Wine Woes: When a Glass or Bottle Should be Sent Back

Cork Quality
Cork Quality

Have you ever sipped a glass of wine and your Bordeaux Blend smelled more like eau de Basement? Before I started learning a little more about wine,  I  just assumed I rolled the dice and  bought a dreadful  bottle of wine. Now I know better. The wine was corked.

Corked wine (or cork taint)  is easy to pick out. It smells like wet basement  or rotten cardboard and doesn’t taste much better.  It comes from a contaminated cork, which  happens fairly often.. In the late 90’s, about 7-8% of wines were corked. Now, with the increasing use of screw topped bottles, that number has dropped to closer to 3%.

There is also another nasty condition called maderization – which can happen to wine that is badly stored or wine that has been kept too long. The signs are brownish tinge in the case of red or a darker orangey yellow for whites, and an oxidized taste (port-like but not in a good way). The smell is very obvious.

I have opened a few tainted bottles and you can usually tell right away that it is off. Sometimes it is so mild, that it is barely perceptible. Others are so strong there is no question something went terribly wrong. Luckily, the LCBO  is always good about taking them back and giving you a credit.

It also happens quite often in  restaurants, regardless of the quality.  WIth more and more places offering wine by the glass, a bottle may have been sitting around longer than it should and the wine has become slightly oxidized,  Again, wet basement is generally the most likely aroma.

 I have yet to come across a waiter who complains when you send it back. That goes for both high end and lower end establishments. Trust me, they want you to be happy about your experience, so you will leave a good tip, and come back…with friends.

Now that doesn’t mean you can taste your way through the wine list until you find your favourite. But I have often found that chatting about your favorites and asking for their suggestions will often get you a try-before-you-buy sample.

Picking a wine from a menu or off the shelf is a pleasure. You have every right to keep that pleasure going in the glass.


Wednesday Wine Picks from La Belle Province

It’s enough to force you off the street and into the closest SAQ (Quebec’s answer to the LCBO).Excuses, excuses …. pretty much any time you visit Montreal is a good reason for a stop at the SAQ.


Searching for Wine in an April Snowstorm


My mother has gotten used to the fact that even after spending five hours in the car, my first pit stop is the small but well-stocked liquor store around the corner from her place. She stopped taking offence after I made sure I also stocked her up with her favourites.

They have their version of Vintages. Many have a tasting bar. And they have incredibly helpful staff. But there are a few differences:

Fans of French wines will be overjoyed by the SAQ which has a richer selection of wines from France. There are Italian wines that are only available on consiognment in Ontario. But sorry Quebec, whenever you can find the same wines in both provinces, the LCBO version is typically cheaper.

Another difference – the tasting philosophy. LCBO is very strict about making sure you taste no more than a total of 2 oz of wine (4 x 1.2 oz – that math combination I have learned well!).

In Quebec, it’s pretty much self-serve. Load a few bucks on to your tasting card and keep tasting until your card runs dry. Now I haven’t spent a whole day there, so maybe someone would eventually get thrown out, but the expectation is you know better than to drink too much at the liquor store.

Saint JosephThis time I tasted a FANTASTIC Saint-Joseph from the Northern Rhone quite aptly named Hedonism. SO good that a bottle of this sexy red ended up in the cart. 100% Syrah, it exudes luscious strawberries and spice. This one is medium to full bodied like most Saint-Joseph reds and would go nicely with a juicy beef burger or beef stew. Yum.  WIne Spectator gave it an 89 rating.   

Alcohol 13%  $27.40 SAQ           


 Here are the some of  others that made it into my Mom’s personal tasting room.

Valley of the Giants

Valley of the Giants Cabernet-Merlot 2009 from Western Australia $16.95  This very affordable Australian was flying off the shelves. Excellent value.



Hardy's Butcher Block
Hardy’s Butcher’s Gold

Hardy’s Chronicle 3, Butcher’s Gold Shiraz/Sangiovese 2011 $16.95

An Australian classic grape meets the varietal that is Tuscany’s claim to fame. This bold fruity wine packs a punch at 14% alcohol with herbal notes.

Food pairing: Beef Tenderloin, Flank steak


   Enjoy the picks and drop us a line with a favourite of your own!

Wine Picks: A Quartet under $20

  My, my, my…there were some lovely finds in the tasting room  of LCBO’s Summerhill branch this week. This gorgeous outlet among in my top 10 favourite places in Toronto. (Could even be top 5 !) Not only is it an archtecturally beautiful building, there is plenty of parking and the best Vintages selection,  too. My only complaint – clearly it is the favourite of many wine lovers because the shelves are often cleaned out. Still – here are four under $20 and a splurge. This week I also added some very general food pairing suggestions which I promise, will grow more refined. Cheers!

 2 creative block sauv blanc semillon2 Creative Block South Africa 2011 $19.95

 Great title for a crisp white blend . 2 Creative Block is one of a series of wines by South African producer Spier. The name comes from the Spier Arts Academy Project which involves different artists working together to create something new. Just like a blend. The 2 refers to the two grapes, 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Semillion blended to create a this Bordeaux-style blend.  It’s fresh and herbaceous.

Food Pairing: Pan-fried salmion, chicken with grilled vegetables

Solaria Rosso di Montalcino 2009, Tuscany $19.95solario rosso di montalcino

Brunello is a thing of beauty but not always in the budget department. Enter Solaria’s Rosso di Montacino – a Brunello light – from the same part of Tuscany, but younger and lighter.  The pretty pale ruby coloured wine is fruity – think black cherries, and delicious – thank you chocolate . It’s nicely balanced that will keep you pouring. Alcohol 13.5%

Food pairing: Pasta with tomato based sauce that has some zing.

Dandelion Vineyard Lion’s Tooth of McLaren Vale 2010 Shiraz/Riesling $19.95lion's tooth mclaren vale

Did you know that the word Dandelion comes from the French  “dent de lion” or Lion’s tooth?  You never know what you are going to learn when researching wine. What attracted me to this one was the blend: 97% Shiraz and 3% Riesling. The colour is a deep dark purple and the taste, big bold and fruity with strong vanilla and mocha notes. Alcohol 15.1%

Food pairing: Barbecue pork chops or ribs.


riojaHermanos Pecina Senorio de P.Pecina Crianza 2007 Rioja Alta  $19.95

I do love Spanish wines, but I have not learned enough yet about the producers, so it is always hit and miss. This one is in the hit category and will find its way to the dinner table again. gave it  4 out of 5 and I understand why. This full-bodied blend is 95% Tempranillo, 3% Graciano and 2% Granacha (Grenache in France) . It’s well-balanced and highly drinkable now or you can hold on to a few for the future.

 Food pairing: Lasagna, spicy dishes, roasted fish

The Splurgemarceau-rhone

 Domaine des 3 Cellier Marceau  Chateauneuf du Pape 2009, Rhone $34.95

When I was sampling some of this week’s finds, a woman beside me tried a French  wine from the Rhone Valley that retails for $290.00.  She said it was good (I certainly hope so!). And the server said you never know and talked about this wine called Marceau that blew him away – at a price that doesn’t replace your grocery budget for the week. Summerhill was sold out, but I found it the next day and it is definitely splurge-worthy. It is a complex wine that packs a traditional Chateauneau du Pape punch at 15% alcohol, but it is very well balanced with lots of big fruit, sweet spice and velvety tannins. Let it breathe for two  hours to get the full flavour.  A great recommendation!

Food pairing: Meat, meat and more meat

Drop us a line if you like one of the picks, or if you have your own suggestion.

Happy weekend wining! Next week will feature some SAQ specialities sampled in Montreal!



Wine Labelicious

Cycles' Work of Label Art
Cycles Gladiator: A  Work of Label Art

Do you buy a wine based on the appeal of the label? For the longest time, I thought the more clever the label, the more likely the wine would be found lacking.  Remember Fat Bastard? The first time we bought a bottle, everyone just kept saying – 

Fat Bastard
Fat Bastard

“Can you pass the Fat Bastard?” No, we were not 12 at the time.

Then there was Girl’s Night Out, Cat’s Pee, Goats Do Roam, Zin Sin, Mad Housewife – the list goes on. The labels grabbed your attention – designed to appeal to the young wine consumers who buy with the eye.

It worked.

Fat Bastard and Australia’s Yellow Tail became marketing phenomena. They demystified wine – appealling to the consumer who found wine labels confusing and stuffy. While wine writers turned up their noses at Fat Bastard – the wine went from selling 2500 cases in 1997 to $35 million dollars a year by 2006. 

yellow tailThe success of Yellow Tail was even more remarkable. By 2009, Yellow Tail was the second bestselling wine in the U-S.

Their success had winemakers taking notice and triggered a trend of visually stunning labels on wine, often with a great taste to match.

Sine Qua Non Label Art
Sine Qua Non Label Art

 While most of the Old World wines hung on to tradition, the New World embraced the art of the label and reveled in flouting the old ways.  Their labels are works of art that reveal the personality and the story behind the wine. The appeal can be strictly visual or it can strike a chord that you can relate to. I confess.  I have bought Wit’s End, The Procrastinator and Writer’s Block wines.

The Procrastinator
The Procrastinator


Toronto writer Tanya Scholes compiled some of the greatest labels in her book The Art and Design of Contemporary Wine Labels. It is a fascinating compilation of gorgeous, clever, irreverent labels and the philosophy behind them. She says more and more winemakers are using their labels as a canvas – designed to catch the eye in a sea of competition.  But they  also offer extra details about the history and philosophy of the wine or the winemaker without sounding pretentious. 

The Dreamer
The Dreamer

The focus on the label is also aimed at making it memorable. If you loved the wine, you’ll remember that stand-out label.  It can also backfire. If the wine did not make the grade, that consumer will remember which bottle NOT to buy.   It is still about what’s inside the bottle. Whether it is a cheap and cheerful Yellow Tail for the consumer who knows exactly what he’s getting for $10 a bottle, or a complex superstar that sells for a small zepplin



ladybug“A good label engages a consumer before the wine is tasted; a great one seems at home on its chosen bottle and lingers in the mind long after the bottle is empty,” Martin Malivoire of Malivoire Wine Company maker of Ladybug Rose told Scholes.

While Californians and Australians are at the forefront of label art – some Canadian producers are catching up with their own outstanding labels. 



Okanagan's Blasted Church
Okanagan’s Blasted Church

BC’s irreverent Blasted Church Vineyards tells the story of a local effort to relocate a church.

The Organ Caper
The Organ Caper

Organized Crime on the Beamsville Bench immortalizes a stolen organ that polarized two Mennonite communities in the 1900’s.


Award-winning Megalomaniac
Award-winning Megalomaniac

And one of my personal favorites: Megalomaniac Wines with its punchy graphic labels on its Sonofabitch Pinot Noir, My Way Chardonnay, Coldhearted Cab Franc and the Narcissist Riesling label that took top honours  at an international competition in 2007.



There are so many other great ones featured in Scholes’ book.

The Playful Mollydooker Label
The Playful Mollydooker Label
The Genius of Bonny Doon

Mollydooker which I freely admit I bought for the label, but it was the taste that sent me back for more.

Boony Doon Vineyards‘ Le Cigar Volant with its design of a flying Cigar (UFO) over a vineyard.

 And Salcheto, the winery in Montepulciano, Italy that changes its label on its Salco wine each year – from prize winning photos, to designs highlighting some of the greatest drummers of all time.

The Drummer Series by Salcheto
The Drummer Series by Salcheto

So the next time you pick up a bottle – know that the eye-catching label on the outside may be ever bit as fascinating and memorable as what’s on the inside.

 Send us a picture of your favourite label.


Wine Crimes: Counterfeits, Heists and Prison

I live in a world where finding a great bottle under $20 is my mission, but when it comes to the rich and famous the cool darkness that cloaks their cellars often hides a world of thieves and villains.  You may not care some rich guy just got duped into paying thirty thousand dollars for wine that turned out to be fake but like any great novel, counterfeiting, heists and prison definitely make for great intrigue.

Recently a court case seven years in the making finally saw billionaire Bill Koch sue California entrepreneur Eric Greenberg over 24 rare bottles of wine he says are fake. Koch bought the bottles at auction along with a number of others spending a total of $3.7 million.  Koch alleges Greenberg knew or should have known the bottles were counterfeit thereby making this fraud.  Greenberg denies this and in the years leading up to the trial both men have already spent somewhere in the amount of $13 million on legal fees.  Mr. Koch feels it’s his duty to blow the whistle on the counterfeit problem in the wine world and while I may not be in the same league as these collectors I to would be upset to learn my bottle of single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was really just a mix of varietals from a bunch of different vineyards.  Should Koch win he is seeking both monetary and punitive damages but in the next case prison was the end result.

SolderaLOGOLast December someone entered the cellar of Gianfranco Soldera’s winery, Azienda Agricola Case Basse in Montalcino, opened almost all his casks of aging wine and caused the lost of more than 16,500 gallons.  This amounted to about 80,000 bottles worth of Brunello di Montalcino from the past six vintages and left the owner with almost nothing left to sell.  The man convicted of the crime, Andrea di Gisi was once employed at the winery and had told witnesses he was angry Soldera had not provided him with a place to live.  Recently the courts in Siene ruled that if you spill the wine you do the time and sentenced Andrea to four years in prison.

blackwood Lane wineryOften referred to a liquid gold wine heists are not unheard of and in recent years there have been some noted ones.  Last July 5,200 bottles of wine were stolen in what was considered the largest heist in B.C history. Stolen from Blackwood Lane Vineyards and Winery in Langley B.C.  While insurance may cover the $200,000 lost for the owners it can’t replace the wine.

StumpyMerlotIn January 60,000 bottles of South Australian Stumpy Merlot, worth around $500,000, was stolen from two tractor trailers leaving police puzzled about where it went.  And most recently thieves stole over three and half thousand bottles of champagne worth about 300,000 pounds from French producer Jacques Seloss.  Authorities have no clue as to who the culprits are but say the theft was well-organized.  More worrying than the loss of the champagne is the additional theft of thousands of labels and neck labels, that could lead to the production of counterfeit bottles.

And so it seems we have come full circle back to the question of how do counterfeit wines end up in the cellars of experience buyers and collectors.  Well I say “gentlemen stick to a good bottle of something under $20 and you’ll never go wrong”.

OK be honest, what’s the most you would spend on a bottle of wine?