Monday, January 26, 2015

The Wild Vine – Book Review

It’s no secret that I am slightly obsessed with wine books. In 2014, I read some pretty fabulous ones – The Billionaire’s Vinegar and Wine & War being two major standouts. Another favourite was The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine and I thought it deserved a special shout-out, as I have encountered far fewer people who have read it. That needs to change.

Evan Dawson, one of my favourite wine writers (and the author of the amazing Summer in a Glass), suggested The Wild Vine to me on Twitter when I asked for recommendations for what to read next.  I had recently purchased the book and figured if Evan suggested it, it must be good. Not surprisingly, he was right!

The Wild Vine is the story of the Norton grape, the first wine grape successfully cultivated and grown in the United States. Most wine grapes are of European origin and many believed that U.S. grapes – let alone one from Missouri – would never be suitable for winemaking. An intrepid medical doctor with a major grape fixation proved them wrong.

If you had told me the history of a grape I’d never heard of would turn out to be a page-turner, I’d have scoffed. But after a bit of a slow start (common in wine books), I was completely sucked in to the story of how this grape went from skeptical responses to years of glory and then on to relative obscurity.

Author Todd Kliman has meticulously researched the Norton and you can tell he was completely drawn into this unusual tale. While the backstory about winemaker Jenny McCloud wasn’t as interesting to me as the history, I was impressed with her passion for the grape and her decision to continue to grow Norton grapes and make wine from it. Wine is full of stories of those who persevered when they were told something wasn’t possible (just talk to the original winemakers from
Prince Edward County or read Geoff Heinricks excellent A Fool and Forty Acres for a few examples). This is a case where an obsession with Norton is seen as a bit of folly, but applauded just the same.

The Norton touches on so many things – Thomas Jefferson, German history, winemaking in the U.S., prohibition and more – I walked away from the book knowing so many new things about American history and wanting desperately to try some Norton. So far I haven’t had any luck tracking down a bottle, but that just means Shawn and I need to add a few more states to our travel wish list.

I highly recommend The Wild Vine and look forward to hearing your opinion on the book. Already read it? Feel free to leave your thoughts (or links to your reviews) in the comments.  

Monday, January 19, 2015

Hope Family Vineyards

When we started planning our trip to California for the Wine Bloggers Conference, I knew I wanted to visit Hope Family Wines in Paso Robles. I had tried their Troublemaker red blend at the California Wine Show and I was impressed (it ended up being one of my favourite wines of 2014) and the team at Trialto (who represent Hope Family Wines in Ontario) said this was a winery not to be missed.

The winery itself is not as big and fancy as some of the sprawling California wine estates I saw during my time in the state. It reminded me a lot of the wineries in Niagara, which may be another reason this place stole my heart. It’s a lovely building set on a beautiful vineyard and feels warm and inviting. This is a comfortable place for a tasting and you feel right at home.

Having been farming in Paso Robles for more than 30 years, the Hope family started out growing apples and grapes, but now the land is exclusively vineyards. They grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Mourvedre and Grenache grapes. They were certified sustainable by the Central Coast Vineyard Team in 2009, as part of the Sustainability in Practice (SIP) program. Sustainability is important to the winery and it came up numerous times during our visit – they are committed to growing grapes in a way that benefits the wine and the environment.

Our tour and tasting had been arranged in advance and we arrived early in the day so I could do a tasting before Shawn drove us along the Pacific Coast Highway to Monterey. Our host was so generous with her time and her explanations of each of the wines. I sampled through their catalogue and discovered that Troublemaker is only just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Hope Family line of wines.

I started with the Liberty School 2013 Central Coast Chardonnay, which has lots of peach and melon on the nose and is creamy, light and refreshing. I would love to try this wine with some of the delicious California cuisine we sampled during our vacation.

The Paso Robles 125 commemorative white wine blend was a real treat – it was created to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Paso Robles and its release coincided with the city's fourth of July celebrations. It was made predominantly of Rhone varietals and was very balanced with nice acidity. This wine was available only through the winery tasting room and is a very limited edition.

The Liberty School Rosé had lots of sour cherry and grapefruit on the nose with quite a bit of citrus on the palate. This is a wine we bought during our visit and enjoyed on the patio of our hotel in Napa – it was absolutely perfect for a sunny California afternoon.

The Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon has cherry, spice and smoke on the nose. It has good grip with a long finish and fresh, vibrant fruit on the palate.

The 2011 Austin Hope Grenache has raspberry and dried fruit on the nose. This is a super small production wine with a focus on being a special occasion wine. It was really just a gorgeous, full-bodied sipper that I would love to have again.

The 2012 Austin Hope Grenache was a little heavier on the nose – likely due to being just a bit younger, but still had a lot of raspberry and smoky notes.

Candor is a mult-vintage and multi-region Zinfandel with a vibrant nose featuring green grapes, cherry and strawberry. It’s very fruit-forward and refreshing and not a heavy-feeling wine. This is a great option for warm weather sipping.

I so enjoyed our visit to Hope Valley Wines and I wish they were readily available at the LCBO – I’m sure that their Troublemaker and Liberty School wines would be very successful, especially if the price-point was similar to what they cost at the winery. Trialto does have some of their bottles available for order by the case - contact them for availability.

If you get the chance to visit Paso Robles (and I hope you do), be sure to book time to stop in at Hope Family Wines – it’s well-worth a visit.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

#NiagaraChilled - Three Weekends of Fun in Winter Wine Country

Niagara in January may not be top-of-mind for a getaway, but with icewine, great eats, music and lots of fun activities on the schedule for Ontario’s biggest wine region, it should be. In fact, this weekend was the first of three jam-packed weekends full of all of the aforementioned.  For 2015, the region is celebrating #NiagaraChilled, which includes the Icewine Festival, 20 Valley Winter WineFest and much, much more. Niagara is definitely a hotspot for winter wine fun right now.

Shawn and I have visited the Icewine Festival over the last two years and we’re excited to be returning this year with the fabulous iYellow Wine crew. iYellow put together a preview event last week to make sure local bloggers were aware of just what Niagara has to offer this month.

You can find a full schedule and information about the many events and tastings at  While the first weekend activities have taken place, there are still two more weekends to go and they are chock full of things to do.

At the preview event, I was able to taste through some fantastic examples of Niagara icewine – a great reminder that Ontario icewine is an incredible treat. Here are the wines we sampled:

Peller Estates Ice Cuvée Classic - This is a long-time favourite for me. It's a traditional method sparkling with an icewine dosage added after fermentation. It's also delicious.  This was a popular option for those looking for something less sweet and more in line with the typical wine experience. For me, this showcases the diversity of icewine and is a reminder that it can be used in many ways.I'm really wishing I could be in Niagara for this year's icewine cocktail contest, which takes place on the second week of #NiagaraChilled.

Cave Spring Cellars 2013 Riesling - A popular choice at the event, this icewine has very balanced acidity that helps the sweetness seem less intense on the palate. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend this for those wanting to introduce someone to icewine.

Peller Estates 2013 Oak Aged - This is a Vidal-based icewine. Personally, I like Vidal icewines, but they present as much sweeter. While the actual sugar levels may be on par with a Riesling icewine, I always find the Vidal comes across as sweeter because of the lower acidity. I was curious about the oak aging on this one, but really didn't get a lot of oak on the palate or nose.

Chateau Des Charmes  2012 Cabernet Franc - I love Niagara Cabernet Franc and am always interested in how winemakers use this more savoury grape in icewine. The CDC 2012 was a good example of how you can do something a little different with icewine and still keep the most important characteristics. I got a great licorice note on this wine on the first few sips and then it developed more ripe berry and candied fruit qualities. It was nicely balanced and didn't feel overpoweringly sweet. I paired it with a lamington (Australian white cake with chocolate and coconut) from  Kanga quite successfully. The cake wasn't overly sweet, so it didn't overpower the icewine.

This sneak peak has me excited to try even more fabulous icewines when we visit on the 24th. Be sure to add me on Twitter and Instagram if you'd like to follow along. And you can book your own icewine adventure via

Learn more about #NiagaraChilled via this video from Angela Aiello:

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Prenup Pub – Beer and German Food Pairing

When I was invited to a media dinner at Prenup Pub, which recently opened at 191 College Street, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My experiences with beer have not been great ones – I just never acquired a taste for it – and pub food is hit or miss with my food restrictions (I don’t eat red meat). But Prenup is right around the corner from my office and I was curious about what I’d discover.

When I read the menu I knew this was somewhere Shawn would want to try – he is the beer drinker in our household and Prenup Pub has an extensive list of beers available. They also have a menu heavily skewed towards German and Austrian fare – foods that my husband gravitates towards. I felt like he should have taken over the blog for the night to give you a more accurate scoop on how this menu holds up.

But you’re stuck with me! And, while there were quite a few things I couldn’t indulge in, I did discover a few beers that I really enjoyed, and I was very impressed with the job Prenup Pub did in choosing beers to pair with the dishes. Wine pairing is something I take pretty seriously and I know it can be a complicated business – the talented staff member who chose the beer pairings for this meal should be commended for his excellent palate (I spoke with him briefly, but did not catch his name).

The menu at Prenup is, as is to be expected, meat heavy, but they do offer a vegetarian pizza and a hearty chicken stew, which I was able to enjoy. I really liked the stew – it was thick, creamy and perfect for a winter evening. I also thought it paired nicely with the Affligem Abbey Blonde Ale. And, always an important pub fact, the fries at Prenup are pretty darn awesome.

One of the most interesting moments for me was the dessert and beer pairing. I know wine and sweets are often a challenge, so what about beer? For this, they chose the Rudenbach Grand Cru, a sour beer – not what I would have expected. When I first tried it, I thought it was way too astringent and way too sour, but when I had it alongside a bite of the very sweet tiramisu, it worked well. The sour balanced the sweet and the finish was really pleasing. I don’t think I could drink the beer on its own, but as a pairing this worked for me.

Prenup Pub has the same owner as The Village Idiot and Sin & Redemption and they have obviously put a lot of time and money into turning it into a more upscale pub. The décor is slightly gothic with lots of chandeliers and sconces, but the atmosphere is still warm and inviting. It was very busy on the night of our dinner, with lots of students from nearby UofT filling two floors, along with several groups there for business dinners. In just a few months it seems to have developed a strong clientele.

The wine list surprised me. While it is on the lower end of the scale price-wise (a smart choice for a pub near a university), there was an eclectic and interesting mix. It seemed that while they chose to go with wines that were affordable by the glass, they had thought about what worked well with the menu. There were the expected German Rieslings and heavy reds, but also a nice mix of regions and varietals. I was surprised to see KWV’s Café Culture (a mix of coffee, chocolate and Pinotage) available by the glass. While that one is not for everyone’s tastes, it’s nice to see Prenup taking a chance with a unique selection. With a student-heavy clientele, that makes good sense to me. I may also have a soft spot because KWV’s Izele Van Blerk was one of my favourite winemaker interviews of 2014.

Will I go back to Prenup Pub? I don’t think I’ll have a choice! When I got home and told Shawn about our dinner he was eager to try things for himself. I’m game to check out more of their menu and maybe even try another beer pairing, if I’m feeling daring!

*This meal was complimentary, but the opinions are 100% my own.

Friday, January 2, 2015

My Favourite Wines of 2014

Brander Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc
I had so much fun looking back on the wines I tried in 2014 – it was an incredible reminder that wine has brought me so much more than something interesting to drink. My photos held wonderful memories of discovering new things about wine, learning from winemakers, spending time with friends and family, travel adventures and so much more. When I discovered wine, I also fell into a culture of like-minded people who are as fascinated as I am by why one sip is so different than the next - I am so grateful for the wine community and the friendships it has brought.

As always, this isn’t a ‘best of’ list. I don’t think I qualify to tell you what the ‘best’ wines of the year were – nor did I sample enough of the recent releases to be able to fairly compare. For those sorts of reviews, I suggest you check out the smart and savvy experts at

This is a collection of some of the most memorable things I drank in 2014. Some of them were made memorable by the experiences I had while enjoying them. Others were just extraordinary examples of winemaking. There were so many I wish I could include, but you’d still be reading this in 2016 if I did that!

The California Dreaming Category:

Our visit to California this year allowed me to try some very special wines. Some were part of the Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC14) experience and others were via visits to the awe-inspiring California wineries on our route. I was not a huge California wine fan when we left, but that definitely changed along the way – a few of my favourites:

Daou Vineyards 2011 Estate Mayote  – You can read all about my visit to Daou Vineyards in my recent post, but my wine of the year is without question this one.

Brander Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (photo above) – A highlight of my WBC14 adventure was discovering and tasting through a selection of this Sauvignon Blanc – it was the wine I gravitated to most during a very special evening visiting Buttonwood Winery and discovering the wines of the Santa Ynez Valley. I hope to find some in Canada very soon.

Chateau Montelena 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon – Of course we went to Chateau Montelena when we were in Napa – how can you not visit the winner of the Judgement of Paris? Getting to try their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon was a huge highlight of our trip. This is also an absolutely stunning property and worth a visit just to explore the grounds.

Hope Family Wines Troublemaker – Not every California wine costs a fortune and I definitely fell hard for this red blend. This wine was just as good hanging out in our motel in Monterey as it was in the winery – easy-drinking and delicious. You can read more about my trip to Hope Family Vineyards in a future post and order this wine via Trialto in Ontario.

The Incomparable Canucks Category:

I had the privilege of drinking so many fantastic Canadian wines this year – this was the hardest category to narrow down. I wanted to include long-standing favourites like Vineland Estates' Elevation Riesling or Lighthall Vineyards’ Progression sparkling, but I decided instead to include a few you may not have heard me rave about already.

The Old Third 2012 Pinot Noir Blanc – I tried this at Whitbywino’s birthday celebration at Jamie Kennedy’s Gilead and had to bring home a bottle from the winery. The winery is one of the most beautiful spaces in Prince Edward Country and this is just one of the truly special wines The Old Third is making right now.

Cave Springs Cellars Chenin Blanc – It breaks my heart that there will be no more Cave Springs Chenin Blanc – they ripped out their Chenin vines shortly before I discovered this truly delicious Niagara wine. Luckily, I have two more bottles in my cellar to enjoy. The Adam Steps Riesling is another great option from this winery and is still available.

Southbrook Vineyards Triomphe Chardonnay and 2006 Cabernet Franc Icewine – Two of my favourite sips this year came from Southbrook. I was lucky enough to try their 2006 Cabernet Franc Icewine at last year’s Icewine Festival in Niagara and it was my pick of the weekend. I tried the Chardonnay at an i4c preview event and was blown away – of the many cool-climate Chardonnays on offer, this is the one that stood out for me and had me rushing to the LCBO for a bottle.

The ‘I Can’t Believe I Got to Drink That’ Category: 

I am a very lucky lady to have such amazing wine loving friends – they have ensured that I got to try so many truly, truly extraordinary bottles. Many of these aren’t available anymore, but I just had to share the experience as part of this wrap-up.

Solaia and E. Guigal – When Tyler Philp opens up his incomparable cellar and says you can pick any two bottles you like, you’re expecting something special. The actual selections were far and away some of the most incredible wines I got to taste in 2014 – a 2004 Solaia and a 2003 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie. Many thanks to Tyler for his incredible generosity in supporting this wine newbie on her adventures in wine – I owe you a slew of special bottles in 10 years’ time!

Rocland Estate 2008 Single Vineyard – I have tried so many amazing bottles at #TOWineDinners over the years and 2014 was no exception. One that stands out especially was brought by the incomparable Christine Cooper – a Rocland Estate Single Vineyard Shiraz from the Barossa Valley.
This was the only wine sample I finished all night and I can’t wait to try more from this vineyard.

Honourable Mentions:

Weingut Brundlmayer 2012 Gruner Veltliner – When I asked on Twitter for an Austrian wine suggestion, I wasn’t expecting Bruce Wallner, one of Canada’s three Master Sommeliers, to offer up a pick. But that’s the magic of Twitter. This isn’t a pricy bottle, but this powerful Gruner is a great wine to pair food with and well worth picking up. Although you really can’t go wrong when one of the best sommeliers in the world helps you out with a wine suggestion.

Hubbs Creek 2011 Unfiltered Pinot Noir – There is something special happening with the Pinot in Prince Edward County. The Lighthall barrel sample I had was incredible (I’m waiting to open a bottle) and this Hubbs Creek was one of the best I tried all year. You must visit Battista on your next trip to PEC and sample his wines.

Bolla Winery 2006 Valpolicella – When one of our best friends (and the owner of one very impressive wine cellar) cracked this open at a recent dinner he was worried it was part its prime. Turned out that wasn’t a problem at all – still fruit-forward and nuanced, this was an impressive bottle. Even better? That we shared it with such wonderful friends.

What were your best bottles of 2014? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section!