You drink wine. You have a fondness for white or red. You have your favorite producing countries, regions, varietals, blends, vineyards and wineries. Then you can also take into account terroir, age of the vines, vintage, aging process and yearly climatic fluctuations. There’s a reason why good sommeliers must go to school to perfect their expertise. Wine is a complex story with many layers to regale the novice to even the most veteran drinker.
Increasingly, though, it’s becoming a story about people above all else. It doesn’t matter about country of origin, the prestige of the winery, microclimate or specific grape planted; if the winemakers are knowledgeable and passionate then they will produce a fantastic drop.
The appellation closest to my hometown of Toronto – the Niagara Peninsula – offers an excellent example of this. Due to its geographical position of being between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and in combination with the buffering effects of a slightly inland escarpment, Niagara has long been known as an area fit for vinicultural activity. However, it was traditionally held only suitable for grapes meant for nonalcoholic juice or, at best, jug varietals like baco noir.
Along came the 1970s and an emboldened generation of young winemakers who knew they could do better. Applying wisdom from the Old World and California, they slowly adjusted their practices to allow for more sophisticated production. This meant the careful grafting of popular international vitis vinifera grapes, advanced crop rotations, the infusion of biodynamic techniques and deducing which grape was most appropriate for each specific hectare of land.
Forty some-odd years later, Niagara is still a relatively small growing region with most wines made for immediate consumption by an unrefined palate. And yet, there are pinot noirs that rival anything out of Burgundy or Napa as well as a select few red blends far above everything from Bordeaux except for the first growths and grand crus. Furthermore, Niagara is world-renowned for its icewines – whether it’s a vidal, gewürztraminer, kerner or cabernet franc, no other region even comes close.
One label that I’m particularly fond of is Stratus Vineyards, and not just because they roll out the red carpet every time I’ve visited! They are a niche producer – 62 acres of diversely planted vines within the Niagara Lakeshore sub-appellation – but they take a modern, science-based approach to nearly step in the winemaking process, from soil filtration and matching the right grapes with the right microclimate to the scrupulous design of the winery itself. Their sustainable facility is one of the only LEED certified buildings of its kind with precise geothermal temperature and humidity controls for the aging cellars and fermentation barrels.
Importantly, the practice of gravity flow is used for every cask, meaning that no pumps or mechanical pressure is applied to the wines prior to bottling. Described as the ‘gentler’ way to handle grapes, the winery uses forklifts to raise or lower barrels during every step of the process from crushing and maceration to cellaring. This prevents oxygenation, preserves chemical structure and ensures the best possible flavor.
Even though on paper, though, LEED and gravity flow features may seem like no-brainers, rest assured that they are each millions of dollars in extra overhead costs. In order to convince the financial backers as well as every new consumer of why these incremental details are essential, it requires people who are wildly passionate about wine. Without their commitment to perfection, undoubtedly Stratus would be making vastly different tastes than it does today.
And while I highlight this winery close to home, the same story is being played out at select vineyards and wineries across the globe. Australia was once a fledgling producer, and now its shiraz is a wonder to behold. Ditto for Argentina and malbec, or New Zealand and sauvignon blanc. More recently, a case can be made for the German Rhineland, which was once only utilized for Müller-Thurgau or other table varieties but now makes exquisite rieslings, spätburgunders and dornfelders among others. Soon we will be writing a similar story about the maturation of the Croatian, Georgian, Hungarian and Romanian growers.
Above all else, and quite like any other aspect in hospitality, wine is a story about people. If you have the right people with the right craft, they will find a way to make a delicious libation, no matter the soil quality, climate, incumbent reputation or vine quality. Passionate winemakers understand that it is a science as much as it is an art.
My suggestion for you, as a hotelier, is to connect with a local winemaker. Find out what makes them special, and then relay that story to your servers so they can pay it forward to your guests. And if you aren’t located close to an appellation, get on the phone or attend a merchant’s fair so you can establish a real, end-to-end relationship with your supplier.
(article by Larry Mogelonsky, published in HotelsMag on June 10, 2016)