Barbera D’Alba – A Love Story
August 25, 2017 by Tom Dai
She lies on the couch reading a book looking achingly beautiful. “I find you incredibly sexy when you write,” she said. “Really?” he says as he keeps writing. How could he not after that comment? She looks up from her book wreathed in a mischievous grin and he could feel himself falling deeper and deeper in love. The pressure to write spurs him on. He feels like he has to keep striking those keys, keep the sound of typing in the air as if to prove that he’s a true writer, and while he is putting words to paper, he wonders if it is any good. Some of the time, all he’s doing is hitting the spacebar and delete key, to keep the illusion going. Occasionally when he runs out of things to write, he’ll reach for his glass of wine, a Barbera D’Alba, pausing long enough to take a sip before he goes back to the machine to type furiously away. So what does he want to write? He is trying to punch out an article for a wine blog, something about Italy preferably, but he has no idea how to begin. Something about his journey into Italian wine, about learning Italian, about going to Italy and how romantic that all seems to him, but he needs an interesting paragraph or anecdote to introduce the article. Something fictional perhaps. A story about meeting a girl. On a bridge. In Tuscany.
It was the third time that I had seen her. Each time she looked more beautiful. I was in Orvieto, Italy, on an evening communal stroll through town, known as “la passeggiata,” and as I walked back and forth through the town I vowed I would speak to her if I saw her a third time. So now my time was up.
So far, so good, he thought. There’s a girl in the story and though there is no bridge, it does take place in Tuscany.
I smiled at her and introduced myself. “Mi Chiamo Tom.”
“My name is Alba,” she said.
Wonderful. Like the town? My Italian wasn’t any good, so I never got to ask her. We started walking down the street, together this time, speaking in a combination of bad English and bad Italian. The sun was setting and in the absence of its warmth she shivered and I put my arms around her. We slowly wandered into a trattoria, and after scanning the wine list, settled on a bottle of Barbera D’Alba with a chuckle. I didn’t drink much Barbera back then, and was immediately captivated by its deep ruby colour, thus expecting something rich and full-bodied, but was instead met with delightfully light notes of strawberry and sour cherry, low tannins, and high acidity, traits more reminiscent of a juicy Pinot Noir. Considered an inferior grape to Nebbiolo, Barbera is nevertheless an important wine, one that is more accessible than Barolo, the so-called “King of Wines” with its royal tannin bomb exploding in your mouth.
How many years has it been? He thinks five, but when he takes another sip of the Barbera D’Alba, the memory is so vivid that it feels like less. Well, at least he is writing now, and writing well, even though the story is more about meeting a girl in Tuscany than it is about wine, he knows finishing the article is more important than blindly hitting the delete key.
“Where in Canada are you from?” she asked, after we were three quarters into the bottle. I moved around a lot growing up, so I regaled her with my childhood stories until the bottle was finished. We were in no rush to leave, yet there was an immediacy to our conversation. We were on borrowed time and wanted to annihilate the need to say goodbye. What better way to slow down time than to drink wine? Wine is about patience. This is evident throughout its entire lifecycle, from the growing of the grapes, to the aging of the wine, to the drinking of it. I thought about this as I stared into Alba’s eyes, not wanting our time to end. “We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine.” As I took my first kiss, I realized no truer words have ever been written.
She is asleep now. Without the need to impress her he was able to finish writing his story freely. He looked at her face and couldn’t imagine himself a better fate. Not wanting to wake her, he will have to wait until the morning to show her what he’s written, and she will be moved by his story about how they met five years ago in Tuscany, and fell in love over a kiss, and two glasses of wine.
The Wine Diaries
March 16, 2017 by Tom Dai
January 3, 2017
It was a cold morning, the coldest I could remember since moving to Victoria two years ago. It was early January and I could see my breath dissolving in the sunlight. As I walked down Government Street, I felt like I was back in Europe somewhere, walking along an esplanade as shoppers ducked in and out of cute little shops with unfamiliar names and logos that reminded me I was in a foreign place and I would crack a smile.
The wines of France has always held a special place for me but just like that feeling I had on Government Street, I was beginning to find similarities in certain Okanagan Valley wines that can remind me of their French counterparts. While their terroir is obviously different, many of the same varietals that France is known for flourish here in BC.
Last night I had the Cedar Creek 2014 Meritage – a legit Bordeaux blend front loaded with Cabernet Franc, followed closely with Merlot and Malbec, then rounded out with Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot – and it was a beautiful expression of these varietals, a plush blend with concentrated fruit, chewy tannins, and a nice touch of savoury tobacco and herbaceous notes from the Cabernet Franc. Even at 3%, I swore I could smell and taste some floral notes like violet and lavender from the Petit Verdot. Well, it was probably just in my head. Nevertheless, it managed to transport me back to my halcyon days when I was in a foreign place, and I cracked a smile.
February 6, 2017
I really like all this snow. If it were Christmas. But since it’s here, I wonder what wine would pair well with it? Icewine seems too obvious. I suppose all that sugar would warm your cockles, but I think I’d go with a big, powerful, hearty red to curb-stomp that snow to the curb. I think a Barolo would do the trick. Nothing makes you forget snow quite like the aroma of tar and roses, for which Barolo is known. Add to that its rich tannins and high acidity, and this wine would tame a wild boar dish and is more than deserving of a history that includes, “The Barolo Wars,” and the distinction, “The wine of kings, the king of wines.” Goodbye snow.
On a side note: I once knew a guy named Rob who made his own Barolo and shared it with his friends but the wines tasted nothing like Barolo. He called it “Robolo,” and that was the best thing about the wine.
February 10, 2017
I was asked this today: “Do you have anything that is sweet but dry?” I was perplexed for a second, but after asking some follow-up questions, I was able to track down exactly what they were looking for. Wine descriptors is a delicate art and can be overwhelming, but learning a few basics can go a long way toward expressing what exactly you like about a certain wine and avoid drinking a Gewürztraminer when what you really wanted was a dry Riesling.
Some simple ones from the top of my head:
Dry – not sweet
Flabby – lacking in acidity
Earthy – dry with aromas and flavours of dirt or forest floor, considered a good thing
Cloying – a wine that is too sweet and not balanced by acidity
Complex – multi-layers of flavour and aroma
Oaky – a wine that exhibits effects from oak aging, such as vanilla, spice, and smokiness
Jammy – rich with ripe fruit but lacking in tannins
Balanced – a wine that incorporates tannins, acidity, sweetness, and alcohol harmoniously
February 17, 2017
It was my birthday today and I would have celebrated if I did that sort of thing but I didn’t so I just drank some wine. I was gifted a bottle of Mission Hill’s Terroir Collection 2012 Syrah (available only at the winery) and I paired it with a delicious roast beast that was made in my honour and the result was glorious. A complex depth of blackberry and blackcurrant flavours, wrapped around notes of sage, espresso, and smoke, this Syrah is reminiscent of a Northern Rhône, particularly Hermitage (if you use some imagination). With each sip, the rustic tannins melted the fattiness of the beef in my mouth, and the spice notes in the wine complemented the seasoning perfectly. So I guess I did celebrate after all…
March 1, 2017
Today I drifted aimlessly from café to café. It’s a beautiful day outside. Naturally, I can’t write. I look at the time: 10:45 am. Which wine will go well with an early afternoon? It’s wine o’clock somewhere…
January 23, 2017 by Tom Dai
It was a cruel trick to play, I suppose. It was an hour before the restaurant was set to open, and two hours before the dinner rush. There was a great commotion at the bar that soon fell into an excited hush as I watched them eagerly swirl and sip the wine, all the while keeping my expression stoic like I was holding pocket aces.
“This is so good!” one server said.
“Oh my god.” said another.
“I’m going to sell so many of these,” from somewhere to my left.
I had been telling the staff for months about this great new wine we were bringing in, and I had promised them I would do a staff tasting once it arrived. What I didn’t tell them was that they had been duped.
I had presented them a bottle of the new wine, a white Burgundy that carried a hefty price tag –but what they were actually tasting was the house Chardonnay I had poured for them earlier, a wine they had all tried before and had generally dismissed as a cheap white, instead of the one everyone was now gushing over.
One server finished her wine, put the glass down and proclaimed that it was the best wine she’s ever had. “Thank you,” she added. I gulped and tugged at my shirt collar. It was getting warm under there.
I hadn’t expected this kind of reaction, and now as I watched them swish the wine in their mouths and smack their lips thinking they were drinking a beautiful Burgundy Chardonnay, I was left wondering whether I should keep up the charade or tell them the truth and risk looking like a smug jerk.
I asked them to tell me what it was that they liked about the wine, and what flavours they were detecting to get them to think about what they were tasting, but as soon as someone yelled out, “green apple!” that was all anyone could taste, so they basically repeated each other’s answers and read the tasting notes from the wine label.
When I finally revealed the truth, most of them were rightly embarrassed and some were even angry, but an important lesson was learnt that day.
Tasters are easily influenced by the wine’s geographical region, reputation, price, and the power of suggestion. We expect a more expensive wine to taste better than a cheap one and studies have shown that when given the same exact wine but with different price tags, tasters will perceive complexity and depth in the one they think is more expensive. Talk about price bias!
Blind tastings are important in eliminating this bias, and more importantly, they’re fun! Of course, the most famous blind tasting occurred in 1976 in the so-called “Judgment of Paris” where a panel of French judges were blind-tasted on red and white wines from France and the then unknown region of California. The results were tallied and to the horror of the judges, the California wines had won both categories. Needless to say, this would not have happened had the tasting not been blind.
These days I try to do blind tastings whenever I can. It’s the surest way to eliminate biases and focus on what you really taste in the glass, to trust your instincts and to trust how the wine is making you feel. If a wine can remind me of a warm café with dusty chandeliers and the sound of an accordion playing on the terrace, then I don’t care how much it costs, I’m drinking it.
A Master Sommelier can theoretically taste any wine blind and tell you where it was from, what year it was made, who made it, and what to pair it with. But unless you are one of the 200 or so Master Sommeliers in the world, you should start your blind tastings with wines that are the same varietal but from different regions, say a BC Syrah with an Australian Shiraz for example, and then gradually work your way up to tasting blends like a Bordeaux against a Meritage, until you can train your palate and knowledge enough to tell the difference between a Burgundy Chardonnay and a cheap house white from God knows where.
After I had revealed to the staff my little deception, we spent the rest of the pre-shift meeting tasting and talking about the actual new wine, and the consensus was that it was exceptional, with flavours of green apple, bright citrus, notes of toasted oak, and a slight hint of embarrassment, anger, and blind trust.
The Best Christmas Movie Wine Pairings
December 20, 2016 by Tom Dai
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Christmas is less than a week away, I’m nineteen chocolates deep into my advent calendar, and Santa’s coming! I know him! After enduring eleven months without Christmas music, I now get to listen to Bing Crosby remind me that the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful. With the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack on repeat, the tree was put up and decorated, the stockings were hung by the chimney with care, and the lights were untangled and strung up everywhere. And we get to watch my favourite Christmas movies again! And what better way to watch these movies than pairing them with a glass of wine! Like music, I believe every activity or situation goes better with wine, and movies are no exception.
So without further ado, here is my definitive, by no demand, totally unnecessary, top 5 Christmas movies and their suggested wine pairings!
5. A Christmas Carol / Hécula Monastrell
Bah! Humbug! No one’s purse strings are tighter than Ebenezer Scrooge’s. So how about a nice value wine that is also on the list of the 1001 Wines You Must Taste Before You Die? The Hécula Monastrell by Bodegas Castaño is intense with flavours of fig, plums, and berries. Soft, yet elegant with ripe tannins. Perfect for those surprise visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future!
4. Elf / Mission Hill Reserve Riesling Icewine
Buddy the Elf likes to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup. To paraphrase a line of dialogue from the movie:
“You like sugar, huh?”
“Is there sugar in Icewine?”
The Mission Hill Reserve Riesling Icewine has enough fruit and sweetness to satisfy your inner elf. Fresh aromatic citrus, apricot, and orange marmalade balanced by bright acidity that will make you want to spread Christmas cheer by singing loud for all to hear. There’s enough icewine for everyone on the nice list!
3. A Charlie Brown Christmas / CedarCreek Gewürztraminer
A German varietal to honour the heritage of Charlie Brown’s creator, Charles M. Schultz, it has the added benefit of being a great pairing with Christmas turkey, with its aromatic nose, and flavours of lychee, honeysuckle, and pear, ending with hints of ginger and spice. Great for pondering the true meaning of Christmas while lounging in front of your Charlie Brown tree and listening to the movie soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, in my opinion, the greatest Christmas album of all time.
2. The Family Man / Château Lafite ‘82
Similar in premise to It’s a Wonderful Life in that it offers a glimpse into what life could have been, The Family Man is one of my favourite movies, not only during Christmas, but anytime. I suppose I’m a sucker for what if? movies. There is a restaurant scene in which Nicholas Cage’s character orders a bottle of Château Lafite, ’82, but is quickly reprimanded by his wife for ordering an $800 bottle of wine. Well, since we are playing what ifs, let’s go with this as our wine pairing! Arguably the world’s best Bordeaux, it has flavours of ripe blackcurrants, violets, and notes of vanilla, with elegant tannins and an enduring finish. One glimpse of this wine and you’ll never want to go back!
1. It’s a Wonderful Life / Mission Hill Oculus 2012
The quintessential Christmas movie deserves the Okanagan’s quintessential wine. And since the word oculus means an opening or window into a dome, it seems apropos to pair it with a movie that offers a window into another life. Like the movie, the Oculus is complex and deep. Layers of rich plum and blackberry notes provide depth, with leather and spice rounding out this beautifully balanced wine that will age as gracefully as the movie. Remember, no man is a failure who has friends…and Oculus!
Die Hard / Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut Champagne
You can debate whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie or not, but you’d be wrong. Nothing says Christmas like trying to bring the family together and shooting some terrorists. This movie kicks ass, and so does this champagne, with flavours of honeysuckle, grapefruit, and blood orange. Yippee ki-yay!
November 10, 2016 by Tom Dai
It was late September as we rumbled along the road in an open-back camouflage truck, raising up dust from the road and no one spoke because their mouths were either closed or yawning or had a cigarette in them. The dawn came swiftly and rolling vineyards unfurled as light colonized what were once shadows and silhouettes along the fertile valley. Once we were mobilized, we began to pick the famed Gamay grapes of the region, overlooking the undulating hills of Beaujolais, France.
I was a vendangeur, harvesting grapes in the vineyards of Juliénas–named after Julius Caesar –one of the ten Cru Beaujolais appellations, each having its own distinct terroir. The work was challenging, with knotty shrubs on slopes of sand and granite. For breaks, instead of water, we drank the light fruity red wine made from the grapes picked by the harvesters of the previous year. It was my first taste of Beaujolais wine, and where better than from whence it came? I was immediately hooked. We drank it in the vineyards, back at the farm, and in our barracks as we passed the wine from cot to cot, drinking straight from the bottle. Beaujolais is known to be a festive party wine because of its expressive and vibrant flavours of strawberry and currant and I saw this first-hand on my first-day there. We sang, laughed,wrestled and told jokes about each other’s mothers. I suppose that is called camaraderie. The harvest lasted for two weeks.
“Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” If you’ve ever been in Paris during the third Thursday of every November, chances are you would have seen those words plastered on the window front of every wine shop, café, and bistro around town. Considered a national event, the first arrival of the new Beaujolais wine is cheerfully met with much fanfare befitting its fun and delightful nature. Initially made to celebrate the end of the harvest season, Beaujolais Nouveau is made from 100% hand-picked Gamay grapes native to the region, bottled just 6-8 weeks after the harvest using carbonic maceration, resulting in a fresh and youthful wine that is fruity and low in tannins.
Renowned for its easy-drinking, playful fruit flavours, Beaujolais is often overlooked in favour of its more famous (and serious) neighbour to the north, Bourgogne. But not all Beaujolais wines are created equal. While Beaujolais Nouveau is made for immediate consumption and not age worthy, Beaujolais-Village is a step up in quality, and Cru Beaujolais is made in the same style as Bourgogne, and can be powerful and complex, worthy of aging for 5-10 years, after which, they start to resemble Pinot Noirs. If you’re looking for a cheaper Burgundy Pinot alternative, go Cru.
Here in BC, the arrival of the Beaujolais Nouveau comes without ceremony. On November 17th this year, instead of “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” it’ll just be “Thursday!” No matter. I’ll be flocking to the wine store to buy some Beaujolais – Nouveau, Village, and Cru. And when I drink them, I’ll remember the harvest, waking up to the crow of the rooster, drinking black coffee from big bowls into which we dipped our bread, piling into the truck and watching the dust rise from the road, until finally, standing in the sun, on the top of a hill looking over the valley of rows upon rows of ancient Roman vineyards, wiping the sweat from my forehead and taking a swig of wine, I truly felt like an Emperor from the pages of history.
October 18, 2016 by Tom Dai
You never forget your first time. The wine was poured slowly into what seemed like wine glasses for ants. I gave the wine a few swirls in the glass like I was holding an imaginary wand but instead of saying “abracadabra,”I said “cheers!”and drank it down. I did this several times, with whites, reds, sparkling (being mindful to avoid swirling since that would dissipate the bubbles), and even rosé, and came away with rosy cheeks.
Yes, I was at a wine tasting. In the Okanagan Valley.
And then the memories came back, a decade ago, maybe more or as far back as I can remember, when I had my first taste of BC wine, not the cheap stuff but the really good stuff, and it was no where near as good as this. I was managing a bar in Vancouver at the time, tasked with creating a wine list that featured local wines, and eager wine reps would parade samples in front of me on a daily basis, assuring me that their portfolio would be exactly what I needed and what my customers wanted. I was still pretty new to the industry, so I milked it (or wined it?) for all it was worth–tasting every drop they poured in front of me, and then asking for more.
Up until that point I had only really enjoyed French wines, specifically the three “B”s: Bordeaux, Bourgogne, and Beaujolais, and while I’m no wine snob–some of my best friends are wines–I was skeptical about BC wines. Like some, I had a preconception that fine wines could only come from Europe–they’ve been doing it for centuries after all, while the BC wine industry was still in its nascent stages–but after a few sips of the good stuff, my early misgivings were put to rest.
And what exactly was the good stuff? Pinot Gris’ were wonderfully refreshing, Rieslings had lip-smacking acidity, Cabs were bold and opulent, and the Pinot Noirs were surprisingly complex and elegant. Even the Bordeaux blends, or Meritage–rhymes with heritage–were a revelation.
At least that’s what the wine reps told me. My palate was still impressionable, easily susceptible to other’s influence, and while I couldn’t tell you whether the Merlots had aromas of fresh Ferrari leather seats, I knew that I enjoyed them.
Fast forward to the Okanagan Valley, in the wine cellar of Mission Hill Family Estate in West Kelowna. I’m tasting a glass of the Martin’s Lane 2012 Pinot Noir–the 2011 vintage won best Pinot Noir in the world at the Decanter World Wine Awards–and I can tell you that it has flavours of raspberries and cherries, with a touch of sage and spice on the haunting and elegant finish, without the whisperings of our sommelier guide in my head. I say haunting because I couldn’t stop thinking about how the wine made me feel, and even now, I can taste it as I write this.
I proceeded to swirl and taste many more wines later that day and over the next few days, but the memory of that wine remained. Maybe it’s hyperbole. Maybe it was the company I was with, or the fact I was in a wine cellar surrounded by hundreds of French oak barrels, or that I’d been drinking wine all day, or all of the above.
In any case, there’s no denying the influence our environment imparts on the quality of our experience and how we romanticize a memory, and nowhere is that more evident than in wine. Wines are a natural expression of the environment where the grapes are grown and where they are made, the importance of which cannot be understated. This is called terroir.
So really, it should come as no surprise that the Okanagan Valley, or BC in general, is producing world-class wines, as their terroir consists of such incredible beauty.The land, the scenery, the passion of the viticulturists and winemakers, the climate, the history, all this culminates into an unforgettable experience, and an unforgettable wine.
The First Day of Fall
September 27, 2016 by Tom Dai
Autumn. A season so nice they had to name it twice. The air is cool and crisp, full of inviting smells like wood
and foliage, and the sound of murmuring trees. The pitter-patter of raindrops on rooftops. The crunching of leaves underfoot.
Fall fashion and your favourite Autumn sweater with
well-worn jeans. The carnival of colours. Backyards muted by the ghosts of lawnmowers and
screaming kids muzzled and back in school.The rhythm of Fall is harmonious,
unlike the apoplectic and chaotic ferment of Summer. No tales of pandemonium and the apocalypse.
And after tolerating white wines all summer, it’s finally safe to drink reds again.
Though I had no trouble drinking red anyway, there really is nothing better than a crisp Pinot Gris
or a mouth-watering Riesling on a hot patio. But no great romance ever started in the Summer
–that’s why they’re called “flings.” So now that shorts and flip-flops give way to jackets and umbrellas,
I find myself contemplating jazz and an ’85 Sassicaia. Considered the seminal “Super Tuscan,” Sassicaia is
widely accepted as the world’s greatest Cabernet Sauvignon wines, and alas, clearly out of my price
range. I can settle for a brooding Bordeaux. Or why not a smoldering Syrah? The smokiness of
Syrah with a touch of cedar from toasted oak aging pairs really well with a wood-burning fireplace.
Especially if that wood is cedar.
Speaking of pairings, with Thanksgiving right around the corner, it’s time to consider some wines to
go with your turkey dinner. Though food and wine pairings have come a long way since the old
adage of reds with meat and whites with seafood–with many pairings now focusing on the weight
and texture of the food and wine, along with specific characteristics such as acidity, bitterness,
sweetness, etc. –Thanksgiving dinner presents some fun challenges with its various side dishes and
myriad flavours. Sweet potatoes, herb-filled stuffing, bitter Brussels sprout, fruity cranberry sauce,
and of course, savoury turkey and gravy. How are you supposed to find a wine to stand up to all
Thankfully, we’ve got you covered. A good place to start is to find wines with good acidity to act
as a palate cleanser in between bites, something to cut through that onslaught of rich flavours.
Next, the wine should have lots of fruit, and could benefit from a touch of sweetness. Wines with notes of
herbs and spice would also do well as complements to the herbs and spice-laden dishes.
With all these elements in mind, here is a short-list of wines we would recommend for enhancing
your Thanksgiving dinner experience:
Mission Hill Reserve Riesling 2014–classically off-dry, with aromatic notes of apricot, apple, and
peach, this Riesling has the mouth-watering acidity and touch of residual sugar to perfectly
complement all the spice, sweetness, and saltiness of the dishes.
Cedar Creek Gewürztraminer 2014–beautifully aromatic, full-bodied with flavours of lychee,
honeysuckle, and pear, ending with hints of ginger and spice, it brings out the best in turkey and
gravy, as well as honey baked hams.
Cedar Creek Pinot Noir 2013–a new-world style Pinot with juicy strawberry and raspberry
balanced by bright acidity, subtle oak spice and earthy undertones, makes this wine a traditional and
possibly brilliant pairing with turkey with cranberry sauce.
Mission Hill Reserve Shiraz 2014–intense aromas of dark fruit, violet, and toasty oak with a rich
mouth-feel of blueberry, plum, and blackberry. Notes of rosemary and spice rounds the finish for a
wonderfully complex pairing with herb-filled stuffing and boldly-seasoned turkey.
While all these pairings can be sublime, the main thing to remember is that there’s no right and
wrong choice–it ultimately comes down to your personal taste. If you absolutely must have some
saké with your turkey, that’s your prerogative. I personally like to pair my wine with a good book. A
nice 1990 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti with a dog-eared copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being
perhaps, or a cheap bottle of California red with Bukowski maybe, whatever your preference,
the main thing to keep in mind in this season of thanks is to be thankful there’s wine!