Local Wine Prisoners?

By Robert K. Stephen on March 12, 2012

There is nothing like travel to broaden the mind, relax the spirit and learn about local, life, culture, food and wine. You will have different experiences depending on where you stay, where you visit, how you get to and from where you are visiting and what you eat and drink. For example assume you are staying at the Westin Palace in Madrid. You can eat in their glass domed dining room in elegance and be waited on hand and foot in the traditional old style Euro fashion with grand bottles of aged Rioja or you can a tuck around side streets to tapas bars just behind the Westin serving mostly locals all manner of delectable seafood tapas and various bottles of cheap and cheerful Cavas and white wine chilling in huge ice filled bowls on the counter. Or you could be having a can of mackerel splitting a bottle of Cava at a youth hostel. Each experience evokes or will evoke a sense of place and time all leaving a bit of Madrid in your memory and soul. All are “local memories”.  I always try and go local when it comes to wine and travel. By local I mean wine produced closest to where I am staying whether straight from the barrel or tanks in local wine shops or produced and bottled within the geographical boundaries of where I’ m staying. Italy and Spain really seem to make this easy for you as there is good wine flowing every nook and cranny. Local wine is the rule in almost all wine producing Euro countries unlike Ontario and Quebec where the LCBO and SAQ favours “international wines” which only hampers the development of a local wine movement in Ontario and Quebec. Seen any  British Columbia wines at an SAQ or more than a sad bottle or two of Ontario wine?  If there are few Canadian wines available in the distribution market it’s logical that there will be little Canadian wines in Canadian restaurants. And of course there are those restaurants who think too much Canadian wine shows a lack of “sophistication”. Let’s take a look at Lake Erie North Shore  which is a small appellation in Ontario just south of Windsor which has just over 13 wineries. 

Let’s say you live in Montreal or Toronto and want to make a mad rush to Lake Erie North Shore or as it is known in wine circles “LENS”. Why go to LENS? It produces international class wines and is more or less unknown except amongst oenophiles and loyal locals. Go to LENS and you’ll have some interesting wine experiences to share with your friends almost all of which will be saying what an adventuresome savvy wine person you are. Being in the news game let’s just say you have the” lead story” next time you and some friends open up a bottle of wine from LENS. As a gringo tourist to Windsor the destination of choice as your stopover might just be Caesars Windsor (377 Riverside Drive East). The hotel and casino complex is perhaps as close as you will get to Las Vegas in Canada. Modern and comfortable rooms but as an aside the wimpiest low powered water flow in the bathroom taps and showerheads I have seen in a long time! Rooms with a view of Detroit are especially attractive for viewing its skyline. Nice comfy beds and a mini-fridge…not a mini-bar so you can bring your own wine and chill it down without having to wrestle with an army of overpriced beverages. Homey touch!  As for food and wine the star of Caesars is no doubt Nero’s Steakhouse with classic steakhouse fare available for tourist and local alike!

I visited Neros to check out the wine list and particularly what LENS wines were available. I know that in LENS wine country there is a proud local food and wine attitude so I was curious to see if that local attitude was present at the premier hotel in Windsor. As it is on the gateway to LENS I expected a big selection of local wines! Neros is a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence Winner which makes Neros one of 2,827 “winners” in the world which according to Wine Spectator (after paying a fee to the Wine Spectator) is a “basic award for lists that offer a well-chosen selection of quality producers along with a thematic match to the menu in both price and style.” Neros does not disappoint except for its dearth of LENS wines! There is a 19 page wine list offering 23 wines by the glass, 4 of which are Canadian and close to 400 labels which is on par with the luxury hotels I have reviewed in New York City so in terms of numbers and quality it is no slouch .As far as Canadian wines go there are 5 sparklers, 13 whites and 19 reds but only two LENS bottles in this crowd one being a Pelee Island 2006 Gewürztraminer Reserve and a 2002 Colio Estates LENS Merlot. My initial reaction to this LENS prejudice was like LENS wines were being treated like Rosa Parks.

I probed deeper about this with Henry Aboagye the manager of Neros an intensely charming man of passion and pride for Neros and its staff. Henry indicated previous attempts have been made to introduce more LENS wines to Neros but there is a preference for big Cabernet Sauvignons to match the heavy red meat emphasis at Neros as after all it is a steakhouse. For example he noted that the most popular reds were the 2005 Hartenburg Cabernet Sauvignon from Stellenbosch in South Africa and Katnook Founder’s Block Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia. I’ll personally vouch for the Hartenburg after trying it with Neros Peppered Bison Carpaccio. Divine. As for whites the Chardonnays from Stoney Ridge in Niagara and Italian Pinot Grigios were leading in popularity. Most customers know what they want said Henry which explains the fact that their sommelier is only present two days a week.

I am certain you will enjoy your meal at the well designed and comfy Neros and by all means grab table # 20 with its magnificent view of the Detroit skyline. But I just can’t help but think why there is a dearth of local wines in the capital city of LENS? Tourist types surely would not be disappointed nor would the local economy. It just takes a bit of effort to find LENS wines that match the Neros menu. Someone has gone to the effort of getting wines on Neros wine list. Who has expended effort to get LENS wines on that list? Who is to blame for this sad state of affairs for local LENS wineries at the Casino?

Now let’s move from huge sophisticated Caesars Windsor and see what is happening in the countryside in LENS as we move to pizza maker supreme Mettawas Station in Kingsville which features 6 LENS and Pelee Island wines.

 As Janet DelBrocco of Mettawas Station says, “In regards to our local wine selection we wanted to support the local wineries, especially the ones in Kingsville and surrounding area because they in turn are very supportive of us.  Some of the local wines have been selected based on customer demand as well.  From time to time we will bring in other wines to use as a feature for the weekend just to see how they sell and if there is good response we try to work it into our local wine list.  As for wineries promoting their products, it is important to let us know when they have a newly released wine.  As a small business owner it is very difficult to keep up to date on all of the wines carried by different wineries. “

The local spirit is further exhibited by Tecumseh Roadhouse in Windsor with 8 local wines. Tecumseh Roadhouse is home of the nastily delicious pulled pork sandwich of which there is no rival in Ontario! Jim Renaud certainly reflects the local movement when he says,”When I first took over the restaurant we had wines from all over the place but being a roadhouse we have never had an extensive wine list. The reason for local is that I am trying to support our local businesses and economy. We use local beef and pork from local farms as well as most suppliers to the restaurant are local. We are also growing our own vegetables in our gardens out back and raising our own chickens and goats, goats for the kids and chickens for the eggs to be used in the restaurant at some point. One of the biggest reasons on using local wines is the fact that they use us for events and caterings and for things like the vintage tasting a few weeks ago. The customers love the fact we are using local products and I think one of the reasons we are so successful is because of that fact.” Tit for tat!

The rapidly expanding Armandos with 10 locations and more expansion in mind has 24 “international wines” on its wine list and 12 Lake Erie North Shore wines. That is a very generous representation indeed.

Can we point the finger anywhere? I think we can and primarily I am pointing at the state liquor monopolies founded with greed and temperance as bed fellows. Their decisions show a failure to really promote Canadian wines stranding local producers in a shipwreck of limited markets. This in turn fosters uneducated consumers as without choice there can be no real consumer education. Uneducated consumers just keep drinking what is on the monopoly’s shelf. A vicious cycle that can only be broken by consumer demand and political and market changes.



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