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Winemaker vs. wine writer: Nine golf holes, nine wines at Rockway Vineyards in Niagara

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By Rick VanSickle

There were no television cameras or groupies lining the fairways, but rest assured, there was serious business to take care of on this hot July day at Niagara’s Rockway Vineyards golf and country club.

Billed as Winemaker vs. Wine Writer, 2017 edition, Rockway winemaker David Stasiuk laid down the gauntlet (coblet?) in a challenge that this writer was not about to back down from. Not on this day. Not on my watch. Not on this planet.

Maybe I should have clued into what was ahead after I checked in at the pro shop. Stasiuk greeted me and we took the short stroll over to his winery, where his PRIVATE! golf cart was parked. Anyone who has their own golf cart is serious about his golf. I shook it off, loaded my clubs onto the cart and off to the range we went.

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We hit a bucket of balls; I was pounding them straight and long, Stasiuk wasn’t having much luck hitting anything well. I was feeling very good at this point. Giddy, in fact.

The rules were simple: May the best man win, straight up, no strokes, over nine of the 18 holes. When it’s all said and done, we sit on the lovely patio at Rockway and taste through a bevy of new summer releases from the combo winery and golf course. Win or lose at golf, it’s not a bad way to finish off a round of golf. Right? (I had no intentions of losing at golf, just so you know.)

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Stasiuk, above with the vineyards of Rockway in the background, chose the 3,207-yard back nine from the blue tees for the match. We grabbed a hot dog and a beer and off we went.

The match (and the wine): Blow by blow

David Stasiuk = WM, Rick VanSickle = WW

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Hole #10, 365-yard par 4: WM tips it up and proceeds to challenge the right-side bunker. He loses the challenge but recovers well to leave a short wedge to the green. He makes the putt. Par. Were all those crappy shots on the range a diversion? WW pulls it a little left off the tee, yanks an eight-iron left of the green. A poor chip and two putts later it’s a bogie. WM up one.

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Rockway Vineyards 9 White 2016 ($14, LCBO, 87 points) — A 100% Vidal patio sipper with a nose of peach, lime and fresh citrus. It’s crisp with gentle effervescence and bright flavours of apple, lemon, white peach, touch of honey. Nothing complicated here, just a fun white with only 9% abv.

Hole #11, 350-yard par 4: WM has the honour, blasts another one up the right side, hits the next shot a little chunky, wedge to the green and two putts for a bogie. WW hits a fairly decent drive leaving a nine-iron in. Two putts later (well, I gave myself a tester coming back … so, sue me!), a par. Match even.

Rockway Vineyards 9 Pink 2016 ($14, LCBO, 86 points) — A blend of Vidal and red grapes with citrus, red berries, cranberries and watermelon on the nose. It follows to the palate and leads to a refreshing sweet-tart finish. Think patio and only 9% abv.

Hole #12, 530-year par 5: WW has the honour, but blasts the drive fat and left. Decent recovery with a 4-hybrid leaves a seven-iron in, which he proceeds to fly over the green. A flop shot goes long, two putts for a 6. WM stripes his drive down the middle with a gentle draw (where did that come from?) but the next shot is hit thin and the third shot finds the big bunker guarding the green. Four on, two putts, bogie. Match even.

Rockway Vineyards Rosé 2016 ($18, 88 points) — A mostly Pinot Noir blend that is subtle and delicate with the full range of summer red berries, touch of citrus and light herbs on the nose. It’s wonderfully dry, fresh and austere on the palate with lovely raspberry, strawberry and cherry. Highly gulpable summer refresher.

Hole #13, 408-yard par 4: WW still has the honour (I can get used to this!). The hole is a big dogleg left, so he calls upon the trusty 3-wood for a low gentle draw far enough to get a shot to the green. Second shot, a hybrid, goes left and nearly takes out a fellow on the 14th tee. Decent recovery, two putts, same old story: bogie. WM booms a drive over all the trouble on the left (above), it looks like he hooked it into the pond but he finds his ball. Not a great lie or position, but he finds the fringe in front to a back right pin placement. Takes three shots from there. Bogie. Match even.

Rockway Vineyards Small Lot Gewurztraminer 2016 ($18, 89 points) — Stasiuk added back some acidity to give this late-picked Gew some balance. “I own it, I dig it,” he says of the unconventional method. It shows spicy grapefruit, tropical notes, cloves and Mandarin orange notes. Plenty of zippy acidity on the palate with notes of lychee, grapefruit, guava, ginger and cloves.

Hole #14, 175-yard par 3: WW takes out the trusty 4-hybrid and gets under it for a crappy and short tee-shot. Frustration is setting in. A long chip over the green, a terrible comebacker and two putts means a DOUBLE-bogie. Crap. WM takes the short route over the water but doesn’t quite make it. A stroke penalty and a drop leaves a short shot in. It goes a bit long for a two putt. We trade double bogies. Match even.

Dim Wine Co. Edgewater Riesling 2015 ($20, available at the Rockway retail store, 89 points) — Peter Dim is a grower and now a virtual winemaker who gets Rockway’s Stasiuk to produce and sell the wine through the retail store. Love the deep-rooted minerality on the nose to go with citrus, apple blossom, grapefruit and lime. Touch of sweetness on the palate, but balanced by racy acidity with sweet-tart citrus, apple, lime, mineral and a mouth-watering finish.

Hole #15, 368-yard par 4: WW stripes a nice drive down the left side, pushes second shot short and right of the hole (idiot!), takes three more shots for a bogie. WM hits a decent drive down the middle, comes up short on second shot and also takes three to get it down. Match is boringly even. Something needs to give.

Rockway Vineyards Small Lot Block 150-183 Riesling 2015 ($20, 90 points) — This is really fascinating, a tight, lean Riesling that opens up to a dynamic and earthy nose of grapefruit, reductive minerals and a deep dive on salinity, like an ocean breeze, very complex. It has firm acidity, a tart range of citrus fruit, lanolin, fuzzy peach and subtle minerality. Can age 5+ years.

Hole #16, 496-yard par 5: WW hits a weak drive up the left side, not a good time to do that with all the trouble on the left of the fairway. A 4-hyrid is pounded up the right side, leaving a shot to the green, at least. Another hybrid goes right of the green and it takes three shots to finish with a bogie. Damn, damn, damn! Cart girl! Need a beer. Like. Right. Now. WM rips a perfect drive with that perfect little draw in the perfect spot. Mr. Perfect. He’s going for it in two, nails a three-wood to the middle of the green and sizes up an eagle. A kick-in two putt for the birdie puts WM now up two with two holes left. Trouble for WW.

Rockway Vineyards Block Blend Riesling 2016 ($15, 88 points) — A nose of bright citrus fruit, green apple, tangerine and peach. It’s off-dryish with a playful tug of sweet and tart lemon, lime, tangerine and peach.

Hole #17, 340-yard par 4: WM now has the honour. So-so drive, not his best, leaves a tricky second shot, which he tugs a bit left. Not his best recovery shot and two putts. He’s in for his bogie. WW hits a fairly long drive down the right side, leaving a pitching wedge in. Feeling good, he chunks it and takes three shots from in front of the green for a lovely bogie. WM up two, one to play. I ask him if he would like a beer. Refuses.

Rockway Fergie Jenkins Limited Edition Riesling 2016 ($16, 87 points) — A nose of fresh lime, apple blossoms, apple skin and minerals. It’s off-dry, but balanced, with grapefruit, lime, apples and a refreshing finish.


Hole #18, 175-yard par 3: WM is taking too long sizing up his shot, so WW jumps queue and tells WM he has the club for this pretty all-carry-over-water finishing hole, but WW’s not sure if he has the swing. WW hits his best shot of the day, a burrowing high and gentle fade that never leaves the flagstick. He’s 10 feet away and pin high for the birdie, which he misses. WW needs a five from his opponent to tie. I don’t wish that though, do I? Of course not. WM hits a decent shot to the far left-edge of the green. He lags his putt for a kick-in par to end the match two-up. WM wins.

Rockway Vineyards Small Lot Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($17, 89 points) — A lovely nose of grapefruit, herbs, lime and passion fruit. It’s perfectly dry in a lean style that shows grassy notes, full-on herbs, lime, grapefruit and a refreshing finish. Nice job here.

WW immediately calls for a rematch. He accepts and we make tentative plans for an August match, just before harvest (which is starting to look like a late harvest in Niagara). We may even invite some wine-soaked friends. Stay tuned.