I gently cup the clump of marble-size chardonnay grapes hanging tenaciously from a vine as the morning sun beats on my neck. I'm smack in the middle of an Ontario, Canada, vineyard, as part of an extended tour of one of our northern neighbor's most underappreciated natural jewels: its wine country.
Yet at that very tranquil moment, I can't get Paul Giamatti's whiny voice out of my head. Giamatti, as you may recall, played to neurotic perfection the oft-exasperated, thoroughly erudite wine connoisseur in Sideways, which I consider the most refined road-buddy-food-and-drink picture Hollywood ever bottled.
As it turns out, this five-day trip is my own self-styled Sideways wine and food adventure, with Ontario subbing for California vine country. All the elements are there: one minute, I'm on the Canadian road. The next "scene," I'm trudging through the deep furrows of a typical vineyard. Jump cut to a tasting room where I sample a gold-hued chardonnay, considering its "nose" and trying to find its most apt descriptive term -- let's say, "gun smoke."
For me, Canada usually calls to mind the prose of Margaret Atwood, the music of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, ice hockey, the vistas of Vancouver. And, of course, bacon. But I rarely associate our northern neighbor with great wine or gourmet food.
My recent sojourn there would turn those misconceptions "sideways."
Canada's wine country became the highly accessible refuge (just a couple of hours by plane) from the brutal heat of a Texas summer. I leave the parched North Texas landscape for the comfy 80-degree temps and seemingly endless expanse of verdant vineyards that make up so much of the Ontario countryside -- all a short cocktail party conversation outside of Toronto. That's where my Canadian trip begins and ends, and it also provides some of the most refined dining, combined with local wines sampled throughout the trip (see accompanying story).
On an unusually toasty Friday afternoon, I drive only 1 1/2 hours away from Toronto, first around the western fringe of the great expanse of Lake Ontario and then due east toward the hamlet of Niagara. That evening, I attend the opening party of my trip's centerpiece event: the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Celebration.
Admittedly, I am a bit intimidated by this debut event, as I'm only a weekend wine warrior. My chardonnay knowledge stems primarily from attending countless art gallery openings where I've become quite the expert at pairing tepid chardonnay with a frigid cheddar cheese cube. At this festival, I fear entering a cultish den of wine snobs. And yet every grape grower and vintner I encounter couldn't be more easygoing and welcoming of my amateurish, tippling self.
The food at this evening's kickoff event, cutely dubbed "Aw Shucks!" (held at Flat Rock Cellars, one of numerous Ontario vineyards braiding the countryside, open to the public) is a welcome foil to all the chilled bottles of chardonnay. I start with marinated oysters, wet from a bath in cider vinegar, oil and cilantro, and garnished with a peach salsa. Malpeque oysters are breaded in panko crumbs, beer-batter fried, and served po-boy-style on a sourdough bun.
Then, I move into the main tasting area, where chardonnay makers peddle their wares with barely tamped down zeal. I'm no match for trays of freshly shucked oysters, their briny taste as authentic as the rounded vowels of my hosts. Competing with the oysters is a station serving cylinders of bracing gazpacho or breaded tilapia fritters, ignited by a Thai-fueled spice.
My inaugural Ontario wine tasting reveals that there is a special way to navigate around the Lacoste-clad connoisseurs while balancing a wineglass, fork and plate. Fortunately, the vital decision of how much wine to sample is out of my hands, as the expert pourers understand one thing above all else: Thimblelike proportions are vital to ensure tasting endurance -- and avoiding a tipsy stumble into a rosebush.
I am also schooled in the difference between the jugs provided for spitting out sampled wine and the similar containers of palate-cleansing water. It's a miracle that with all the alcohol coursing through my 50-something veins, I don't commit the cardinal error of swigging from the wrong jug. Ewww.
Fortunately, unlike in Sideways, I don't feel the need to yank the bottle away angrily from a cordial pourer and give myself "a proper pour." I actually do know I'm not at a bar.
Days of wine, 'noses'
The following Saturday morning, I find myself in the middle of the pristine Cave Springs Cellars vineyard about 20 minutes away from my wine country home base at the White Oaks Conference Resort and Spa. There, emerald rows of mostly riesling and chardonnay grapes stretch over more than 100 acres toward the horizon.
My biggest morning duty is swirling golden-hued chardonnay, trying to capture the sun's prism through glass. I'm struggling to absorb what our guide is intoning about nature's combination of extreme cold in the winter, heat in the summer, the natural air-conditioned breezes from Lake Ontario, and the limestone soil all collaborating to yield perfect riesling and chardonnay grapes. OK, but it's already 11:15 a.m., when do we start tasting?
Fortunately, I will do that very soon -- at the nearby Cave Spring tasting room, only a 10-minute drive from the sun-baked vineyards. Most of the same chardonnay purveyors I encountered the night before at the "Aw Shucks!" opening event are back, with more bottles at the ready.
As I'm circulating around my second tasting, I'm trying desperately to channel my Sideways alter ego, groping for those perfectly ornate descriptive terms batted around so effortlessly by wine aficionados. But all I can do is blurt out something banal about it tasting "tight" or "oaky" -- echoing Thomas Haden Church's boorish Sideways character. When one pourer mentions to me something about the wine's "mousse," I hope to borrow some to calm a serious case of hair frizz.
While sipping at Cave Spring Cellars, I do shamelessly rip off some distinctively winey words. I compare the taste of one to "spicy mandarin orange." And then I find a certain "stone fruit" or "creme brulee" quality to another chardonnay. Whole parts of my depleted word spice cabinet are re-stocked with such tasty wine-isms as clove, nutmeg, vanilla and hazelnut.
Later that Saturday afternoon, I'm off on a 20-minute drive to my third winery, called Tawse, in nearby Vineland. There, a string of tents, flapping in a gentle breeze, are set up, under which an estimated 100 chardonnays will be poured -- and hawked.
Setting up my tongue for its imminent encounter with more stone-fruit-scented chardonnays is Balderson, an extremely aged, astringent Canadian cheddar. The food accompanying the Tawse tasting not only incorporates the local chardonnay but also celebrates many of Ontario's farm-fresh ingredients. The peach tart not only has chardonnay-infused whipped cream but is stocked with Freestone and Red Haven peaches from the nearby Niagara fruit belt.
Sunday morning dawns, and behind my Ray-Bans is that 100-yard stare of someone not accustomed to starting off his day with so much irresistible food and wine. But I've got to man up and grab a glass, as I'm off on another 20-minute drive to the sun-drenched Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery, in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The chefs at the adjoining Ravine Vineyard Bistro serve up a brunch that is as expansive as their bevy of chardonnays. Peach-glazed pork chops grill on an outdoor smoker. Equally delicious is a deconstructed quiche of egg, a homemade crust and sauteed hen of the woods mushrooms. An entire station is devoted to Niagara Food Specialties' presentation of organic, antibiotic-free cured meats such as Pingue prosciutto, bresaola and capicola.
One of the brunch's most notable food additions is alcohol-based: ice syrup made almost entirely from icewine, in turn derived from taking, in this case, cabernet franc-harvested grapes that are then frozen, dehydrated and pressed until their light pink juice languidly flows. In its intensely reduced state, the wine juice becomes an unctuous sweet glaze marrying well with game or drizzled on French toast and fruit.
After leaving Ontario's intricate quilt of vineyards and returning to Toronto -- by way of a quick helicopter tour (see accompanying story) of the stupefying power of nearby Niagara Falls -- I dine at three of the city's finest establishments (Toca, Scarpetta and e11even). At all three, I bring an enjoyably won understanding of the natural provenance of everything on my plate, and in my glass.
That's what a long weekend in Ontario's wine country will do for you: It so pleasantly affirms Canada's devotion to the farm-to-fork freshness of its food, and the from-the-vine authenticity of its wine.
Those realizations are filling me with the most joyful of travel hangovers.