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Drinking Out Loud

What I Learned This Year

It never stops, does it?

Matt Kramer
Posted: December 20, 2011

It can sometimes seem to outsiders that people who have been in the "wine game" for a good number of years have nothing left to learn. Not true.

While the learning curve always seems steep when you're just starting out—never mind the subject—the fact is that, if you've got a brain, there's always something left to learn. The great noir writer Raymond Chandler put it best: "There are no dull subjects, only dull minds."

Looking back over the past year I found myself lingering over what I’d learned. The learning did not come in any orderly fashion. Indeed, if I've learned anything, it's that rarely does any substantial learning arrive in anything resembling an orderly fashion.

All my life, whatever I believe I have learned has come to me more in a series of flashes of inspiration or insights, or just as a simple recognition of something that all too often was apparent to many other people before this dim bulb began to glow.

So, what did I learn this year?

I Learned to Trust Sommeliers.

Now, this makes it sound as if I never trusted sommeliers, which is not true at all. However, I confess to having been unreceptive in the past to sommeliers' suggestions.

In all honesty, this has much more to do with me than with any sommelier. Like many wine drinkers, I know what I like and I don't expect anybody to be able to read my mind. So how could a sommelier choose for me better than I could choose for myself?

This past year changed my mind. Increasingly, I have come across wine lists that have dazzled me with their insightful selections, adventurousness, originality and—this is no small thing—generous breadth of prices.

One of the measures of a great wine list is an offering of numerous fine wines for what anyone would agree are "reasonable" prices. When I see a list where it's clear that we are being herded toward higher-priced wines for lack of sufficient alternatives, my back gets up.

This year I came across so many wine lists that are nothing less than a wine lover's friend, that I have come to trust sommeliers in a way I never have previously.

Recently, I ate at the newest Michael Mina restaurant in San Francisco, which is simply named after its owner. Its wine list brims with insight and care, with numerous offerings of really interesting wines at prices in the $30 to $40 range. The wine service itself, I might note, was as polished and professional as the wine selection.

The list of restaurants that I've been to this year where comparable sommelier achievement left me feeling utterly confident in whatever was suggested includes one of my favorite restaurants, New York's Gramercy Tavern (whose wine director, Juliette Pope, creates a list that can only be called artful). The same may be said of other New York restaurants, such as Eleven Madison Park and Bar Boulud, among many other places.

More than ever before in my experience, wine lovers in the United States are now treated to what I like to admiringly call "dartboard" wine lists: If you closed your eyes and threw a dart at the wine list, whatever you landed on would be a terrific choice.

I Became Convinced That Ontario Is the World's Least-Known Great Wine Zone.

This past June I was in Ontario because I was asked to be a speaker at a conference on cool-climate Chardonnays. It was my third trip to Ontario, which, for a West Coast boy is a long ways away, and I was reminded yet again of how extraordinary Ontario wines can be. I was also reminded of how largely unknown these wines are to the larger world, courtesy of the fact that so few are exported outside the province.

Readers of Wine Spectator may recall that one of my Wines of the Year in my latest magazine column (Dec. 31, 2011–Jan. 15, 2012 issue) is an Ontario Chardonnay from Norman Hardie winery in Prince Edward County, on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. I tasted Hardie's wines on a previous visit but was unable to get to Prince Edward County, which is a two-hour drive from Toronto and well away from the mainstream wine locale of the Niagara Peninsula (which lies on the southern shore of Lake Ontario).

So this year I tacked on an extra day specifically to get up to Prince Edward County and make sure that I was able to taste the wines of other producers in that zone. I came away convinced that not only is Norman Hardie creating an extraordinary Chardonnay, but that he's far from alone in doing so. Wineries such as Closson Chase Vineyards and Case-Dea Estates Winery, among the 20-plus wineries in the small zone, are creating wines that range from very promising to downright spectacular.

While Prince Edward County is the most climatically extreme winegrowing district in Ontario (it is so cold in the winter that grapegrowers there habitually have to "hill up" their vines with soil to keep them from freezing and then remove the soil each spring), the distinctiveness of Ontario wines is hardly confined to this exceptionally cool and extremely limestone-rich zone. The larger Niagara Peninsula district, which is where the great majority of the wine action is located, creates comparably impressive Chardonnays, as well as some superb Gamay Noir, Cabernet Franc and very promising Pinot Noir, also from limestone soils and in very cool growing conditions.

I Learned—Yet Again—That You Have to Make Your Case.

Because of my work I travel quite a bit. During this year's traveling I was struck, yet again, by how surprisingly reluctant winegrowers are in making their case for the distinction of either their particular vineyard or, more often, their winegrowing zone. Sometimes it's a misplaced (in my opinion, anyway) modesty. Sometimes, it's a simple lack of savvy and ambition.

I saw this, for example, in Australia. Now, the Aussies are hardly considered shy sorts. Yet this year when I visited Clare Valley, which creates some of Australia's finest Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and dry Riesling, I was struck by how they had failed to send this message of wine goodness to a larger world. When I returned to the United States and exclaimed to a variety of wine lovers about how impressed I am with Clare Valley wines, I was met with blank looks. The name simply didn't register. (The same applies to Hunter Valley, I might add, despite that region’s stunning dry Sémillons and lovely Shirazes.)

This same lesson came home to me forcefully while visiting Ontario's wine producers: You don't win by staying out of the game. The sooner Ontario's and Australia's best wines become available to a larger audience, the faster they will cease to be "local heroes" and take their rightful place among the world's recognized great wines. They will also likely fetch higher prices, which some of them deserve. But they can't achieve that recognition as long as they remain exclusively local.

Maybe it's the American in me—probably it is—but if you want to get anywhere in today's wine world you've got to step up and make a case for yourself. I saw this when I visited Hungary this year as well. Some gorgeous wines are being made there, but have you seen many of them? Have you heard much about them? Have you seen many Hungarian producers selling their wines here? You know the answers to these questions as well as I do.

This year, more than ever before, I was reminded of how essential it is for producers of original wines to get out into the world and make a case—and a sale—for what they do.

For our part, our obligation is to welcome them. I look forward to doing just that in 2012—and I hope you do too.

Paul Lopez
Paso Robles, CA —  December 20, 2011 11:17am ET
Great read, so true. I think the coming year will be another exciting wine year, possible full of its surprises. I too have learned to trust sommeliers and their suggestions. I dine in SF a lot and the lists in the City have been improving in diversity, pricing and regions, I look forward to the 'book' anywhere I go. I'd like to shout out AQ in SF that opened recently, a nice list that is growing with great selections run by a competent manager, Kristen Capella. She demonstrates all of the above mentioned attributes in her list. Thanks again Matt, love your articles.
Marlene Rossman
Newport Beach California —  December 20, 2011 12:07pm ET
Matt, another "least known" wine region is British Columbia. It is virtually impossible to get a bottle of BC wine in the US. I needed a bottle for a wine class I was teaching at University of California-Irvine. I had to get permits and TWELVE pages of documentation to bring in one bottle of Mission Hill Oculus. It was an astonishing wine, but I will never attempt to "import" another.
John Meluzio
New Jersey —  December 20, 2011 4:28pm ET
I am glad there is someone else out there that agrees about the wines from Ontario. We've been going to Niagara for about 5-6 years and always find the wines to be excellent and the atmosphere and food as well. I wonder why WS doesn't do more reporting about this area? I've seen articles about BC but not Niagara.
Robert Mackin
Norwalk CT —  December 20, 2011 4:49pm ET
Matt, You are spot on about Ontario wines. What is really mind boggling about it is that there are so many people in the NYC metro area that do in fact know a lot about wine in general. This region is hiding right under our noses, sharing a border with NY state, so nearby but totally undiscovered. I decided last May to import some of them to attempt to change all that. As of late October Norman Hardie, Hidden Bench and Tawse are available in the NYC area. Those who are interested to discover what is so distinctive about these wines can contact my company, Artisan Wines and we will try to put you in contact with stores that stock them. 877 ART WINE
David Bidwell
Cardiff, Californina —  December 20, 2011 6:44pm ET
Marlene R. - Our local Vons in Solana Beach carried Oculus a few years ago. Yes, it's a serious Bordeaux style wine in a beautiful bottle. I have not seen it since, however, but would buy again.
Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  December 20, 2011 10:45pm ET
I wish I could drink Hardie and Closson Chase chardonnays all week long. If more folks would just focus on the cooler climate varietals that make sense in Ontario, I think it would be a lot easier to develop a brand outside of Canada (the one anomaly being Stratus / Petit Verdot 2007: one of the most stunning reds on the market, and which has no place being from Ontario -- Matt, had a chance to try it?)

Too bad we don't make it easier to export. BC has some of the most unique and elegant full-bodied red blends -- producers like Painted Rock and Moon Curser come to mind -- whose exports are hampered by regulatory silliness...
Ian Tarrant
Ontario, Canada —  December 20, 2011 11:57pm ET

It's great when Ontario gets the recognition it deserves, although I'm still not convinced of Prince Edward County personally, the wines that have resulted from Niagara the past few years have been astonishing..The whites in particular.

Whether Riesling from Cave Springs, white blends or Viognier from Stratus and amazing Chards from a myriad of wineries, the proof is there. We had an AMAZING 2003 Chardonnay from Southbrook (Poetica) earlier this fall that frankly was one of the best wines I've ever had and I've been seriously collecting for almost 10 years.

The reds are still 'so so' other than some really nice Pinots, or 'big' reds from warm vintages like 2007 (or about to be released 2010's) but mostly these are 'why bother' wines in my opinion and the whites are where it's at.


- Ian
Dave Gimbel
Ontario Canada —  December 21, 2011 2:32pm ET
Ontario wineries are easier to access in the US than many consumers realize. As Robert mentioned many of the larger wineries, do have representation in the States however you do have to search for them. Vineland Estates Winery, < www.vineland.com > wines are available throughout Manhattan, NYS and Ohio. Plus online for shipping across the US, visit < www.americaswineshop.com >
Scott Webster
Mississauga, Ontario, Canada —  December 21, 2011 3:59pm ET
I am very excited to see some outside interest in wines from Ontario, I am a big fan myself and i even own and operate a vacation rental property in Niagara on the Lake which is of course the heart of the Niagara wine region. In addition to the white wines and of course the ice wines Ontario is producing some awesome reds, primarily Pinot Noir and some other varietals, check out Stratus, Lailey Vineyards, Tawse and Le Clos Jordanne and im sure most would agree these are all world class wines! Anyone looking to explore the region feel free to drop me a line through my vacation rental website at www.bythevines.com
Keir Mccartney
League City,TX —  December 22, 2011 11:45am ET
Great post Matt. The impact of failing to market / push the wines of these lesser known regions has a greater reach than simply not gaining recognition or sales of their wines. We generally make our vacation decisions based on regional wine / food quality. For this reason we tend to focus on France, Spain, Italy, California, Chile, Argentina etc. all of which have great wine and a cuisine to go with them. If I could become more sure that, for example, Croatia or Hungary could offer great quality wines and food I, and I suspect many more people, would be much more likely to visit these beautiful countries. How much money does France generate every year from Tourism, strongly driven by their wine / food culture?? I suspect that a piece of that market is available to some of these lesser known players.
David Charnock
Toronto, Ontario —  December 22, 2011 3:41pm ET

It is wonderful to see Ontario, Prince Edward County and Norman Hardie Wines discussed in your articles. As a longtime subscriber to WS it's always nice to read about something close to home and accessible. I have enjoyed Hardie's wines for years and it is great to see the results of hard work and passion get recognition.
Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  December 22, 2011 7:34pm ET
I have learned this year that I need to make sure I do not miss a single blog of yours!
Arrowhead Spring Vineyards
Niagara, NY USA —  January 3, 2012 3:40pm ET
Thanks for the recognition of Niagara, Ontario wine country! Our winery is located on the US side of the river, and I believe the future is very, very bright here for premium wine growing. I would add Syrah to your list for this region. While Syrah is often just average on the west coast, it shines here with rich berry and black pepper. Unique.

Ontario wines are quite readily available in NY, and many wineries have options for delivery. Sadly, the reverse is not true, even post NAFTA. If you travel into Ontario with wine, you will be assessed a fee of 60-100% of the wine's value, though no such fee exists when bringing wine from Ontario to the USA. I am looking forward to the day when they have opened their market to US wines as we have opened our market to theirs. My guess is that there will be movement on that soon so that visitors can fully enjoy an international wine growing region.

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