Wine vs. Beer Throwdown

Back in early September Chef Michael Farber and I were at Brothers discussing Wittgenstein over a game of Backgammon when our mutual friend Dimitri van Kampen, the owner of Spearhead Brewing Co. arrived. He was overcome with a spell of liquid courage and threw down his gauntlet publicly challenging me to a duel--a wine vs beer pairing "throw-down". As a gentleman whose honour was offended, I demanded satisfaction and accepted the challenge. Chef Farber graciously offered his restaurant as a venue and to prepare for us a three course meal to facilitate the duel. I usually prefer to remain the strong silent type but Dimitri's agressive trash-talk began immediately in September. So with less than a week to go, the time has come to put out the fine china and set the record straight.

File photo: Dimitri van Kampen

Dimitri, pictured left rocking out with a much less interested man, thinks I'm intimidated by his challenge; but he shouldn't mistake my kindness for weakness. I admire his enthusiasm but he flatters himself. Having done wine dinners with Michelin-starred chefs and some of the world's top winemakers has more than prepared me for a duel with Dimitri. Spearhead burst onto the Ontario craft beer scene in 2011 with their popular Hawaiian-style Pale Ale known for its high alcohol, big hops, and pineapple fruit flavour. A year later they're back with a seasonal second beer temporarily in the arsenal--a Moroccan-style Pale Ale made with dates, figs and raisins which features more than a dash of cinnamon and sugar. Now Dimitri seems to be targeting the more delicate cuisine of the fine dining market with his high octane beers and is challenging me to make his case.

So the terms were set for Michael Farber to independently develop a seasonal three course menu for the duel. Dimitri would pair his two beers along with a 3rd wild card beer of his choosing, and I would pick any three wines for my pairings. Neither of us will have had the opportunity to taste the menu beforehand, we only have a list of ingredients to base our pairings. We will be presenting our choices between each course to provide some context to support our pairings. For his sake I hope there is pineapple on the menu. Godspeed.

The menu is set and the game is on for Wednesday, November 21st, 7:00pm at Farb's Kitchen & Wine Bar, 18 Beechwood Ave, Ottawa. Tickets are $60 plus taxes and gratuity, wine and beer pairings are included. It is a blind tasting menu, so we can't tell you whats in it, or what we're pairing. But you can rest assured that Farber's food will be tops and that I will be bringing some outstanding wines to do battle with Dimitri's beer. Note: It is not a vegetarian dinner and you will be expected to vote by secret ballot on your favourite pairings. So overall a great night of food, wine, beer and entertainment.

We're looking at only 1 seating of 40 people tops. So please reserve your seats immediately. You can call the restaurant directly at 613-744-6509.

24 Hours in Vancouver

Throughout my 10 days in the Okanagan working harvest I was inevitably teased with stories of Vancouver's great restaurant scene and overrun with dining recommendations. 2007 was the last time I was in Vancouver and a lot has changed in its culinary scene, so I decided to pull the chute and cut my Okanagan trip a day early to go on a 1 day bender exploring restaurants to try get the pulse of Vancouver dining. Even though I didn't veer too far out of Gastown, here are a few highlights:

There was almost unanimous consensus in the Okanagan that my one must-visit for lunch was Meat and Bread at Hastings and Cambie. What a cool spot! Guys, somebody please open one of these in Ottawa! I had their Fraser Valley Veal sandwich and a Phillips Brewery 'Blue Buck' beer (which aesthetically could be the official beer of Capital Wine).

Next it was onto Salt Tasting Room on Blood Alley, an unlikely back alley just north of Hastings. I'd heard about this place for years, but never been. Minimalist cement, wood and metal design...couldn't be more my style. I had a great flight of BC wines that I wasn't able to try while in the Valley, perfectly paired with a mix of preserves, cheese and charcuterie. And turns out that seemingly shady Blood Alley is actually home to quite a cluster of great restaurants--I also popped by the elegant Boneta wine bar for an app and drink and went around the corner for a few cocktails from the passionate bartenders at L'Abattoir. All a stones throw from Salt...Great little area.


It was unfortunate that I only stopped by for drinks at Hawksworth in the Georgia hotel, this may have been the overall highlight had I spent some more time there. The service, design and wine list were tops. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little in love with their logo (similar black and white minimalism to Capital Wine?). The bottle of Little Farm Riesling we drank in the lounge was one of my favourite Rieslings I tried on the entire trip, and our server was an alumnus of Restaurant 18 here in many good things happening there. It will be the top of my list to revisit on my next trip out west.

A visit to YEW inside the Four Seasons involved a few more Phillips Blue Buck Ales and a surf and turf charcuterie board that was outstanding. It was nice to meet the affable Executive Chef Ned Bell, turns out he has a lot of Ottawa homeboys as well. It was becoming clear to me that Vancouver does hotel restaurants and bars really really well!

While Meat and Bread, Salt and Hawksworth may have been my favourite stops from a list of 10 restaurants in 24 hours, very honourable mentions also go to Chambar, Wild Rice and Catch 122. Everything was really impressive and all within the Gastown area walking distance from my hotel. I'm a big fan of Vancouver again!

The Night That Was: Gold Medal Plates Ottawa

For those who haven't been, Gold Medal Plates is a national fundraising event held in major cities across the country in support of our Olympic athletes. The premise is a food and wine pairing competition whereby the 8 invited Chefs partner with a Canadian winery to make one ultimate dish. It is judged by each city's top food and wine critics for a gold, silver and bronze medal and the winner from each city moves onto the national culinary competition.

This has come to be my favourite event of the year in the national capital region not only because it involves Ottawa's top restaurants and great local wineries, but because in a former life I used to live in Victoria and row for the National Team before getting into the wine industry. So this cause is dear to me because I know how underfunded many of our athletes can be making ends meet while competing at the highest levels.

Norman Hardie, Chef Jason Duffy, Andrew Rastapkevicius celebrating Silver

For the past 3 years I've partnered with a different restaurant in the competition as a representative of one of our Canadian wineries. This year Norman Hardie and I partnered with Chef Jason Duffy of ARC the Hotel. Jason's dish featured BC Ling Cod with mushroom cakes and slices of cured, smoked, rolled, and roasted porchetta. It was seasoned with pickled cherries and fennel pollen dust. Chef Duffy and I paired this with Norman Hardie's 2010 County Pinot Noir. The idea was to play on the smokey, salty, earthy notes of the Ling Cod, mushrooms and smoked porchetta with the similarly dirty, earthy notes in Norm's Unfiltered Prince Edward County Pinot Noir. The connecting cherry notes, fresh acidity and funky earthiness was a great combo that ended up taking the Silver medal!

Aside from the main pairing competition, the judges also have a competition for just the wines themselves, and Norm's Pinot Noir won the Gold Medal for best wine in show! This was also a small personal victory for me, as last year I partnered with Chef Matthew Carmichael at Sidedoor restaurant pairing his Lobster Tacos with Painted Rock's 2010 Chardonnay, and that wine took the Gold medal for best in show as well!

A big congratulations to Jonathan Korecki from Sidedoor for his Bronze medal ballotine of wild turkey breast and to Chef Jamie Stunt of Oz Cafe for taking the Gold with his Yak dish and now he will be representing Ottawa at the national event in Edmonton! Here are a few pictures from the Ottawa event:

Wine and Golf

Earlier this summer I was asked to do a piece for Golf Business Canada Magazine on wine lists in Food & Beverage programs at golf courses in Ontario. Currently dealing with several golf courses and having tried to deal with many more in the past, the topic is something that I've felt pretty strongly about for a while now, so I was glad to oblige and put my thoughts together for an article.

Teeing off at Piper's Heath in Oakville, Ontario

Full disclosure: a friend of mine is a director at the Canadian Golf Course Owner's Association and he had heard about the wonderful success that courses like Camelot Golf have had with their wine programs and was wondering why many other courses don't don't focus as much on their wine lists. He approached me for my thoughts and that discussion eventually evolved into this article. It was published in the Fall issue of Golf Business Canada Magazine and was also picked up online by Golf News Now a leading blog about golf in Canada. Click here for the .pdf article.

What do you think of the article? Feel free to leave your comments!

Exclusive Napa Offer

Every year at Lifford we have our annual Napa wine offer where we pull out the stops and bring in the rare wines from our top producers that we don't usually stock. With such an outstanding stable of California wineries like Joseph Phelps, Barnett Vineyards, Chappellet, Inglenook, Pine Ridge, Heitz Cellars, Diamond Creek, Robert Craig and now with Merus and Kuleto Estate too, this annual offer has become quite a big deal. We've also included all our ultra-premium California 'cult' wines that receive all the top accolades but only produce a couple thousand cases a year, so a small amount of these wines are allocated to us annually to find great homes for them in Ontario!  Please follow these links to the .xl sheet with all the pricing details for the entire Napa offer found below and notice the rare opportunity to buy some mixed cases of back vintages and verticals. This offer really does get better every year. Here are a few of my personal highlights from this year's California offer.

Joe Heitz circa 1965

Joe Heitz circa 1965

To me the very best of Napa can be broken down into two broad categories or styles of wine: a) the classic French-inspired terroir-driven wine reminiscent of the old world which put Napa on the map in the 1960's; and b) the dense, rich, opulent modern wines that Napa has more recently become so famous for.  There is an exciting balance between old-world and new-world styles in Napa and here are a few of the greatest examples.


Heitz Cellars - Joe Heitz was one of the pioneers of Napa Cabernet and Chardonnay. He was the first to import and use french oak instead of the status quo American oak vats and has gained most notoriety for his is legendary 'Martha's Vineyard' Cab Sauv which was among the wines that upset Bordeaux in the famous Paris tasting of 1976.  Today his son David continues to make their wine in that original, deep, earthy, old-world style. Martha's Vineyard Cab, with its signature minty eucalyptus note it is not only a great wine, but it has become the measuring stick to which you compare other Cabs against for greatness. They have never changed their style, and they don't plan to. Even when facing poor scores from critics looking for jammier, richer styles of wine, Heitz hasn't budged from their old-school roots. And that is a big reason why they continue to be one of the very best today. Here is a great article from The World of Fine Wine providing some great context on the evolution of Cabernet in California, an evolution in which Heitz figures prominently. Heitz Cellars produces 4 Cabs: Bella Oaks Vineyard Cab, Trailside Vineyard Cab, Martha's Vineyard Cab and their overall Napa Valley Cab, which is a blend of the three sites. For more details and pricing please follow the above links.

When you think "Cult Cabernet" what first comes to mind? Probably Harlan, Turley, or Screaming Eagle? Jump-started by a few 100 point scores from Robert Parker, the economics of supply and demand have driven the cost of these wines up to First-Growth Bordeaux prices, and not necessarily justifiably so. Even though they're still draws for collectors, purists always look for the better value, the Real McCoys. Enter Diamond Creek Vineyards, the original cult Cabernet. Planted by Al Brounstein in 1968 it was the first vineyard on Diamond Mountain, the first exclusively Cabernet vineyard in Napa, the first wine to charge over $100 per bottle, and the first wine sold entirely on allocation, pioneering all this "Cult Cabernet" business. The estate is home to 3 single-vineyards, each with entirely different prehistoric soil profiles and an infamous ability to showcase terroir. The wines/vineyards are each named after the soil profiles: Gravelly Meadow, Red Rock Terrace & Volcanic Hill.  Many wineries have since followed their path, but Diamond Creek was the original. It has always remained low-key, a bit is the wine that those in-the-know collect. Diamond Creek doesn't advertise, and you can't go visit the winery. If you're lucky enough to get an allocation, its some of the very best Cabernet you'll ever have from California.

Just like Heitz Cellar, Diamond Creek has never chased scores or pandered to critic's tastes, and as a result have been slightly overshadowed by the fanfare of the high scoring, big, modern wines. But even though in recent years many critics have championed the modern, opulent, jammy examples of California wine, every so often a writer with an old-world sensibility discovers these wines, is blown away by their authenticity and re-solidifties them as the most legit, original cult Cabernet. This is a quote from Neil Martin, the Burgundy critic for Robert Parker's Wine Advocate:

If somebody asked me to demonstrate terroir then I would chose Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from the Old World and Diamond Creek from the new. Having tasted all three side-by-side on several occasions, their individuality could be discerned in appearance, nose and taste. What I adore about the wines is their purity and honesty. Even though they attract prohibitive prices, for once there is substance behind the price tag. Diamond Creek has the poise and refinement borrowed from Bordeaux, though paradoxically in my experience their texture echoes more Burgundy. There is no hankering for power, richness and lashings of new oak: Al Brounstein was wise enough to allow the terroir of his vineyards to shine through. If you can afford them, the wines of Diamond Creek are highly recommended.             --Neil Martin, The Wine Advocate

To me praise like that is worth more than any 100 point scores could give and wines like Heitz and Diamond Creek are just further to the point of the 'California Classicism' article in The World of Fine Wine linked above.


All of this talk about the classic California style shouldn't take anything away from the wildly popular, modern big wines that California also produces so well. If the old-school, earthy, terroir-driven wines are not your cup of tea and you prefer the rich opulent styling of Screaming Eagle, Scarecrow, Harlaan, but are not looking to spend $400-800 per bottle then we have a few incredible wines that are for you. Grouped in with the aforementioned modern cult-Cabernets is the epic Merus Estate.

"Merus" is latin for pure, unmixed, complete, absolute, undiluted. Merus is an icon for what modern Napa cult, 'garagiste' wines are about. Merus began in the late 90's literally as "garage wine", with Erika Gottl and Mark Herold making the first few vintages in their two-car garage downtown Napa. After several years of top scores and critical acclaim, Bill Foley purchased Merus keeping Erika and Mark on board and bringing Paul Hobbs on as consulting winemaker. Bill aspired to take Merus to the next level and moved the winery into one of the many historic 'ghost wineries', old ranches that have been abandoned since the prohibition era and gave it a modern face-lift. Now Merus Estate has it all. An incredibly sought after wine sold entirely on allocation, and an appropriately modern facility that is as architecturally stunning as the wine is delicious. Merus Estate is brand new to Lifford this year, so new customers are welcome. Everything from Merus is sold entirely on allocation and winery visits are by invitation only. So if you're someone that is looking for seriously rich Napa Cabs but have not been able to get on any mailing lists, here a new opportunity to get your hands on one of the very best.

I positioned the very best of Napa in essentially two categories, classic and modern, but if your taste is somewhere in between, Robert Craig Winery is definitely for you. Robert Craig's career really began during the 1980s while the General Manager for the Hess Collection on Mt Veeder where he developed over 300 acres of vineyard for them and became known as the "mountain man" of Napa. He was intimately involved in Mt Veeder and Spring Mountain achieving their AVA designations and then started a winery in his own name in 1992 on Howell Mountain.

His wines have a rare and interesting balance of earth, ash, tobacco and very ripe dense fruit. Most of his production comes from small vineyards on Howell Mountain as well as Mt Veeder and they are some of the very best available.  But Cabernet is not the only wine they knock out of the park: his Durell Vineyard Chardonnay is produced in very small amounts and graces such tables as President Obama's. Barack and Michelle have served Robert Craig's Chardonnay at the White House for Thanksgiving on more than one occasion. If its good enough for the President, its good enough for me!

Pricing and notes on all of the aforementioned wines are available through the links at the top of the page. Please email any requests or questions to me at

Ottawa Wine & Food Show

Everybody who has been knows what a party the Ottawa Wine & Food Show can be. Almost too much of a party for some, but compared to many other food and wine shows, it is a significantly classier drunk-fest.  This is largely because 70% of attendees dress up: guys in suits, ladies in cocktail dresses and heels. Everybody puts in effort to look good and seem to be genuinely interested in learning about the wines, not just in getting loaded. So much that I'll probably do a Sartorialist feature on this blog next year for a Best-Dressed at the Wine & Food Show. Big ups for Ottawa.

Here is a hot tip for next year: Get tickets for the Fine Wine Tasting Alley. This is where we pour the best wines at the show...wines that are too expensive and in small quantities to pour en mass during the main show for everybody just looking for a glass of wine. These are some of the best wines from around the world. Tickets are $85 to get in and you're open game on sampling 75 top wines for 2 hours. We bring some amazing stuff: Cakebread Cellars Cab Sauv, Mitolo 'Serpico', Nicholas Feuillatte Brut Rose, Joseph Phelps Cab Sauv, etc.  Additionally, your purchase of the Tasting Alley ticket also gets you a free pass to the main show. A regular day pass is $21 plus the individual drink tickets. So if you're really into wine the best value is paying $85 for the VIP Tasting Alley ticket, tasting all those top wines for 2 hours, then getting in free to the main event, needing to only purchase the drink tickets on top. Here's a few pictures from our table at this year's Tasting Alley.

Cakebread Cab Sauv and some nice Louis Jadot 1er Cru Pinot Noirs are annual favorites, but this year we also threw in a Chardonnay from Joseph Phelps' new biodynamic property located in Freestone, Sonoma...aptly named Freestone Vineyards. They produce only outstanding Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and also operate a really cool 2nd label called Fog Dog -- which might be one of my favorite label designs ever.

Another amazing wine to note is the Mitolo 'Serpico' in the background below. You may know Mitolo Wines from their outrageously popular Mitolo Jester, a top Vintages Essential in the LCBO. Their flagship line of wines are some of the hottest wines coming out of Australia today. The 'Sperpico' is 100% Cab Sauv, but is dried on racks in their old potatos barns for 8 weeks, Amarone-style. This gives it that concentrated, rasiny, nose with super smooth texture that you'd expect from a subtle Amarone or great Ripasso, even though it is significantly less drying time than real Amarone, which can dry up to 4 months. This is clearly an unconventional practice a) with Cab Sauv and b) outside of Valpolicella...ergo using the namesake of Frank Serpico, the real life New York cop played by Al Pacino who went against the grain fighting crime, just like this Cab Sauv goes against the grain in winemaking. Interesting side note: the real Frank Serpico is still alive and sanctioned the use of his name on this wine...Mitolo sends him a case of it each vintage for the royalties. You can still find some Mitolo Serpico for a limited time in Vintages.

Jacques Lardiere visits Ottawa

Its not every day (or year) that someone as important in the world of wine as Jacques Lardiere comes to Ottawa. Jacques is in a way who I want to be when I'm in my 60's. This guy is the stuff legends are made of in wine, I'd heard many of his theories 2nd or 3rd hand, but had never met him. He's influenced winemakers in all regions of the world, but never made wine outside of Burgundy. He's almost like the wine version of the Dos Equis man. He has an effortlessly cool panache with his full head of curly white hair behind black rimmed Armani glasses paired with a turtle neck beneath a blue blazer (with elbow patches), a red handkerchief and a turquoise watch...and he makes some of the best wines in the world. He's been the head winemaker at Maison Louis Jadot since 1970 and has seen just about every scenario that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay can throw at you. Negotiant houses in Burgundy can often get a lesser rap for the larger scale of their production by purchasing fruit from other producers and sub appellations in a region that is grounded in territorial singularity. Maison Louis Jadot under Jacques direction has elevated its reputation and separated itself from those kinds of producers by owning property all over Burgundy and producing estate wines that they've grown themselves and overseen completely. What fruit they don't grow themselves they purchase from farmers that they have had long-standing family contracts, some only handshake agreements spanning generations...after all Louis Jadot did celebrate its 151st birthday this year.

So for Jacques special trip to the capital, I organized an intimate tutored tasting and lunch for about 25 people at Restaurant E18hteen. We started with a flight of 4 whites: Macon-Villages, Bourgogne Chardonnay, Chablis and Meursault. Then moved into a flight of reds that started with their famous Beaujolais-Villages which is widely seen as one of the best examples of Village level Beaujolais because they practice 'replis' which is the process of declassifying 'Cru' Beaujolais fruit and blending it with the 'Village' level fruit. Jacques belives this gives the wine a great quality and complexity coming partially from the regions better vineyards. The Beaujolais was followed by an outstanding lineup of Pinot Noirs: 2006 Savigny-Les-Beaune, 2009 Cote De Beaune-Villages, 2005 Beaune Greves, 2007 Chambolle-Musigny, 2007 Beaune 'Clos Des Couchereaux' (of which there is still some bottles available in Vintages).

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In the mere 4 hours we had with Jacques he was barely able to scratch the surface of his passion, but the one point that mesmerized me was his assertion that you can get different notes on the nose out of the glass when you swirl in opposite directions. I know this seems crazy, but grab a glass and try. If you're right handed, when you swirl your wine to aerate it you likely defaul to swirling it in a counter clockwise direction. This motion makes the wine swirl in an upward spiral, aerating the wine and releasing aromas from beneath. His idea is that if the wine is "working" (meaning if certain molecules in a well made wine from a complex terroir have fully polymerized, and this often requires aging to happen), you can a different set of aromas from swirling it clockwise in the opposite direction because the spiral is then going down. He made everybody try it and I have to say the idea is not as crazy as it sounds.

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To finish off the seminar we had an incredible four-course lunch designed by Chef Matthew Carmichael to pair specifically with Jacques' wines. The wines all paired perfectly with the dishes and were able to extenuate them without overpowering. My personal favorite was the Nova Scotia poached lobster with barley, preserved lemon, spinach and lobster sauce. It hit all the right notes with the 2009 Pouilly-Fuisse it was paired with by playing texture off of the lobster and the cream, light herbatiousness with the spinach, and best of all elevating the citrus notes in the wine with the preserved lemon.

We also enjoyed an outstanding venison tartar with a 2009 Moulin-a-Vent from the Beaujolais, a 2002 Premier Cru Beaune 'Les Coucheraux' with a rack of lamb and the grand finale was a 2002 Grand Cru 'Clos Vougeot' with the cheese plate. A point Jacques underscored throughout the day was not to drink wines too early. They do often need time to come into themselves and we topped it off with an excellent case in point. While this 2002 will still age for years, it had all the complexities that Jacques was looking for in his "working" wine, swirling in both directions.

This was one of the best lunches in recent memory and I hope Jacques can come to town more often.

The Night That Was: Swedish Michelin Excellence at Restaurant E18hteen

I've had a busy few weeks following this event and have been meaning to post a follow up, but its gotten away from me until now.  I'd be remiss if I didn't make note of how amazing a dinner the crew at E18hteen presented by partnering with Swedish Michelin Starred Chef Gustav Trägårdh. I'd love to try capture it in words, but at this point I should let some pictures do the talking.  The following are a mix of photos taken by myself and Damian Hadala, head bartender at E18hteen.

The moral of the story was: watch out for Swedish cuisine, it is simple but innovative and is making waves internationally--and deservedly so. The moral of this post is: next time E18hteen is putting on a big dinner, you should go.

The food was amazing, we had incredible wines from houses like Malivoire in Niagara and Charles Smith in Washington State and most surprising of all, Chef Gustav was really funny. He came out between courses to present the food and tell a bit of a story behind it and with each story he had the dining room laughing. Nothing like a top chef who can put out Michelin Star food and have the crowd in stitches as well.