Food and Wine Pairing – An interview with Jerry Comfort of Beringer Vineyards

On Saturday Nov 17th I met the official food and wine pairing expert.  Sure there are many sommeliers out there who can properly pair wine with food.  Sure there are many people out there who can tell you everything you need to know about every wine, then after much deliberation and scientific explanation, could tell you what food to pair with that wine.  But Mr. Jerry Comfort of the famous Beringer Vineyards in Napa Valley is the man you want to speak to. Hands down.  Not only is he smart and has studied wine and food for his entire professional life.  He has also spent 20 years at Beringer, first as their chef and following that he’s spent the past 10 years as an ambassador and wine educator.  He has also worked as the head chef at restaurants all over Napa Valley and San Francisco.   These days he teaches a 90 minute seminar on wine and food pairing which takes him all around the world. It’s quite the impressive resume.  However beyond all of that, there was one thing in particular that impressed me most about Jerry’s approach.  He simplifies it.  He takes a complicated subject like wine and food pairing and makes it easy to understand for the everyday drinker.  That is something I can appreciate and relate to.

Jerry was gracious enough to sit down for a one-on-one interview.  I have separated it into three parts which you can see below.  Following that I attended his 90 minute seminar at the Toronto Gourmet Food and Wine Show which was fantastic.  If you get the chance to catch his seminars, I would highly recommend it.  After spending this time with Jerry I almost feel as though I could call myself a food and wine pairing expert, but I will leave it to Jerry to tell you in his own words.

Part 1: A nice introduction to Jerry giving you a sense of just how knowledgeable he is.  He then takes you through some initial points behind his wine and food pairing philosophy.  Though not a substitute for his seminar this pretty much covers most of the key points.

Part 2: A little more insight into Jerry’s wine and food pairing philosophy including his answer to a very important question… “So what does one do? You’re going to a party and you’re in charge of bringing the wine, one white and one red, what do you bring?”

Part 3: Jerry takes the time to answer a few questions from our Twitter followers then caps off our discussion with some rapid fire random questions including “So what’s better wine on it’s own, or wine with food” and “The one region in the U.S. we might not know much about now, but need to watch out for.”

*Many thanks to the Hotel Le Germain on Mercer street for accommodating the interview in their lobby bar.  Very much appreciated.

As I mentioned following the interview I was in the audience for Jerry’s full seminar.  I encourage you to attend it the next time Jerry’s in town or if you find yourself in Napa.  I won’t ruin it for you but here are some bullet points, quotes, and key takeaways to help you the next time you look to pair wine with food.

  • Don’t pair to flavour, pair to taste (taste being sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami).
  • “The wine industry seems to have forgotten K-I-S-S, keep it simple stupid.” – Jerry
  • Don’t pair to a grape variety, pair to a wine style
  • There are only really 5 types of wine you need to know when pairing.  Sweet wine, dry white wine with no oak, dry white wine with oak, fruit forward reds with little or no oak, and high tannin, big body red with the use of oak
  • Simple wines are the easiest to pair, hence why table wine and restaurant house wine is simple
  • Wine doesn’t change food… food changes wine.  Try the wine first, then the food.  There is no change.  Go back to the wine and you will understand if you like the pairing or not
  • “So, sweet food makes wine suck?” – Some guy in the audience, though Jerry seemed to agree
  • “Food without salt, needs wine without oak.” – Jerry
  • “Food does not overpower wine when it is balanced.” – Jerry, referring to the proper use of salt in cooking
  • “Sugar in cooking is the devil to dry wine.” – Jerry
  • “When cooking, cook with the worst wine you have.” – Jerry
  • If the food is balanced the wine flavour doesn’t change. This is what you are seeking because if you like the wine and it doesn’t change you can drink any wine you want with your balanced meal
  • Try the Beringer Founders Estate Cabernet Sauvignon – $18.95 at the LCBO.  Made in the domestic Napa Valley style, but available at a fraction of the price of their pure Napa Cab
  • Most impressive fact: Beringer is the only winery in the world to have received a Wine Spectator #1 wine in the world label for both a white and a red wine

At the end of everything I had made my conclusion and it was this… If food is properly salted and has adequate acidity you can pair any wine with it.  Most foods essentially have this.  Think white fish salted with a touch of lemon, steak seasoned and served with a slight reduction, and pasta with parmesan cheese and a tomato sauce.  Jerry gives you many more examples but these represent “balanced foods”.  When you have balanced foods the wine flavour will remain unchanged.  Just try it.  Take a piece of apple, sprinkle it with salt and lemon.  Chances are you won’t like it but believe it or not you now have a balanced food.  Now try the wine, then the food (of course the food doesn’t change), then try the wine again.  Balance.  The wine remains unchanged showing all it’s original flavours.  When you have balanced food and thus wine flavours that remain unchanged you then have the easiest wine pairing job in the world… drink whatever you like or bring whatever it is your hosts like.  Then suddenly we are all wine pairing experts.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

Nouveau LCBO release 2012 – What to buy

Did you know that the third Thursday of November each year marks the annual release of Beaujolais Nouveau wines?  This is recognized worldwide, often celebrated with parties and festivities. That Thursday is today and the LCBO released 10 Nouveau wines this year  including some classic examples of Beaujolais Nouveau and some interesting Nouveau examples made form non traditional grape varieties.

For those that may not know Beaujolais Nouveau is a very unique style of wine.  Beaujolais is a sub-region in the Burgundy region of France.  Wines coming from this area are made from the Gamay grape variety.  More specifically Nouveau wines coming from Beaujolais are their own unique style made from an extremely short maceration and fermentation process. The goal is to release the wines to the market extremely quickly following the harvest.  Hence on the 3rd Thursday of November we are seeing the 2012 wines.  The result is a light and fruity wine, sometimes with a hint of residual sugar, and no ageing.  The wines are meant to be consumed young… otherwise known as immediately.

Some other regions in the world are now making Nouveau style wines, including a couple releases from right here in Ontario.  This year the LCBO releases 10 nouveau style wines.  Lucky for me (and by association lucky for you) I have tried all 10.  Nouveau style wines are amazingly simple, so I am going to keep this blog post amazingly simple.  Below you will find what wines you should try and which you should not.

The Fool, Reif Estate, Gamay Nouveau, VQA, Niagara Ontario – $9.95
Recommendation: Consider it
Why? An appealing dessert like nose with some nice fresh strawberry. Nice Cran/Cherry on the palate.

Chateau des Charmes Generation Seven Nouveau, VQA, Niagara Ontario – $11.95
Recommendation: Must try
Why? A very impressive palate. Possibly the most full bodied release that the LCBO offers this year.

Mommessin Beaujolais Nouveau, France – $13.95
Recommendation: Consider it
Why? Some nice acidity and decent length for a Beaujolais.  Even some soft pepper on the palate which was nice.

Catalans Primeur Syrah/Merlot, France – $9.95
Recommendation: Don’t bother
Why? Tasted and smelled like Banana medicine. You might like banana medicine, but not in your wine.

Jeanjean Syrah Primeur, France – $9.95
Recommendation: Consider it
Why? A bit too much bubblegum and candied fruit flavour, but a soft palate, nice finish, and easy drinking, which is enough to get a soft recommendation.

Duboeuf Gamay Nouveau, France – $8.95
Recommendation: Don’t bother
Why? Might be some value at $8.95, but very, very weak flavour.

Negrar Novello Del Veneto, Italy – $9.95
Recommendation: Don’t bother
Why? The bubblegum and candied flavours are far too strong.

Tollo Novello Rosso Terre di Chieti, Italy – $8.95
Recommendation: Must try
Why? Easily the best value of the group and one of the best wines.  Nice ruby colour with dark cherry and even some hints of smoke and pepper on the nose. Following that an impressive palate for $9.

Beaujolais Villages Nouveau, Joseph Drouhin, France (Vintages) – $14.95
Recommendation: Must try
Why? The most classic and typical Beaujolais of the group.  Candy and cherry on the nose  which carry through nicely on the palate.

Beaujolais Villages Nouveau, G. Duboeuf, France (Vintages) – $14.95
Recommendation: Consider it
Why? Likely priced a bit high but overall a pretty inviting wine and a fairly classic example of Beaujolais Nouveau.

**Caveat**
Personally Beaujolais Nouveau is not my first choice.  It is a bit too candied and light for me.  However I have reviewed all of these wines objectively leaving personal bias aside.  If you have never tried a Nouveau style I encourage you to do so.  They are very unique and worth at least sampling.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

Sommelier training for a wine blogger – what you need to know about the Loire.

What most people know and appreciate is there are some very key regions in France.  In fact some of the most important wine regions in the world are found in France.  You have Bordeaux, Burgundy, The Rhone Valley, and Champagne, just to name a few.  However one region that is hugely popular around the world, but I feel is a bit unappreciated in this market, is the Loire.  In the wine world it ranks up there with the other regions I mentioned, but for some reason it gets a fraction of the attention in this market.  I don’t often see it on wine lists and I visited an LCBO on Friday afternoon and only found a handful of bottles in vintages (to about 30 of each of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhone).  It is for these reasons that I found myself fortunate to be at the Toronto Sommelier Training on the Loire last Tuesday, at Loire Restaurant on Harbord St, just west of Spadina.

Make no mistake about it… I am not a sommelier.  I am trained in wine via WSET which is a strand of education differing slightly from the formal Sommelier programs (though in my opinion, equally as complicated) and I am a writer.  However as you are reading this post I think that benefits you, as I try to take a bit of a different approach than a sommelier might.  I try to normalize a complicated subject and help everyone understand and appreciate all wines and regions.  I try to provide key takeaways and recommendations and write as objectively as I can.  My job is not to create wine lists, a complicated role which involves food and wine pairing considering cost and consumer preference.  However last week I found myself in a room with Toronto’s top sommeliers learning about the nuances of the Loire from arguably the top sommelier Toronto has to offer, Mr. John Szabo (more on John in a moment).

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With that as the basis for this post… here is what you need to know about the Loire.

First, they make outstanding white wines.  In the eastern side of the region you get Sauvignon Blanc dominating with bottles that will be labelled Sancerre or Pouilly Fume.  Those are the classic regions of production, but the grape will be Sauvignon Blanc.  It is different Sauvignon Blanc than you’ll find in say New Zealand.  More mineral than perfume and more citrus than tropical.  Moving west you will also find the amazing wines of Vouvray (Chenin Blanc) and Muscadet (Melon Blanc).  The Vouvray’s are rich and vibrant white wines, whereas the Muscadet’s contain strong minerality and stone flavours.

Second, though I consider the white wines to be the biggest focus of the Loire they are also a classic region for red wines made from Cabernet Franc.  Look for bottles labelled from Chinon.  They are much bigger, bolder, and more tannic Cab Franc’s than we find in many other regions in the world.  Personally as a grape variety that not is typically one of my favourites, I prefer the Loire style of Cab Franc to most made elsewhere.

Third, they make high, high, high, acid wines.  Enough sometimes to make your mouth water for minutes after you taste them.  This has two distinct advantages. First they can be great age worthy wines, including the whites.  The acid will help the wine stand up over time and develop in the bottle.  Second the acid makes these wines outstanding food pairing wines.  Loire Sauvignon Blanc is possibly the most classic pairing with goat cheese and Muscadet is hands down the most classic pairing with Oysters and really most fresh white fish.  But even beyond those two examples there is a tremendous range of pairing flexibility with the Loire wines.  If you don’t have a huge wine cellar and find yourself constantly struggling in the kitchen with your wine and food pairing, the Loire offers some very safe bets.  It’s tough to keep enough of an inventory at home to properly pair with your everyday cooking.  Put at least one Loire white and one Loire red in your wine fridge and you’ll impress your guests and you’ll never be overly stumped again.  They might not always be the best or most classic pairing like some of the examples I gave, but they are versatile which is a key for home cooking.  Here we also uncover the key reason that this was a Sommelier training.

Finally, they converted me.  I knew the basics, but I was not the most knowledgeable of the region.  I have always loved Muscadet, but have been generally critical of Sauvignon Blanc and Cab Franc on multiple occasions.  Knowing those are two of the biggest grapes of this region had led me to obnoxiously avoid the wines.  Now I am converted.  The wines of the Loire are truly unlike any other in the world.  They are the benchmark for these classic grape varieties and everything else is either trying to copy them (many Ontario examples) or purposely differentiate from them (New Zealand) to create their market.  But the Loire is the benchmark.  It didn’t hurt that since they are excellent food pairing wines, the seminar was held over lunch at Loire Restaurant, a quaint little spot at 119 Harbord St owned by two wonderful gentlemen who hail from the Loire.  As you can guess, the food was outstanding and was paired perfectly.  It also didn’t hurt that the tasting and a full one hour PowerPoint training session, was led by Master Sommelier John Szabo who is hands down one of the best in the business.  John has a way of speaking about wine that I personally strive for.  He is one of the smartest wine educators I have come across but speaks about the subject with ease making it easy to understand.  He is also a talented story teller and is well travelled.  So he has stories to back everything he is speaking about which are unique and entertaining.  It was pleasure to finally meet him and take away a thing or two about the way he carries himself in the wine world.

So all Loire all the time?  I’m not sure I would go that far.  But I will keep one or two bottles in my fridge to help with wine pairing at home (which periodically I do struggle with, without reaching into the depths of the cellar).  I will also keep my eyes out for more Loire wines on Toronto restaurant menus, hoping that the sommeliers in the room took as much away from the seminar as I did.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

November in Niagara

An email chain began a few weeks ago amongst a number of my friends.  In many ways this chain was no different than most. We were trying to gather ideas for a group get together and settle on a date.  Then things changed for me when we decided on a casual Saturday of wine tastings in Niagara.  Naturally I was in and due to the subject matter I also volunteered to be a co planner of the event.  Luckily for me I know better then most the hospitality of Niagara wineries and the people who work them.  I banked on that and as usual I was not the least bit disappointed.

So what does a wine writer do to plan a wine day for his friends? I took to Twitter.  I sent a message out, seeking responses, that I was looking for wineries to attend.  I also used Twitter as a resource to discover anything unique happening at any of the wineries when my group was going.  After several Twitter conversations our itinerary looked something like this.
10:30-11:30 – portfolio tasting at Fielding Estates Winery.
11:30 – ???? – portfolio tasting at Vineland Estates Winery
???? – ???? – lunch at The Jordan House (i.e. wine break)
???? – ???? – Di Profio, Malivoire, or Green Lane Winery

You’ll notice the deliberate use of question marks above.  As I mentioned this day was a casual one, so your better off not to be rushed.  Plus if you’re fortunate enough to go to Vineland Estates and taste wines with winemaker Brian Schmidt you will want question marks in your itinerary because you’ll only do yourself a disservice by rushing out early.  Either way I do recommend some leniency in your planning as you can never be totally sure of the gems you might discover at a winery.

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So we set off for Fielding.  Unfortunately the “grape king” Mr. Curtis Fielding himself was not there, but nonetheless we arrived at 10:30 for our tasting. The first thing I noticed at Fielding was that you could try anything. If the bottle was open great, if not they would open it for you.  To the point where I was the first in the day to sample the Brut and they didn’t hesitate to open it.  I appreciated that.  As well as that I sampled a run of 2011’s including the unoaked Chardonnay, the estate bottled Pinot Gris, and the lot 17 Riesling.  I also sampled some 2010 reds including the popular Fireside and the Red Conception.  Overall I found the wines a touch young and sour, but the high acidity leads me to believe these wines could age a bit and very well might improve.  As such I bought a bottle of the lot 17 Riesling, the consensus winner amongst our group.  Beyond the wines however I can tell you one thing for sure, visit Fielding in the summer.  Not only are there whites better than their reds (i.e. summer) but they make high acid, refreshing whites (i.e. summer).  Plus they have a spectacular view across lake Ontario of the Toronto skyline, with a handful of Muskoka chairs (i.e. summer) lined up on the balcony to take in the view.  A winery cottage if you were ever seeking one.

Then it was off to Vineland Estates. Here I was fortunate because they employ possibly the most active winemaker on Twitter @benchwineguy.  I have connected with Brian Schmidt via Twitter many times before as well as with @vinelandestates (which I discovered is run by a very well educated sommelier who works their tasting bar).  We tasted many of their LCBO wines at the bar in the extremely impressive and extremely grand tasting room.  However, what was even better was we got a sneak peek into their upcoming 2012’s tasting both the Riesling (estimated release, spring 2012) and their Cabernet Sauvignon (estimated release, fall 2012) right from the tank.  What a great experience! Let me try to set the stage for you.  The cellar at Vineland houses tanks upon tanks just of Riesling alone.  Each tank is harvested approximately 5 days apart.  You’d think there would be no way these wines could differ.  Well I can tell you they do and quite noticeably so, not just to my palate but to everyone in my group who was in attendance.  The wines were dead dry with heavy citrus notes in the earliest harvested tanks, then got a touch sweeter with more stone fruit (peach mostly) showing as we went through them.  Now let me close the stage for you. The winemaker then blends all these tanks to create the uniform and balanced Riesling that we know and love.  Talk about talent.  The cab sauv’s we tried out of the tank were raw and pure, so I would be intrigued to try them again upon release next year.  Nonetheless look out for the 2012’s coming from Niagara.  Though production is down a touch, the grapes are ripe and concentrated.  So long as prices stay true, we could be in for a few gems from the 2012 vintage. The Vineland Estates tasting demonstrated this in its infancy and now I am anxious to see it play out.

So ended the somewhat structured part of the day.  We took lunch at a great pub called The Jordan House in Jordan Ontario.  A bit for a wine break and a bit because the winery restaurants tend to be quite pricey.  Over lunch I went back to Twitter to seek out afternoon winery stops.  Turns out Jordan Station is literally down the street from a new winery called Di Profio who responded and invited us for the afternoon, so we obliged.  What a great decision that was. Owned by the sweetest retired couple, Di Profio is just a tiny winery but producing outstanding wines that manage to contain a rare element these days… human touch.  Their 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon was literally hand picked from a harvest that was ravaged by wildlife.  The crop was too small to put through the rigours of machine winemaking, so winemaker Fred essentially handmade this wine.  In a world dominated by corporations and conglomerates, the wine world is no exception.  For most wineries a reduced crop and the inability to machine process the wine, would jack up prices astronomically.  Yet somehow even with all that and in a vintage recognized by many to be the best in the history of Niagara, this 2010 cab sauv still retails for a mere $20.  I was thrilled.  I bought 3 bottles and I am tempted to go back and buy more.

Three wineries and another outstanding day in Niagara.  Though I traveled socially I felt it necessary to share my day with you all.  Not only did I learn about the future of 2012 wines from Niagara, but I discovered some new hidden gems.  Somehow that latter part happens every single time I visit Niagara.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

A review of Rosewood Wines – By. Jennifer Britton

On Tuesday October 23rd Rosewood Wine Estates held a private tasting at George Brown College in Toronto to showcase their portfolio of wines.  Best known for their Mead’s (wine made from a base of honey) Rosewood brought together a group of writers and wine lovers to try their entire portfolio.  Beyond the wines however the goal was also to showcase the ability of their wines to pair well with food.  Hence the selection of George Brown as the venue where the talented chefs created a special menu designed to showcase the wines and their match with a variety of foods.

I have spoken to a few people who were in attendance and it appears this all came across.  TOwineman was well represented by Jennifer Britton who acted as our correspondent and reported back.  Beyond being my sister, Jen is a wine lover in her own right and a veteran in the service industry.  Who better for Rosewood to leave a good impression on?  Well apparently they succeeded, and with that I turn the blog over to Jen to recount the event for you in her own words.

Recently I had the pleasure of representing towineman.com by attending a private tasting with Rosewood Estates Wine at the Chefs House at George Brown College. We were welcomed warmly to the open kitchen restaurant by the Rosewood team. There was a lovely set-up for the tables with a spot to take notes as well as 5 large wine glasses for the tasting. Once everyone got settled, the team started with the tasting. I loved not only that I got to sample the Rosewood portfolio of wine, but also the fact that they were all paired with food.

The wine we started with was their 2011 Harvest Gold, paired with a delicious Chicken Tikka with Mango Chutney. This wine is Rosewood’s signature dry mead, meaning a wine made from a honey base. It had a sweet honey tang and struck the right balance between sweet and savory with the chicken. Paired with the Chicken it brought out a wonderful amount of heat.

The second wine grouping we moved onto tasting were the Whites. We paired each wine in this group with a White Fish Ceviche. The first wine was the 2011 Semillon which was sweet and crisp. It also had a lot of pepper notes as well as hints of pineapple and pear. This choice was very fruitful and a great pair with seafood. The second wine was the 2011 Mima’s Block Riesling. This wine has wonderful sage and lemon notes with an aftertaste of fresh apples. This white was crisp and smooth and brought out the lemon in the seafood. Interestingly I am normally not a Riesling fan, but this wine was a great balance of sweetness and actually ended up being my number one pick for the whites. The last of the Whites was the 2010 Sussreserve Riesling. This choice is a 7th harvest and had strong apricot and tree fruit flavors. It was a sweeter wine, but actually had a mild taste and smell.

Stepping away from the wines for a second I must mention the staff.  During the presentation the Hospitality students at The Chefs School, who were very wonderful and attentive, waited us on. They were friendly and very motivated and made the tasting an overall success.  My thanks go out to them.

We then moved on to the Pinot tastings, which were paired with a Fried Mushroom Arancini.  We opened with the 2009 Pinot Noir Reserve. This wine was a natural fermentation wine with notes of pepper.  It was very spicy but had a smooth smell and taste. The second we tried was the 2010 Pinot Noir Reserve. This choice was less spicy with more berry notes. By comparison the 2010 was much smoother than the 2009 and had a slight hint of chocolate in the flavor. It did however have a much more bitter aftertaste. 

From there we moved onto the rest of the reds. This bunch was paired with a delicious Braised Lamb Shank Tortellini, which was fantastic! The first red was the 2010 Cabernet Franc, which was very dark in colour with grainy flavors and hints of jam. It was very fruity with strong berry and a little spice. With that complexity and gorgeous colour it was my pick for best red. The second was the 2010 Merlot, which was a very pure tasting wine. It was the best pairing with the red meat and had smooth and nice subtle flavors. The last of the reds was the 2010 Merlot Reserve, which is fermented for 5-6 days and sits for fermentation for 3 ½ weeks after. This wine had strong oak notes and had a very bitter aftertaste.

Lastly we had the 2008 Mead Royale. I think this wine was probably the most anticipated on the list for a lot of the attendees. The wine is 6-month barrel aged and is a consumer favorite. It is made with pure honey, water and yeast and is much lighter in color than most whites. It had a very strong floral smell as well as the extreme notes of honey and sweetness. It was paired with and aged oak Gouda, which toned down some of the sweetness of the wine. Although a great price and a wonderful honey, sweet wine, this wine was too sweet for this particular taster.

All and all, this was a wonderful tasting that I was more than happy I was able to attend. The food and the wine were both wonderful and I would recommend Rosewood Estates wine to all the readers out there. The wine is not only wonderful but it’s a great value at the LCBO. Happy tasting! 

We would like to thank Jen for her attendance and her thoughtful recap of the event.  Catch up with Jen on Twitter here.  We would also like to thank Rosewood Wine Estates  and George Brown college for their hospitality.

To learn more about Rosewood Wine Estates check out their website http://www.rosewoodwine.com/

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

Brand Loyalty – Hard to Gain, Easy to Lose

I am thrilled to announce that I have been approached with a guest blog.  I am also thrilled to announce that not only did I accept, but it has spurred a new section of this website for guest posts, aptly named “Community Posts”.  Let me remind you that the purpose of this blog (and should be for any blog or journalism outlet) is to provide the consumer with information, recommendations, thoughts, and experiences.  Here at towineman.com we do that to help you all better appreciate wine and other alcoholic beverages.  Sometimes that takes being critical and sometimes that means singing the praises of things we love.  It is with all of that in mind that we launch “Community Posts”. If you’re interested e-mail us at towineman@gmail.com to discuss your idea or to review your post.  If approved we will post it to the site.  Please share with us both positive and negative posts and ideas.  This section is not meant as an outlet for frustration, it is meant as another means to enhance the readers experience.

With that I turn it over to our inaugural guest writer, Luke Doehn from Kitchener Ontario.  His experience summarizes how one bad encounter with a small craft brewery can drastically impact brand loyalty and ultimately lead to bad word of mouth.  But I will let Luke explain in his own words.

For the purpose of this post I will be taking you through an experience of mine with a local, small, craft beer company but the same principals I will discuss can be applied to any other alcohol products and companies discussed on this blog.

First let me set the stage for you which starts a couple of years back. I am playing rugby for my local club (Wilmot Rugby Club if you were curious, www.wilmotwarthogs.com) and we were in need of a new set of jerseys for our men’s and women’s teams. There are a number of other clubs that we compete with who have brewery sponsors and put their logos on the team jerseys. This can be a great way for a rugby club to offset a portion of the cost of the jerseys and can give back some advertising to the sponsor. The second key piece of information is that beer is closely tied with the sport and culture of rugby, which helps make this sponsor match so desirable. This tie is evident not only as a unified club of players enjoying beverages, but after each game the home team hosts a social where both teams attend.  They go back to the host teams sponsor pub or clubhouse and recall and rehash the previous game over a pint or two.  There are few things better than two squads having a hard hitting game then sharing a pint or two afterwards in celebration of a match well fought.

The post game beer-up is central to the social aspect of club rugby and therefore a beer sponsor seems like a logical choice.  So with that you understand the rugby-beer connection so I will continue. I set out to secure a beer sponsor that we could enter into a partnership with. Along the way I ran into a number of issues. Most of the bigger breweries were already spoken for and the smaller ones did not have enough money to invest in this kind of venture. This brings me to the business side of this equation. Why do beer companies advertise? Obviously they do it to attract more customers and increase sales. The trick is that not all money spent on advertising will translate into increased sales, and some advertising money is better spent than others. I believe that I put together a very attractive package for potential brewery partners and it goes as follows. I was looking for a $1500 sponsorship over 3 years (estimated life span of jerseys) and in exchange the sponsor would get their name and logo on our club jerseys (which are worn in games played from Niagara to Windsor) and beer exclusivity at all of our club events. Translation is that all the beer consumed by our club would be the sponsor’s product; a rough estimate has this around 10-15 kegs over a season.

After looking for some time I came in contact with Railway City Brewing Company located in St. Thomas, Ontario. Their product was new to our sponsor bar (The Blue Moon in Petersburg) and we thought it would be a good partnership because we would be able to help their product gain some traction in a new market. We had a few meetings and set an agreement that they would donate some cash to use each year for the 3 years of the deal.  This money would cover some of the jersey cost. Everyone was pleased with this at the onset. The brewery had a wide product offering and seemed open to the idea of a club tour of the brewery and pursuing a long, sustainable, and mutually beneficial relationship. Once the deal was made I was glad, especially because all of my time and effort had paid off.  I was buying Railway’s product when I went to the LCBO, took towineman there on my recommendation, and went for a 3 hour drive one day on a whim just to do a tour, see their facility and test all their products. I was telling friends about the company and their products and recommending it every chance I got. Word of mouth is powerful advertising.  It’ free.  But it’s also quick to react to changing winds.

After the first year of our arrangement with Railway our club had exceeded expectations for sales at our sponsor pub and everything seemed to be going well. When the start of our next season was approaching I contacted Railway to get the second installment of their agreed upon sponsorship and to touch base. To my surprise Railway informed me that they would not be sponsoring our club in the coming season. The only reason given was that there was no money available for it. This left our club with jerseys that had a sponsor’s name and logo on them for a brewery which was no longer sponsoring us.  This, as you can imagine, left a bitter taste in the mouths of many, especially when we had agreed on a 3 year deal.

Now we get to the heart of the matter.  At the end of the day Railway’s actions took an opportunity that was set to be very positive and turned it into a negative. If Railway City had fulfilled the 3 years and then decided not to continue my stance would be much different.  Now nobody from our club purchases Railway’s products anymore, at our pub or from the LCBO.  I no longer purchase Railway’s products, nor endorse them. When I am asked by those to whom I had previously recommended Railway I am quick to tell them of my experience.  I do not wish Railway any harm but I do have a negative perspective of them, one that I would not have had they fulfilled our terms and then decided to go their separate way.  I relay this story as a tale of brand loyalty and public perception gone bad. Small and new breweries have a difficult task to be profitable in a marketplace that is so highly competitive and has such large players that have seemingly endless amounts of money to spend on advertising. Public relations and good will can be a way to gain an advantage or even a foothold into specific markets. To begin with I had no knowledge of Railway but I do like small breweries and brands so they were neutral in my books. When they were sponsoring our club their brand was seen as very positive.  However at the end my brand loyalty and my perception of Railway had turned negative and that is the lasting taste this company has left in my mouth. Again, I do not wish Railway City any ill will, but I will also not be purchasing their product any time soon.

If you like this post, support our guest writer in his Movember efforts here.

For more information on Railway City Brewing, check out their website.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

I’m “Hot to Trot” on the emerging value of Washington Wines

I often get criticized for not writing more about American wines.  It’s a valid complaint, but truth be told I don’t drink a lot of American wine.  There is a lot of high quality wine coming from the US but for the most part California and Oregon, the two most prominent regions, are very expensive.  So for personal consumption I don’t buy a lot of US wine.  But that could change.  Two regions are beginning to emerge where there is quality wine to be discovered and value to be found.  The Finger Lakes region of New York is up and coming and we are likely to see more of their wine in the not so distant future.  Then there is Washington State emerging as a quality region and emerging quickly, with more and more wine from the area available at the LCBO seemingly daily. Last week I got a glimpse into this future with a release party and tasting for Hot to Trot wine from 14 Hands Vineyards in Washington.  As a result I now get to answer those critics and have the pleasure of writing about American Wine.

I was first introduced to Washington State with a syrah from Dunham Cellars which retails for $35 at the LCBO.  If you can find it, that is a steal and you can find my review of that wine here.  I was excited about Washington then, and I was excited for the opportunity to try more of the up and coming product last week.  My thanks to 14 Hands Vineyards for having me at their “release party” for Hot to Trot wine.  “Release Party” really was the appropriate term for the evening and a party it certainly was.  Hot to Trot is available now in the LCBO with a red blend selling for $15.30 and a white blend selling for $14.65.  These two wines were our hosts for the evening and they were flowing.  The beauty of it was that there were only the two wines.  Within 20 minutes of arriving my reviews on the wines and my tasting notes were complete so like the rest of the guests in attendance I got to enjoy the “party” aspect of the evening, which was a pleasure.  I even took home the door prize, a 24 Carat gold plated horseshoe.  The story goes that the horseshoe is going to bring me good luck.  It didn’t seem to help when I placed a bet on the biggest long shot horse I could find, but perhaps in more reasonable settings in the future I will reap its benefits.

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The red is a blend of Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon.  In speaking with many of the guests in attendance this was their favourite of the two blends being sampled.  Personally I preferred the white, but the red was approachable and certainly enjoyable.  I found the Merlot shone through most creating a nice overall mouthfeel with ripe flavours of black fruit coming out.  I wouldn’t classify the red as an age worthy, high quality wine, but I would classify it as a wine you could drink a lot of and a great wine to open when hosting company.  As I mentioned the white was my personal preference.  It is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Viognier.  I found it very refreshing and loaded with fruit.  It showed lots of green apple, lemon, peach, and a hint of residual sugar as the Viognier shines through.  A simple, simple, wine that would be great to host with and again great to drink a lot of.

The “wine you can drink a lot of” designation may sound a bit like a cop out, but it is an honest classification for me.  Some wines may be the best in the world and high quality wines, but you would only want a single glass.  The Hot to Trot wines wouldn’t be my definition of the best in the world, but they are good value, good hosting wines, wines that will go over well in most any crowd, and thus wines you could drink a lot of.  Actually those seemed to be some themes from the evening, and I was happy to oblige.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

Forty Creek – by @500levelfan

On the eve of the 2013 World Series, one of baseball’s biggest fans was working in a different capacity.  It is my pleasure to introduce you to towineman’s newest correspondent  Jeremy Gibson… AKA @500levelfan.  While he is a baseball blogger in his other life he represented towineman.com last night at a special tasting event for Canadian Whisky Forty Creek.  I’ll let him recap the evening for you in his own words.

Whisky.  It is such a simple word yet such a complex spirit, one that carries with it everything from different spellings (whisky in Canada and Scotland, whiskey in Ireland and the United States), to different ingredients (malt, grain, corn, and wheat to name a few), to different names (Scotch, Rye, Bourbon).

I have been drinking whisky for a long time, beginning when I was young and crazy in my university days.  Back then I drank whisky less for its complexities and flavours, and more for its innate ability to render me completely carefree, confident, and happy (AKA drunk).  But with age brings wisdom and respectability, and though I can’t say for certain that I have grown any wiser or more respectable, I can say that I have definitely increased my appreciation and fondness for whisky.

Over the past few years, my single malt scotch collection has slowly but steadily increased, but my taste for Canadian whisky had still been left lacking.  However, last night I had the pleasure to represent TOWineMan at a Forty Creek tasting event at the Spoke Club in Toronto, and let me say this – my appreciation for Canadian whisky has gone up incredibly.

Aside from tasting it a few times at family functions in Grimsby (where the Forty Creek distillery just happens to be located), my knowledge of the brand was limited.  I had never purchased a bottle from the LCBO (and to be honest had no plans to buy one anytime soon).  But after meeting the master distiller himself last night, and hearing his passion for his product (and yes, after sampling quite a few), things have changed.

First a bit of background – Forty Creek Whisky is the brainchild of distiller John K Hall, a wine maker who plies his trade in the aforementioned town of Grimsby, Ontario.  He is the owner of Kittling Ridge Distillery, who after 22 years of making wine decided in 1992 to create a premium Canadian whisky, a decision that has certainly panned out as shown by the list of awards Forty Creek has won in the past few years:

-          Gold Medal at the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago (2010, 2011, 2012)
-          Gold Medal at the 2010 International Whisky Competition
-          2008 Distiller of the Year by Whisky Magazine
-          2007’s Pioneer of the Year Award winner by Malt Advocate Magazine
-          Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition
-          Gold Medal – The World Selection in Belgium

Last night’s even took place at the Spoke Club (600 King St W, Toronto), a private members club located right downtown.  The venue itself was great, offering nice views of the street, with a quaint and intimate set-up. 

But as nice as it was, I was not there for the venue – I was there for the whisky.

The main attraction was none other than John K Hall himself, delivering a private, de-constructed tasting of the award winning whisky to small groups of five people.  Each tasting consisted of three samples of the ingredients that make up Forty Creek, followed by a sample of the finished product itself.  Because, as Mr. Hall explained to us, as most whiskies are made with a single ingredient, he wanted Forty Creek to be full of complex flavours, and decided to therefore combine three ingredients: rye, barley, and corn.  Each of these ingredients are distilled in individual barrels – each barrel containing just the right amount of char for the smoke flavour – and then combined in a sherry cask for six months to allow the flavours to come together.

Each sample of the de-constructed product came directly from Mr. Hall’s barrels, and each on its own could have been bottled and sold.  The rye whisky tasted like a Canadian whisky, such as a Canadian Club.  The barley malt, the main ingredient in single malt scotch, could have passed for a Glenlivet sample.  The third sample was the corn whisky, which, with its sweet finish, could have been bottled and sold as a Kentucky Bourbon – if, of course, we were in the States.  The fourth glass contained the finished product, and after tasting each ingredient in isolation, it is easy to see where Forty Creek gets its signature, complex flavour. 

I also had the opportunity to try the two newest products of the Forty Creek brand.  Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve is a bolder version of the regular whisky, amped up to 43% alcohol.  On the rocks, as I sampled it, was delicious – so delicious that I bought a bottle for myself at the LCBO after the event.  Forty Creek Cream, the second new offering, is marketed as the first Canadian whisky based cream liquor – think Bailey’s, but made right here at home.  It was outstanding on the rocks, but I could only imagine how good it would taste mixed with a morning coffee.

But there was more to the event than just the whisky and the food samplings (5-year old cheddar grilled cheese?  Yes, please.).  There was the chance to meet John K Hall himself.  As one would expect from a man with over 40 years of experience in the industry, he was knowledgeable.  But more than anything, he was entertaining – a great storyteller who spun tales ranging from his desire to name the whisky “Johnnie Hall” (a la Johnnie Walker); to demonstrating the look on his wife’s face when he told her he wanted to create his own whisky.  Priceless.

Overall, the event was a great experience – educational, interesting, and fun all rolled into a few hours.

Special thanks to Jillian at Penelope PR, and Angela at iyellow Wine Club (@iyellowwineclub) for putting on the event, and the esteemed TOWineMan for passing along the invite.  Most of all, thanks to Forty Creek Whisky and Mr. John K Hall (@John_K_Hall) for a wonderful evening.

Many, many thanks to Jeremy for attending the event and for this fantastic guest post.  Follow him on Twitter @500levelfan, and check out www.500levelfan.com

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

 

Do it yourself wine. Should you make it? Should you drink it?

If you’re an active reader of this blog you might know that I do take requests for posts.  “Wine Gimmicks” was by request, as was “The Many Colours of Johnnie Walker.” Similarly so to is today’s post on home made wine.  I’m not talking about the old school Italians who are making wine in their garage because those people likely know a thing or two.  I’m talking about the countless facilities across the province that allow people who know nothing about wine making to put their name to a bottle by doing as little as picking out the grape they want.  The result is typically wine in its simplest form for a fraction of the cost of a bottle at the LCBO.

I mentioned this post was on request.  It comes from a very good friend who last weekend hosted his version of a wine and cheese.  The tasting included various versions of extremely well made Gouda from Mountainoak Cheese in New Hamburg Ontario, which I had the pleasure of visiting the same day. The wine paired with the cheese were 4 bottles of his make-it-yourself wine.  We had a Riesling, a Spatlese Gewürztraminer (I’m serious), a Merlot, and a mixed berry fruit wine.  As you can probably tell this particular friend knows and appreciates his cheese, but lacks the same enthusiasm for wine as say someone like me. But he likes to drink it.  The cheeses were excellent.  If you find yourself in the Kitchener/Waterloo region any time soon pay them a visit, it’s worth it.  They have a little store on premise where you can sample and purchase.  Try the farmstead Gouda, the fiery, or the truffle.  All are very good.

The wine on the other hand is a totally different discussion all together.  Those who know me know that although I write this wine blog and though I understand and appreciate wine, I will still drink anything or at the very least try everything once.  The key to trying home made wine is to go into it with a different mindset.  If you’re invited to a tasting of Bordeaux you’ll likely dress up, focus, drink slowly and methodically, make detailed tasting notes, ask questions, and criticize where necessary.  If you’re invited to taste home brew you do none of those things.  Just drink it.  And here’s the truth.  They’re not high quality wines, but they are not terrible for the most part. These places are in business for the most basic of wine consumer.  They are fruit driven wines in the simplest form.  The are not deep and complex.  They don’t show subtle flavours, and are by no means age worthy. But they are often better than anyone will give them credit for and certainly better than most wine critics will have you believe.  Most importantly to many out there… they are cost effective.

So I am not going to outline detailed tasting notes on these wines, nor am I going to bother comparing them to their counterparts produced by award winning wineries.  I can also tell you that I personally won’t partake in do it yourself wine making.  Overall however this rant is simply to tell you one thing.  Be open minded, you might get surprised every now and then.  At the end of the day even home brew is still wine… and that’s light years better than drinking grape juice.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

A Value-able Tasting – An Evening With Argento Wines

As many of you know I quite often use this blog space to discuss value.  Wines that are not only quality, but come at a price which most can manage.  Well folks after attending a wine pairing dinner on Tuesday night I not only present a wine for you which fits the bill, I present an entire winery.  All of their wines apply here. Not surprisingly that winery comes to us from South America where quality for value reigns king.  From the heart of beautiful Mendoza I present Argento Wines.

I was part of a group assembled to taste and review their upcoming wine line-up most of which should hit the LCBO in mid November.  We tried the 2012 production of Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Malbec, as well as the 2011 Bonarda (brand new to this market) and the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva.  However even beyond the wines the entire night was great.  The concept of the evening was to transport us all to the heart of Mendoza.  After some typical wine event schmoozing, we started with a 7 minute documentary titled “Cerca del Cielo” (close to the sky) in the private screening room at the hotel, which showed a glimpse into the life of winemaker Silvia Corti.  From her winemaking philosophy to her time in the vineyards, down to her family life and what a typical family dinner in Mendoza is like.  It was a vivid look into a great story.  If you’re interested you can watch it for yourself.

Following the documentary came the heart of the evening the wine tasting and dinner in One Restaurant.  The wines of course were from Mendoza and the menu was Argentinian inspired and overall our hosts succeeded in taking our minds to Mendoza for a few hours.  I personally want to thank them for that because Mendoza holds a very special place in my heart.  Not only is it one of my favourite wine making regions in the world, but it was the site of my honeymoon in 2010, and my wife and I talk constantly about when we are going to make it back.  Many thanks to the Argento staff, including Sylvia Corti herself, the folks at Profile Wine Group, and hendryPR for a wonderful evening.

You have probably seen Argento wines in the LCBO as they are a staple on general list, and if it wasn’t for the 2008/2009 fad known as Fuzion, they may in fact have been able to take a run for highest selling Argentinian wine.  There are two very good reasons for that.  First the baseline wines are all priced at $9.95. No exceptions.  In fact even if you spring for the Reserva, like the 2009 Cab we tried, your price tag still only jumps to $12.95.  However price is not everything as many wines at that price are there for a reason.  But these wines are quality, rounding out the value equation.  They are well balanced and nicely made as winemaker Silvia Corti puts her passion and decades of experience in Mendoza into the wine.  They grow very ripe grapes with high concentrations of flavours opening up many possibilities for winemaking and creating fruit heavy, easy drinking wines.  Okay they might not be the most age worthy malbecs, and the 2011 Bonarda although excellent, wasn’t the best Bonarda I have tried.  But for this market, at $9.95, they are perfect.  They are easy to understand, easy to drink, and extremely easy to recommend at the price.

Surprisingly though I left most impressed with the 2012 Pinot Grigio.  I find many Pinot Grigios to be overly watery, with limited flavours and even less structure.  Sure as a wine style they are not supposed to be over the top and complex, but many show next to nothing.  The Argento version is extremely fresh tasting, with nice acidity and fresh lemon zest flavours.  It would make for an excellent summer sipper on the deck, or an easy pairing with salad courses or light white fish.  You should also keep your eyes out for the 2011 Bonarda.  This is the first Bonada available in Canada as a general list, and the first at under $10.  I have had better Bonardas and some are available in Vintages, but this is still a nice expression of a grape relatively unknown to Canadian palates.  If for no other reason you should try it because in the next 5 years you will be seeing a lot more of it and you’ll be ahead of the game.  Bonarda is going to steal our hearts in the years to come in much the same way as Malbec or Carmenere have done in the past 5 years or so.  As the head Argento sales rep put it “Bonarda is where Malbec was 10 years ago, we’ll get there.”

On my subway ride home on Tuesday night I was reading the Argento sales material and transporting myself back to Mendoza again.  Overall I left extremely satisfied with the wine and food.  One Restaurant, though a bit pretentious for me, cooked a fantastic meal and the service was excellent.  When I got home my wife and I launched back into another discussion on when we are going to go back. I miss it there.  When I go back I will pay the folks at Argento a visit, and I can highly recommend it to any of you who can find the time to get down there.  Like our Argento hosts on Tuesday night, the people there are wonderful.  They like to drink wine, have a good time, and truly relish the moments when they are doing both of those things.  They love their Malbecs, their Bonardas, and their beef.  My new friend Anthony from Profile Wine Group is headed to Mendoza in the new year.  He loves wine, but doesn’t eat beef.  Well one out of two isn’t bad. The people might think your nuts, but they will still love you and treat you to the time of your life.  That’s just how they are.  That’s just how Mendoza is.

- Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman