Boot Camp for Bon Vivants
Saturday January 21 to Sunday January 22, 2012

A weekend at Peller Estates Winery

Gary & Linda enjoyed a fabulous weekend in Niagara on the Lake - billed as an Intense Icewine Weekend, Boot Camp for Bon Vivants on January 21 & 22, 2012. The event was put on by Peller Estates Winery - which over the past few years has become our favourite winery in Niagara on the Lake.

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    The activities started on Saturday morning, but rather than get up early to make the drive to Niagara on the Lake we decided to head down Friday evening to make the Saturday morning start a more relaxed affair. On all of our previous weekend trips to NOTL we had stayed at one of the hotels in the heart of the town - more often than not it being The Pillar and Post. This weekend was being arranged by Peller Estates and they booked the accommodation for participants at White Oaks Resort & Spa.

    When we made the plans we weren’t really sure what it would be like, but our first impressions of the hotel were good as we arrived Friday evening to check in. The staff and their attentiveness in particular really impressed us. The hotel/conference/spa facility is quite large and has a feel of a conference centre more than anything else, so it really isn’t a quaint getaway location - but still nice and certainly works for a group event. Before leaving home we had booked dinner at LIV, which was the main restaurant in the hotel - so not long after settling into our room we made our way down to LIV. The meal and service turned out to be fabulous - and was a terrific start to our weekend. We returned to the same LIV restaurant for a very nice breakfast on Saturday morning before the official start to the weekend’s events.

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  • Saturday January 21, 2012

    Pruning Vines, Icewine Festival and the Icewinemaker’s Dinner

    We met up with our fellow boot-campers in the lobby of White Oaks where we also met Peller’s business manager Mark Torrance and one of Peller’s winemakers Mary McDermott. From the time we had originally signed up for the weekend to the actual weekend itself there had been a big change at Peller Estates - their head winemaker Lawrence Buhler had left Peller to become vice-president of winemaking at Colio Estate Wines. Mary would be our host for this weekend instead of Lawrence. Our group - a total of 18 people which was surprisingly made up mostly of Americans.

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      We were driven in a limo bus to the winery for the official start to the programme with a reception including sparkling wine, coffee and pastries. At this point we met another key person in the weekend’s event - Peggy Thorne, Peller’s retail manager. The sparkling wine was interesting - Peller makes two sparkling wines made in the traditional method - one white and the other rosé. Both have a dosage of Icewine (110mL of Vidal Icewine in the white and 115mL of Vidal Icewine in the rosé, to be precise) and we have always much preferred the white - known as “Ice Cuvée Classic”. Here at the reception they were serving a special 50th anniversary edition of the “Ice Cuvée Rosé” which we found to be very good, better than the normal bottling. In conversation with Peggy we found out that the special edition had half of the Icewine dosage compared to the regular one - and to our tastebuds it was the perfect amount!

      Our “work” started shortly thereafter - we trudged out into the snowy vineyard with pruning shears in hand to get a crash course in pruning vines and then we were unleashed on a couple of rows of Merlot vines. To be truly honest - it was a little nerve-wracking, but Mary did a great job teaching us and helped anyone who felt unsure as we hacked and slashed the poor unsuspecting Merlot vines. In the end it was a lot of fun to learn how to prune vines and then get to do it on production vines. It was a very cool experience and one we will always remember fondly. The time had passed quickly and it was nearing lunchtime as we left the vineyard. On our way back inside we passed by a storage/barrel aging location for some of the wines and Mary gave us the opportunity to have a look around inside. The air inside was kept quite humid so Gary’s glasses fogged up immediately...and so did the lens on the camera, which meant we got a few photos with a very soft focus look.

      Lunch was served at the winery, and it was a wonderful three course lunch. Chef Jason Parsons made his first official appearance for the weekend as he presented the food, although we had seen him earlier in the day around the winery. The main course of Truffle Seared Diver Scallops paired with Peller’s 2010 Signature Series Sauvignon Blanc was amazing - but then the whole lunch was a treat with each course paired with an appropriate and tasty Peller wine. Following the wonderful lunch, we needed to leave the room we were in so they could set up for the next event - Icewine tasting. Mary took the opportunity to give a tour of the lower level of the winery and by the time were back the tasting was just about ready - so we waited just a few minutes while the staff made the last few finishing touches.

      The Icewince tasting consisted of nine of Peller’s Icewines - Riesling, Vidal and Cabernet Franc - some oak aged and some not - ranging from 2006 to 2011. Mary gave us instructions and guidance on each of the wines that we tasted and we were given some good written information on all but the one 2011 Icewine in the mix - which was a Cabernet Franc. The session was incredibly informative and we were surprised at some of the differences we tasted from sample to sample. Before the tasting session was over, Mark Torrance gave each of us some wood disc tokens to use for the next scheduled event - which was a trip into town to take in some of the Icewine Festival. The tokens were to “pay” for samples of icewine or food at any of the winery booths other than Peller or Hillebrand - anything at those two would be token-free for us. We were driven to the main drag of NOTL and from that point we were on our own to wander around the booths and displays.

      There was quite a crowd at the festival, and we realized shortly after arriving that we needed to head to one of the general Icewine Festival booths selling glasses - so our first two tokens were used getting the sampling glasses we’d need to try more icewine! It was also the location to buy those wood tokens, had we not been given them by Peller. We did a full lap of the Icewine Festival area to get the lay of the land as well as pick out the wines we’d like to try - our plan was to try wines that would be quite different from the ones we’d been enjoying so far at Peller. We were still wearing the nametags that we had been given at the start of the day, and for the first couple of booths we were mistaken as press, who apparently got their samples for free. Even after Linda explained to one that we were with a group from Peller rather than press we were still given the samples without the need to surrender tokens.

      We were finding out, though, the drawbacks to sampling Icewine outside in the cold - it was almost impossible to enjoy the full experience as ones nose gets cold and doesn’t discern the aroma properly. Having said that, it was a fun experience. We did get to try some interesting and some strange Icewines - and made a decision that we’d be buying some Stratus Icewine on our way home after the weekend in NOTL. We certainly noticed that our preference was for Icewines with higher acidity to balance the sweetness - and Stratus had done that with theirs, which were blended Icewines - both red and white on offer. We have become big fans of Stratus in recent years and their Icewines followed the same quality we had found in the table wines of theirs we had tried. On the topic of acidity; higher acid levels is basically why we in general much prefer Riesling Icewine over Vidal or Cabernet Franc - to our palettes it is a much better balanced Icewine.

      We spotted Chef Jason Parsons at the Peller booth - he was slow roasting a pig in a roasting box to make pulled pork on a bun. Linda was too full to try, by Gary gave one a whirl - it was delicious. Besides being a fabulous chef, Jason is also a very friendly and approachable individual - and clearly a wonderful ambassador of the Peller brand. We had a brief chat with Jason about the weekend and the experiences so far and he told us about an Icewine cocktail competition that each of the wineries will take part in later that evening as part of the festival. From his experience at past festival he said this was a wonderful and fun event. He’d be heading to it as soon as he was done at the Icewinemaker’s Dinner at Peller Estates.

      Our time was just about up before we had to meet up with the rest of the group for the trip back to our hotel, so we made a quick trip into Wine Country Vintners and then Greaves Jams and Marmalades. At Greaves we tried some interesting samples of Ice Syrup on appetizers - taking the Icewine grapes to something different. They had samples of Vidal and Cabernet Franc syrup. Interesting, indeed. From Greaves we made our way to the designated meeting spot and in short order we were on our way back to the hotel. It was interesting to hear what the others had tasted and liked (or didn’t like) - both food and wine. It was good to be back at White Oaks Resort & Spa - we were feeling a bit weary by this point! We were happy for the opportunity to have a bit of a rest before our group would be picked up once again to head back to Peller Estates for what we were expecting to be a wonderful dinner.

      Nicely rested and changed out of our cold weather gear into something more befitting the Icewinemaker’s Dinner, we made our way back down to the reception of White Oaks to meet up with the rest of our group. We had a quick chat with those assembled as we waited for the arrival of the final few and the limo bus from Niagara Classic Cars that was our transportation for the weekend and would soon take us to Peller Estates for dinner. There were bottles of sparkling wines in the limo bus. The atmosphere was festive, so we popped one of the bottles of sparkling wine chilling in the limo bus. It was a fun trip to the winery, and even though the wine wasn’t a well known champagne, it was a reasonable sparkling wine that hit the spot for the moment.

      Once we arrived at the winery, we joined the already quite large group of assembled people in the large foyer of the building. Punch and hors d'oeuvres were being served and we met up with Peggy and Mary for some pre-dinner chit chat. It was apparent that the restaurant would be well and truly full for the Icewinemaker’s Dinner and as we made our way to the restaurant we could see that our group received the place of honour - two tables that would essentially make up the head table for the dinner. Peggy and Mary sat next to us, and once everyone was seated Peggy picked up a microphone and began the proceedings for the evening.

      The tasting menu provided for some wonderful taste experiences...starting with foie gras served with an Icewine jelly, black truffle meringue and a pistachio sponge - the latter two being Chef Jason Parsons’ foray into molecular gastronomy. The foie gras was a nice touch...shaped to resemble corks. It was very smartly paired with an 2010 Oak-aged Vidal Icewine. It would be hard to pick our favourite dish in the tasting menu, but if forced to pick it would probably be the Squab ‘A la King’ paired with a 2009 Chardonnay ‘Sur Lie’ (a wine term meaning that the wine was left in contact with the spent yeast during fermentation). Hmmm, wait a second...the West coast pears with blue cheese ice cream was quite memorable, paired with our weekend favourite 2007 Riesling Icewine. Or maybe...well, you get the idea - the entire dinner was very good. Chef Jason Parsons made a few appearances and Mary McDermott spoke passionately about some of the wines being served. The whole dinner experience was terrific.

      Once dessert was finished we collected our coats from the coat check and made our way outside where they were serving 2008 Cabernet Franc Icewine at the Icewine bar to go along with the ample supply of Icewine infused marshmallows. There were a number of wood fires set in pots all around the patio area to toast the marshmallows - it really was a fun way to end the evening. The ride back to the hotel was jovial but everyone was quite tired by this point...any thought of doing something after the dinner had long since disappeared, so we all headed to our rooms once we reached White Oaks Resort & Spa. It was just past midnight when we reached the hotel and the other people looked about as tired as we both felt. It had been a long day, but a very enjoyable day for which we have some wonderful memories.

  • Sunday January 22, 2012

    Falk Farms, Intense Sunday Morning Challenge and Sunday Lunch

    Sunday morning started for us with very nice breakfast at LIV and then we returned to our room to prepare to leave. Unlike yesterday when we were chauffeured around, this day we needed to make our own way to Peller Estates - so we checked out of White Oaks Resort & Spa and then loaded up the car to make the drive over to the winery. We met up with our group in the foyer and shortly after we set off to Falk Family Farms - a farm growing grapes exclusively for Peller. As we arrived we could see the cleanup of a breakfast prepared by chef Jason Parsons for the farm staff - just to underline the closeness of the relationship between Peller and Falk Family Farms.

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      We were introduced to Trevor Falk - the third generation head of Falk Family Farms. Trevor shared a great deal of his passion and knowledge of his family’s long standing business. He was informative and engaging, and it was great to see this side of the wine business and hear from someone like Trevor. With his two young kids running around while he spoke, he also shared his desire to see the fourth generation take hold of the loved family business.

      With the time sensitivity of Icewine production, Falk Family Farms actually presses the grapes on site for Peller and delivers the juice to the winery. They had clearly invested heavily based on the working agreement with Peller. We could easily go on and on about the things we learned at the farm - it was amazingly informative and enjoyable. We weren’t really expecting this part of the weekend to be so good. After Trevor finished speaking and answering our group’s many questions, Mary took centre stage with three bottles of very expensive juice. The juice, of course, was grape juice from the 2011 Icewine yield - one bottle each of Vidal, Riesling and Cabernet Franc. Based on the 2010 prices these 3 bottles represented over $400 worth of juice. We received a sample of each and it was interesting to taste the initial flavour of the juice after we had tasted a variety of these Icewines the day before. We could clearly taste the characteristics of the Vidal and Riesling, but not the Cabernet Franc. That particular varietal must develop more of the characteristic Icewine flavour in the fermentation process. We felt that tasting these wines was a particular treat and one we will cherish.

      Before heading back to Peller Estates we had the opportunity to look around at some of the equipment - including the massive grape harvesting machines that we were allowed to crawl around - Gary took the opportunity to sit up in the cab of one of them. With our time up, we bid farewell to Falk Family Farms and made our way back to the winery for our “Intense Sunday Morning Challenge” - a blind taste test of some of Peller’s Icewines. Peggy Thorne hosted the blind taste test in one of the upper rooms of Peller Estates. We had to determine the varietal, series, vintage and whether or not it was oak aged of four Icewines. The series was a gimme - all of their Icewines are Signature Series, and the varietal was easy to discern (the Cabernet Franc didn’t even have to be tasted to get that one). The challenge really came down to the vintage and whether or not the wines were oak aged. We both did okay on the test, but didn’t get them all right.

      Following the taste test our official photographer Joni McCann had us go out onto the balcony - which was directly over the main entrance to the winery. She took a series of photos of the group (minus two that had to leave just before the blind taste test). After the photo shoot we had a bit of time to mingle while the Peller staff set up for the final element of the weekend - Sunday Lunch.

      Sunday lunch was served by two of Peller’s restaurant staff - one of whom had served us on our previous trip to NOTL. We remembered that meal well - she was a good server and that evening at the Peller Restaurant was terrific. Unlike the other meals we’d had this weekend, there was no program or presentation during lunch, in fact this was the first time our group was alone except for those serving. The servers were both attentive and the lunch was very enjoyable, although we thought it did not have the flair of the other meals we had enjoyed this weekend. The table conversation was interesting and more personal than any of the other conversations during the weekend because the focus wasn’t on some particular element of wine. There was one thing we found out about wine, though - we both loved the 2010 Private Reserve Gamay Noir that was served with the main course of the lunch - the paring with the food was wonderful and it was definitely on our list to purchase before leaving the winery.

      As dessert concluded, people in the group bid farewell and left. There was one couple that had changed their plans over the weekend and added a further night stay at the hotel. That was something we had considered, and had we to do this weekend again we would certainly plan to stay on the Sunday night and head back home on Monday. Before leaving Peller we went to the retail shop to purchase some wines to take home as well as re-sign up for the Peller Wine Club. We had previously signed up as a trial membership that had since lapsed, so this was a good opportunity to get back into it. Beyond al of the other perks of membership, they mail two bottles of wine per month - usually one red and one white and often wines that otherwise can only be purchased at the winery.

      We often take a winding route home through the different wineries to buy wines, but this time we only intended to stop at one location - Stratus. We were finding that most wines we have been purchasing recently in NOTL have come from the combination of Peller and Stratus. At Stratus we picked up some of the Icewine we had tried at the Icewine Festival. We would have bought some table wine as well except that our favourite Stratus wine had been sold out! With purchases made we made the drive home to Brampton in the late afternoon. We reminisced as we drove - we both had truly enjoyed every aspect of this weekend. The people at Peller did an amazing job. It is a weekend that we will remember for sure and possibly do again - not next year, because that would be too repetitive - but certainly something to enjoy again sometime. There are other weekend activities that Peller arranges...hmmmm, perhaps we need to try one of those. Indeed.

  • Monday July 2, 2012: Epilogue

    A return trip to the vineyard

    For Monday of the Canada Day long weekend, Gary & Linda took a lovely drive back to Niagara on the Lake. It would be the first time we had returned to Niagara on the Lake since we attended the Intense Icewine Weekend in January.

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      This trip was essentially to purchase some Peller Estates’ Gamay Noir because the White house cellar was getting a bit low on that particular varietal and it is a White house favourite.

      BUT…

      It was also a great opportunity to check up on the vines we had pruned back in January as part of the Intense Icewine Weekend. To be honest, we weren't entirely confident that our group had done a good job on our first pruning experience. Was a good idea to check them out even if our expectations were low.

      The day was gloriously sunny and hot and as we walked out to the vineyard we remarked that it was about a 40°C difference in temperature from our pruning day. We had a wonderful day in Niagara on the Lake and certainly enjoyed the warmer weather this time around.

      The good news for us was that both of the rows of Merlot vines that our group had pruned were alive and well - flourishing in the sunny and hot conditions.

      We hadn’t killed them!

      Our Merlot Vines

      "Our" Merlot Vines - alive and well

Intense Icewine Weekend Image Gallery

Peller staff preparing the Icewine Bar
Linda pruning Merlot vines
Looking back towards the winery from the vineyard
Large wine barrels stored on the lower level of the winery
Icewines to sample
Close up on the nine icewines ready to be sampled
Queen Street transformed for the Icewine Festival
Our fav sampling at the Icewine Festival - Stratus 2008 White
Chef Jason Parsons checking the pig roasting inside the box
Night view from the patio of Peller Estates Winery
Some of our group roasting icewine marshmallows
Sunday morning view of the vineyard
About WHITEonline

WHITEonline is the digital home of Gary & Linda White. We’ve been married since 1980 and live just outside Toronto in Ontario, Canada. Linda was born and raised in Toronto while Gary was born in London, England and moved to Canada at the age of 11. We enjoy travelling and taking photos while we travel. WHITEonline provides the opportunity to share some of our photos & experiences.

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