Ask Chuck

Location: Whitby, Ontario, Canada

Born in Malta but in Canada since age 5. Has written three books and presently does several columns about wine and food for various magazines.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Wine Writers' Circle Of Canada Or Bust!

The Journey Through Wine
My journey to the Wine Writers' Circle of Canada started back in 1977 when a friend of ours took us out to dinner and introduced me a thing called Vintage Wine! Prior to that my idea of wine was a medium sweet Portuguese Mateus or a very sweet Sacramental wine made from Concord grapes. Thinking this was a "real cool thing" I felt that I could use this to impress my friends and peers at work.
I started reading all I could about the subject and much to my surprise found myself caught up in the whole idea of Wine: Its Historical, Geographical, Cultural and Scientific aspects. I was hooked.
Now many years later I find myself deeply entrenched in the quagmire I created over thirty years ago. It is however, the best quagmire that I ever got involved in!
Where would I be had it not been for that moment in time that discovered wine? My life would surely be different and probably not half as interesting. I probably would have neither taken the risks nor seen the opportunities that came my way!
My journey through the world of wine has taken me to many lands and has allowed me to visit many people. The experiences that I have had have made me the envy of many. The great thing about this is that there are still many more to come!
Wine Writers' Circle Of Canada
It's good that people persist! If my dear friend Anne Susac (later Metcalfe) didn't persist in her attempts to have me write my first column for her "Bowmanville Gazette" in 1990, I wouldn't have started my writing journey. If my great friend Tino Fazio of Fazio's Ristorante in Oshawa had not persisted in asking me to do my first television program in 1992 (Wine Companions with Rubin Benmurgui), I would never had started it and if my wonderful friend Alex Eberspaecher had not persisted in my joining the Wine Writers' Circle, chances are it never would have come about. So a major thanks to these people for being my friends and seeing in me what I didn't see! I also must thank Konrac Ejbich (pronounced Ejbick) for seconding Alex's nomination!
The Wine Writers' Circle of Canada is a group of professional writers who initially came together in 1985. Many heavy weights in the industry were involved in its formation (Margaret Swaine, Tony Aspler, Alex Eberspaecher, David Lawerson, Dick Singer to name a few) and it is great to see that the "Circle" not only survived but has grown to some 36 individuals. Now some may ask how could a group of competing individuals form such an organization? The answer to that is the word "individual"! While I may envy the credentials of ----let's say John Szabo (the only Master of Wine in Canada) or his brother Zoltan or Alex Eberspaecher's phenomenal palate or any one of the "Circle's" talented group, I can never be them and they me! In group unity there is strength and pooled together, our talents can only help us.
My father used to say to me: "Never be jealous or want to be someone else. Be yourself since that is the best person you can ever be but-------you can always learn from those you admire and who inspire you!"
I know that I have learned much already through my association with Alex and my very brief foray with the "Godfather of Wine"-----Jacques Marie at the dinner I attended on Monday January 12th. I hope that I left something of me with him and the others that I met there!
The main purpose of the "Circle" was to promote the responsible enjoyment of wine and to foster a better understanding of wine and gastronomy! It also promotes its individual member's talents as well as give them a "web venue" to reside. This gives a social credibility to these persons---a credibility that cannot be obtained via just a column or article. They belong to a group of respected professionals!
Wine Writers' Circle Of Canada Annual Dinner
This was my first function with the "Circle" and I am very happy to say that it felt like well worn leather on a sore foot! It was very comfortable. My wife Darlene could not go which was unfortunate but it was also a gain since I had been wanting to spend time with my daughter Marisa.
To say that I have a pride in this wonderful human being that God granted me the grace to call my daughter cannot not fit what I feel about this amazing young lady! If parents learn from their children then I learn from her! She is as wise and as smart as she is beautiful and has made my life richer. I could not think of anyone who would have been better at this first function.
The event was held at the Oasi Restaurant-------a place that an out of towner like me did not have a very easy time finding----even though I had directions (map quest).
It is located in an industrial park just outside of a residential area. I felt very foolish when I called (unable to find the place) and the voice at the end of the line said--"Just turn your head to the right"! Then it appeared---just like magic!!
Once inside, the place transformed the cold and dreariness outside into an oasis of sorts!
We were cared for by John Szabo who is also a member of the "Circle" and a Master Sommelier. He is ably assisted by other sommeliers such as Alice Kilpatrick who has some 20 years experience in the trade. The decor was very comfortable and elegant. The column style mouldings served to centre the dining room and bars whose sombre but very adequate lighting fostered great discussions and added to one's (especially a new comer's) confidence! One would never believe that such a "garden of delight" existed in an area that seemed so dismal outside! I am certain, judging by the quality of service and the fine food innovative food by Executive Chef Peter Stewart this will unfortunately soon be a very, very hard place to get a reservation. It beats much of what I've seen in Toronto and will probably continue to do so!
The Meal!
The welcoming committee of wine writers, enthusiasts and experts were congregated at the bar feeding on special treats and champagne. I must admit, I was very apprehensive about my inaugural event with the WWCC but I was put at immediate ease by Circle President Shiela Swerling-Puritt, Conrad Ejbich and his lovely wife. Marisa was quite impressed with her. After some minutes of our arriving----it took us a bit of time to find the place-----we were escorted to the dining room and were seated.
Marisa and I had the pleasure of sitting next to some true experts in the field of Wine and Food. To my right was Shari Darling, author of that gem called "Orgasmic Appetizers" and directly across from me was Jacques Marie "Godfather of Wine" and one of the most influential persons in the field of wine and food that Canada has ever seen. He also was very captivating and humorous. The delight was watching him taste the many wines that were brought to him and hearing his descriptions. The man is a truly unique human being and quite gracious.
Slightly to my left and across from me was Alan McGinty well know for his many writings and his newsletter about Vintages Releases. Sadie Darby, WWCC main squeeze and secretary sat not too far from me and slid over to welcome me as well as grace our company with her infectious personality!
The meal was superbly designed by Chef Stewart. The Montforte Goat Cheese and roasted tomato salad prepared the palate for the next portion which in my case was the Octopus with salsa verde (Marisa had the Sable Fish with white butter) and we both had the excellent roasted striploin with Bordelaise sauce (other choices were rack of lamb or Duck confit) followed by a delicious chocolate dessert.
Each member and guest was supposed to bring a wine to match the meal and I selected a Fess Parker Rodney's Vineyard Syrah 2003 from California for my contribution and an Illuminati Riparosso Montepulciano d'Abruzzo for Marisa's. The wines went well with the striploin and the Syrah as muscular as it was with chocolate flavours went very well with the dessert. The other wines that I remember having were some excellent Sauvignon Blanc---especially a very fine Jackson Triggs/Delaine Vineyards 2007 and a remarkable Chateau Des Charmes Cabernet and a super Mission Hill Sauvignon Blanc. Of course with such an array of wine celebs, the wines----all the wines had to be of the very special kind.
To say that both Marisa and I enjoyed ourselves was putting it mildly. We had a marvellous time and the evening was terrific.
The next day, I sent Alex Eberspaecher a note that the evening went well. Alex could not come to this venture since he had guests from Chile visiting but he remarked how sad he was not to have been there since his dear friend Jacques Marie had attended. I can see why Alex was dismayed. I am hoping that both will be at the next event and that I will get a chance to watch the repartee between them.
Alex was certainly missed but the likes of Michael Pinkus, Dean Tudor, John Szabo, Richard Best and the others I have already mentioned made the night one that I will remember. Now I know that anytime that I start feeling a bit "high and mighty" about my wine expertise-----all I have to do is think of these great people and their knowledge and talents!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

New Wines, Great Vistas And A Myriad Of Broken Bottles: The Year In Review

2008: Was It A Great Year?

The King is dead! Long live the King! The old year is dead and somewhat buried and I'm not sure what to make of it when I think back to all that was 2008! It started out with great promise on the heals of what was to become the greatest wine year that ever was in Ontario and perhaps all of Canada. Of course we bow our heads to 2007! It was hard in 2007 for anyone in Ontario to make horrible wine unless, of course, they were horrible winemakers thus resurrecting the old adage: "It is impossible to make good wine out of bad grapes but very possible to make horrible wine out of good grapes!" I felt quite fortunate at only tasting several wines that I did not particularly enjoy but for the most part, those that I did taste were atypically rich for Ontario and reflected some of the wines made in warmer climes. Not to complain. I will be enjoying these wines as they come available for some time to come! Was it going to be the same for 2008. Alas, I do not think so. Rain, rain, rain and more rain was the forerunner of our present snow, snow, snow and more snow. I feel that the whites of 2008 will shine much more than the reds though technology will certainly have a hand in the making of some good wines, I'm sure!
Let's Party
2008 didn't start out with exactly a bang! It was more like a whimper! I had the usual meetings with wine agents and was introduced to some exciting new products but it wasn't what you'd call exciting stuff. One of the more memorable events that I went to was a tasting at Le Clos Jordanne (always wonder why it is a masculine "Le" in front of an obvious Feminine "Jordanne") In November 2007, I missed a similar event due to traffic on the fab 401 as did some others.
Another event was scheduled at the winery. Making sure I did not miss this one, I stayed over at White Oaks Inn . The tasting went very well indeed and I found that I had made the right call since it snowed the evening of January 21st which would have made travelling, again, difficult.
I was quite fortunate to have been at this session since being the first on the spot, I assisted winemaker Thomas Bachelder with some of the duties ----including selecting some of the wines from Le Clos' barrels. Several others came a bit late due to the weather and we had the fortune to have Thomas all to ourselves.
Some time later I was contacted by Penny Contreras of the Regional Municipality of Durham to assist her with a Gala United Way function in May----an event that went very well until a small mishap saw me dropping my contribution in front of many guests......sort of anticlimactic but things happen.
Another event for BMO Nesbitt Burns which saw my consulting, wine choosing and speaking expertise tested was a huge success and a tremendous booster to my confidence. The event took place in July of 2007 and I'm still hearing about it. I initially was to speak for about twenty minutes but ended up hosting the entire 3 hour event. It was fun!
The year's business went by following the ups and downs of the market. The usual speaking engagement s came up and my television program on Rogers Television changed somewhat with the exit of some sponsors. But the show went on and still goes on as time goes by.
Broken Bottles and Some Wounded Pride
2008 was to become the year of broken wine bottles. Forget "Year of the Rat". It was definitely the "Year of the Broken Bottle." It started as I mentioned above with me dropping a wine contribution right on the foyer floor of the United Way Gala.
The night had gone fabulous. I was at my speaking best and made many kudos in front of local politicians, celebrities and guests. I spent a good five minutes on the virtues of the 1982 Chateau Kirwan that I had donated to the Gala's auction. It brought some $375 and the new owner asked me to handle it for her.
I carefully packed the bottle in its container and on the way to the car I was asked to shake the hands of certain guests. One attractive lady showed me her hand. I responded with a kiss on the extended limb and forgot that I had not taped the top of the case securely. The bottle slipped out as I bent forward and crashed on to the floor much to the gasps of the guests watching the incident. I tried to safe face by saying I had two cases of the wine and would replace it but the harm was done and I could imagine fingers being pointed at me every time I entered any room where these same guests were present. The other two incidents happened more recently.
In December I did my usual "gift show" on Rogers. It was a program called "Mid-Day" and I had a series of wines with prices ranging from the "basic" to the "unfounded" categories. Ilya Rubin of Calibrium Wines sent me some of his excellent wines for display. They included a Grand Crus Chablis from Domaine Laroche "Les Blanchots and two wines from Brancaia: the 2005 Tre and the 2005 Iltaraia. The show went very well and I carefully (where have your read this before) packed them in the container housing some 15 bottles and took the prizes home. I wanted to make sure that nothing happened to the bottles since the container was none too sturdy and there was ice in the drive way. I grabbed three bottles and took them inside. I repeated the process until I had some six bottles left. As I grabbed three more, one of the bottles (Ocala Black Current it was!) tipped over lightly striking the 2005 Tre. My eyes could not believe that the Tre snapped at the neck thus breaking off the "still corked" top. Al least I could save the wine I thought. I carefully picked up the bottle and carried the cracked container towards the kitchen counter. Just as I was going to place it down and then pour the wine into another container, the whole bottle burst. Wine went every where except the sink.
I was faced with the embarrassing situation of having to call the agency to tell them what happened to the bottle.
The final incident happened a month ago. I ordered a case of Fess Parker's Parker Station Syrah from Pacific Wines and Spirits. A friend, restaurateur Tino Fazio, liked the bottle I shared with him over lunch several weeks before so he bought a case as a gift. I was the good deed doer and ordered the case for him.
Some weeks later, a note was left on my door. "Delivered case of wine but returned to mail depot as receiver not home. Case broken, sorry!" When I picked it up, I didn't need to open the wine soaked package to know that every bottle was broken. I didn't accept the package and had to wait until a week later to give my pal the wine.
So ended the saga of broken bottles.
New Places, New Vistas and New Programs
Once cannot say that this year was a howling success. The fall of the market did have its affect on many businesses and the wine business did not get away unscathed. I had many cancellations from corporations regarding their Holiday Parties and Team Seminars. In times of major stress, the first to go are the luxury items of which wine and its relations are part of. However, you can't keep a wino down for long.
I have been in contact with the embassies of various countries in relation to a new television program that I am producing as well as hosting. More on this when I get confirmation from the countries involved.
Several other exciting travel ventures did happened to me this year however. A return trip to California with the intent on doing an article about a Danish Community called Solvang (Santa Ynez Valley) resulted in 10 marvellous days visiting at the Hadsten House and General Manager Bill Phelps. It was a phenomenal visit and though I am a bit prejudice concerning this lovely valley and the wonderful people in it, I would heartily recommend going there and if you stay in Solvang or surrounding country side, it must be at the Hadsten House. The trip was a great success and the article appeared in the Christmas issue of "East of the City Magazine." I can't say enough about the friends that I have made there from Monty "The Horse Whisperer" Roberts and Fess "Davy Crockett/Daniel Boone" Parker to Bill Phelps to Amber Giorgi whose 100 year old family (Nojoqui Ranch") farm is a sight to see with its many natural splendors. Ya Gotta Go There!!!!!!!
Finally, I recently was inducted to the Wine Writers Circle Of Canada. Its membership is a whose who of wine writers whose names are somewhat legendary. Tony Aspler, Margaret Swaine, Alex Eberspaecher, David Lawerson, Conrad Ejbich, Gordon Stimmell, Michael Pinkus to name a few. I feel both humbled and honoured to be included with this illustrious people and all those who make up this unique collection of writers.
It looks like 2009 will be quite the year. Let's all move on with progression and positive outlooks and Happy New Year to all!
Next Blog will have my 10 favourite wines of the year!