Monday, October 26, 2015

Halloween Wine and Cocktail Ideas

Casillero Del Diablo 2014 Malbec and The Famous Grouse Scotch
Halloween is one of our favourite holidays and Shawn and I are always up for some spooky fun. This year, we’ve already participated as ‘running bandits’ at the Monster Dash 5K and we’re planning to spend October 31st with the lights out watching horror movies.

So what wine pairs best with horror movies? Sparkling, of course! Nothing goes better with salty popcorn than a crisp, dry sparkling wine. But Halloween offers lots of great wine options – you can add some real flair to your vampire costume by pairing it with a blood red wine in a suitably spooky goblet.

Casillero Del Diablo 2014 Malbec
We may just crack open the Casillero Del Diablo 2014 Malbec I recently received as a gift as our Halloween wine this year. The devilish logo has Halloween night sipping written all over it. Have you tried it? Share your thoughts in the comments or on social.

Want something a little sweeter for your Halloween treat? Consider this delicious Scotch-based cocktail Shawn and I recently tested. Wait, did I just suggest Scotch in a sweet cocktail? You bet I did – and your party guests will definitely be impressed by this pumpkin-pie-in-a-glass goodness.

Since I’m still off sugar, I had to skip this one, but I did have fun watching Shawn shake it up and I confess to stealing a sip for taste-testing purposes. What a surprise – this is not-too-sweet and perfect for fall sipping.

The Famous Grouse Scotch Pumpkin Pie Martini
Made with Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky, we subbed the pumpkin pie filling (not something we keep on hand) for pure pumpkin and half tsp of organic brown sugar. We also used 2% organic milk instead of half & half to make a slightly healthier version. Either way, it was well-worth the effort.

Famous Pumpkin Pie Martini
1oz Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky
4 tsp pumpkin pie filling
1oz apple juice
0.5oz half & half cream
0.25oz maple syrup
2 dashes cinnamon
Combine ingredients in a shaker tin with ice, shake vigorously and strain into a chilled Martini glass. Garnish with fresh grated nutmeg.

The Famous Grouse Scotch Halloween Cocktails

Looking for other options? Canadian Club and Jim Beam sent me some spooky cocktail recipes you can shake up to impress your guests.

Ogre's Brew
1oz Canadian Club 100% Rye
0.5oz Bols Blue Curacao
4oz orange juice
Shake with ice (turns bright green!)
Strain into a tall glass filled with fresh ice
Garnish with gummy worms

Dancing with the Devil
60 mL Jim Beam® Devil’s Cut® Bourbon
30 mL Triple Sec Liqueur
30 mL fresh lemon sour
30 mL passion fruit juice
2 dashes Tabasco® Sauce
Shake with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry

What will you be serving this Halloween? Do you plan to go with wine or cocktails? And have you ever had a Scotch cocktail? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments and on social.

While I received a sample of Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky to try in this cocktail, all opinions are my own.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Wine Blogger at Wacken Open Air

Wacken Open Air Mudfighters T-Shirt
Shawn and I earned our shirts at WOA.
Being married to a heavy metal musician makes for an interesting conversation starter, but it also means that once a year I become a heavy metal widow when Shawn flies to Germany to spend a week at the world’s biggest heavy metal festival: Wacken Open Air (WOA). Spending several days camping with more than 80,000 metal fans is not my idea of a good time, but for my husband it’s the pinnacle of his year. When, in 2014, he wrote the 25th anniversary theme song for the festival (listen to it here) and got to perform on the main stage, I’m pretty sure it was the highlight of his life (wedding be damned).

Sunset over Wacken Open Air
Enjoying the sunset over Wacken.
So when Shawn scored a room for two on the MS Wacken Boat Hotel, a floating hotel moored just a few minutes from the festival grounds, I decided to take the plunge and find out why my husband loves this festival so very much. First, some background, while I like some of the more melodic metal bands, I’m not a huge metalhead. And camping is pretty much the thing I like least in the world. So WOA and I were not made for each other.

Rainy day at Wacken
Warming up with tiny Jäger on a cold and rainy day
Oh, and then there’s the whole lack of wine. We had spent a week in Europe ahead of Wacken and I was primed to enjoy even more of Germany’s finest, except there wasn’t much of that to choose from. In fact, the only wine on offer seemed to be mead (I still haven’t acquired a taste for that) or fruit wine (maybe in small doses).  This didn’t seem to bother most of the attendees, as one thing heavy metal fans (in particular those in Europe) are known for, is their love of beer. And it certainly flows at WOA. But I’m not a big beer fan, so I went with the only other option easily available to me – Jägermeister.

You remember Jäger, right? It’s the black licorice flavoured liquor you may have done shots of in your university days, but you probably haven’t thought much about since. Well, in Germany Jägermeister is extremely popular. It was one of the festival sponsors and readily available in the camping area, the town of Wacken and on the festival grounds. Now, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t walking around downing Jäger shots all day, but it turned out to be a really nice option throughout five days of mud, cold, rain and metal.

Mud at Wacken Open Air
Where did our feet go?

And, here’s the thing, despite being the muddiest WOA in recent memory (seriously, ankle deep at all times, calf deep in places), I had a blast with my husband.  I’ve never been so happy to have a pair of Walmart rubber boots, but the overall vibe at WOA is just so positive and engaging that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself. The shows were spectacular, even the bands I wasn’t especially interested in put on impressive performances, and the festival is full of things to see and do even if you don’t want to spend all your time watching the multiple shows happening throughout the day.

Store at Wacken Open Air
One of the many Wacken Stores in town.
There’s a Viking village, a Mad Max style village and the entire town of Wacken shuts down to create a WOA party in the streets with bars and shops set up on just about every front lawn. The 80,000 people who descend on the town are pleasantly toasted most of the time, but so very positive and polite. I saw no fights, no aggression and I didn’t even have people knocking into me all the time like at shows in Toronto. Sports fans could learn much from these lovely, muddy people.

MS Wacken Boat
The welcome sign at the boat hotel.
Having a room on the boat is what made this really work for me. Camping in the mud and rain would likely have put me in a miserable mood, but the M.S. Wacken was a warm, dry space to come back to each night. Our room was tiny (we had bunk beds!), but it was clean, dry and cozy. There was a bar on the ship where we could hang out when we weren’t heavy metaling and the staff was absolutely fabulous. If we could afford it, I’d happily go back to Wacken again if staying on the boat was an option. Really, even though I cannot stress enough how much mud I dealt with over the course of five days, I would still go back. Because WOA is such an incredible experience and I had a fabulous time doing something completely outside my comfort zone.

Amorphis at Wacken Open Air
Watching Amorphis with so many people was a lot of fun!

Milkshakes at Wacken Open Air
Spiked milkshakes - these were beyond delicious.
And Jägermeister was part of that. It's not something I would have chosen before this trip, but I ended up really enjoying the flavour, and it came in handy as a tipple on the colder days. When you’re completely freezing (I had on jeans,
double socks, a tank top, a t-shirt, a light hoodie and a heavier hoodie at some points, and I was still cold), a shot of Jäger is actually pretty warming. I also credit it for keeping me from getting sick in all that wet, cold weather. I stand by the theory that alcohol in moderation can stave off a cold. It certainly seemed to in this case.

While I didn’t indulge as much as some folks, I’m glad I had a little bit of liquid courage to get me through the rougher points of an outdoor festival with weather challenges (thankfully the last day was really warm and sunny), and I’m glad I got to rediscover Jäger as an adult. When we got home, Shawn and I picked up a bottle and we’ve been experimenting with cocktails and other ways to enjoy this spirit.
Mud at Wacken Open Air
Shawn strikes a pose before the crowds descend.

And, no, it doesn’t fit into my newly sugar-free lifestyle (there is some added sugar). However, I have declared it a worthy “cheat” option once in a while and when paired with sugar free mixers.

In honour of my big once-in-a-lifetime experience, I asked the amazing people at Jägermeister Canada if they would provide some cocktail recipes, which I wanted to share here.

While I will forever have memories of Jäger attached to my heavy metal adventure, it made me want to remind my readers that this is a surprisingly versatile addition to your liquor cabinet that pairs well with much more than metal.

Some more stylish ways to experience Jägermeister.

Have you ever had a Jager cocktail? Or rediscovered a drink on one of your travel adventures? Share your thoughts in the comments or on social.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The 2015 Wine Bloggers Conference: Lessons Learned

Checking the colour of wine in a glass
Beautiful colour in the glass
This year, Shawn and I attended the Wine Bloggers Conference in the Finger Lakes. It was my second time attending the conference and Shawn’s first. As always, it was an exceptional event. We learned so much about the region and had the opportunity to attend a number of excellent seminars and activities. So what were some of the main takeaways?

* I want to be a better writer. One of the reasons I started this blog was to share my experiences with wine. Since then, it has grown exponentially and I often find myself rushing to keep up. Even with Shawn helping, running this blog takes a huge amount of my time – time I often don’t have. I think that affects the quality of the writing sometimes.

As someone who writes as part of her career and is the proud holder of a journalism degree, that’s not something I’m happy about. Listening to W. Blake Gray and Meg Houston Maker’s exceptional session on wine writing, I realized that I need to ensure I never forget that quality will always trump quantity. You can read Meg's inspiring words to wine bloggers here.

* The facts are far more important than my opinion.      W. Blake Gray is one of my favourite wine writers and bloggers and getting to meet and interact with him at this conference was hugely inspiring. One of the points he shared during his presentation was the above and it was a good reminder that I need to use my research skills more – less ‘I think’ and more ‘I know.’

Finger Lakes Wines
Exploring Finger Lakes wine

* Trust my voice. Keynote speaker Karen MacNeil is another wine writing inspiration who I was able to meet at the conference. Her keynote was a spot-on reminder of why I do this and how I can improve. And now I can't wait to read her new edition of The Wine Bible, one of my absolute favourite resources for wine information. A huge thanks to the conference organizers for bringing in such strong speakers this year – they all left me inspired and informed.

* I love being part of the wine blogging community. When you find your people, you want to spend time with them. And the Wine Bloggers Conference is full of people I want to be around. They are engaged, funny and just as geekily obsessed with grapes as I am. This event feels like one giant five-day conversation and I truly hope that it will continue on throughout the year in other forums.

Finger Lakes Vineyard
The beauty of the Finger Lakes

* The Finger Lakes area is fabulous. We live just a few hours away and it’s a shame we had never been before. That’s going to change. I have spent the last few weeks telling everyone I know they have to visit the Finger Lakes. It’s a beautiful place, the wines are well worth tasting and the people are lovely. And the Corning Museum of Glass will blow your mind. Seriously. Part of the charm of this conference is getting to really experience the wines of a region, this year I feel we got the chance to really immerse ourselves in so much more. It’s a special place.

Were you at the conference? Share your takeaways in the comments or on social! Feel free to post your own WBC15 wrap-up post links as well.

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.