Tongue in Cheek “Tongue and Cheek” Experience at the Expert’s Tasting

Valentine’s Day. I open my email account after getting home from work, and there’s a strange-looking email inviting me to the Expert’s Tasting at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology And Viticulture Institute (CCOVI). “Expert’s Tasting”? Me? I look over both shoulders, as if the email was directed past me, but there’s nothing behind me except the dining room window. The theme of this event is Bordeaux Reds.  I’m not going to miss a chance to taste big Bordeaux style wines and readily accept the invitation. When I tell Deb that I’ll be busy between 10 and 2 on Saturday, she tells me she will be fine – I just need to find her a spa or a mall. I quickly do some calculations in my head and erroneously come to the conclusion that a mall will be cheaper. I obviously wasn’t too clear-headed at the time.

In the next two weeks leading up to the event, I see on Twitter that lots of “real” experts will be attending the event. Famous wine writers, sommeliers, and winemakers from the region are all planning to attend. Worry sets in. I’m sitting next to “Experts” – what if I:
– Forget to spit?
– Dribble down my chin?
– Think an old Meritage is a Cab Sauv?
– Dribble on my shirt?

Thankfully, I am attending the event with Gary Killops, a wine writer from the Essex County area. As we are leaving the after-after-after Cuvee party in their hotel room, we make plans to meet up in the lobby of the hotel in about 6 hours. Deb and his wonderful wife Wanda have planned to go $hopping while Gary and I attend the tasting event. I’m happy to be attending with Gary as he has attended previously and I figure I’ll just follow his lead so as not to embarrass myself.

We meet and finally get on the road about 15 mins late the next morning (all our fault). Blessed with an uncanny ability to ignore the instructions from his GPS unit, Gary navigates through most of the Niagara Peninsula in record time, managing to get us there only minutes into the event. We get seated quickly and I suddenly realize the stage is behind me and I spend the next four hours swiveling between the wines on the table in front of me and the presenters almost directly behind me. I actually liked the people at our table, despite my back facing them for most of the event.

Expert Wine Hosts For The Event

Winemaker-hosts For The Event

The event is extremely well coordinated by Barb Tatarnic of Brock University (more details here) and the emcee/host for the day is April Kilpatrick, the sommelier at Windows by Jamie Kennedy (a highly rated Niagara Falls restaurant). She finishes with logistics as the first seven wines are being poured and introduces the host for the first flight, Rob Powers. At some point during the event I hear that 177 wines were submitted (we will taste 33 of them), although I have read conflicting numbers of 120 and 140 from other attendees. Suffice it to say that no matter what the number, these were the ‘cream of the crop’ of big reds from Niagara as per the selection committee.

Flight #1: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Host: Rob Power, winemaker at Creekside Estate Winery

This flight was all about Merlot. After the movie “Sideways” Merlot sales in the US slumped, undoubtedly because of the ” I am NOT drinking any f@cking Merlot!” line from the movie. This flight was all about bringing some respect back to the much beleaguered grape. As Rob was talking through Merlot, he informs us that there may be a “ringer” in the flight, a wine that isn’t from Niagara. So not only do we need to taste these wines blind, we need to figure out if there is a ringer, and if there is, where it is from.

I swirl, nose, taste the first wine and spit, managing to get it all into the spit cup provided. Wow, is this ever a big wine. No signs of age and an astringent tannic finish. My mouth puckers slightly, and I surmise that these are going to be big wines made for some aging. I decide this one is likely Niagara, but will await the other tastes before selecting the “ringer”. I dip into the second one. The fruit is a little more prevalent and I decide this one is definitely Niagara, although I start wondering if they would be so mean as to drop a Californian Merlot into the mix. Wine 3 is Right Bank Bordeaux. I am convinced and write that in my notes, convinced I have found the “ringer”. I don’t need to taste the others but I proceed. Wine 4 of this flight is like biting into a smoked meat sandwhich, except the tannins are now building up on my teeth and gums. Wine 5 seems a little more aged than the others, and has a real finesse/elegance to it. There’s definitely some umami notes like soya sauce and I’m getting more and more confused as to the “ringer”. I really like Wine 6…it is another tannic monster but there is so much going on in the nose and palate that I wonder if I should swallow this one. I decide against it. I’m now 5/5 at getting the wine into the spit cup and decide I shouldn’t risk it. The last wine in the lot really throws me for a loop…I get all kinds of cherry notes and smoky herbaceous notes. Could this be the ringer? I go back and forth between wine 5, wine 3, and this one. I’m still convinced I picked the Right Bank in number 3, so I let it stand, and reason that this must be a cooler vintage Merlot from Niagara.

Rob comes back to the mic and now walks us through each wine. Wine 1 is a 2010 Malivoire from the “Stouck Vineyard”. Malivoire? I thought they made lighter reds like Gamay and Pinot Noir (not to mention great Charodnnay). Who knew? Wine 2 is a 2010 “Clark Farm Vineyard” from Trius Winery. So far so good, I still convinced the ringer is up next. Wine 3 is announced as 2006 Creekside “Queenston Vineyard” Reserve. What? From Niagara? In 2006? I’m blown away and start to question whether I can taste anything (and make a mental note that I need to see if I can get any of this wine still). Wine 4 is revealed to be the same wine from Creekside but a 2008 version! What? ’08 is known as one of the most horrible years for big reds in NIagara. I go back and look at my note about “smoked meat sandwhich” and decide that maybe the vintage doesn’t matter as much as we think. Wine 5 is the ringer wine…from Napa (2007 Twomey Cellars). I look at my notes – “finesse, elegance, …umami” – certainly not anything I expect from Napa. Another misconception blown. I nervously glance at my table mates and am relieved to see the surprised expressions on their faces as well. Wine 6 is another 2010, this time from Pillitteri Estates, and is their Reserve “Exclamation” Series. Make mental note that I must get to Pillitteri on one of these trips as we’ve never visited there. The last one also surprises me as it is also a 2010, this time from Cornerstone Estate Winery. I pour out the remaining wines and decide some water is required to try and wash some of these tannins away. Three glasses of water later, I am starting to feel my teeth again.

Linda Bramble at the mic, Tony Aspler in the foreground

Linda Bramble at the mic, Tony Aspler in the foreground

Linda Bramble (famous author on several books about the Niagara region, including my favourite “Niagara Wine Visionaries”) is going to make the “VQA Promote the Promoter Awards” during the breaks as they refresh the dump buckets. LCBO product consultant Charles Ronzio of Waterloo is the first winner in the LCBO category. Apparently Charles does Ontario wine in a big way in his store, with tales reminiscent of Larry Paterson/Little Fat Wino (RIP). Must find Charles’ store and have a look at how it should be done if I ever pass through Waterloo.

Flight 2: The Mothers of Invention

Host: Emma Garner, winemaker at 30 Bench

Cabernet Franc!

Cabernet Franc!

I’m not sure if Cabernet Franc was the mother or the father in the birth of Cabernet Sauvignon, but it is a grape that doesn’t get much attention and also happens to a grape that I love. Thirty Bench winemaker Emma Garner introduces the round and the grape. I anxiously await the pouring of the round to finish while my teeth retract into my gums a little in fear. I believe Emma told us that they were all from 2010 except one from 2008, and that there may again be a “ringer” in the batch. Wine 1 is lovely and I can detect the faintest herbal notes above the dark fruit. My cryptic notes inform me that it could be the 2010 Cabernet Franc from Fielding, which I am quite fond of. My teeth and gums are not so fond of anything I put in my mouth at this point. Wine 2 has a tinge of brick colour to the edge of the wine…I wonder if this is the older one. There’s lots of fruit on this one with mocha hints and a light floral component in the background. It seems a little light in the body but comes across as a well structured wine. The 3rd wine in this series has some damp, earthy and mushroom notes that are more dominant at first and then fade to allow the brilliant fruit shine through. My palate tells me that this one spent some time in American oak, but hey, I haven’t been right much today. Mentally note that I like this one. My description for the next Cab Franc actually starts with “Sweet Lord – this smells delicious!” I immediately jump to the conclusion that this is Ravine’s Picone Vineyard Cab Franc, my favourite (if slightly expensive) Cab Franc of 2012. Great fruit, acidity, and decent use of oak have presented a beauty in front of me. I have to admit that my cheeks are starting to feel a little raw now, and I start looking around the table for the breadsticks (although I would have much preferred a juicy rare steak!). Wine 5 surprises me with a funkish, reductive note (I’m just happy I can smell anything still). I swirl a few times and the funk seems to dissipate, leaving behind a wine with great fruit intensity, acidity and structure. Another mental note that I’d like to cellar this one, whatever it is. The 6th in this series presents a nose of bright and ripe fruits in both red and dark varieties. The wine is dense, chewy, and somewhat sinful. The long tart cherry finish removes the little remaining moisture form my cheeks, and quite possibly another micro-layer of skin. The last wine (wine 7) in this series is huge and super tannin right now. My gums and teeth are starting to yell obscenties at me with each sip & swirl. With bright fruit, some cherry kirsch and menthol notes (indicating the high alcohol level), I’ve identified another future member of my cellar. I do some mental math and decide my wife Debbie needs to look for a third job. Which one is the 2008? I have noticed the slightest herbal notes on 1 & 2, but the funkiness of 5 leads me to guess that one (although if I had realized it might just have been a bit reductive because of recent bottling, I likely would have gone with 1).

Emma takes the mic again and walks us through what we have just tasted. I ignore the faint cries for mercy coming from my mouth and re-taste along with her descriptions of the wines as she walks us through them. Wine 1? 2008 Cabernet Franc from Stratus in NOTL. Weird. The wine had little indiction of the cool wet year, likely due to winemaker J-L Groulx allowing the grapes to hang on the vines until Dec 8th! Stoney Ridge comes out as the maker of wine number 2, and also wins the award for the most inexpensive wine in the lineup today (another mental note taken that perhaps the kids need full time jobs this summer to help pay for my cellar additions). Next on my shopping list is Riverview Cellar’s Reserve “Salvatore’s”, and it was indeed in both American and French oak. I take the 1/2 point for being partially correct, proud that I am still able to detect anything. And my Ravine Picone Vineyard? It wasn’t, but I realize that Wine #4 is another I must source – another Exclamation series from Pillitteri at a very reasonable $35 (mental note that this is the 2nd time they have showed up). Wine 5 isn’t the 2008, but a Peller Estates 2010 Signature Series (I still think it was reductive at first as it opened up nicely with some air). Wine 6 we are told is a Clark Farm Vineyard from Trius that was cropped at 1.4 T/acre and picked at a fully ripe 25.6 Brix. Kind of explains the big body on that one. Last is the Bela Terra from Pondview (and shame on me for not recognizing it after tasting it 2-3 times in the last couple months) that was left soaking on skins for 3 weeks, helping to explain the depth of extraction seen in this one. I dump the remaining juice and stuff a few more breadsticks in my mouth, hoping the crumbs will muffle the cries from inside. Water?! I need water!!

Linda returns to make the award for the Promote the Promoter award in the Hospitality industry, recognizing table-mate James Muir, beverage manager and sommelier at the CN Tower’s 360 the Restaurant (the highest wine cellar in the world, BTW). We hear that James has a huge wine list and offers an international and Ontario version of almost every wine on his list. We get a close-up look at the massive decanter that comes with the award.

A few of the attendees at the event. Spot anyone you know?

A few of the attendees at the event. Spot anyone you know?

Flight 3: We Are Family

Host: Ron Giesbrecht, winemaker at Henry of Pelham

In this talk sub-titled “The Relative Merits of Relative Marriage”, Ron Giesbrecht, the winemaker at Henry of Pelham is next to take the podium. Wearing a “Wainfleet” hat, he begins a stand-up routine that could border on politically incorrect, comparing the in-breeding of small towns like Wainfleet, ON (where he is from) to the birth of Cabernet Sauvignon resulting from the “roll in the hay” by Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. I laugh and smile with the rest of the crowd, only later realizing that the tiny portions of my teeth that had not retreated into my gums were a purple-grey colour that made them near invisible. Thankfully I notice everyone else looks the same.

First up is a medium-full bodied blend that has all kinds of rich, jammy notes on the nose, but pulls back on the palate to a more reserved, well-structured beauty. Tannins are present but smooth and somewhat silky. Very drinkable now, but I guess it isn’t that old, so likely a 2010. Wine 2 is another big one. There’s kirsch (cherry & alcohol), cassis, great tannic structure in this purple-hued beauty. The long, tannic finsih informs my tongue that it should possibly follow my teeth and gums into hiding. I’m calculating how much of my salary I can give up to wine in 2013. If my mouth thought Wine 2 was tannic, Wine 3 sends it shrieking into darkness. Massive dark fruit with some earthy and leathery components indicate some decent time in barrel, but the tannins on this wine are very astringent and drying. It needs some time to smooth out but this should last a long time in any cellar. I chug some water out of the picture and frantically rip open a few more breadsticks, trying to coax the components of my mouth to return to their rightful places.I nose Wine 4 and cautiously bring the glass to my lips, taking the tiniest of sips. This deep purple & opaque juice gives off huge notes of red cherries and Damson (damascus) plum. Yes – those plums that are known for being astringent! “Do you really think my mouth needs more drying out at this time?!!” I shout in my head (at least I don’t think it was out loud, but I smile my purple nibs at the folks at the table just in case). Wine 5 does little to release the grip on my mouth, but the fruit is stronger and more intense on this one. Cherry, black cherry, plum, and cassis notes are pretty evident, and there is the slightest herbaceous component. Thankfully the 6th wine releases it’s grip on my mouth a little, an provides some juicy cherry and red currant notes on a strong acidic core. The nose adds blueberries, violets, cedar, tobacco, and light menthol notes which make me think it might be a ringer from California. The last one in this series has what I would call an elegant nose – perfumed aromatics of fruit and flowers. Lot of fruit, zippy acidity, and unfortunately for me, lots of tannins to back it up. At least I am past the halfway point I figure. I contemplate whether any of these should be added to my “wines to purchase list” and have the grand idea that perhaps I should find out the prices first.

Obviously nobody else in the audience is from Wainfleet, as Ron is permitted back to the mic to walk us through what we tasted. The first wine turns out to be the 2010 Cabernet Merlot from Fielding Estate Winery, a blend of CF (42%), M (33%), and CS(25%) that was macerated 4-6 wks on skins. 2nd up is another Stouck Vineyard wine from Malivoire, the least expensive in this lineup at $29.95. Another mental note that this is the second time the “Stouck” name has come up. Stratus Red from 2010 takes the 3rd spot – while I have other vintages this is my first tasting of the big 2010. Did I mention that I am re-tasting these as Ron walks us through them? My mouth has figured it out. Ron’s funny but I want him to hurry up so I can get to the water again. Wines 4 & 5 turn out to be the same “Terroir Cache” from Hidden Bench, 2010 and 2007 versions respectively. The 2010 has a lot more Merlot in it than the 2007 (56% vs 22%) and a lot less Cab Sauv (12% vs 43%), which explains the very different profiles. Similarly, wines 6 and 7 are both Henry of Pelham Cabernet-Merlots, albeit from 2002 (Wine 6) and 2010 (Wine 7). So there wasn’t anything from California in this flight. Sheesh, wrong again! The 2002 is drinking so nicely right now I am tempted to forget this mistake. Also goes to prove that some ON wines really can be cellared and only improve with time.

Media Award Winner Rick VanSickle

Media Award Winner Rick VanSickle

The next award goes to the Media category, and winner is writer Rick Van Sickle of Wines in Niagara. Rick writes for several magazines and you have probably seen his name on “shelf talkers” in the LCBO. I knew Rick had won this category because I was one of the people who nominated him, actually shocked that he hadn’t won it previously. Rick’s journalism background makes the word “promoter” something he doesn’t care for (as it clashes with his journalistic integrity) and Linda does a great job putting the award into perspective just in case someone takes it the wrong way. Thankfully the long intro allows me to consume more water.


Flight 4: Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy

Host: Ilya Senchuk, winemaker at Foreign Affair

The name of this flight frightens me a little. Meaty? Big? Beaty? I almost hope for a big, jammy, somewhat insipid wine to help coax them back, at least to the border. Ilya Senchuk, winemaker at Foreign Affair Winery has the onerous task of following Ron’s performance and walks us through this round of big wines. The first wine has a slightly aged colour to it, so I am already suspecting a ringer wine here. It’s a big wine but the nose is somewhat muted (or I have burned the lining off of my nose). I take a sip and the wine is juicy, with sharp acidity and ample structure and tannins to balance the ripe fruit that remains. Yes, more tannins. I massage my gums in a feeble attempt to resuscitate them. Wine 2 is definitely newer with a bright purple hue, huge nose of cassis, blueberry and sweet fruit. The palate explodes with dark fruit flavours of black cherry, plum, and more cassis, all held together by, get this, a great tannic structure and juicy acidity (can the dog also get a job?). I stuff some more breadsticks in my mouth, at this point just recalling that Debbie has me on a gluten-free diet. I think this really is an emergency though, and stuff another one down before hitting the next sample. Wine 3 is a ruby red with smoked meat and lots of smoky fruit aromas. The palate is very fruit forward right through the mid-palate until the austere finish kicks in, robbing my mouth of the little moisture remaining. A great wine with real complexity and balance, even if it has left my mouth feeling like the Sahara Desert. The 4th wine is similar to the third…I wonder if this isn’t two different vintages of the same wine. I do detect more tobacco leaf notes on this one and the initially sweet palate ends with a drying cherry/cassis note. I’d like to complain about how dry my mouth is now, but I can only whimper. The 5th wine comes across as a tannic monster. I can’t even detect fruit anymore although I am sure it is there somewhere. The nose definitely opens up as it gains some air, and I realize it might just need time to come into its own. I’m taking smaller and smaller sips right now, and still have managed to somehow keep it off my clothes, which is pretty good considering how many of the components of my mouth are now MIA. Wine 6 serves up some real earthy, leathery, smoky notes on the nose amid the strong dark fruit. On the palate, juicy acidity and tannic structure take more hits at my mouth. Finally the last wine comes up and the purple coloue belies some great jammy, kirsh-like notes. There’s a dried fruit quality to it and the discusion at our table concludes that it is an appassimento-style wine.

Ilya comes to rescue us from the last 7-wine round of tasting to tell us what we tasted. Wine 1 is a 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from Creekside!? What? Not a ringer from some other continent? Again they have impressed with the ability to crank out a big, bold wine from a somewhat crappy year (especially for late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon). As soon as it is announced and I have matched my second tasting with the description, I dump the glass and fill it with water, and process I repeat on this round. Impressive indeed! Stouck Vineyards. Have I not mentioned them enough already? Another big wine from Malivoire and one that really impressed me again. Apparently the clay they have in this vineyard controls vigour and keeps the berries small, sweet and dense. (Mental note: Must stop at Malivoire on way home). Wine 3 turns out to be 2010 Whimsy Cab Sauv from Southbrook. I’m trying to remember if my description of the Wine 4 matches my recollection of the 2007 Whimsy as I still believe Wine 3 and Wine 4 are sister wines from a different vintage. Wrong again. Wine 4 is exposed to be a Cab Franc from Thirty Bench. C’mon Shawn, you didn’t even match varietals on those two! (I blame my lack of a tongue). Wine 5 was the one I figured needed a lot more time, so I am not surprised that it is a 2010 Petit Verdot from Stratus. I’d really like a re-taste of this (if and) when my ability to taste returns. Fielding comes in as the next wine with their 2010 Option C Red, predominantly Cab Saiv at 70%, Merlot and Cab Franc splitting he remaining 30% equally. The last wine in the set is indeed appassimento style, and turns out to be the 2010 Cab Sauv from Foreign Affair. 25% of the grapes are dried, giving this wine a huge body and weight. I fill the glass with water and consume it, concluding I have now consumed 17 tasting glasses full of water. I wonder how long the final round is going to take before I can bolt for the men’s room.

Promoter at Large Winner Harald Thiel

Promoter at Large Winner Harald Thiel

Linda comes up to make the last “Promote the Promoters Award”, giving me time to get more water into my mouth. This one is for “Promoter at Large” and they give this one to Harald Thiel, vigneron and proprietor of Hidden Bench Vineyards and Winery and chair of the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration. Harald has done a lot to put Ontario wines on the map especially with the ICCC tastings in New York and London.

Flight 5: If You Don’t Know Me By Now

Host: Peter Bodnar Rod, sales & marketing for 13th Street winery

So apparently this round of 5 wines is a competition. After electing an honest scorekeeper at each table, the teams are asked a series of questions about each wine. The team members at each table discuss and mark a final answer before host Peter Bodnar-Rod exposed the answer as part of the next question. At the end, the wine is exposed and each team tallies up its points. Our table is comprised of quite a few sommeliers, Dan Speck from HoP, Gary and myself. I figure our odds aren’t very good given that at least one of us can’t feel his cheeks anymore and can only think about how many steps it is to the washroom. The first wine is served and my notes inform me that it is a spicy Canadian Syrah from BC. Thankfully, one member of our team convinces us that it is more like a Malbec and it seems more and more plausible as we debate. Answering three successive questions that drill into the wine details correctly, somehow we manage to squeak out 25/25 points recognizing the 2010 Malbec from Stratus. I realize two things at this point. First, our team is better off without me, and two, Peter is a really entertaining speaker but he is drawing out the suspense in a way that is forcing me to cross my legs.

We fare OK on Wine 2, recognizing it as a 2002 Southbrook Cabernet Sauvignon, but losing 5 points for not knowing that Steve Byfield (of Nyarai Cellars fame) was the winemaker before Ann Sperling took over. I’m sure the 3rd wine is a Bordeaux from the right bank, and that’s what my notes say. Given that I just took French wines in Old World Wine class and my list of Bordeaux wines I have tasted stands at 7 or 8, I let the sommeliers at the table choose the right answer (it was a Left Bank Bordeaux, the most expensive wine of the day at $109), which they come close on. I think we get 1 of the 3 questions wrong…I wasn’t paying much attention at this point as I am plotting my course to the men’s room. Peter informs us of who has the best price on Sensodyne whitening toothpaste, but I’m considering a Costco sized box.

I’m convinced Wine 4 is an Old World wine, and I guess it is a 2002 French Wine (wrong again, it is a delicious 2002 Merlot from Henry of Pelham). Our table takes Dan to task for not recognizing his own wine as we lose a few more points. Last but not least is a big fruit forward wine that is quite luscious. But it finishes with plenty of smooth tannins which I am sure have been the tipping point to cause the inside of my cheeks to bleed (not really, but it does feel that way). Turns out that it is a red blend Temptress from Foreign Affair winery.

Our team does OK, ending up somewhere in the top half of the scoring (I think) but definitely not in the running for top spot. The winning table gets their minor prizes, but major bragging points. A few “thank you”s to all involved and the event is pretty much complete although there is a lunch of salads and sandwiches provided for participants and many stick around to chat afterwards. I finally get to meet a few others in the wine industry that I have chatted with online, but miss just as many that I wanted to say hello to.

For complete list, availability, and prices of wines tasted, you can download the pdf file here. For other coverage of the Experts Tasting (including scores and music matches in Michael’s article), see:

Michael Godel: A Long and “Wine-ding” Tasting Road

Rick VanSickle: Brock Experts Tasting – Where Experts Learn All About Humility in Wine Tasting

Mike Dicaro’s coverage on Spotlight Toronto


What I Learned

  • My palate isn’t normally too bad through 15-20 wines. But if they are big, tannic wines, palate exhaustion can set in around 8-10 wines. If I keep going, my gums, cheeks and teeth complain about the tannins being thrown at them.
  • The dark staining from the wines reminds me of those plaque-staining tablets they gave us in elementary school.
  • Several hours later (when I finally got to my toothbrush), it can take multiple brushings to lighten the staining on your teeth after a lot of big red wines.
  • You can easily spot people who have been tasting big reds.
  • My palate recovers quickly after eating something. Deb and Gary’s wife Wanda met us at the end of the tasting and Deb and I head out to hit 3 more wineries that afternoon.
  • As Rick Van Sickle pointed out, blind tasting can be such a humbling experience.
  • I can hold 17 tasting glasses of water for about 1.7 hours.
  • These events can be hard on your budget!
  • Most importantly, Ontario is creating some fantastic, age-worthy wines at prices well below what other (more famous) parts of the world charge.

All in all a fantastic tasting event. Well organized, run on a tight schedule that ended on time. Great agenda and great wines. My only question is “How long until next year’s event?”!!!

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