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Ontario wine critic Gordon Stimmell: ‘A Renaissance man in an age of specialists’

By Rick VanSickle

Just as the modern wine industry in Ontario began in 1974, so, too, began the career of 29-year-old Gordon Stimmell.

There wasn’t a lot of love or attention paid to the wines being made in the Niagara Peninsula when Inniskillin was granted the first license to make and sell wines in Ontario, the first license given to anyone since Prohibition.

And it’s unlikely Stimmell, who passed away on April 21 at 72 years of age, even noticed the history unfolding at the winery founded by Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser. But he would leave a lasting impression on the industry in his 40 years or so at both the Toronto Sun and Toronto Star as an editor and wine critic.

A journalist for most of his life, Stimmell joined the Toronto Sun as an editor and wine writer in 1974 and moved to the Toronto Star in the 1990s, where he worked in the entertainment department and also wrote the wine column there.

He retired from the Star after 25 years in 2015.

He leaves behind a legacy of respect for a body of work that first and foremost benefitted his readers over decades of writing about and recommending wines.

By his own estimation, he reviewed 5,000 wines a year for 25 years at the Star and only a fraction of those made it into print.

I was so sorry to hear of Stimmell’s passing. As a fellow wine writer, in fact, I replaced him as the wine columnist at the Toronto Sun (a few years after he left) after he moved to the much larger Toronto Star, he was always the superstar in the room. Producers flocked to him at tastings in the hopes that he would write a favourable wine review.

He could empty the shelves at the LCBO with a positive review and cause distress with an unfavourable one. And he didn’t mince words when it concerned wine — if he didn’t like it he wasn’t afraid to a) tell you and b) write about it. And, boy, could he write! Such a gifted writer who had the uncanny ability to find great wines that didn’t cost a fortune.

They just don’t make them like Stimmell anymore. Ink (and wine) ran through his veins, and, in an age where print was king, he was part of the founding cabal of wine writers covering the modern wine industry in Ontario from its beginnings.

As the wine writer at the Toronto Sun while Stimmell was at the Star, I was always in his shadow and was bowled over by the power and influence he had on consumers.

Watching him taste wines and take notes was a lesson for me. He was meticulous and thorough and wrote no review without being fully vested in his decision, often at odds with other critics.

Tony Aspler, who preceded Stimmell as the Star’s wine critic, had this to say about him:

“Gord took over the Star column from me (after my 21 years). He was a journalist of the old school, dedicated to accuracy and the public interest at large. He was a Renaissance man in an age of specialists. He was, among other accomplishments, a poet, a dedicated fisherman and an internationally respected philatalist and numismatist. And above all, he was a dear friend whom I shall sorely miss.”

Another wine writer, Travis Oke, wrote this about Stimmell’s ability to clear shelves at the LCBO:

“Gord wrecked my day.

Who is Gord? “Gord Stimmell is the Toronto Star’s wine critic”. Says so on their website. My value-driven, wine snob friend Chris, forwarded me Gord’s column last week … “Then we have my highest-rated general-list wine in four years, Stone Dwellers 2008 Cab Sauv, which is $19.95 but tastes like $60 and rates a solid 92. I am buying this for my cellar, so spare me a few bottles, pretty please.”

Sounds like a good wine. So I went online, found that my local store in Guelph had 60 bottles. I went there to purchase some only to find out that ALL 60 BOTTLES WERE ON HOLD!

“SERIOUSLY?”, I said in capital letters to the sales clerk. Then I walked away muttering something like “Gord’s a jerk”.

So when Gord recommends a wine it’s gone off the shelves within 24 hours. You probably think that I’m envious of Gord’s power – and you’re right.”

Veterans of the Niagara wine industry waded in with comments on Stimmell’s passing.

Said Brian Schmidt, winemaker at Vineland Estate:

“I like so many others I have spoken to are both shocked and saddened by Gordon’s death. Gordon’s unapologetic professionalism and candor in part helped shape not only today’s Ontario wine drinkers but also our winemakers.. I would always appreciate his honesty and directness. We offer those that loved him our heartfelt condolences.”

And, from Bill Redelmeier, owner of Southbrook Vineyards:

“I just heard of the passing of Gord Stimmell. I knew Gord from his time at both the Sun and the Star where he was incredibly supportive of Southbrook and the Ontario wine industry in general. His humour and camaraderie brightened a room and his positivity was legendary. He realized how important publicity is, especially to new, small producers. His review of our newly developed Framboise in 1993 and his article in the mid 90s “ The Little Winery That Could” helped put us on the map. Thanks, and, Gord, you will be missed.”

For the most part, Stimmell wrote about wines that consumers could buy without worry. He chose to concentrate on wines worth purchasing and not those to shy away from. But he occasionally spoke out about things that really bothered him.

In March 2014, he was not happy with the rising tide of appassimento wines in Niagara. There wasn’t much he liked about the current crop of wines made from dried grapes. Curiously, his score for a certain Niagara appassimento wine was 84/85 when at least three other critics rated it 90 points. He questioned the higher scores in a column and went on to basically tear a strip off other appassimento wines being made in Niagara, especially when factoring in the prices being charged for these wines.

In 2013, he took on the LCBO.

“Why on earth would I reject a wine that has voyaged through the perilous process of applications to the LCBO, survived several artificial and dreadful bureaucratic hurdles, endured the Vintages tasting panel, and then finally made it into a Vintages release? I guess the short answer is a lot of the wines suck. How they made it through I have no clue. And the long answer is that I am looking for world class at a price that consumers can swallow.”

And, on the subject of internationally blended wines:

“I have yet to really enjoy an offshore blended wine made in Ontario. I can smell the oxidation odour of tanker truck grapes 10 feet away. Even if you blend these unwanted grapes with Ontario fruit, you can still tell that the must, or juice, has been exposed to too much air in transit.”

In a Toronto Star obituary that ran in the paper Thursday, Amy Pataki, the publication’s restaurant critic, said Stimmell recommended Hungaria Grand Cuvée Brut sparkling wine because it comes from her husband’s birthplace.

“It tastes like good French Champagne but costs about $12 a bottle,” she remembers him telling her. Pataki said it’s now her house wine, opened at every celebration.

The cause of Stimmell’s death, his wife Carole told the Star, was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a disease that develops in the lungs. The couple had “time to prepare” when he received a fatal diagnosis earlier this year, she said.

In his final column in the Star, published in September 2015, Stimmell began with a profound question: “What food can endure for 150 years?”

He described what he called “one of the greatest surprises of his life,” when he uncorked a 150-year-old bottle of St. Emilion from Bordeaux that, despite the passage of time, remained “delicately delicious.

“Not bad for a wine made the year Lincoln was assassinated and two years before Canada’s Confederation,” he wrote. “A world with no tractors, cars, airplanes or space stations.”

Rest in peace, Gord, the wine world won’t be the same with you not in it.