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TasteCamp Part II: On the Bench wineries, and the legendary BYOW dinner

Tastecamp Day II

Opening Note: This is Part II of a look back at TasteCamp Niagara, an independent wine bloggers conference that took place over three days in Niagara May 13-15 (Ontario for the first two days, the U.S. side for the final day). It was an intense exploration of a region most of the bloggers/writers knew very little about and followed on the heels of two other TasteCamps — Finger Lakes and Long Island.

In Part I, the attendees spent the day exploring the wineries, wines and personalities that make up the general Niagara-on-the-Lake region. In Part II, we head to the Benchlands on the Niagara Escarpment.

This is Part II of a chronological look at TasteCamp Niagara through the eyes of someone who helped organize the event and was an attendee at TasteCamp Finger Lakes.


Tastecamp Day II
Paul Pender in the vineyards at Tawse.

Tastecamp Day II
Through the glass looking out at Tawse vineyards.
Tastecamp Day II
Touring the winery at Tawse.

Morning broke on Day Two of TasteCamp Niagara with the promise of apocalyptic rains that threatened to wipe out a day outside on the Bench (and all those gorgeous views that go with it). All the planned activities during Day Two of TasteCamp included some outdoor exploration of vineyards and vine management techniques.

But after hopping on a giant-sized bus, with a bag of muffins and granola for energy, it looked like it just might hang on for a while.

By 8:30 a.m. our group of 38 or so attendees was pulling up to Tawse Estate Winery for a morning with winemaker Paul Pender. We were met with a glass of Tawse organic Rose, a perfect little energy boost for a brisk walk in the vineyards that surround that biodynamic and organic property.

Paul Pender pours Chardonnay at Tawse.

Tawse’s philosophy begins in the vineyards, using organic and biodynamic farming techniques to ensure the health of their vines and the vitality of their soils.

Pender talks the talk and walks the walk on bio-organic farming, and demystifies some of the more far-fetched aspects — including the burial of manure-filled cow horns in the vineyards — of this extreme (and risky) style of farming, especially in terms of biodynamic.

The winery treats the soils as living entities that they feel respond best to responsible handling and management from non-interventionist means.

Hearing Pender detail the process while walking though the vineyards in his calm and convincing manner, one gets the sense that he is a true believer in this style of farming and winemaking.

After the vineyard tour, we were taken through the process on the crush pad and the six level gravity flow winery system based on the natural slope and contours of the property.

The barrel room at Tawse

By way of explanation on biodynamic farming, here is an excerpt from the Tawse website:

“The term biodynamic is very scientific sounding but it is actually a very natural and holistic means of growing crops. At its heart, the biodynamic approach to producing grapes for wine production sees the vineyard as its own ecological entity. Beneath the rows of grape vines the soil is a living organism in its own right joined by flora and fauna that are co-dependent. The biodynamic farmer works within this ecosystem and does not alter the natural processes that exist. Biodynamic vineyards are intended to be self-sustaining entities. Ideally, they should be able to produce what they need, and expunge what they don’t require in a self-contained manner without the use of anything sourced externally.”

You can read the explanation in its entirety here:

Pender and the Tawse owners believe that the wines produced through biodynamic methods have stronger, purer and more vibrant aromas and flavours.

He gave us a taste of one of two wines from Tawse that is now certified biodynamic and organic, the 2010 Gewurztraminer. Here’s a review:

Tawse Gewurztraminer 2010 (price not available, 89 points) — Lychee, rose petal nose with an underlying musky aroma. It’s fresh and lightly spiced with grapefruit and lychee flavours in the mouth.

Pender left us with a comparative tasting of the winery’s top Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, a clear and concise demonstration of the differences in terroir at Tawse.


Then it was back on the bus for the five-minute drive to Vineland Estate Winery and a visit with Brian Schmidt and the noted St. Urban Vineyard, home to one of Niagara’s iconic Rieslings.

Winemaker Schmidt had planned a vineyard tour of St. Urban, but our luck ran out the weather so he moved the gang into the winery where the backdrop wasn’t as pretty but Schmidt did a fine job of improvising on the fly.

Winemaker Brian Schmidt of Vineland Estates.
Daniel Speck pouring Henry of Pelham wine.
Jay Johnston pouring Hidden Bench.

He took us through the evolution of St. Urban Riesling while giving us tank samples of the wine from individual blocks within the vineyard. St. Urban truly is an incredible vineyard that shows the full range of styles that will eventually be blended together to make the wine that bears its name on the label. Vineland makes three different (and maybe more in 2010) levels of Riesling — St. Urban, Semi-Dry, and Elevation (from old vines in St. Urban vineyard).

It was a heck of a lot of fun at Vineland with Schmidt, who essentially let TasteCampers savour their wines and enjoy the winery and its wines. To quote Schmidt: “Me Casa is sue Casa.” And that we did while eating a nice boxed lunch provided by Vineland Estate.

Kacaba at the grand tasting.

Vineland is always bustling with people. While we were there was a wedding going on, the tasting room was packed with people and the TasteCamp group was spread throughout the winery and tasting room and outside eating their lunch and enjoying wines provided by Schmidt.

Then it was time for the grand tasting of Bench wineries including: Vineland Estate Winery, Hidden Bench Winery, Fielding Estate Winery, GreenLane Estate Winery, Peninsula Ridge Winery, Angels Gate Winery, 13th Street Winery, The Good Earth Winery, Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery, Malivoire Wine, Rosewood Estate, Kacaba Vineyards and Cave Spring Cellars.

This was an incredibly relaxed and friendly tasting spread around the Vineland winery. Schmidt is a fabulous host and good neighbour for other wineries on the Bench. I liked how he set up the Vineland Estate tasting at the back of the barrel room, in a dimly lit section where he held court and, like a giddy kid, pulled out random old bottles of Riesling and Cab Franc for attendees to experience. There were no pretensions here, just the sharing of wine from one wine lover to another.

Tastecamp Day II
Winemaker Brian Schmidt of Vineland Estates.

In the winery, where all the others were pouring, it was nice to see so many of the winemakers and principals pouring their wines for TasteCamp attendees who were curious about how the wines were made and had plenty of questions.

Even with two hours of leisurely tasting, it was impossible to taste all the wines. But here are some highlights:

Vineland Estates St. Urban Vineyard Riesling 2010 ($20, not yet released, 91 points) — This Riesling from this iconic St. Urban vineyard is highly aromatic with tropical fruits, peach and minerality. It’s so lovely on the palate with fresh sweet-tart fruit notes and rich, layered flavours on a bed of minerality. Buy, drink and tuck some away in the cellar.

Vineland Estates Semi-Dry Riesling 1998 (not available) — This is Vineland’s entry level Riesling that sells for $14 and it always amazes me that it ages so well. Schmidt pulled out several vintages of this. The 1998 vintage was from one of Niagara’s finest growing years. This is still a nice wine to drink with butterscotch and peach pie flavours. The 1989 vintage Schmidt pulled out, which sold for $8 way back then, was also a treat to try with dried tropical fruits still holding on nicely.

Will Roman at the Rosewood table.

Cave Spring Cellars CSV Blanc de Blancs 2004 (released June 11, only 250 six packs, 93 points) — This will immediately set the bar for bubbly in Niagara when it’s released and such a treat for Cave Spring to pour it at TasteCamp. It spent 63 months on the lees, longer than any other Champagne style wine made in Niagara. It will be labeled under the iconic Cave Springs Vineyard designation, reserved only for the very top wines at the estate. Incredible yeasty-bread aromas to go with lemon-citrus, apple and soft vanilla-toast. It shows gorgeous crispness on the palate, layered fruits and a lively mousse. A spectacular 100% Chardonnay bubbly.

Winemaker Brian Schmidt of Vineland Estates.

Cave Spring Cellars Estate Chardonnay 2007 ($19, 90 points) — A nicely structured Chard showing green apple, citrus and some subtle tropical fruits and minerality on the nose. It’s still tight on the palate but starting to reveal apple, oak toast and emerging spice.

GreenLane Estate Winery Old Vines Riesling 2010 (price NA, 89 points) — It was great to finally see the estate wines being released at GreenLane. Not sure of the availability but I am looking forward to the wines if the Rieslings are any indication. The Old Vines, from an average vine age of 25 years old, shows gorgeous citrus-tropical fruits with an apple accent to go with minerality and decent acid from a fat vintage. Loved the depth of fruit and texture of this wine.

Rosewood Estate Natural Ferment Chardonnay Reserve 2009 ($25, release date unknown, 89 points) — Adored this Chardonnay with tropical-vanilla aromas and caramel-oak accents. Lovely texture in the mouth and a long finish. Should age beautifully.

Fielding Estate Riesling 2010 ($16, LCBO soon, 88 points) — This is Fielding’s entry level Riesling with a nose of sweet citrus, lime, peach and a hint of minerality. Decent acid, considering the vintage, with lovely fresh flavours in the mouth.

Fielding wines at the grand tasting.

Henry of Pelham Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2008 ($20, Vintage released June 11, 88 points) — A lightly spiced nose with apple and citrus fruit that’s fresh on the nose. The palate reveals a crisp, green apple and citrus

packed wine that’s balanced and well made at a great price.

Angels Gate St. John Vineyards Riesling 2007 (price, release date, not available, 92 points) — If you love mineral-driven Rieslings, this is your style of wine. Pure wet stone minerality with citrus fruits on the edges. It’s a complex wine that should evolve further.

Note: I tried many other wines, including the Hidden Bench selection, but got so wrapped up talking to people such as associate winemaker Jay Johnston, that I didn’t take the kind of notes I wanted to. Will be out soon to visit, Jay!


Our last winery visit of the day, and the final on this adventure for the Canadian side of Niagara, we headed to Flat Rock Cellars where proprietor Ed Madronich was busy on Plan B after the skies finally opened up with the deluge that was expected all weekend long.

Ed Madronich at Flat Rock.
Ed Madronich at Flat Rock.
Fog rolls in at Flat Rock.

Participants were met outside the main tasting room and Madronich welcomed the group to his Jordan Bench winery. With the glass encased, hexagonal winery as a backdrop, the stunning views obscured by fog and low-lying clouds, Madronich held court and explained the interesting afternoon he had in store for us.

We were divided into three groups for the “Flat Rock Olympics of Wine.” Winemaker Ross Wise and assistant winemaker Greg Yemen took two groups while Madronich gathered up the third group.

Tastecamp Day II
Ross Wise pours at Flat Rock.

Camp One with Yemen was given a chore — taste the components that make up the popular Twisted white blend from Flat Rock then calculate the percentage of each and write down the scores.

Camp Two with Wise was an exercise in determining oak components and levels of toast that make up the Chardonnay program. We were asked to match the description of the wines on the chalk board to what was in our glasses and write down our answers.

Camp Three with Madronich was a tasting of the new Rogue, a white Pinot Noir, and a discussion on philosophy not only at Flat Rock but on Niagara wines in general.

I loved this comment, that sums up the outlook at Flat Rock and the optimism and enthusiasm of Madronich succinctly:

“My objective is not to be a great Ontario winery. It’s to be a great winery. We are trying to be the best in the world.”

Lesley Trites announced as TasteCamp Flat Rock champ.
Tamara serves El Gastronomo treats at Flat Rock.

Following Madronich’s “camps” we were herded back into the winery, the winner of the various tests announced (Lesley Trites, who publishes the Girl on Wine blog was the winner) and we enjoyed another tasting, this time of the crown cap Riddled bubbly along with some tasty treats from el Gastronomo Vagabundo, an urban gourmet taco truck.

(A full portfolio tasting of Flat Rock wines was reviewed here recently.)

This is how we roll in Canada.

I was just a little shocked to be asked to sabre a bottle of this wine with an axe — yes an axe! — which, needless to say, I had never done before (with an axe or anything). Madronich gave me about a three-second lesson and POOF! the axe slid down the neck of the bubbly and in one swift motion an explosion of bubbles gushed from the bottle onto the “green roof” of the Flat Rock winery. Embarrassing as it is, the video captured by Jeffrey Pinhey can be seen here.

And thus concluded the official wineries tour of TasteCamp Niagara.


Our very last function was the very unofficial Bring Your Own Wine dinner at Treadwell Farm to Table Cuisine in Port Dalhousie.

Sommelier James Treadwell and his father, chef Stephen Treadwell, had put together a TasteCamp menu for the group including a chilled pea soup with seared east coast scallops starter, braised Cumbrae Farms lamb shank with goat’s cheese crushed fingerlings for a main and a rosemary crème brulee with honey icecream dessert to finish.

The BYOW dinner at Treadwell.
Pea soup and scallops at Treadwell. So good.

It was an unbelievably delicious meal, as it always is at this local restaurant (that just happens to be down the street from where I live — a total coincidence).

The BYOW dinner has traditionally been a place where attendees can let their hair down, share bottles that they bring with them, whether regional or international, and talk freely about what they learned at TasteCamp or what they didn’t learn.

Someone counted 78 different wines on the tables at one time — ranging from a 1964 Vintage Gonzalez Byass Sherry, to Benjamin Bridge from Nova Scotia to a late harvest, late vintage Niagara Baco Noir to several home-State wines and international superstars (and little known gems that were favourites of the guests who brought them). They were all shared with each other, as attendees walked from table to table pouring, trading, discussing, debating and tweeting.

A few dead soldiers from the BYOW dinner.

We invited Rob Power, winemaker at Creekside, and Kevin Panagapka, owner and winemaker of the virtual winery 2027 Cellars, and, of course, Ed Madronich, to the dinner to experience the legendary TasteCamp BYOW. It didn’t take long for any of them to get into the spirit of giving and receiving what had brought us together in the first place — wine.


Part III of TasteCamp Niagara will be posted here soon.