What makes a wine experience truly remarkable? A recommendation from someone you trust goes a long way, but at least half the fun is in the adventure. And then there are the surprises, the experiences that leave you breathless. Because I am celebrating a milestone birthday and because I love top 10 lists, here are some of my favourite experiences of my wine journey that started about 15 years ago with a Ripasso and a dear friend named Patrick.
The Chance Encounter: It all started when studying for wine class while receiving acupuncture from my friend Adrianna who introduced me to Garrett Herman, a Toronto wine collector who served me my first Super Tuscan, and who had a dinner reservation at the Badia a Passignano Estate in the Chianti region when his friends made a mistake with the date – oh and my husband and I just happened to be in the area…
The tour of the stunning vineyards owned by the Antinori family was a treat in itself. Afterwards, we were invited to have dinner with the Marchese Piero Antinori, the legendary patriarch of the family which has been producing wine for 26 generations. We chatted about family businesses, the future of the industry, and the impact of climate change over a “humble country meal” of Bistecca alla Fiorentina and a glass of Solaia. It was a dream. The food and wine were remarkable, the conversation even better. It gave me insight into a world that is dependent on nature but fuelled by passion. The only thing that could possibly have topped it was if Bruce Spingsteen himself ambled up to the table and joined us for a glass. I have sipped many Antinori wines since that night, and every time, I think about that unforgettable evening under my lucky stars.
The Promise: Early on in my wine education, I visited Jackson-Triggs in Niagara-On-The-Lake. Del Rollo, who was director of hospitality at that time, gave me my first tour of a production facility. Talking about the history of the company, Del told me about co-founder, Don Triggs, who was a mentor to him. Don sold his share and moved west in search of the perfect spot to create the finest Canadian wine. Ten years later, I drove up to the front gates of Culmina in Oliver, B.C. A standard visit turned remarkable when Don Triggs strolled by and said “I’ll take you.” Over the next three hours, we visited each vineyard, learned the evolution of Don’s vision, the trials and errors, how they worked round the clock to save the vineyard from devastating wildfires that raged next door, and how he uses technology to keep his promise to put quality above all else. The tour culminated in the tasting of some outstanding wines that challenged convention. Culmina’s Riesling and Chardonnay were nothing I expected. The wines were exceptional and so was Don Triggs, whose love for his family, the land, and quality shone through. I asked him if he loves what he does. He smiled and said simply “I am here at 6am every morning.”
The Delivery: I found this highly-rated winery online and I sampled too many bottles to count at E Lucevan le Stelle (Translation: And the stars were shining) in Montepulciano, my favourite wine bar in the world. There I learned Valdipiatta was the family vineyard of Cinzia Caporali, one of the bar owners.
Cinzia booked us a tour with her father Giulio, the most delightful storyteller and insightful tour guide. In a mix of Italian and English, we got a lesson in Etruscan history. We learned about the highest standards of production, how the terroir or soil is everything, and about what it means to follow your dream.
Giulio bought the vineyard in 1990 and turned it into a successful winery with a stellar reputation. Today he and his daughter Miriam, the co-owner, produce award-winning wines that should not be missed. I have been back three times, and plan to visit again. I have a bottle of their Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva that will be shared to celebrate my 60th year.
Location, Location, Location:
Ten years ago, we rented a villa with 10 friends to mark another milestone. The group didn’t really know each other. It could have been a disaster. It turned out to be one of the best vacations of my life. The friends, the food, the music, oh yes, and the wine. Lots and lots of wine. Everything was simply perfect. The villa owner took us on a tour of surrounding vineyards, some industrial producers, some, like Salcheto, small and intimate. The winery is nestled in the hills outside Montepulciano. Ettore, our host, gave us a quick tour, telling stories in Italian with a smattering of English words thrown in.
The Surprise: Social media can be overwhelming, addictive, and can be considered the demise of our civilization, but it can also find you a damn good winery. Before a trip to Sicily, I tweeted #SicilyWines any recommendations? I received a smattering of suggestions, one of them from a winery very close to the village where we were staying. The day before we left Mt Etna, I tweeted back, “any chance for a tasting tomorrow?”. The lucky stars over the volcano were shining in my direction. Ciro Biondi, architect-turned-winemaker gave us a tour of his fields, stopping to pull out a few herbs for that evening’s dinner. He talked of his father’s reaction to giving up architecture for winemaking “You better do a good job, I paid a lot of money for your education.” .
In the Hood: Our friends Ian and Maria are responsible for some of our best tastings close to home. I love that they scope out the new wineries and wait until we visit so we can experience them together. Domaine Queylus is literally a four-minute drive from their home. It was our last stop on the way back to their place, less than half a hour before closing time. The tasting room is a log cabin, full of light. Our host Laurie was a former Montrealer who went to the same high school as my husband Steve. Her husband, John Nadeau, the hospitality and marketing director, joined us at the last minute and shared the history of the young vineyard named after a Jesuit priest who brought wine to the region centuries ago.We stayed long past closing. John revealed his goal is to remove the asterisk – create excellent wines, period. Not “great for a Canadian wine.” He and winemaker Thomas Bachelder have succeeded. Their Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and blends are superb. No asterisk.
The Eye-Opener: I moved to Toronto in 2004 but it wasn’t until three years later that I discovered the gems that are growing in my backyard. Del Rollo of Jackson-Triggs introduced me to quality wines being produced in the region. He talked about the challenges and the victories. He made me realize that winemakers are a generous lot. Success is all about sharing knowledge and helping your neighbours. When one succeeds, they all win.
Del and coworker Stacey Mulholland also introduced Steve and I to one of the greatest wine experiences of my life, a concert under the stars, sipping wine and listening to a performance by Jim Cuddy. His music is now one of my favourite pairings on a Friday night with a good glass of red and that eye-opening visit to J-T, started my journey of discovery of local wines.
The Genius Winemaker: Stratus is where simplicity meets quality. With care and patience, the grapes tell the story. And what a story. Technology is used to let the grapes and the soil speak for themselves. The winery itself is beautiful. Peaceful. Welcoming. The wine is extraordinary.
J-L Groux is the grape whisperer, coaxing rich textures and flavours from the soil. His Cabernet Franc is nothing like you would imagine. This grape has often been described as better in a blend. The Stratus Cabernet Franc stands alone. When I asked him how, he said “It’s just about doing it right.” Other producers in the region have decoded the mystery as well. It’s turned Cabernet Franc from one of my least favourite single varietal wines, to one of my favourites. J-L’s red blend rivals some of the best Bordeaux blends I have ever sampled. His Syrah and Sangiovese, which I approached with skepticism, also over-delivered. I have never tasted a bad Stratus wine – even the Wild Ass is playful and fun.
Paradise Found: I am half Italian. My father was from Torino, the place he described as a centre of the universe. I have visited relatives there many times. How is it that it took more than 50 years for me to learn that a mere 30-minute drive south of his birthplace lies the Langhe, one of the greatest wine-producing regions in the world? The discovery came by accident. A wine sampling at my local LCBO, led to an email to the winery, to some research, to WOW! Our tour guide was Sonya Franca, assistant to the legendary Angelo Gaja, who is credited for helping turn Barolo and Barbaresco into Italian wine royalty. She spent two hours with us telling us about the rich history of the Langhe while tasting their wines, I had never tasted anything like this before. There was Gaia and Rey Chardonnay, a white so full-bodied, had I been blindfolded, I might have mistaken it for a red. Sonya also recommended a visit to the wine museum in nearby Barolo. My husband took a nap, something I tease him about endlessly. The museum tour ended in a tasting room where the new vintage of Barolos had just been released. “How much for a tasting?” I asked. “15 Euros,” they answered. “For how many?” I asked, the polite Canadian looking thirstily over 140 bottles on display for self-tasting. “All of them.” Sweeter words were never heard. I made it to 35.
My Lucky Day: Whenever I have the privilege of visiting Tuscany, if the world is behaving as it should, there is time for a glass of wine or two at E Lucevan le Stelle, the wine bar at Locanda San Francesco in Montepulciano. I put away the smart phone, disconnect and watch the world go by. We were on our way south to Sicily but wanted to take a couple of days in our favourite part of Italy. This visit was extra special – my husband had been recovering from a brain injury and this would be his first glass of wine in 18 months.
We were well-received by Christian. It turned out the day we were supposed to leave, the wine bar was hosting a blind-tasting with 10 producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Some itineraries are meant to be adjusted.
The evening was a blend of stories, new people, new wines. And I learned some important lessons:
- Wine people look at least 10 years younger than they really are.
- Wine producers are living their dream – despite the challenges
- My favourite wine quote from Brazilian newlyweds – “You don’t make friends drinking milk.”
Aristotle was right. The more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. I will never know enough about wine. I think I got two out of 10 wines right in the blind-tasting that night. But what I did get, was an experience of a life time.
There are so many experiences deserving of honourable mentions. Too many to mention. They all speak of family and friendship, of generosity, of following your dreams and sharing the spoils. So in this milestone year, I will make some new wine memories, savour the ones from the past, and mostly I will be thanking my lucky stars… again.