Bigger is better? Not always. When it comes to wine, sometimes those small, off-the-beaten-track places are where you’ll find the best of the best … and meet people you will never forget.
In this week's Food section of the Ottawa Citizen, Rod Phillips wrote about his ongoing frustration with the LCBO’s exclusionary practices that leave small-scale wineries in the shadow of Canada’s mega-producers. Having myself spent an inordinate amount of time sampling the wares of the “little guys” on our wine travels, I couldn’t agree more.
My best experiences thus far have come from the places where you can taste the passion of the winemaker in the same way some people can pick out the subtleties of terroir. Their attention to detail and their own personal commitment to quality and service often far outshine that of the big boys’ clubs in Wine Country.
I remember Derek Barnett, of Lailey Vineyards, pulling out a “not-for-tasting” bottle of his prized 2001 Cabernet Franc just for us, speaking in tones of reverence about that particular vintage. The year before, when we first met, he had introduced us to “good” icewine, while a mirror image of his ruddy, bearded grin peeked over his shoulder from a poster in the background. His winery instantly became a regular stop on our annual itinerary.
I remember Stan and Marilyn Maleta and their glorious, elegant Meritage, a wine so perennially exceptional we always plan our trips around it. Their hospitality and friendliness was such that on our honeymoon tour, they hosted us on the patio of their own home, with two glasses “on the house” to celebrate.
I remember James and Steven, owners and winemakers at Long Dog Winery in Prince Edward County giddily pouring us samples as we stood outside their new, signature barn-cum-tasting room, soaking up the sun in the company of their young vines. None of us were in a hurry, basking in the glow of late summer, and talking at great length about life in general.
Finally, I will forever remember Helen Lenko. On our first trip to Niagara, we sat in her cozy, inviting kitchen, in her little house off Highway 81 near Beamsville. She plied us with aged cheese and kielbasa and poured hefty glasses of the most recent vintages produced by her widely celebrated winemaker son, Daniel. Helen proudly talked non-stop about her son’s success, beaming as she showed off a mosaic of awards, letters of thanks and photos that filled up one whole wall. She spoke to her dog in Czech and gave us fierce hugs when we reluctantly took our leave. She was truly one of a kind.
There may be some big places that still have people who are just as enthusiastic about wine and who are genuinely delighted to serve you. There may also be some big-name winemakers who will still come out from behind the scenes and talk shop with you. But they seem to be few and far between.
My suggestion? The next time you visit Wine Country, ditch the commercial map and follow your palate to find the diamonds in the rough … those are the places where both great wine and great memories are made.