We dined in domes, tents, and old Victorian houses. We had five dinners but we only left two tips (and we don’t suck). In between, we walked, we wined, we saw some art.
Blog title courtesy of Jean, who was determined to have some time off after not getting any at Christmas time (beyond the statutory days). We didn’t venture too far from home—Beamsville, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Toronto, Kleinburg, which are all within a two hours’ drive. And it wasn’t, per se, designed as a culinary tour. But it did turn out that way!
Because, you see, I’m still making some efforts to avoid catching Covid. And when it came to selecting restaurants, well, it wasn’t your Mom and Pop fish’n’chips places that offered space. And clean air. Those only came packaged as “dining experiences”. Covid safe(r), it turns out, is kind of delicious.
We left home mid-morning, headed to an appointment at Commisso Estate Winery in Beamsville. Their website promised wine tastings in a “fun, safe, private” environment. I didn’t necessarily trust the promise—so many places just didn’t bother to remove their Covid protocols page once they stopped following it—but I figured a smaller winery in February wouldn’t be that crowded. I optimistically (and pragmatically, given that dinner wasn’t til 7) also ordered a charcuterie board.
It worked out. We ended up being their only customers at this time. Not only that, but their tastings are conducted in a tent that was plenty warm, thanks to gas heaters. After we were seated, we got the history of the place, and overview of the wines.
While it’s a hot, sticky day today again, there are hints of autumn on the way in the cooler nights, the changing leaf colours here and there, the shorter days. And while some outdoor activities hold an appeal in winter, not quite as many, and not for as long.
So we tried to rack up a few more outdoor events in the later part of August. And by “events”, I mostly mean eating and drinking outdoors. But with some travel and pretty locations involved.
I promise this won’t turn into a big politic rant, but it’s just a fact that the Ontario government no longer cares if I (or anyone in Ontario) gets Covid—as long as not too many of us end up in hospital with it. (And even there, they keep mumbling about how they have some spare hospitals beds now.)
Happily for privileged me (and here I could do a rant about how the government has abandoned the less-privileged and the more-vulnerable, but I won’t), I do have considerable ability to, well, just stay home and avoid people. And the temperament to not mind it all that much.
But it is nice to leave the house once in a while. And I do have vacation days to take. We’d really enjoyed our time in Niagara-on-the-Lake in November, so earlier in the year, we planned to spend a few nights there in late March.
Then the government dismantled everything that had made that fall trip feel comfortable: Capacity limits—lifted. Vaccine passports—gone. Mask mandates—history. Meanwhile, the Omicron BA.2 variant, the most contagious one yet, makes its inexorable rise.
Still, most of our planned activities seemed relatively low risk. The outdoor hiking is obviously not a problem. Wineries offered private tastings. We could mask in the common areas of the Inn we were staying. But what about dinner???
Spring has not really sprung in these parts yet, so patios weren’t an option. And sure, you can do takeout. But we didn’t want to. Niagara-on-the-Lake has some terrific restaurants. And we love the whole multi-course, wine-matched, lingering indoor dining experience. But Covid-wise, there’s so little you can control when in a restaurant: you can’t mask, you can’t know in advance how well-ventilated the restaurant is, you can’t prevent other people from being seated near you.
I had more vacation days left than I needed for Christmas time, and there seemed little point in carrying them forward into the first three months of next year. So we took the first week of November off, and visited Niagara-on-the-Lake and the north shore of Lake Erie.
Fortunately the weather proved cooperative. We had a warm late October in southern Ontario, and while it got cooler this first week of November, it was very sunny—and that warm October meant that a lot of trees still had their colourful leaves. So not a “dreary” November week at all.
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, we stayed at Harbour House, which is a pretty nice spot. It was not a huge room, but the space was very well organized, and it came with little perks like a bathrobe and a wine-and-cheese hour. I was a bit surprised that we had to show proof of vaccination upon checking in, but that was for the included indoor breakfast, which was quite good—granola, fruit, and yogourt, followed by a hot item such as quiche.
It was also on the lake, which meant some great walks were right there.
We took last Monday off and spent it visiting the Beamsville area. We started at a winery called Good Earth Food and Wine Co., which earned the honour by being the only place we could find there that was open for lunch on Mondays. It still proved an excellent choice, though. Their patio overlooks their lovely grounds, and their bistro menu is small-ish but clearly focused on their strengths. We quite enjoyed the whipped chicken liver parfait appetizer we shared, and my main course wood-oven pizza du jour, featuring bechamel, wild mushrooms, and truffle oil, was also lovely. (I don’t recall what Jean’s main was, but he was happy with it.)
I enjoyed my lunch with a glass of their orange Pinot Grigio, while Jean had the sparkling rose (80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay). We liked both of those enough to buy a bottle of each (Pinot was $18, the sparkling $29), then went for an (also outdoor) wine tasting. With that effort, we came away with a bottle each of the oaked 2017 Chardonnay ($27), and the off-dry Betty’s Blend white (not listed on their website, so I guess you can only buy it in person). We decided against the Viognier.
Our next stop was at The Organized Crime Winery—selected partly because I liked the name! (I should note that, based our current wine stocks, we’d decided in advance to only try whites and roses, and the outdoor tastings in the heat of the day only strengthened that resolve. So apologies to red wine fans, I guess.) At Organized Crime, we picked out three 2020 wines to try: the Pinot Gris, an orange wine blend called Sacrilege, and a Sauvignon Blanc. Though we didn’t know it when making the selections, apparently 2020 was an excellent year for Beamsville Bench wines, so keep that in mind.
And we indeed found all three wines complex and interesting, but the Pinot Gris—which interestingly was more orange in color than the orange wine—was far and away our favourite. In purchasing a couple bottles, we found it’s a common opinion, and they sell out of Pinot Gris quickly every year. It’s $21 a bottle.
Next up: We’d made a reservation for tasting at Kew Vineyard Estate Winery, another “new to use” winery. They seated us at a lovely, treed outdoor setting and provided a little menu of wines, albeit with no tasting notes. But our server was quite willing and able to provide them for any we were interested in, and we also used our phone to look things up on the website.
We knew this would be our last wine stop of the day, so we did two rounds of three tastings. As a result, I don’t recall everything we tried! But I do know what we liked enough to buy:
2015 Old Vines Riesling, a real classic, delicious, dry-style Niagara Riesling, $16 a bottle (we got two)
2018 Rosalie, a rose of 100% Pinot Noir, a lovely drink for $30
2015 Fumé Blanc, which is an oaked Sauvignon Blanc—it does have a real smokey taste. Quite an interesting wine to learn about! The name was coined in California back in the day when the Sauvignon Blanc grape wasn’t much of a draw. One tip: No controls over the term Fumé Blanc, so hard to be sure just what kind of wine you’re getting. $20
North Cider Brut—a dry apple-based sparkling, which they call “Normandy style”, which I think would be just fine with food (like chicken). $13.
Despite it being somewhat warm and sticky, we finished off the day with a little hike at Ball’s Falls. It was good to get some walking in, though the falls themselves weren’t at their most impressive.