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Niagara wineries, restaurants and breweries adjusting to new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic

By Rick VanSickle

Taking their cue from fast food drive-ins popular in the 1960s and ’70s, Niagara restaurants, wineries and breweries are using curbside deliveries to entice consumers to their front doors.

Note, also in this report: Group tastings without the group, Vintages Niagara wine highlights, Emma Garner on Thirty Bench and new Social Lite guilt-free vodka soda flavours.

It’s another arrow in the quiver of hard-hit Niagara businesses no longer able to operate at full capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic. And, I have to say, it’s a cool new way to get delicious chef-made food, wine, cider and beer without leaving your vehicle and keeping the appropriate distance between you the person bringing you the goods.

Niagara wine

Not able to sit confined in my house for one more minute last Friday, I starting looking at restaurant menus offering curb-side service and landed on the menu for the restaurant at Vineland Estates. A quick phone call later, an order was placed with a friendly voice on the other end of the line, a time to pick up the order was given, and it was paid for over the phone. A half hour later, I was in the parking lot at the winery and a Vineland employee was bringing a well-appointed charcuterie plate, loaf of sourdough bread and two bottles of wines — an Elevation Chardonnay and Elevation Cabernet blend — and placing it in the back of the SUV. It was that simple.

And since I was nearby, a quick stop at Bench Brewing seemed appropriate. I pulled into the parking lot, placed an order via the online curbside option, paid, and seconds later general manager of the taproom and grill, Dave Legge (above), came walking outside with my beer and dropped it on one the wine barrels for pickup. At a safe distance, Legge and I talked about the crazy times we are living in. Only three workers are allowed in the retail facility as they navigate the protocols that allow them to continue operating. The three workers make deliveries, clean constantly, fill retail curbside orders, and make numerous trips to Toronto and the GTA to keep the beer flowing.

It was a similar story with Vineland Estates winemaker Brian Schmidt, above, who caught up to me at Bench Brewing. He was driving one of three Vineland delivery trucks, all busy keeping clients stocked up with wine. Schmidt makes as many deliveries as he can, while also making the wine and keeping up with various charities he assists. We shared stories of our families, living in near isolation as best we can, and the future. It’s all anyone can do — stay safe, stay healthy and try and live as normal a life as you can until we get through this.

Restaurants, wineries, breweries, distilleries, grape growers, farmers … it’s similar with everyone. They are all in it together, we are all in it together. And what you can do is support those who are putting it all on the line to cook for you, bring wine to you and offering smiles to you in difficult times. Neighbours helping neighours, friends helping friends, families helping families.

PondView’s Marcel Morgenstern started a Facebook page, NiagaraON takeout/delivery restaurants, for Niagara restaurants to share their takeout menus and for Niagara foodies to make new discoveries and recommend their favourites. Lots of a great places happy to offer takeout, delivery and curbside meals (with or without beer, wine and cider).

Tasting with friends
… from a distance

Photo by Gary Killops

I met with some wine friends Saturday night via Zoom conferencing, an interesting app that let’s people get together without actually being physically together. It was virtual tasting called a Celebration of Local Wine initiated by Lenn Thompson of The Cork Report and championed here in Ontario by Shawn McCormick of Ontario Wine Chat. It was a fun evening of sharing what’s in your glass, which in our group was nearly all Ontario wines with most wine regions represented. Zoom offers a view of all participants as they chatted with one another in a group setting. I brought three Niagara wines to the “party,” two from Vineland Estates and a third from Jackson-Triggs. Here are my notes on the two Vineland wines (the Jackson-Triggs wine leads off our roundup of wines being released at Vintages this Saturday below that).

Vineland Estates Rotling 2018 ($20, winery, online, 89 points) — This unique style of wine is steeped in German tradition, but it is also practical. Historically, Rotling was created from a “field blend” of grapes that survived to the end of harvest and it was meant to be an everyday wine of comfort. Vineland assistant winemaker Tobias Fiebrandt, who is from Germany, wanted to introduce this “wine of the people” to the estate’s portfolio. He vinified Cabernet Franc (33%) and Vidal to come up with this Rotling, its second iteration. It is as unique a wine as you will find in Niagara with a nose of peach, pear, white flowers, field berries and a lovely perfumed note. It’s bright and fresh on the palate with lovely texture and verve to go with orchard fruits, lanoline and a touch of apricot and red berries. A delicious new experience.

Vineland Estates Elevation Cabernet 2014 ($28, 59 cases designated for grocery stores only, including Commisso’s in Niagara Falls, 90 points) — Not often you find a nicely aged Niagara red wine at the retail level, but here is one, a suddenly rediscovered cache of 2014 Elevation Cabernet — a blend of about 65% CF and the rest Cabernet Sauvignon from the estate’s 60-acre Bo-Teek Vineyard on the Twenty Mile Bench. It was aged in mostly neutral oak barrels and now has sufficient bottle age to reveal its true beauty without needing more time in the cellar (though don’t be afraid to put a bottle or two down for up to three years). It reveals a range of nicely mature red and dark berries, integrated spice notes, cedar and perfectly harmonious herbs that nibble on the edges. It’s smooth and rich on the palate with such lovely berries, underlying spice, herbs and bright acidity driving the back end. Just a nicely aged red blend that’s in a good place right now.

Winemaker vignettes
— Emma Garner

We’ve been asking winemakers how they are handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, Thirty Bench winemaker Emma Garner answers a few questions for us.

How are you and your winery navigating isolation and social distancing while still trying to keep the wine flowing?

“In the cellars we are keeping WMs (winemakers) separate, breaking out into different shifts to minimize interactions. Tastings are set up and are participated in separately but notes are shared – a bit different to get used to, however manageable!

“Luckily vineyards are usually pretty quiet in respect to traffic so it’s a great place to go and grab a little bit of ‘normal’. Perfect spot to clear your head, start to think about how the season is shaping up and what we will need to be focusing on once the COVID situation quiets.

“Starting to post online videos of virtual vineyard tours, winery tours and wine tastings! Also, working with local restaurants to showcase some online cooking segments to help keep everyone connected, enjoying good food and wine! The winery is open for guests to purchase wine only and we are also offering phone orders with free shipping as well curbside pickup. Guests can call 905-563-0352 for any additional questions.

What’s hot from your online wine shop?

“WM Red is 15% off at the winery only (until April 26) – we are open and are taking precautions. Increased sanitation, social distancing and no tasting bar at this point

We also just released our 2018 Steel Post Riesling, 2018 Wood Post Riesling and 2018 WM Red. Currently we have a limited time offer on our 2018 Winemaker’s Riesling $2 off a bottle.”

How do people get them?

“To order wine people can call our direct to consumer department (1-866-440-4384), go online to, or directly at the winery (905-563-0352) for any orders that they would like to have delivered or they can organize curbside pick-up.”

Niagara wine picks from the
Vintages release on Saturday

Wines In Niagara has recommended previously that consumers avoid shopping at LCBO stores and order online directly from local wineries or the LCBO online store. There is no need to put yourself in danger of getting COVID-19 or giving it to LCBO workers forced to keep working in what the Ontario government calls an essential service. It’s just not safe out there and now is the most crucial period to stay at home to limit spread of the virus.

That being said, here are the Niagara wines we can recommend from the Saturday release:

Jackson-Triggs Entourage Icewine Dosage Sparkling 2016 ($35, 92 points) — This sparkler features the classic “Champagne” blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, plus a distinctly Ontario flair provided by the Icewine dosage. It pours a delicate mousse in the glass with an intriguing nose of peaches, lemon blossom, toasty/brioche notes, apricots and citrus zest. It has lovely texture on the palate with a range of rich orchard fruits, honey, citrus, apricot, nectarine, toasted vanilla bean and refreshing vibrancy on the finish. The sweetness is nicely balanced with the racy acidity.

Kew Vineyards Organic Riesling Sparkling 2017 ($20, 88 points) — “I’ve got so much Riesling I don’t know what to do with it … so, OK, I’ll make a sparkling Riesling,” says Kew winemaker Philip Dowell, half jokingly. I love the nose on this sparkler, so much lime, grapefruit, apple and tangerine with plenty of sparkle in the glass. It’s quite fresh and true to the varietal in the mouth with a perky, vibrant finish.

The Foreign Affair Dream 2016 ($30, 92 points) — “Dream and the world will conspire to make it so,” was Foreign Affair founder Len Crispino’s mantra, who often battled adversity when he first introduced his controversial appassimento style of wines in Niagara. His perseverance and belief in dreams trump all the critics’ negativity and Foreign Affair’s important place in the Niagara mosaic is firmly established. This particular Dream is a blend of Merlot (45%), Cabernet Sauvignon (34%), Cabernet Franc (15%) and the rest Petit Verdot with 17% of the fruit dried for an incredible 100 days and aged for 16 months in French, American and Hungarian oak. Such a beautiful and inviting nose of red plums, black cherries, concentrated black currants, swirling barrel oak spice, toasted vanilla bean and subtle leather and earth accents. It’s a fruity mouthful highlighted by thick dark fruits, campfire smoke, layers of spice in a highly structured and complex style that all leads to a long, long finish delivered on a bed of polished tannins. Cellar 8+ years.

Featherstone Four Feathers 2018 ($15, 87 points) — This is a blend of the four grapes Featherstone grows at the estate — Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. There is lots going on here with a nose of lime, apple, peach, subtle lychee and spice. It’s bright and lively with the full range of orchard fruits, touch of ginger, lychee, grapefruit, lime and honey notes. A fun, everyday porch sipper.

Other wines being released, but not reviewed:

• Cuddy By Tawse Merlot 2015 ($28)
• Cave Spring Indian Summer Select Late Harvest Riesling 2017 ($25 for 375 mL)
• Lundy Manor Vidal Icewine 2016 ($46 for 375 mL)
• 13th Street June’s Vineyard Riesling 2019 ($20)
• Inniskillin Montague Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 ($26)
• Queenstone Mile Barrel Fermented Chardonnay 2017 ($35)
• Wildass Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($17)
• Kew Vineyards Pinot Noir 2015 ($24)
• Malivoire Vivant Rosé 2019 ($20)

Flagship stores only

• Tawse Growers Blend Cabernet Franc 2015 ($29)

New wines from Henry of Pelham

Henry of Pelham Pinot Noir 2019 ($17, Vintages in May, 88 points) — This is from the Shorts Hill Bench estate’s “Classic” series. It shows a lighter colour in the glass with an attractive nose of savoury red fruits and light spice notes. It’s juicy on the palate and driven by ripe red berries, touch of anise, light herbs and integrated spice notes. Good value here.

Henry of Pelham Family Tree Red 2017 ($19, Vintages in May, 89 points) — The Family Tree line of wines from the Speck Brothers is an exercise in blending; there is never just one variety of grapes in each wine. This red is a mix of Shiraz, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Baco Noir with a nose that’s loaded with spicy/peppery bits from the Shiraz and Baco with dark cherries, brambly raspberries, meat, earth and barrel oak notes. The palate reveals red fruits, currants, cassis, black peppercorns, oak spice, fine tannins and good vibrancy on the finish.

Social Lite launches three
new craft cocktails

Drinking local extends to all aspects of the beverage world. We need to take care of each other. Neighbours helping neighbours. Ontario company Social Lite, a leader in the vodka soda brand, first hit the scene in 2014 and quickly rose to become the No. 1 vodka soda brand in Canada, even in the face of stiff competition from others who have begun to crash into the category. Not bad for a couple of guys who dreamed up the product while mixing drinks in a kitchen in Whitby in 2013.

“We’ve created a monster,” CEO of Social Lite Dan Beach told Wines In Niagara when I first reviewed samples of his product a few years ago. “Since our launch in 2014 we’ve seen the unsweetened RTD (ready to drink) category explode across Canada. One in every two RTDs this season will be unsweetened. This year, with the launch of White Claw and many other competitors, we’ve had to step up our game.”

To that end, the company is releasing three more products that will hit LCBO stores in the next week or so, says Beach. And they just may be “our best work yet.”

Look for Triple Berry, Lime Gin and Orange Bold to hit shelves in the next 10 days or so, all made with zero sugar, zero carbs, and zero artificial ingredients. The drinks are a blend of premium Canadian vodka or gin, sparkling water and 100% natural flavours.

Here’s a preview of the new flavours:

Social Lite Lime Gin Soda ($2.70 for 355 mL cans, 5% abv, 100 cal., 91 points) — Such an inviting nose of lime, herbs, juniper and salinity. It’s zippy fresh on the palate with pure lime and integrated botanicals on the finish. Can add ice and/or lime or serve cold straight from the can or in a glass.

Social Lite Bold Orange Vodka Soda ($13.96 for six pack of 355 mL cans, 6% abv.,130 cal., 90 points) — A nose that aptly shows blood orange and some zesty citrus notes. There feels like a smidge of sweetness on the palate, but nothing like most of the vodka sodas out there, to go with orange notes that are nicely balanced and fresh through a perky finish.

Social Lite Triple Berry Vodka Soda ($9.95 for four 355 mL cans, 4% abv, 89 cal., 92 points) — This will hit all the right notes with all demographics and it’s my fave of the three. It’s packed with aromas from blackberries and black currants to blueberries and cassis. Like all Social Lite products, it’s perfectly balanced and nicely dry, showing a range of dark berries that is never over the top. A lovely, guilt-free spring/summer treat on the back patio or poolside.