Wine Not? Impressions of Canada’s Wine Country (and Toronto too)

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Sometimes a change of scenery is in order. So this weekend, we abandoned sweaty, smoggy Montreal for a [truly] whirlwind visit to Canada’s beautiful wine country! Riccardo had agreed to take photos of a dinner event at a winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and I tagged along to keep him company and visit family in Toronto on the way.

Welcome to Toronto

We arrived in the impossibly pleasant neighbourhood of Yonge & Eglinton on Friday at noon, grabbing a quick lunch at Fin Izakaya before setting up shop in my cousin’s kitchen for a highly productive afternoon of work. At five o’clock, the whistle blew, and it was (naturally) time for cocktails on the porch. For dinner we checked out a new Indo-Chinese restaurant, Marigold (it was more Indo than Chinese) and then headed home to play board games with my cousins, all of whom are exceptionally smart and cultured – even by north Toronto standards.

My cousin Rhys with his flourishing roadside vegetable garden.

My cousin Rhys with his flourishing roadside vegetable garden.

Later on, Riccardo and I ventured into the depths of Little Portugal to meet up with some friends. The sheer number of people milling about on the streets was overwhelming – and every bar and club was surrounded by swarms of twenty-somethings dressed to the nines and hoping to charm their way past the gigantic bouncers. Our companions included a friend from Montreal ramping up his acting career in Toronto, another actor from Toronto who now lives in LA, and our buddy from Montreal just in town for the weekend. Inevitably, the conversation veered to a comparison of life in the two towns – always a fascinating and controversial topic. Montrealers are defecting in droves but most are nostalgic for the chaos of home. As a result, those of us who are hardcore enough to stay behind have an ever-growing list of people to visit in Toronto…

The last stop of the evening was Czehoski, a great little bar in Queen West. It was a wedding reunion of sorts: we met up with my amazing make-up artist, Maya Goldenberg, with her entourage; and our extraordinary DJ, Eric the Tutor, and caught the tail end of his set. Maya later said it felt like a Montreal kind of night – probably because in Toronto, it’s not all that common to randomly show up someplace at 2 am and dance in the middle of the bar although no one else is dancing. One grim reminder that we were still in Toronto was the inability to buy a drink, even though the bar was still open. I noted with some interest that people were still hanging out (drinking orange crush?) – I can’t imagine Montrealers sticking around someplace where they couldn’t get a cocktail.

Venue change in Little Portugal

Venue change in Little Portugal

Now Entering Wine Country

On Saturday morning we breakfasted with my cousins and then began the arduous drive from Toronto to Niagara. Our GPS lied and said it would take a little over an hour. Thanks to the area’s legendary traffic, it actually took closer to three! This gave us just a few hours to explore before Riccardo had to be on the job.

Here’s how we spent them:

  • Got hopelessly lost, thanks to pathologically lying GPS
  • Got a sandwich from a spot called Epicurean, located in the area known as “Old Town”; felt claustrophobic among the throngs of American tourists.
  • Sought out the Yellow Pear food truck which we’d spotted parked at a farmer’s market, but were dismayed to find they were all sold out of everything – at 12:30 pm!
  • Took comfort at the sight of an adorable kiosk in the market selling hot meatloaf sandwiches with provolone; shared one on the grass by the side of the road. You don’t need a truck to serve delicious sandwiches.
  • Stopped briefly at Jackson-Triggs to sample some wares but mostly to take in the stunning architecture.
  • Found our way to a much smaller winery called Five Rows, where the winemaker’s mother and another employee took their time explaining the process behind each of the wines we tasted. Felt sorry for snooty Toronto couple tasting wines beside us without once cracking a smile.
  • Stopped at Lailey Vineyard for more tasting and yuppie-pitying.
  • Drove by Fort George, which our GPS identified as a major tourist attraction, just so we could say we went there.
Yellow Pear - "farm to truck"

Yellow Pear – “farm to truck”

Where chardonnay comes from.

Where chardonnay comes from.

Five Rows makes small batches and wants to keep it that way.

Five Rows makes small batches and wants to keep it that way.

Cradling my new riesling.

Cradling my new riesling.

The event Riccardo photographed was fantastic, and I was very lucky to be able to join the group while he ran around capturing the magic. An inspired six-course menu, put together by a celebrated chef from BC, was served at one long table in the cavernous but stunning fermentation hall of a slick, ultramodern winery. Each course was paired with two impressive Ontario wines. I greatly enjoyed the company and the meal (so much so that I was too tired to continue the party afterwards). One of my favourite moments of the evening was when I asked one expert to describe Quebec’s burgeoning wine industry in a single word – the word he chose was “spotty”. While our province may not have much to offer beyond the ubiquitous ice wines and ciders, Ontario is certainly stepping up to the plate and I can proudly say I even fell in love with the reds we tasted.

Bliss.

Bliss.

We needed to be back in Montreal on Sunday afternoon for a one-year-old’s birthday party – we are just that crazy. So after a detour for a quick peek at the great Niagara Falls, we sped back down the 401, making it home in six hours flat (including a stop in Kingston!.

#obligatory

#obligatory

Clifton Hill, the so-called "Street of Fun by the Falls", is downright eerie at 7am.

Clifton Hill, the so-called “Street of Fun by the Falls”, is downright eerie at 7am.

Although this was truly a speedy visit, it was our first time exploring the Niagara Peninsula and we naturally formed some impressions. The outrageous traffic (caused, no doubt – and I’m sorry to say this – by the wishy-washy nature of *some* Ontario drivers) turned us off – not just on the highway leading in, but on most of the major arteries in the region too. Road signs are clear, lawns are perfectly manicured, development is evident everywhere – until we really got onto the smaller dirt roads, we still got the impression of being in the suburbs. The main drag (“Old Town”) felt vaguely Disney-esque – sort of a caricature of its former self. Busloads of tourists could be seen in front of most wineries we passed. One girl we chatted with – a native of Niagara-on-the-Lake – told us she avoids that area like the plague and when she absolutely has to go there for an errand, she goes early in the morning or late at night. She seemed to harbour conflicted feelings about the relatively recent impact of the tourism boom, attributing it wistfully to NOTL being named the prettiest town in Canada in 1996. Meanwhile, a wealthy middle-aged couple whom we met at the dinner, both also born and raised on the peninsula, raved about the many benefits of living there before hopping on their bicycles and riding off, slightly tipsy, into the night. Their selling points: the climate, the proximity to Toronto, the friendly people, and of course, those magical vines.

Today, back to the grind at home, I’m appreciating the fact that a few hours in the car are all that stand between us and some pretty fascinating places, people and experiences. I always need to remind myself that there are plenty of the same right here at home.

Here are a few parting shots:

Rusty old truck at Ravine Winery - an Instagrammer's dream.

Rusty old truck at Ravine Winery – an Instagrammer’s dream.

Came across Laura Secord's house, but there was no ice cream to be found.

Came across Laura Secord’s house, but there was no ice cream to be found.

Stratus Winery encourages climate-friendly winery-hopping.

Stratus Winery encourages climate-friendly winery-hopping. This sign was posted on the bike racks.

A barrel-burning barbecue at Lailey.

A barrel-burning barbecue at Lailey.

This store, advertising a special on Kraft singles, is located between two of Canada's most celebrated wineries.

This store, advertising a special on Kraft singles, is located between two of Canada’s most celebrated wineries.

Putting the "lake" back in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Putting the “lake” back in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Supporting local business in Kingston: non-chain coffee, and baby bday gift from independent bookstore (festooned with Kingston balloon)

Supporting local business in Kingston: non-chain coffee, and baby bday gift from independent bookstore (festooned with Kingston balloon)

Note: All the best photos are courtesy of Montreal photographer Riccardo Cellere.

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6 thoughts on “Wine Not? Impressions of Canada’s Wine Country (and Toronto too)

  1. Absolutely hilarious – great descriptions, lots of wine-tasting, nice feeling of meeting the locals, and getting away from
    it all, feeling a little tipsy after all those wineries? Hope you stocked up your Montreal wine cellar! I’d like to see Riccardo’s
    photos from the shoot too!

  2. Great post as always! Pelee Island & Prince Edward County (amazing vineyards, better terroir than Niagara) make really good wines as well. But by far (as CDN wines go), Kelowna’s Okanagan is the star – sampled over 30 wineries and this is the place for big reds in Canada.

    Cheers!

    M

  3. Thank you so much!

    Riccardo’s shooting another similar event in PEC in August, so we’ll compare and contrast. Even though Okanagan is better known for its reds, the lesson I learned this weekend is that Niagara reds are coming up fast and furious…

  4. My parents live 5 minutes away from Clifton Hill and I have never seen it that empty. That photo is pretty creepy!! 🙂

    P.S. Isn’t the amphitheatre in the back of Jackson Triggs gorgeous? They have lots of open air concerts there and I never get around to going.

    • I find Clifton Hill pretty creepy in general!

      And yes – the amphitheatre is pretty awesome. I was struck by the sleek design of a lot of the wineries. A concert among the grapevines would be pretty magical…

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