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Just another Friday in Niagara (well, not really)

By Rick VanSickle

On a straight country highway,
cool wind in my hair
Sweet smell of warm peaches,
rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance,
I see vines swaying in the breeze
My senses are heightened
and my sight zeroed in
I had to stop for a taste.


With sincerest apologies to Don Henley and Glenn Frey (no, I mean, I really f*cked up your lyrics)

And so it was, just another Friday in Niagara. But not all Fridays are created equal. This one sure wasn’t, which brings us here, to a Friday that started at Creekside Estate Winery and ended at Backhouse restaurant (with stops along the way) in Niagara-on-the-Lake with my food and wine loving daughter.

I try to schedule at least one full tasting of Niagara wines every Friday. Not a drive-by tasting by bellying up to the bar, but an announced visit usually arranged with the winemaker. I enjoy tasting wines with the people who are intimate with them. I like to ask questions, discuss, taste, debate and add details to published notes that I think are helpful for the consumer. You can’t get that by speed tasting with someone not fully vested in the wines.

Yes, it’s time consuming (for all involved) and a big reason why I can’t make it out to as many wineries as I would like or should.

This is how this particular recent Friday went.

Creekside Estate Winery

There is nothing normal about tasting with Rob Power and Yvonne Irvine. Their portfolio is deep and varied and by their own admission is the antithesis of Pinot Noir/Chardonnay, mainstays in Niagara winemaking. Here it is Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and wild things that are lost and found in the darkest corners of the cellar that get top billing.

Creekside, its winemakers and marketing team have always marched to the beat of a different drummer. But what a beat it is.
A chaotic mass of wine was laid out in the barrel cellar for us to taste — an endless line of whites, reds and big bruisers including one red that just may be the last one in Niagara released from the hot, hot, hot 2010 vintage.

I will be reviewing the wines that impressed me in a future post; today is about the experience of a single Friday in Niagara.
Teeth soaked in deep red wine, we headed to The Deck where one of the great Niagara characters and chefs, Nathan “Nate” Young, presides over his In the Smoke Cookery, serving up locally inspired, Southern-style barbecue Friday to Monday.

Nate comes by to say hello as our table gets laden with wines of all colours and styles. “What’s good today,” I ask Chef Young. A stupid question, I know.

The peach-wood smoked brisket on a bun, says Young. Or the smoked deck burger, maybe the peach-wood smoked pork shoulder … he’s listing every item on the menu!

I can’t resist the pan-seared steel head trout on a bed of green lentils, carrot, red onion, fresh herbs and buttermilk dressing. It is delicious with the Creekside Pinot Noir Rosé 2016. But, as I watch Power devour his brisket, I am now second-guessing my choice. Everything looks so delectable.

We eat, we sip, we talk, we laugh.

And then it’s on to the rest of the day.

At the home office

While I prefer tasting in person, obviously it is not possible to that. I receive a fair amount of wine directly at the front door of our house in North St. Catharines, which is happily situated equidistant from Niagara wineries on either side of the Welland Canal. I can get to the St. David’s Bench as fast as I can get to the Beamsville Bench. Good to know, right?

I have a few wines from Township 7, a B.C. winery that operates out of both Langley and the Naramata Bench in the Okanagan Valley, to get at and decide to move the whites to a shaded spot on the backyard deck.

I taste all wines at home exactly the same way. Same glass, same spittoon, same routine, same notebook, same pen style, except in summer months I move the wines outdoors when I can. And I crank the music just a little louder (the neighbours don’t complain too much especially when liquid treats are sent over the fence already chilled).

Township 7 has a solid portfolio of wines and I’m smitten with more than a few of the wines on this day, but it is the Viognier that gets my full attention. Such vivid aromas and flavours.

Full reviews of these wines coming up, as well.

Did someone say CIDER?

It seems every month another Niagara winery adds a house cider to the mix. And why not! It’s a category growing exponentially, wineries already have most of the tools needed to make cider and apples are a lot less susceptible to the vagaries of climate than grapes. Oh, and a lot cheaper.

Creekside has joined the fray with its cool new label Rood Apples Cider. Assistant winemaker Yvonne Irvine took the lead on this project and even went to “cider school” at Niagara College to hone her skills. She also enlisted the expert advise from Tariq Ahmed, one of Ontario’s brightest and youngest cider makers who makes some of the province’s most interesting concoctions under the Revel Cider Company label.

The blend for Rood Apples is from five different Ontario apples and the profile is bright apple, touch of citrus, medium effervescence and relatively dry with a refreshing finish. This is a well-made cider for casual drinking and comes in 500 mL bottles ($7 per) or litre growlers for $13 a fill at the winery. It’s also available by keg for restaurants/bars and should hit the LCBO (in a canned version) next March or so.

Power told me: “We were afraid of what we didn’t know” but now that they do know what they know, watch out for more ciders to come with the signature Creekside “expect the unexpected” approach. Rude Apples, watch for it.

To the Oast, post-haste

I do not EVER miss the summer seasonal releases from Oast House Brewers on Niagara Stone Road. There was the Strawberry/Rhubarb Ale to kick off the season. Then the Cherry Berliner Weisse. When word got out that the Oak-aged Peach Hefeweizen was being released on this particular Friday boom that was it.

My daughter Tabria, a Carleton student who’s home for the summer and working at the new Gretzky winery and distillery, wanted to taste it with me so I waited patiently as she drove home from work and got ready for the big release.

Tabria has deep roots with Oast. Her first job was working for Chef Adam Hynam-Smith at El Gastronomo Vagabundo when they started the first dining experience at Oast. Adam has moved on to new projects while Oast has added a magical back deck overlooking the vines belonging to Stratus Vineyards. Oast has seasonal and various other beers on tap plus friends’ ciders and also food available from Tide and Vine. On warm summer nights like this one, the deck at Oast is somewhat akin to a modern-day Cheers bar, you know, where everyone knows your name and everyone you know is there.

With live music softly playing in the background, the subtle deck lights illuminating the contented and happy crowd, Tabria and I delight in our first taste of the Peach seasonal from Oast.

It’s a warm and welcoming feeling being here with my daughter (all you dads out there will understand this) who is so vested in all the good things Niagara offers. She is passionate about local wine and local food and truly understands that we are truly blessed to have all this in our own backyard.

North to Backhouse

We both haven’t eaten dinner and decide to hunt down some great grub. We finish our delicious beer and veer north on Niagara Stone Road to Backhouse Restaurant in the off chance that a) they are still open and b) we can get a seat.

Opening the door to Backhouse, it takes merely seconds to be greeted first by an old friend, Bill Mochoruk, formerly of Vineland Estate Winery and now the beverage manager at his new Backhouse gig, and then Bev Hotchkiss, co-owner of the restaurant along with husband Chef Ryan Crawford.

We could be the last diners of the night but are treated as if we are the first with attentive service and enthusiastic aplomb.

Do we want to sit at the chef’s table, asks Hotchkiss. Is that a question? That’s where you must sit at Backhouse; a front-row seat to the magnificent wood-fired oven, the subtle country smell of sweet campfire smoke and visuals of chefs at work conducting a perfectly-timed choreography of deliciously appointed plates on their way to diners throughout the restaurant.

I love that you can talk to the chef and inquire what each dish is, where he sourced the meat or fish or veggies (if not his own farm, certainly nearby) and how he prepared it. It’s food porn gone wild here and we have a front row seat.

Tabria is mesmerized by the menu and pretty much wants everything on it. Chef comes over to say hello and immediately puts Tabria at ease with the menu. “Any allergies?” No. “Anything you don’t like?” No, but tells him she’s a vegetarian. He discusses a few choices she might like and they get to talking about her job at Gretkzy’s and former work with Adam at El Gastro. Crawford is a likeable and playful dude, as you can see by the photo bomb, but he is also serious about his food and demands perfection from his staff in all aspects of preparation and service. Watching from this vantage point illustrates that point perfectly.

Meanwhile, Mochoruk (above, and I apologize for the quality of these photos … it was dark in there!) is discussing the wine program with me, an eclectic and well-planned list that is local Ontario first and then plenty of surprises from around the world all hand-picked by Mochoruk through top agents in Ontario.

After we order our plates, I put ourselves into the capable hands of Mochoruk to match the wine to our food. One caveat on this night: We are here to try different things.

Our first dish of the night is Chilled Sweet Pea Puree with crème fresh and fried brioche dough. It is paired with a St. John Beausoleil Rosé 2016, a Grenache-based rosé from Languedoc with subtle red berries and freshness that works brilliantly with the chilled puree.

Next up was the Saugeen First Nation Whitefish Crudo with cold-pressed canola, verjus, arugula and radish. The texture and balance of this thriller made us smile with delight; Tabria seemed to be heaven as she dug into this tidy little dish that, as well, worked nicely with the rosé.

Right behind the crudo, another plate mysteriously arrived: Farmed Ontario Shrimp with asparagus, k2 heritage grits, nduja and green garlic. It was my first taste of Ontario shrimp and I was impressed with the taste of these fresh-water beauties that were fleshy and crunchy and dressed perfectly atop the chef’s imaginative creation. Mochoruk again came through with a lovely white, was it a Rhone? I can’t be sure as things were moving so quickly and I was taking no notes as we soaked up the ambience and immersed ourselves in this special experience (sorry, Bill!)

We both choose for our main the Black Walnut Smoked Kolapore Springs Rainbow Trout with smoked whey butter, fiddleheads, puffed wild rice and greenhouse seedlings. Hidden in the Kolapore Uplands of Southern Ontario, Kolapore Springs Fishery is situated in one of the most unique eco-systems in the world. The trout there are raised within a spring-fed farm. This is also the second time on this day that I ordered trout (see above item on Creekside)

Chef asks us how we would like our fish: Filet or whole juveniles? Tabria goes filet, I choose whole fish.

What a beautiful, organic, smoky dish with the trout so fresh and tender. We sat in silence as each bite was savoured and contemplated. We barely noticed that a couple of hours had gone by and the restaurant was nearly empty and most the servers had long departed.

Tabria spied crème brûlée on the menu and just had to have it. It was elegantly served in a teacup and it may have been the best end-of-meal treat Tabria has ever had. She would not even give me a taste.

We spend a long time saying good-bye and showing appreciation for this unique Niagara dining experience and head out in the night, bellies full, top-down and Neil Young selected from the playlist.

Like I said from the outset, not just another Friday in Niagara.