There are plenty of things I love about being Canadian. Free healthcare, fresh water clean enough to drink pouring bountifully out of the taps, evergreens and prairies and mountains as far as the eye can see, being able to say the word “hoser” in a sentence and not be judged for it… We have a pretty spectacular country.
I’ve always been a Vancouver girl at heart, devoted to my yoga pants and green tea lattes, having perfected the art of polite passive aggression and laid-back snotty eco-consciousness like only a west coast girl can. I’ve got the eye roll perfected that comes along with an east coaster’s “Toronto is the centre of the universe!” declaration, and I have an umbrella that goes with every outfit. I am a Lulu Lemon-loving, wheatgrass-shooting, Cactus Club-frequenting, This One Time at the Roxy-uttering Vancouverite. I’m practically a piece of smoked salmon, I’m so west coast.
But here’s the thing: Toronto has bewitched me. I’ve fallen in love with its amazing restaurants, its cultural diversity, its barking-mad cab drivers and mouthy bartenders. People wouldn’t be caught dead running around in workout gear here, and I’ve gotten some of the dirtiest looks of my life for asking for a wedge of lemon to squeeze in my Perrier. It’s cosmopolitan and brash and fast-paced and just a tiny bit rude. It’s sort of the shit. But my very favorite (sorry, I mean favourite) thing about Toronto? It has its very own wine country, an hour and a half’s drive away from the city!!!!!!!!!!
Nestled in the lovely town of Niagara-On-The-Lake lies a lush little grid of wineries offering everything from pinot noir to cabernet franc, gorgeous red blends and some seriously decadent icewines. I’d heard tell of this magical land from my new fellow wino Torontonian friends, but me being the California wine snob I am, I just couldn’t fathom a tiny town in Canada that could take some of those Santa Barbara winemakers to school. I’ve never been happier to admit I was wrong!
I, actress/besty Cindy “Buzz” Busby and new besty/costar Joe “Baby Joe Fever” Dinicol (he gave himself that nickname, something to do with scarlett fever. Or rickets. Can’t remember.) decided to book a tour with Crush Tours to really get a lay of the land. They’ve got a bunch of great tours to choose from, but the one that sounded most appealing to us gluttons was the tour that included a visit to three wineries, a three course meal with wine pairings, and transportation to and from local hotels in the area for a thrifty $150. But we got to wine country early by accident, so we decided to check out a couple other wineries to kill time. And by accident I mean I planned it that way.
Our first stop was Marynissen Estates, a quaint little spot off the beaten track that’s been making wine since the 50’s. Unlike some of those lah-dee-dah places in Cali, Marynissen is way unpretentious, and its tasting room aficionados encourage you to try their offerings to your heart’s content. And at 50 cents (yes, like the rapper!) a taste, why in heck wouldn’t you try them all? They’ve got a couple of perfect summer whites including a Fume Blanc, a smooth unoaked Chardonnay, and a fun blend called the Summer Solstice (that’ll set you back a whole $14.80), but their reds smacked me upside the head like only a good wine can. A sexy Cabernet/Merlot blend, big fat Syrahs, and– the whammy– a simply beautiful Cabernet Franc. Now, I’ve been known to go off on tangents about Cab Francs in the past, turning my nose up at them in disgust and declaring them the equivalent to drinking a haystack. But it turns out, I just don’t like California Cab Francs. Because this one rocked my little world.
After stopping at a store to get a bag of popcorn for the lightweights, we arrived at picturesque Ravine Vineyards. A working farm since the 1800’s, Ravine is a stunning piece of property on 34 acres, situated at the highest point of elevation in the area, which means better drainage, better soil, and all-around better wine. The place pays serious homage to its roots, and its tasting room is located in one of Canada’s top 50 most architecturally significant houses, built way back in 1802! (Best to leave that Ouija board at home, me thinks.) All of their grapes are hand-harvested, which means there’s a lot of pride at this place. And their wines are quite lovely and elegant, especially their Redcoat blend, the Reserve Merlot, and– once again– their Cabernet Franc. It wasn’t a slam-dunk like Marynissen, but it’s worth going just for the scenery alone. And the ghosts.
We slipped into one more before we had to meet our tour guide, because I’d heard through some idiot grapevine that it wasn’t to be missed. Château des Charmes is aesthetically gorgeous in a Real Housewives sort of way (botoxed, too much jewellery), and it’s hard to miss. Just look for the monstrous mansion right off the highway. Unfortunately, their wines are all for show, too, most of them too young and just not refined enough to be drinkable. The only thing I liked was a Savagnin Icewine, but for $70 a bottle, that better include your very own unicorn.
On to the tour: after checking in to our hotel (the lovely White Oaks Resort), we boarded our little tour van and took off to stop #1. Pondview is a very charming, very humble winery that’s just the complete opposite of Chateau des Charmes. Their reds reign supreme here, and there’s even a Cabernet Franc Rose for a rosy $15. But the bestest thing they’ve got is a “chocolate shooter”, a delicious Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine served in a chocolate cup. Know what winery wins? The one with shooters!
Stop #2 on our wine tour was Pillitteri Estates, known as the world’s largest producer of icewine. And boy, do they like to let you know it. For a full half hour, we were treated to a mundane tour of their “awards room”, complete with bottles of their prized icewine encased in glass viewing boxes (which, when they’re not even letting you taste them, is rather sadistic) and even a special viewing of the family’s even specialer private dining room. Our monotonous Pillitteri employee went so far as to explain the designs on the chair backs, which were inscribed with a sort of strange iron Pillitteri family “tree”. I’m all for gloating about family history (My dad’s been to jail!), but this was a little ridiculous. When it came time to finally taste their golden wines, I’d lost my alcohol appetite. Which is saying a lot for me, guys.
Luckily, stop #3 was another winner. Peller Estates is quite a well-known name here in Canada, having won Best Canadian Winery of the Year in London’s International Wine and Spirit Competition. I’ve always been a little leery of the big wineries, since quantity usually trumps quality at those places, but here’s a second: I was wrong again! I simply adored everything we tasted, from the Ice Cuvee Rose to the Baco Noir.. and, yes, the Cabernet Franc was once again bloody fabulous. The tasting room’s stunning, too. And so are the boys working there. Just saying.
Dinner was served at the Riverbend Inn, a quiet and quaint little place that seemed like a happy hour hotspot for seniors. And the food wasn’t a whole heck of a lot to write home about, but at that point I don’t think any of us could have spelled our names if we tried, anyway. As much as I loved our Crush tour guide, I’d be more inclined to rent a limo for the day and plan my own tour for next time. But that’s ’cause I’m a control freak.
Do yourself a favor and drive a little further to see Niagara Falls in the morning, which is most definitely amazing and totally gorgeous and worth seeing in person at least once in your life. It’s also worth mentioning that the Canadian side of the falls trumps the American side. It kinda made me swell with pride. Again. Oh, Canada, I love you!