Tawse Winery: Gravity feed and flash
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO -- A visit to Ontario wine country invariably supplies a great reality check for any excess enthusiasm about the state of Michigan's wine industry.
Niagara's icewine-fueled juggernaut benefits from strong support by the province's alcoholic beverage monopoly, not to mention a fortuitous microclimate located within an hour drive of three million people. By nearly any measure -- except the quality of its cool-climate white wines -- their industry has advanced well beyond ours.
In the past, this caused slightly sheepish feelings driving back along Route 401 toward Michigan. But not this trip. These days, "advanced" means the Napafication of Niagara, with new wineries spawning on a scale that begins where Chateau Chantal leaves off. As in Napa, they're often multi-million-dollar trophies to entrepreneurs from the Big City -- in this case, Toronto -- that carry muscular one-word names like "Stratus" or "Tawse" (the actual name of its owner).
Southbrook Vineyards: Wall to nowhere
The longtime produce grower and purveyor formerly known as Southbrook Farms
could serve as poster child for this transformation. In recent years, owner Bill Redelmeier commissioned numerous wines -- plus an outstanding Framboise -- from
Niagara producers, selling them at Southbrook's emporium just north of Toronto, which eventually found itself in the crosshairs of urban development. So earlier this year, Redelmeier uprooted the farm and transplanted Southbrook -- lock, stock and barrel cellar -- to Niagara-on-the-Lake, rechristened as Southbrook Vineyards
. Now housed in a minimalist building fronted by the massive exterior eyesore of a functionless wall, they offer a full line of "Triomphe" wines; fruits and vegetables pulled a disappearing act en route to wine country.
Stratus: Sky-high shelving
Several elements appear nearly mandatory among the Napafied generation of Niagara wineries. Most feature a gravity-flow design. Each aggressively trumpets its earth-friendly credentials and environmental donations, while climate-conditioning an enclosed space the size of Joe Louis Arena. Each requires at least one ostentatious architectural flourish -- floor-to-ultra-high-celing arrayed bottles (Stratus), the exterior wall (Southbrook), a glassed-in overview of the entire gravity-feed winery (Tawse) -- designed to render the visitor awestruck in the face of grandeur.
Suitably intimidated by all that flash, you're already primed for the Napa-style pricing: often $35 for a bottle of Riesling, $45 or more for Cabernet and Bordeaux-blends, levels previously unheard-of in Niagara, and especially painful to those whose U.S. Dollars now trade nearly even-up to Canada's Loonies. But they'll gladly accept our greenbacks.
Except for Hidden Bench, which takes the opposite tack: calculated, understated exclusivity. Don't hunt for their rustic, farm-style winery in the regional directory, or among the roadside signs along the wine trail. If you need to ask, you don't belong there. And when you do arrive, you may find yourself the only customer in the tasting room -- even on Saturday afternoon.
Hidden Bench: Exclusivity at a price
Exclusivity comes at a price, however. Sorry, you can't buy the brilliant 2005 "La Brunante" Merlot / Malbec blend -- even at its jaw-dropping $70 retail. Yes, it IS available -- but only by joining their Wine Club, which obliges you to purchase six bottles apiece of ten additional wines. Total annual layout for 66 bottles: $2473. Welcome to the Club!
Without slighting the flotillas of stretch limos and 13-passenger vans that now criss-cross Niagara's back roads, did I mention the tour buses? Few sounds strike greater terror into the heart of a wine geek than the screech of bus brakes outside
a tasting room door, closely followed by the disgorging of dozens of revelers to descend on the
counter en masse. Directly in front of your party of two, needless to say.
Long the norm in Napa, this experience is now available much closer to home. Sixty-passenger motorcoaches prowl the Niagara countryside, operated by several companies all seemingly named "Niagara International Wine Expeditions". For one giddy moment, I envisioned two of these behemoths careening from opposite directions toward a meeting along Old Mission's Route 37, between Peninsula Cellars and Two Lads. Folks up north, you've been warned.
Alvento's Bruno Moos: Against the tide
The only torture more exquisite? Waiting in the cashier
line behind an entire busload, each passenger clutching one
bottle of Icewine.
To be sure, artisanal wineries still play an important role in the Niagara wine scene -- especially those with long-established reputations. But among the startups, small operators clearly have difficulty gaining notice against the tide of size and sizzle.
At one newer small winery, Alvento, owner Bruno Moos treated us to stunning barrel tastings of Viognier, Nebbiolo and a St. Emilion-style blend that left me planning to return for all three when they're released. Moos, who formerly lived and ran a winery in Tuscany, acknowledged that his winery's business has been fairly slow to get off the ground, although he's willing to be patient.
Viognier? Nebbiolo? In Ontario? Customers should be lined up at his door to taste the amazing things he's able to achieve with these varieties in our cool climes.
But, unfortuntely, he can only present them in a modest, if attractive, tasting room -- no gravity feed winery is on display behind floor-to-cathedral-ceiling glass panels. And the Napa-to-Niagara Bus Tour runs nowhere near his slightly out-of-the-way tasting room door.