Ontario Wine Culture

The sun shining in a Niagara Vineyard where we all hope to enjoy a glass later this year. Photo Michael Di Caro.

The world is not normal and the anxiety of that realisation is how we all feel right now—that’s more than okay. We’re fighting a pandemic that’s being likened to a world war and most of us lucky enough to have won the life lottery of being born in North America haven’t a clue how that feels. But we do know that we’re all scared like we’ve never been, and hopefully will never be again, in our lives. We’re scared for our health and the health of our loved ones. We’re anxious about our futures. We’re frustrated that on the cusp of spring, we must remain inside for the greater good. We’re mourning the potential untimely loss of the great generation whose hard work, love and wisdom built the foundation of modern Canada. We’re troubled at the social injustice, misplaced priorities and cracks in the system this has surfaced. We’re also thankful for universal healthcare and the front line workers risking their lives to save lives and hold things together for us. We’d gladly make a trade with the groundhog to go back to winter if it meant things could go back to normal. It’s all enough to make you escape into a glass a wine. We could use the comfort it provides and if you’re like us the juice filling that glass is local these days.

As much as we wine lovers act otherwise, wine is a luxury unlike food, water and shelter. It’s comfort is there for us now and if it’s a difficult time for you know and trust that it’ll be there for you when things begin to resemble normal again. But if you’re lucky enough to be in a position to afford discretionary spending on wine and food right now, your local wineries and neighbourhood restaurants could really use some support right now.

Like many of us lucky enough to call Canada home COVID-19 is the greatest challenge that local wine scene has ever faced. The Ontario wine community is used to being an underdog and overcoming challenges from weather like polar vortexs to a local marketplace that isn’t always the friendliest to the hometown team. And thus far the Ontario wine community is showing Canadian grit and determination and is figuring out how to continue doing what they do best: showing us hospitality while keeping safe with a we’re-all-in-this-together approach.

Eons ago when we were untangling the oxymoron out of social distancing and concluding it means we need to further distance physically while socially bringing our circles in even tighter, many Ontario wineries took a leadership role showing us a path forward. While they were allowed to remain open as an essential service, they closed their tasting rooms to help keep us all safe. It was a tough decision given that the tasting room is the heart of any local winery. Closing them not only amputated their most profitable sales outlet, but with no customers to serve it also put them in a heart-wrenching position of drastically reducing hours or laying-off many staff who make the tasting room magic happen. Add to that on April 1st the federal excise tax on alcohol producers increased automatically as per the legislation, further cutting into their bottom lines. The industry did luck out when the travel ban on temporary foreign workers, many of whom have been making the trip to the same vineyards and wineries for years to help tend to the vines throughout the growing season, was lifted. Like Canadians returning home from abroad they need a clean bill of health and must quarantine for two weeks before they can begin working.

While just keeping our glasses full right now would be more than enough, the local wine scene’s style is to treat us like family. That’s the thing about wine, it’s inherently communal unlike beer or spirits, a bottle of wine is meant to be opened, shared among dear ones and finished in a sitting. But in a time of a social distancing a bottle of wine loses its superpowers of soundtracking a weeknight dinner, toasting the arrival of a weekend or marking a birthday.

Local wine pros and wine guests sharing a glass at Cuvée, one of the local wine community’s biggest events which was canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19. Photo Michael Di Caro.

So what to do when a wine can’t bring us physically together? It’s time to channel our creativity and ingenuity to expand our definition of communal. After closing their tasting rooms wineries quickly banded together and came up with an alternative to ensure we’ve got local wine to help us through this. The solution: stay home because we’re offering free shipping to your door. The full list of 95 participating wineries represent all the major regions: Niagara, Lake Erie North Shore, Prince Edward County and even the emerging regions—so there’s a local delivering to you virtually wherever you are in southern Ontario. To make it even more compelling many have gone beyond combining delivery with either percentage discounts (Rosewood and Hidden Bench are offering 10% and Icellars is offering up to 25%) or case specials like Tawse and Ravine. They’re also expanding their line-ups offering consumers special wines or labels they normally save for restaurants— with dining rooms closed that great wine needs a place to be poured. These wines tend to be smart buys as they’re priced aggressively and over-deliver in the glass to impress sommeliers and get on by-the-glass wine lists. Check out Rosewood’s Follow the White Rabbit, Cave Spring’s Oliver & Bonacini line, Leaning Post’s The Fifty Pinot Noir and Cuvee Winona to name a few. Lastly a couple of new-ish brands that you may have seen on restaurant wine lists or in the LCBO’s Vintages section are selling directly to consumers via their websites. Check out Bachelder Wines, Cloudsley Cellars and 2027 Cellars wines who specialise in some of Niagara’s finest Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. In short between the shipping promo, sales and debuts, if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford it, now might be the best time ever to check out local wines.

But wineries and consumers are only two points of the local wine triangle. The other point is the restaurants and bars whose m.o. is being a space for us to nourish not only our bodies, but our souls as we gather loved and dear ones to break bread and celebrate the everyday and special occasions. They’re reduced to takeout or delivery these days so hosting us will have to wait until this is over. But to try and make this difficult situation a little easier the Ontario government is allowing all restaurants and bars with liquor licences to sell wine, beer, cider and spirits at a mark-up they see fit with the stipulation that any alcohol must be sold with food and that it must be in a sealed unopened container—this is in effect until the end of the year. That’s not a problem for wine or beer, but it makes cocktails particularly challenging. So if you’re in a position to support your favourite local restaurants it’s a great idea to make it a complete meal by adding a local Ontario wine, craft beer or cider as it will help give them a little extra boost to support their staff and push through so they will hopefully be open for us to celebrate together when this is over.

Bridging the gap between the restaurant and wine world is the sommelier. The wine expert who translates a wine list for you, helps you unwind for the week by introducing you to a new favourite grape or winery, and expertly helps you pick the right bottle to put an exclamation point on your celebratory night out. A sommelier’s super powers are best experienced in person but in the times of Corona they too have adapted and turned to social media for Monday night weekly chats on Instagram Live.

2027 Cellars owner and winemaker Kevin Panagapka hosting a tasting earlier this year. All tastings these days are virtual but we can’t wait for the in person experience to return. Photo Michael Di Caro.

Now that takes care of getting a great bottle or two, but the biggest hitch in the times of social distancing is not being able to share the bottle among company. Many Ontario wineries are also working on creative solutions to share a glass while doing their part to flatten the curve. Many have increased their social media presences, Leaning Post is making highly entertaining and informative daily videos on their Twitter. Others like 13th Street, Fielding and Stratus have taken it step further and are putting together special cases and organising interactive virtual tastings with staff sommeliers and winemakers using Instagram and Facebook Live. Nothing replaces the magic of an in person tasting but it’s the next best thing. In a time where we have more single person household than ever and we’re living through a pandemic that requires us to stay away from each other it’s an imperfectly ingenious way to bring a little bit of humanity to this situation and remind us life’s greatest pleasures are good food, great wine and better company. That trifecta and the local wine triangle will help us get through this together.

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