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dessert wines

Everyone’s Doing it. Even Canada is making good wine

Eh?As a kid, and into my late 20’s, my dad, brother, and I used to drive from our home in Detroit to northern Canada for a week of fishing and relaxation.  It was a highlight of the summer, and the best way to connect with my pop.  We used to “smuggle” top shelf vino into the country, because the wine situation in Sault Ste. Marie (“the Soo”) was dire.  My dad hated that we snuck wine over the border, because he was a law abiding man that was true to his word.  All was forgiven, though, after we tried that pirated ‘91 Mugneret Nuit-St-Georges 1er Cru paired with freshly caught partridge. To this day, it is one of my favorite food & wine pairings ever. There was no way we were going to get anything close to that at the Ontario government controlled liquor store.  

15 years after the last pilgrimage, my family and I went back to Canada to honor my pop and reminisce of experiences past.  We drove through “the Soo” on our way, and had an unusual experience buying wine.  First of all, you can’t go into a grocery store, liquor store, or wine store to buy wine.  The Canadians and their provincial government only sell wine (and liquor for that matter) through a few designated stores called “LCBO” (Liquor Control Board of Ontario), and there are only 3 in the whole city.  Some of these stores, like the one in Chapleau, Ontario have a really sad assortment.  Some, like the one I went into in “the Soo” (population 75,000) are a far cry from the wine situation in decades past.  They had a robust selection from most wine producing countries of the world;  France, Italy, Australia, California, Portugal, and even Canada.  I was pleasantly surprised that the Canadian government came through for us!  See, not all governments are bad!

As per usual, I like to buy wine locally wherever I can.  I had heard about the world class icewine (grapes that ripen on the vine until the first freeze) from Ontario, but didn’t really have a clue what else was being produced.  To my surprise, I couldn’t find one icewine in the store, but I found a lots of other wines from the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario.  So, I did a little research.

The VQA Niagara Peninsula appellation produces over half of Ontario’s wine, and is helped greatly by Lake Ontario’s regulating temperatures.  It’s a cool climate appellation, as you might expect, but the long summer days, a relatively large shift in day-night temperatures, and well drained soils help ripen some varietals just enough.  I found riesling, chardonnay, dry rosé, pinot noir, cab franc, and merlot at the LCOB. The wines that stood out to me were the Cave Spring dry Riesling 2013, and Trius Gamay / Syrah Rosé 2015.  Each of those wines was low in alcohol, high in acid, and perfect for the hot, sticky summer days that find their way to the region in July.

My trip to Canada with the family was wonderful.  I really felt at home there, and felt my dad’s presence with us too.  I envisioned him sitting at the dinner table, his usual two-ounce pour of wine, toasting to life and washing down Aunt Carolyn’s comfort foods.  The wines on this trip weren’t like the ‘91 Mugneret we had years ago, but they were solid, well-made food wines that went well with simple cuisine.  Next time you’re in Canada, don’t be afraid to try a few from the VQA Niagara Peninsula.

Wines that “Pop” Jack would have enjoyed:

  • Cave Spring dry Riesling 2013, VQA Niagara Peninsula
  • Trius Rosé 2015, VQA Niagara Peninsula

And the secret weapon:

  • Domaine Pinnacle Cidre de glace-ice, Quebec – made from frozen apples


We can never know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.



The Day Gary Farrell Met Gary Locke at the London Wine Bar

Miles and Wayne

Many of you know that I am also a jazz musician in addition to being a sommelier.  The jazz tradition is passed down from generation to generation, both literally and figuratively.  The stories we’ve heard about how Miles created “Kind of Blue”, how Dizzy got fired from Cab Calloway’s band, and how Trane was influenced by Dexter are all vital parts of understanding the tradition.  

In understanding the California wine business, it’s also important to give props to those that have helped carry the business forward.  So, in the jazz tradition of telling stories about my favorite musicians, I’m going to tell you about the day Gary Farrell met Gary Locke at the London Wine Bar (LWB).  For you jazz fans, this would be the equivalent Wayne Shorter sitting in with Miles Davis for the first time.  The history of the California wine business is a passion of mine.  Knowing who helped move the business forward is, I feel, partly my responsibility, so I can help educate others.  Many people in the business know who Gary Farrell is, but few know who Gary Locke is.  I think he prefers it that way, but I’ve let the cat out of the bag.  Gary Locke is an icon to me.

But, first, a little back story.  I worked as a server at the LWB from 2000-2008.  The influence that job had over my career in the wine business far surpasses any sommelier credentials I’ve had to work for.  As I grew more confident selling wine, I earned myself carte blanche, able to dig through the cellar on my own and try anything, as long as I could sell it.  ‘75 Pontet-Canet, ‘83 Dow’s Port, ‘89 Joseph Swan Zin, ‘95 Laurel Glen Cab, ‘81 Neyers Chenin Blanc, ‘94 Skewis Pinot, ‘91 Mugneret Gevry-Chambertin;  I tried and sold them all.  The more I tasted, the more my palate and confidence grew.  I wanted to share my passion with anyone that came through those doors.

The LWB was America’s first wine bar, opened in San Francisco circa 1975.  Many folks are surprised that America didn’t have a wine bar until ‘75, but not many Americans drank wine back then.   It also wasn’t until the mid-80’s that there were dedicated by-the-glass programs in bars and restaurants.  Gary Locke was the owner and bar manager when I arrived.  Amazingly, he had been there since 1975, coming to SF as a fresh faced, hardworking young man from Indiana with little wine knowledge.  He later came to be the bar manager, wine buyer, and owner of LWB in the mid-80’s.  Gary knew all of the heavy hitters in the California wine business.  He developed one of the best palates in the city, with the knowledge to back it up.  What I loved most about him was that he was always modest about it, with no pretense, or desire to toot his own horn.  He became like Wayne Shorter, soulful, original, supremely knowledgeable, understated, and very skilled.  

Sometime in the fall of 2004, I was finishing my lunch shift at the LWB and hung around to taste wine with “G-Locke”, and in walked Gary Farrell.  It was like Miles Davis walking into the club, with moxie, money, cockiness, an entourage, and a pedigree.  Gary Farrell was a California icon.  He started making wine for Davis Bynum in 1978 then helped get the likes of Rochioli, Limerick Lane, Moshin Vineyards, and his own label, Gary Farrell, off the ground.   What I didn’t realize at time was that Gary Farrell had just sold his name to Allied Domecq and probably had a contractual obligation to go out into the field and sell his former label.   I was taken aback for the first wine or two, watching these two heavyweights interact.  I’ll be honest, there was a little posturing going on.  It was still cool though.  I wonder what Gary Farrell was thinking about when G-Locke was trying his wines.  G-Locke played it close to the vest.  “Nice wines” he would say.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about how those wines tasted, it was all about witnessing the meeting of two heavyweights.  A moment in history that only a few were lucky enough to witness.

Two wines Gary Locke (and you) would love:  (if you’re a collector, these wines are difficult to find, but keep an eye out…)

Franus Zinfandel 1997, Brandlin Vineyard, Mount Veeder

I learned that structured Zinfandels age well at the LWB.  I saw several Peter Franus wines poured there throughout the years too.  This wine would have made the “Zinfandel Sampler” short list.  I love the complex nose of caramelized black plum, bramble, menthol, sun dried tomato, rosemary, and black licorice.  It’s still finishing dry (Mount Veeder fruit yields plenty of structure) with earthy notes of coffee, smoke, and still lots of acidic backbone.  

Leacock’s Bual 1966, Madeira

Bual is one of the most sought after Madeiras, known for just the right amount of sugar to go with its vibrant acid.  The Brits have been credited with helping the production of Madeira along over the centuries.  I remember caressing and dreaming about a number of Madeira and Port bottles in the LWB basement years ago.  This wine would have fit right in.  The notes of hazelnut, salted caramel, maple syrup, and toffee take the cake.  The finish lasts for days, with vibrant acid from start to finish.  It brought me back to those nostalgic days of my childhood with “Callard & Bowser” English toffee.