Aside from the usual gigs and deadlines, a new place has kept me from the blog for a minute: Brooklyn Winery. For a long time now, I’ve wanted to work in the restaurant industry as a passion project, and to enhance my critical skills as a wine, food, and restaurant reporter. Brooklyn Winery was advertising part time positions of which wine knowledge was more important than experience carrying a tray, so I went for it and they haven’t kicked me out yet!
I joined the team at Brooklyn Winery — an urban winery and wine bar — back in April, and since then I’ve gained valuable knowledge in many areas: service, wine making, New York’s wine regions, distribution, and yes, carrying a tray (not as easy as my colleagues make it look!). I’ll have a feature in Wine and Jazz Magazine this fall on Brooklyn Winery wine maker, Conor McCormack, and I continue to devote my attention to the wines of New York, Michigan, and Ontario. I hope you enjoy this story on some of Toronto’s restaurants which are highly devoted to their countries wines.
As wine shops go, it’s not much to look at, just a mid-sized store with a Walmart-like plastic toy aroma. There are shelves of spirits, beer, and wines separated by region.
But browsing here at Toronto’s LCBO (Liquor Control Board Ontario) on King and Spadina, with its fine selection of Canada’s VQA wines, and Crush Wine Bar’s Monday night one-dollar-corkage-fee just down the street, gives me a warm feeling: I’m about to share an experience with my good friends Julien and Jia, who are new to Toronto and Ontario’s wines. And Crush Wine Bar has one of Canada’s finest sommeliers, Mark Moffatt, authoring their list each week with well-balanced wines full of finesse from all over the old world. But we won’t have any of those.
Toronto is hip. Its fashion district, enhanced by models and celebrities – a by-product of Toronto’s film industry – gives it electricity akin to the more lime-lit cities of New York, London, or Paris. But a country’s fine wine industry also adds sex appeal to their largest city’s culture. So while Canadian vintners continue to search for their identity in both the wine regions of British Columbia, with a climate similar to Washington state, and Ontario, a pen pal of New York’s Finger Lakes, eventually the latter will primarily focus on cooler climate varietals (pinot and gamay noir, chardonnay, riesling). And that’s mainly what we focused on.
I arrived on Sunday, the third of July and just two days after Canada’s independence day, to many closed restaurants with the weekend’s festivities still going strong. But my friends’ building in the entertainment district has its own restaurant, Canteen, with a nice by-the-glass list.
Jason Bangerter, formerly of Auberge du Pommier, is the executive chef of Canteen and its fine dinning counterpart, Luma, of Oliver and Bonacini restaurants. Canteen, on the ground floor of the new TIFF Bell Lightbox building (a Toronto film festival venue), is a casual café, market, and bakery — perfect for a downtown power-meal. We began with a still rosé from Featherstone (a winery on the Niagara Escarpment). With mellow acid, fresh strawberries, red licorice and cherries on the finish, it was fitting for our evening of summer sidewalk dining.
We ordered various pastas and poultries, so we went with what Jancis Robinson affectionately calls “liquid chicken,” pinot noir. The 2009 pinot noir from Mission Hill – a massive Berringer/Mondavi-like operation — in the Okanagan Valley, is dark ruby with a bouquet of tart raspberries, balanced with minerals and flavors of bacon fat on the mid palate, and finishes with a medicinal fruit feel. While dessert was served, I opted for one last glass: the 2009 Malivoire gamay, from its vineyards along the Beamsville Bench sub-appellation. I have long been a fan of the Niagara gamays. Beaujolais in style, this complex gamay has a tangy smoke on its bouquet, with a jammy thickness in body, and mint on the finish.
Prior to arriving in Toronto, I reached out to my colleague at Wine and Jazz Magazine, the Canadian wine writer Natalie MacLean, asking about restaurants that would have extensive VQA wine lists. Her response brought us to lunch the next day at Starfish Oyster Bed and Grill. As an aperitif and initial accompaniment to our oysters, we sipped a sparkling rosé, the Henry of Pehlam Cuvée Catherine Brut Rosé: crisp, dry, and it lured my friends Julien and Jia directly to the LCBO after lunch to purchase some for their home. Julien and I went for mussels next, and I chose a chenin blanc from Cave Spring Cellars, of the 2008 vintage. Golden straw in color, with vanilla and green beans on the bouquet, this medium bodied white has a honey-weight to it, with a delicate sweetness of candied almonds on the finish.
While Julien and Jia purchased their sparkling rosé, we decided then that dinner would be with Crush Wine Bar and their one-dollar-corkage-fee. I chose the 2008 pinot noir from Cave Spring. Glasses of sparkling wine always begin a meal (sometimes even breakfast), when Julien and Jia are at the table, so we stuck with Cave Spring and their 2006 Dolomite Sparkling Brute. With lots of bubbles on the eye, and a thick texture of yeasty-bread and sea salt, the wine drank beautifully but was a touch too warm – always a risk when ordering by the glass, though it shouldn’t be. Charcuterie, Bison Tartare, and main courses accompanied the pinot noir, with its sneezy white pepper and red fruits on the nose. If you have ever doubted that Niagara can produce pinot noir, I can assure you this wine from Cave Spring is an Oregon-dian success.
I left Julien and Jia at Toronto’s historic Union Station the next morning and departed for Bayfield, via London, by train. Bayfield is a 19th century Victorian resort town and home to my friends Ted and Kathleen McCintosh, sommelier and chef respectively, and passionate philanthropists of all things Canadian-food-and-wine.
I’m not sure why, but many colleagues and friends involved in the New York City wine industry act as if they wish the wines from places like Canada would fail in comparison to their old world darlings. But perhaps I’m equally as guilty of having a bias in wanting the wines to succeed when I taste them. Alas, all I can do is leave you with this final paragraph, and ask that you consider this image when you taste wine from not just Canada or other up and coming regions, but from anywhere.
During my afternoon in Bayfield, Ted poured a rosé from Tawse and a reserve pinot noir from Flat Rock (Niagara), followed by a reserve pinot noir from Le Vieux Pin (Okanagan B.C.). I make it to Bayfield only a few times a year to visit with Ted and Kathleen, and cherish the time we spend sharing wines from the U.S. and Canada. We sat outside on the patio of their gastro-pub, the Black Dog. We talked about wine, food, cities, sports, music, work. The wines of course had acid levels, alcohol levels, stem contact, color, weight, body, oak age, tannins, long finishes, all of which you may fully understand, but ultimately don’t matter. And if you have to ask what does matter, then you’ll never understand wine.