that will pair well with cool weather and warm, cozy sweaters this fall.

What have you been drinking recently? What are your thoughts on my wine school dilemma? Share your thoughts in the comments and on social!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Ontario’s Southwest – Exploring the Wine Trail

Bonnieheath Estate Lavender
Bonnieheath Estate Lavender and Winery
Shawn and I are walking through the grounds at Bonnieheath Estate Lavender and Winery on a beautiful August afternoon. We pass the regal old oak tree, meander past the prairie grass, the wetlands and the rows of grape vines and lavender plants. It’s hard to believe that not long ago, this beautiful oasis was a tobacco farm. For owners Anita and Steve Buehner, I sense relief that they have been able to move past those tough years, when the tobacco farm went out of business and they didn’t know what the future held. Now, with a retail store stocking their wines, cider and lavender products, with a beautiful patio overlooking the fields and a wedding-ready gazebo, Bonnieheath is bursting with potential.

Bonnieheath Estate Lavender
The vineyard at Bonnieheath
Potential is a word that comes to mind often as Shawn and I visit Ontario’s Southwest (as guests of their tourism association). The beauty of the area is undeniable – fields of green line the highways and the local produce is flush with flavour and freshness. Amidst those crops of corn and berries, winemakers have started to pop up, first making fruit wines and now many of them adding hybrids and vinifera to their crops. The wines of Ontario’s Southwest are still in the early stages, but the area is emerging as another viable area for winemaking in the province.

Bonnieheath Estate Marquette wine
We begin by tasting through the wines at Bonnieheath – the Marquette and lavender icewine are the most impressive and the Don’t Count Your Chickens white blend is a refreshing surprise. They are concentrating on hybrids, as their terroir suits it best.  I’ll hear a lot about the unusual May frost on this visit, which wiped out most of Bonnieheath’s apples and was a reminder of how challenging it is to grow vinifera in Ontario or other cool climate regions. They are also concentrating on cider—the last bottling is all sold out, so Shawn and I sip tank samples and can see why it’s so popular. It suits Bonnieheath and I suspect it will once again be a big seller.

Blueberry Hill Estates Winery
Outside the front door at Blueberry Hill
From Bonnieheath, we turn the car towards Blueberry Hill Estates, where we meet with Amanda Allison for a tour of this meandering blueberry farm. They grow 13 different types here, and sell them at their on-site farmers market. They also sell some of the best blueberry and butter tarts around. Their café is set to open soon and they continue to add animals to their growing farm. But it’s the wines that have brought us here and we’re excited to taste.

Blueberry Hill Blueberry Wine
Fruit wine has a bad reputation amongst the wine snobs of the world, but I’ve always felt it has its place.  Blueberry Hill has decided to turn that reputation on its head. Like Muskoka Lakes and its cranberry wine, Blueberry Hill has concentrated on what it does best – blueberries. And the blueberry wine is good. It’s drier than you’d expect, but still holds the character of the berry. They age it in oak barrels and it’s made with an abundance of love and care. We liked it. We also liked their late-harvest blueberry. A perfect addition to sparkling wine or as a dessert tipple, it’s just the right level of sweetness. Their other wines are flush with potential – the fruit wines taking things to another level and their excellent new cider, The Fighter, more than holding its own in the product line.
Quai du Vin Winery
From there, we head towards our final destination for the day, Port Stanley, with a stop at Quai Du Vin Estate Winery along the way. Here, winemaker Jamie Quai is walking a group through an hour-long tour of his winery. His enthusiasm for winemaking is infectious, as he goes through everything from the basics of wine to the details of his own grape-growing philosophy. Afterwards, he walks us through a private tasting on the winery’s lovely patio, as a wedding is set up on the beautiful grounds just beyond us. It’s hard not to fall in love with this landscape, and Shawn is won over by the lone frog holding court in the patio pond.

Quai du Vin Winery Vineyards
The vineyards at Quai Du Vin
The wines here are a mix of hybrid and vinifera. The hybrids grow (and sell) well, which allows Jamie to make the vinifera he enjoys. He has a wide range available, from a sweet and slightly carbonated 2013 Aurora Muscat Petillant to a refreshing and balanced Vidal (perfect for summer). He alternates between dry and off-dry Riesling, depending on the growing season, with good results. The reds are strong. While I have yet to develop a taste for most red hybrids (Baco Noir and Marquette being the exceptions thus far), I can see that great care went into all of these wines and why they work so well in this market. I’m impressed by how Jamie is making both side by side – he reminds me a bit of the winemakers of Prince Edward County, with his experimental nature and intense passion for making wine that is expressive of the region.

Windjammer Inn Port Stanley
After a day of sipping and spitting, Shawn and I are ready to relax and enjoy a good meal, which our host for the evening, Windjammer Inn in Port Stanley, is well-equipped to provide. Our room, The Sheppard Suite, is spacious and comfortable, with a large en suite bathroom and a nice sitting area at the end of the bed. We have a reservation for dinner and I can’t wait to tuck into Chef Kim Saunder’s renowned cooking.

Windjammer Inn Port Stanley pork chop
Pork chop dinner
Dinner does not disappoint. While sipping Ontario wine, I enjoy flavourful crab cakes followed by summer ricotta gnocci with shrimp and scallops. Shawn is impressed with the melt-in-your mouth bison tenderloin carpaccio appetizer and his eyes widen when his large, succulent pork chop arrives. Finishing off with delicious desserts (a crepe for him, crème brule for me), we are more than satisfied as we set off for a much-needed evening walk of the area.

Port Stanley Beach
The beach in Port Stanley

Located on the shores of Lake Erie, Port Stanley has a wealth of sandy beaches and a bustling main street lined with cute shops and busy restaurants. We watch the sun set from the beach, then walk over to explore the main drag. Though the shops close somewhat early, the bars are wide open and many feature bands or singer songwriters, whose music fills the air around us. This is not a city that heads to bed early on a Saturday.

Winjammer Inn Port Stanley brunch
Huevos Mildred - so good.
Shawn and I, however, are ready to turn in and are grateful for our comfy bed at The Windjammer. We wake early and at 9 a.m. head downstairs to tuck into breakfast on the sunny patio, just as it opens. If possible, this meal is even better than dinner. There are fresh-baked scones to start and I enjoy the Huevos Mildred while Shawn devours the farmer’s breakfast. It’s a filling start to the day and the fuel we’ll need for the rest of our adventures.

Anything Used Sparta Historic Village
We start our day visiting The Historic Village of Sparta, which is full of artist’s galleries and antique shops. Exploring the seemingly endless rooms of Anything Used & Sparta Country Candles we can’t resist buying one of their popular candles and picking up a few odds and ends to bring home.

Bodhi Tree store in Port Stanley
From Sparta, we head back to Port Stanley, which is finally waking up. The shops are open now and we pick up local fudge and I find an adorable dress at The Bodhi Tree. We spend a few hours just wandering around exploring the stores and beaches. For lunch, we decide to split fried green tomatoes and local perch at The Kettle Creek Inn (all of which paired perfectly with a glass of Cooper’s Hawk unoaked Chardonnay). Eating in their pretty gazebo on a sunny Sunday is a pretty perfect way to end our visit to the city.

Kettle Creek Inn fried green tomatoes
Fried green tomatoes at The Kettle Creek Inn

Golden Leaf Winery in Ontario
On the way home, we pop by Rush Creek Wines (closed for a family emergency) and then set out to find Golden Leaf Estate Winery, where winemaker Andrew Shelswell is happy to show us around and let us taste through some of his recent releases. After making wine in Nova Scotia for many years, Andrew has had an interesting transition to Ontario. With a base of mostly sand and a very high water table, the conditions have been challenging, but the results are very promising. I particularly liked the Vidal and 2011 Merlot.

Golden Leaf also has a restaurant that plays frequent host to large dinners and events for the local area. We were too late to try any of their food, but we look forward to checking them out on our next visit.

Golden Leaf Winery rosé wine
And as we headed back to Toronto, we decided we would almost certainly be back. I’d like to visit Burning Kiln Winery, which we didn’t have time to include on our schedule, and there are so many hidden gems in the area that we didn’t get a chance to explore. In our room at the Windjammer, waiting for breakfast to start, we had flipped through a pamphlet for Ontario’s Southwest, picking out adventures we could tackle next – we definitely need to spend more time exploring all that our province has to offer.

Port Stanley Ontario
Port Stanley
Interested in visiting? Ontario’s Southwest is holding a contest where you can enter to win your own Dream Foodie Escape! Learn all about it here.

Shawn and I developed our trip via the Foodie 15 on – you can find your own Explore the Shore ideas there too, as well as additional information on the wineries. 

Do you have a favourite destination in Ontario’s Southwest? Be sure to share it in the comments or on social.

Thanks to Ontario’s Southwest, who sponsored this trip. All opinions are, as always, our own.