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Take me to the vineyard*
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Take me to the vineyard*

*With apologies to Al Green

Once in a while, there’s a memory some social media website reminds you of that makes you feel older than dirt.

For me that came in the form of a Facebook memory that popped up last week, which let me know that on that day in 2008 I had filed Uncorked No. 122.

I’ve long stopped numbering the wine/beer/spirits articles/columns I’ve written, but some quick math (52 weeks x 14 years since then = 728, plus the 122 written before that, minus maybe 10 for weeks I didn’t file because of illness or holiday) tells me I’ve written around just shy of 850 columns.

There’s no question there’s always something new to learn about wine and all manner of drinks, but when you’ve been writing about the stuff for over 16 years you’re bound to run into the occasional mental roadblock.

Wine country in winter can be just as beautiful as in warmer months, as is evident in this photo of Meyer Family Vineyards’ McLean Creek Vineyard in the Okanagan Valley. (Ben Sigurdson / Winnipeg Free Press files)

In the last 16-plus years, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit wineries on four continents, some multiple times, including numerous visits to wineries in Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia. I’ve bent the ear of winemakers, had lunch/dinner with fellow wine writers and producers, and explored various nooks and crannies of wineries, vineyards and tasting rooms — all quite memorable and perfect fodder for Uncorked.

Higher-altitude vineyards such as this one in Chile, visited in 2015, typically offer pretty stunning views. (Ben Sigurdson / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Some trips are memorable for non-wine-related reasons. In 2011, during a two-and-a-half-week trek through Australia, I went out for a nice dinner with a long-time Tasmanian winemaker. After our lovely dinner I was dropped off at my hotel, traded my business casual garb for a T-shirt and jeans and walked over to a grungy bar to see Propagandhi. Because what else do you do when you’re 15,000-plus kilometres from home than see a bunch of your pals from Winnipeg play a rock show?

A more embarrassing memory: On my very first wine trip — to California in 2007 — I spat Pinot Noir all over the beige khakis of one of Canada’s best-known wine writers after hearing a story that simply cannot be repeated here. I looked at him in horror, and he at me, and we both suddenly burst out laughing. We’re now good pals — either in spite of or because of this event.

Witness the ‘holy crap — I’m in a helicopter’ look on my face while above Niagara Falls en route to Ontario’s Trius winery in 2015. (Magdalena Kaiser photo)

I’ve seen tarantulas in Chile, seals sunning themselves on the San Francisco wharfs, packs of kangaroos hopping their way through vineyards (I’ll let you guess where that was). I’ve travelled through wine country by foot, by bike, in the back of a pickup truck, in tour buses jammed with other writers, in dusty 4x4s and even, once, in a helicopter (in Ontario, first over Niagara Falls).

Hacking up some Cabernet Sauvignon vines at St. Supery’s Dollarhide Ranch in Napa Valley in 2016. (Paula Oreskovich photo)

I’ve had the chance to taste Riesling in Germany from the 1945 vintage, Malbec from the 1950s in Mendoza, 100-year-old port-like fortified wine in Barossa. I pruned vines (poorly!) at the late Peter Lehmann’s Stonewell vineyard in Australia and in St. Supery’s Dollarhide Ranch vineyard in Napa. I’ve crawled into holes in the ground in Portugal, Argentina and in Australia’s Coonawarra region to look at different layers of soil that impact the ability of vines to reach water.

In this 2017 photo, an Argentine winemaker (whose name escapes me) describes the soil from a hole cut in the ground in the vineyard. (Ben Sigurdson / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Since my last international trip in late 2019, I’ve been on one wine trip — a quick trek to the Okanagan Valley to judge at WineAlign’s 2021 National Wine Awards of Canada. Most of our time was spent in a room at the Penticton Trade and Convention Centre tasting flight after flight of Canadian wines, and the few winery visits we did in the evenings were carefully choreographed to ensure social distancing, etc.

And while that 2008 Facebook memory did make me feel old, it got me thinking about how ridiculously fortunate I’ve been to do this wine/drinks writing stuff, how much fun I’ve had in being able to travel, and just how much I miss the travel component of all this. (I know, very first-world problem-ish.)

Visiting wine country instantly gets my brain whirring at breakneck speed with potential column topics — meeting winemakers and seeing where and how wines are made is instantly inspiring. Heck, at this point (if it felt safe) I’d even take the packed-to-the-rafters, elbows-out royal rumble that is the Winnipeg Wine Festival public tasting at the RBC Convention Centre (sounds like that beast is coming back in September, by the way).

For two years now I’ve been ordering wines online, doing curbside pickup and/or quick dashes into stores, breweries and the like — not exactly mentally stimulating. The wine-related Zooms I’ve attended, while highly informative, still happen under the same roof where I’ve spent most of the pandemic (we moved in October 2020). At times, it’s tough to find my proverbial mojo.

But things are opening back up (for better or worse), and it looks like I’ve got my first trip of 2022 lined up for this June (albeit within Canada — best to start with baby steps, perhaps). Here’s hoping it can spark my excitement and curiosity about all things wine again, which has admittedly waned since March 2020.

Ben Sigurdson, literary editor and drinks writer

Tasty tidbits

Gâto Bakeshop on Sargent Avenue is hosting a Mauritius Independence Day celebration this weekend with food, music and displays about the island nation’s history. Bakery owner Laura Gurbhoo hails from the small country off the east coast of Madagascar, which gained independence in 1968. She will be whipping up some traditional treats, like oundé, a sweet ball made of semolina, and poudine maïs, a polenta pudding. Treat boxes are available for purchase in the shop on March 12 and 13. Visit gatowpg.com for details. 

Laura Gurbhoo opened Gâto bakery in 2021. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Got a sweet tooth? There’s a sugar mama for that — or will be soon. On April 2, Sugar Mama Cookie Co. will open its doors at 10 a.m. at 184 Provencher Blvd. in St. Boniface. All “mamas” that come into the shop on the first day with their wee ones will get a free cookie, and the first 100 customers will get 30 per cent off their purchase. In the meantime you can check out all their mouth-watering baked goods on their Instagram account.

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In the wake of the death of Toad in the Hole owner Michael Monk’s death in January of cancer, a Gofundme campaign has been created to raise $100,000 of the required $150,000 for projected roof and heating system repairs. The Toad, in its new-ish location at 155 Osborne St., was only able to open for one day before the pandemic shut down, well, everything.

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Attention all wing lovers: St. Louis Bar & Grill are looking to set up shop in Manitoba in the near future. A senior VP for the Toronto-based chain, which boasts over 70 locations in Canada, recently noted plans for expansion across Western Canada, including a Winnipeg location at some point this year.

Recommended fare

Ben: I’m currently reading Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World by Eliza Reid, the Canadian-born first lady of Iceland. Reid details the ways in which Iceland is well ahead of many countries when it comes to gender equality, weaving in stories about the experience of raising her own four children there. She launches the book (virtually) in Winnipeg on the afternoon of March 20 in conversation with (the very funny) Terry Fallis.

The new (fourth) season of Formula 1: Drive to Survive lands on Netflix today. I watched the 2021 F1 season unfold in real time after having watched the first three seasons of Drive to Survive, so there probably won’t be too many surprises, but rest assured it’s filled with high drama (well, as high as motorsports drama can get, I guess). The 2022 F1 season gets underway next weekend in Bahrain, so you have time to binge the new Drive to Survive episodes before it’s “lights out and away we go” with new-look cars and a whole new set of regulations. Man, I am such a nerd.

Eva: I stayed up way too late this week watching Severance, a spooky series about simulated work-life balance. The show stars Adam Scott and Britt Lower as co-workers who have undergone a procedure to have their memories divided between work and home. I love a smart psychological thriller and, five episodes in, there have already been some satisfying twists. You can watch it on Apple TV+, new episodes land every Friday.

Pho Binh Minh, 819 Sargent Ave., might be my new favourite Vietnamese joint. The power went out in the neighbourhood the other day, so we were stuck getting some delightful takeout for dinner (darn). The beef pho sate had a spicy, flavourful broth and the deluxe vermicelli was, well, deluxe. Check out their gigantic menu here.

Homemade

In celebration of its 150th anniversary, the Free Press is making a community cookbook. Submit a recipe and be entered into a draw to win a copy of the cookbook and other prizes. You can also join our Facebook group.

This month, we looked back at the paper’s long-running Recipe Swap column. For nearly 25 years, readers turned to the Free Press to find long-lost recipes and dupes for local restaurant fare. Eva spoke with some of the columnists and “Swappers” who made the series a success. Read it here.

Enid Barnes, longtime contributor and avid reader of the paper’s Recipe Swap column, still has her huge collection of recipe clippings. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

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