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A Canada Day wine column only loosely connected to Canada Day

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Ah, yes. Canada Day. Time to celebrate all that is great about this country. Canada is great, the best country on earth. And so are our wines. Fantastic. Now let’s move on.

I won’t tell you to drink Canadian wines, or give you the usual BS about why Canadian wines are so wonderful to drink on Canada Day. They are, but do you really need to be told that? Or, do we really need to celebrate our wines specifically on Canada Day?

Canadian wines are good. Those who get it, get it. Those who don’t, well, they just don’t (or haven’t tried enough of them to appreciate what so many of us have come to appreciate). If you’re going to drink Canadian wines on Canada Day, well, because it’s Canada Day, you are doing it for the wrong reasons.

While writing a weekly newspaper wine column for 14 years or so, every week, 52 weeks a year, I dreaded the editor’s note asking for a “Canada Day” wine column. It came without fail. I hated it as much as the “New Year’s” request for sparkling wines, the “Father’s Day” request (yes, the big red column) and all the other occasion wine pieces editors love to ask for. I don’t have to do that anymore, thankfully, so I’m not going to do it here. There will be plenty of Canada Day wine (and the breathless, obligatory What Is So Great About Canada) columns for you to enjoy in various newspapers, that all seems so trite in hindsight.

There are enough of us out here who enjoy Canadian wines year-round and don’t really think about when we’re going pop open our next bottle. Chances are a good Canadian wine or two will be uncorked on Canada Day at my house more because we love them then out of some patriotic duty. We are past that now.

But I did do something related to Canada Day that I want to share. I pulled out five bottles of wine from the cellar — three made in Canada (from Niagara, B.C. and Nova Scotia), one from Bordeaux and the last one from Napa Valley — that all have some sort of Canadian connection (some more obvious than others, one fairly tenuous).

These are the wines that I will be drinking over the long weekend. Not simply because they have a Canadian connection, but because they remind of the great Canadians or a good Canadian story behind the wines.

So here goes.

Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series Merlot 2007 (Okanagan Valley)

When I think about Tinhorn Creek, in fact, when I think about the Okanagan, the first person who comes to mind is the woman whose name is on the label of this wine: Sandra Oldfield. She is legendary already and she’s really just getting started. If you don’t follow Sandra on Twitter (@sandraoldfield) you should (no matter where you live).

sandra dog
Sandra Oldfield with her cute puppy.

Sandra is a native of California arriving at Tinhorn Creek from Santa Rosa, Calif. in time for the 1995 crush. Since then she has taken the production from 1,000 cases to more than 35,000 cases. She was recently appointed CEO of the winery and lives on the property with her husband, Kenn Oldfield, their daughter and the cutest puppy you will ever see. They have a gorgeous, yet modest, house overlooking the Okanagan Valley.

Sandra became a Canadian citizen in October 2002, but still roots obsessively for the San Francisco Giants in baseball. She argues American issues on Twitter as fervently as the next American, but can switch to Canadian issues (don’t get her going on the Vancouver Canucks) as effortlessly as many of us who were born here.

Sandra is one of those wine personalities that you just can’t wait to meet in person. We feel we know here through Twitter, her personal blog Oldfield’s Wanderings (check this out: Wanderings) and her strong views on Okanagan wines.

Sandra is a star and it doesn’t matter what country she comes from, she is now truly part of the mosaic that is Canada.

I had the immense pleasure of finally meeting Sandra a few months ago during a press tour of the South Okanagan.

Sandra with her bottle of Krug she shared with wine writers.

I was like a wine geek meeting wine royalty. We had conversed via Twitter, through emails, argued in a friendly way and shared opinions (differences?) on wine. I am but one of many fans of this interesting woman.

When I finally met her, at a speed tasting event in Osoyoos in the Okanagan Valley, where we had five minutes with each winemaker, I didn’t even get to try her Tinhorn Creek wines. I tried to get in every question I had all at once in five minutes before a pesky (kidding here) Anthony Gismondi pushed me (not kidding there) along to the next station.

I had plenty of other opportunities to visit with Sandra over a few days in the Okanagan, including sitting with her and husband Kenn (who urged me to send out a few funny tweets on Sandra’s unattended BlackBerry) at the Banee Dinner and a couple of days later for lunch at Tinhorn’s sensational new Miradoro restaurant and a quick tour of the winery following that.

She also made a point of inviting every wine writer in the Okanagan at the time to her room for a pre-Banee sip of Champagne: A mega bottle of Krug (yes, Krug!) Champagne she had bought at auction 12 year ago.

Sandra is one great lady, an expert winemaker, will be a terrific CEO and embodies all the character traits that make our country great. If you want the unvarnished truth, the no-holds-barred raw emotion and the firmly held convictions of one of Canada’s great winemakers (and mother, wife, dog lover, Canucks lover, Giants lover (boo!), political junkie and general shit disturber), find her on Twitter, read her blog and drink her wines. Cheers to her.

L’Acadie Vineyards Alchemy 2008 (Nova Scotia)

I don’t personally know Dan Dickinson, aka @ltdan on Twitter. But I do know this about him, taken directly from his Twitter profile:

Dan Dickinson @ltdan


Tech-biz fence-sitter. Admirer of all four food groups (beer, chocolate, wine, Diet Pepsi). Music fascist. Chairman, Nakatomi Corporation … and father of five. http://www.dandickinson.com

And I know he likes wine. And he likes Canadian wine an awful lot. He buys a crap load of home-grown wine and talks it up on Twitter (and, I assume, in the real world, as well), not in a militant way, but rather as a given that we make great wine in this country. He’s curious about new wines, offers his thoughts on unusual wines he’s tried and wants to know what other people think of the wines they’ve tried.

He writes a pretty good blog called Skirl about this, that and other thing that’s going on his life. I loved this account of a recent buying trip to Niagara to stock up on some of favourite (or newly discovered) wines. Here’s the post: Skirl

And here’s what @ltdan bought:

  • 13th Street 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Semillon
  • 13th Street 2009 Sauvignon Blanc
  • 13th Street 2009 Syrah
  • Clos Jordanne 2007 Claystone Terrace Chardonnay
  • Clos Jordanne 2007 Claystone Terrace Pinot Noir
  • Clos Jordanne 2007 Clos Jordanne Pinot Noir
  • Clos Jordanne 2007 La Petite Colline Pinot Noir
  • Clos Jordanne 2007 Talon Ridge Chardonnay
  • Clos Jordanne 2007 Talon Ridge Pinot Noir
  • Colaneri Estates 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Colaneri Estates 2009 Pinot Grigio
  • Daniel Lenko 2004 Late Harvest Vidal
  • Daniel Lenko 2006 Old Vines Merlot
  • Daniel Lenko 2006 Unoaked Chardonnay
  • Daniel Lenko 2007 Old Vines Chardonnay
  • Daniel Lenko 2007 Reserve Riesling
  • Daniel Lenko 2008 Unoaked ChardonnGay
  • Daniel Lenko 2009 White Cabernet
  • Five Rows 2007 Pinot Noir
  • Five Rows 2009 Pinot Gris
  • Five Rows 2009 Pinot Gris
  • Five Rows 2009 Riesling
  • Five Rows 2009 Riesling
  • Five Rows 2009 Sauvignon Blanc
  • Flat Rock Cellars 2009 Pinot Noir
  • Flat Rock Cellars 2009 Twisted White
  • Hidden Bench 2008 Fume Blanc
  • Hidden Bench 2008 Nuit Blanche
  • Hidden Bench 2008 Terroir Cache Meritage
  • Hidden Bench 2008 Terroir Cache Meritage
  • Pondview 2007 Trinity Red
  • Pondview 2009 Chardonnay
  • Ravine 2008 Cab Franc
  • Ravine 2008 Meritage
  • Riverview 2008 Reserve Cabernet
  • Riverview 2009 Gewurztraminer
  • Southbrook 2007 Whimsy Cab Franc
  • Southbrook 2007 Whimsy Cab Franc
  • Southbrook 2008 Triomphe Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Southbrook 2008 Triomphe Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Tawse 2008 Quarry Road Chardonnay
  • Tawse 2009 Misek Riesling
L'Acadie Alchemy 2008.

But, one of his favourite wineries, it appears to me, is L’Acadie Vineyards in Nova Scotia. So enamoured with this winery, @ltdan made a point of bringing a bottle of the L’Acadie Vineyards Alchemy 2008 to Niagara-on-the-Lake simply for me to try after he read a post on this website talking about the winery’s sparkling wines. He left it at the front desk of the hotel he was staying at for me to pickup when I had a moment, which I did. He said he’s curious what I think about the Alchemy, an Amarone-style (dried grapes) wine made from 60% Leon Millot and 40% Luci Kuhlmann grapes (how Canadian is that!) aged for 20 months in American oak barrels. The bottle had been in my cellar for a couple of months waiting for the right moment to open it up.

So, today, I am opening it (well, a few days ago now) so I can tell Dan what I think. Dan, if you’re out there, here’s my review:

L’Acadie Vineyards Alchemy 2008 ($43 for 500 ml, 89 points) — The first impression on the nose is of chocolate-covered cherries, sweet mature fruits, red plums, and cassis. It’s a big wine at 15% alcohol made from 100% dried grapes (Amarone style). What is unique about this is the high acidity that seems to balance out the thick, heavy fruits. It has lovely chocolate/cocoa notes on the palate to go with summer cherry fruit, raisins and crème de cassis. A wonderful treat from the Gaspereau Valley in Nova Scotia. Would pair with the main meal of red meat or perhaps, after dinner, watching the setting sun (thanks for sharing, Dan).

We need more guys like @ltdan, guys who quietly go about the business of liking Canadian wine because they like it. I am certain Dan will be drinking plenty of Canadian wines (and Ontario craft beers) this Canada Day weekend. Not because it’s Canada Day, but because he likes it.

I hope to meet Dan one of these days. He has great taste in wine.

Clos du Grand Peceau St. Emilion Grand Cru 2003 (Bordeaux)

I like John Howard, he’s an iconic figure in Niagara and truly larger than life. You have to be to name your winery Megalomaniac. You also have to a confident man to show your new wine releases alongside wines from Bordeaux. That takes balls.

John Howard pours wine at a Megalomaniac tasting.

Howard has done that more than once. And now, with his partnership with winemaker Jean-Philippe Janoueix in the Saint-Emilion properties Chateau Haut-Pontet, La Confession and Chateau Clos du Grand Puceau he entered into on Canada Day, 2007, we will see Howard’s Canadian wines compared more and more with (and sold beside) some amazing wines from France.

I’ve been to two of Howard’s tastings in the last couple of years where the wines from his Niagara portfolio shared table space with the wines of Bordeaux. He sold Bordeaux futures right there at a recent wine release and, heck, sold cases of Grand Puceau 2003 to anyone who wanted them (for the ridiculously low price of $15 a bottle).

Howard gets it. Niagara isn’t insulated, it is part of the wine world and it has to start acting like it. If a good Niagara red can’t stand up to a good French Bordeaux, Burgundy or German wine, then vintners still have work to do here. If Niagara doesn’t judge itself against the best, they might as well give up now.

The best wineries in Niagara constantly measure their wines against other regions. Howard more so than others.

This Canada Day weekend I will be drinking another bottle of Clos du Grand Puceau from the hot, fruit-saturated 2003 vintage in Bordeaux. And I will be thinking of Howard and all he’s done and continues to do for the industry here in Niagara.

Paloma Merlot 2001 (Napa Valley)

Back a few years ago now, I was writing a weekly wine column in the Calgary Sun. I had mentioned briefly, after a trip to Napa Valley, about a newly discovered wine called Paloma on Spring Mountain in Napa that I tried after it was recommended by a wine merchant in St. Helena.

The vineyards surrounding Paloma.

The wine was extraordinary and had been given a score of 95 points by Wine Spectator, the highest awarded California Merlot ever (and it still is).

The owners of Paloma at the time, Jim and Barbara Richards, the sweetest older couple you could possibly imagine (sadly, Jim passed away in 2009), were from the Texas oil business but had worked and lived in Calgary for a while before retiring and founding Paloma.

Their son, who was still living in Calgary at the time, saw the mention about Paloma in the Calgary Sun and shot me an email asking if I wanted to taste some more Paloma wines?

Without hesitation, I said yes and we made a date. Sheldon brought a stash of Paloma over to my house and I pulled a couple out that I had brought back from Napa. The wines — especially the Syrahs and Merlots were well-crafted wines and not at all like other reds made in the big, jammy style of Napa.

The Paloma Merlot 2001 went on to become the Wine Specator Wine of the Year in 2003, chosen from 15,000 wines reviewed that year.

Paloma named wine of the year.

I returned to Napa the following year and arranged, through Sheldon, who now runs the winery and lives at the estate in Napa, to have a private visit with his parents. It was the most magnificent visit of any winery I have ever been at. Jim and Barbara were just like everyone’s favourite grandparents, except they were making these fabulous wines by themselves in a small, rugged, severely sloped winery high up on Spring Mountain above St. Helena.

By the time they received their Wine of the Year nod from Wine Specator, Paloma had become a household name in the wine world. The success hardly fazed them. The Merlot that had sold for $45 (cheap considering Napa) sold out as soon as it became wine of the year. The very next vintage, the Richards raised their price $6.

Very little Paloma makes it north to Canada. What little does get here usually ends up in Alberta where there’s a following tied to the Richards’ time in that oil city.

I will be drinking my last bottle of Paloma Merlot 2001 this weekend, thinking about Jim’s dedication to making fine wine and our time together at his home and winery in Napa Valley.

Vineland Estate St. Urban Vineyard Riesling 2008 (Niagara)


Brian Schmidt is the vice-president of operations and winemaker at Vineland Estates Winery in Vineland. He was born in Kelowna, B.C. and raised on the vineyard his family owned for three generations.

In 1991, Schmidt travelled to Ontario to train with his brother Allan, who was the original winemaker at Vineland Estates. Brian took over the position at the winery in 1994.

He describes himself as the chief tractor driver, tweets extensively from it (is that legal?), and is a “minimalist by nature.”

Brian Schmidt
Brian Schmidt on his beloved tractor.

The truth be told: Schmidt is the quintessential Canadian (who also happens to be one hell of a winemaker), one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, generous with everything he has and just happens to make the best $20 Riesling, the single-vineyard St. Urban, that money can buy.

He’ll tell you that St. Urban is made in the vineyard. A little bit true, but I’ve seen up close how he nurtures that wine with careful daily sampling from the tanks, how he guides it from crush to tank to finished product. No, at Vineland under Schmidt’s watch, it only starts in the vineyard.

Schmidt was quick learner on Twiiter under the name @benchwineguy and has gathered up a large collection of followers who see his regular “twactor tweets,” kind words of thanks when someone compliments his wines and his frequent “retweets” of competitors’ wines. He is quick with a kind word, is a devoted family man and a believer that the Canadian wine industry is the sum of its parts, not an individual effort.

If you visit Schmidt at his winery in Vineland you will be overwhelmed by the hospitality he lavishes on all his guests, no matter who you are. He truly wants each and every visitor to leave his estate with a greater appreciation of what Vineland-Niagara-Canada can deliver in terms of quality (and if he has to go deep into his wine cellar to prove his point, he will).

It’s individuals like Brian Schmidt who have made Niagara a great winemaking region — people who aren’t afraid to push the envelope and express opinions when things aren’t working.

It’s that spirit that I want to celebrate, the kind of spirit that makes this country great. The wine just flows from that.

Happy Canada Day weekend.

Enjoy, but enjoy what you like, not what someone says you should like.