TNs: 2016 California Wine Fair in Toronto


It’s been a good long while since I’ve attended a wine fair. When I first joined the board, I was posting fairly frequently on them as I was also the blogger for the iYellow Wine Club and would cover the major food and wine events. About 3 years ago, however, the club had some professional metrics done and found that it was going unread. The club’s 20,000+ strong millenial membership was interested in drinking decent to very good wine and having a great time with wine… they just weren’t much interested in learning about wine as a whole.

In no way is this a shot at the membership. I adore these people and love hanging with them. It’s just clear that wine is a lifestyle and an experience for them, not a school subject. It’s not that they didn’t want to know about the local winemakers that I was interviewing, they wanted to go out on tour with iYellow and meet them in person. They want to associate wine with fun and not work. Realizing that the valuable info and my byline was essentially going to waste that could be put to a different use for the target audience, we essentially mutually agreed to end my blogging. Therefore, there was neither impetus for me to continue to cover wine fairs or to continue as a member of the wine media getting free attendance perks. In short, I was back to being a wine civilian.

This year, however, without having to spend time getting to know visiting winemakers and reps for their stories, I made a commitment to return to the wine event circuit for the best reason of all: myself. I was now free to go solely as a taster and consumer looking for some great wine to taste and eventually buy. It was in that spirit that I attended the first wine event of the season, the California Wine Fair. I’ll talk about the event in my first post and then hit you up with my notes and wine porn:


SUMMARY: A much improved, well-organized wine experience to open the annual wine event season in Toronto with generous amounts of food and wine.

PROS: Easily accessible location. Excellent organization. Plenty of high-end and affordable tier wines. Ample room to move. Minimal waits at tables. Amazing Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, Pinot Noirs, Zinfadels and Sauvignon Blancs. Steady generous supply of food throughout the night.

CONS: Still not enough time for attendees at just 2 1/2 hours alloted time. Not enough middle tier wines to bridge gap between high-end and affordable. Not enough emphasis on California sparkling wine or Zinfadels. No sweet wines.

This year’s event again took place at the Fairmont Royal York in the heart of downtown Toronto which is connected to the subway station, the out of town commuter train station, and plenty of underground parking. I appreciate that they keep the same location every year and make it easy for everyone to get to no matter their choice of transportation.

Most of the hiccups from previous years that I have experienced including running out of glasses and food, slowness in getting people in and unfairly long lineups for certain wines were all resolved this year. Two lines were formed for entry and current ticket scanning technology allowed organizers to scan tickets and phone screens in the lineup itself. The room was extremely well organized in a layout composed of table “blocks” that made the rather large conference room seem a lot shorter than it actually was. The only real hitch was that the rinsing water pitchers at the tables were not refreshed quickly enough which meant that people had to go to the water fountains sometimes to properly rinse out their glasses.
This year I did something I had never done before. I scanned the show’s pamphlet book online beforehand to see all the wineries attending and actually chose whom I was going to tackle this year. I chose to go after all the high-end wineries and bypass the affordable tier wines which I had no interest in.
This proved to be a very valuable strategy as it allowed me to cover every single winery I wanted to visit in two hours. Others were not so fortunate and as I was leaving I could see people rushing to get to the tables they hadn’t tried yet.

This brings me to the biggest issue I have with the event. I can’t believe that it’s still only 2.5 hours for the consumer portion. It is absolutely not possible for attendees to hit all the wineries present and get a fair sample, particularly of the better high-end wines. Even with my well-planned organization, I didn’t make to the Palmaz Vineyards table before it sold out and supplies were rapidly dwindling. I felt sorry for people without plans who probably missed out on a lot more than I did. It really should be alloted at least 3 hours.

Despite this, it was still a very successful and fun event and I managed to scarf down some mighty fine, very tasty high-end wine. Easily the best time I have ever had at this show and I was very glad to return. On to the wines themselves next.

In terms of the wines, the king of all red wine and California red wine in particular center stage as there was a plethora of Cabernet Sauvignons from the 2010 to 2013 vintages. Despite their youth, most of them were extremely drinkable with little to absolutely no grit at all in the tannins. The Napa Valleys were far superior to the Sonoma Countys and I am more inclined to keep pursuing Napas for my own collection.

I expected these to be awesome, but the true superstar of the show was Merlot. They were absolutely stunning and one proved to be the WOTN for the entire show for me. The Pinot Noir representation was much lesser than at previous shows though they were still quite good. There were no Belle Gloses here, nor were there any pencil milkshakes. The selection was wisely focused on lighter Burgundian style producers, many of whom would be hard to peg as California due to their light bodies and minimal extraction. Suprisingly, there were very few Zinfadels which I felt was a huge lost opportunity. I did enjoy the ones that were there.

On the white side, Chardonnays absolutely dominated but they were outlcassed by the Sauvignon Blancs that were present. I usually hate Sauvignon Blanc and deride it as a grass smoothie, but these ones got to me due to the rich ripe fruit balancing out the herbal aspects to create more of a lush grapefruit flavor. And all of them were outclassed by the single viognier from Stag’s Leap which had people raving.
There was a slew of high-end wines approaching the $100 CDN and more per bottle. There were plenty of affordable wines at $20 CDN or less. Middle tier producers were lacking, however, with the only two really present being Black Stallion and one my favorites Bonny Doon. I think this is somewhat indicative of the wine industry as a whole, however, with the profit seeming to be producing either mass quantity affordable wine or limited quantity high-end wine.

My focus was on the high enders so let’s do a general TN roundup of those:

Hess 2012 Mount Vedeer Cabernet – Rich, smooth, ripe red fruit flavors but not overly fruity. Smooth tannins give it a bit of a cocoa flavor. Very nice.
Heitz 2012 Napa Zinfadel – Rich and plummy, yet very refreshing. Not overdone at all, actually very similar to the Biali Rocky Ridge Zin in terms of lightness though not as good as that particular wine. Very good example.

Heitz 2011 and 2012 Napa Cabernet – Though similar in their smoothness and rich flavor, the 12 was noticeably more chocolatey and smoother while the 11 had more ripe fruit flavor. Both were very good but unlike the last few times there was no massive lineup. Can the shine have finally come off of the legendary Heitz name? I thought these quality wines were worthy of their high price.

Whitehall Lane 2013 Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon – I tried the Merlot first and was absolutely blown away. Rich rounded fruit flavor and incredibly smooth body with tannins that went down like dark chocolate and had no grit whatsoever. My definitive WOTN. The Cabernet was just as smooth though not as intense in red fruit flavor as some of the other Cabs I tried. I seriously wonder if both wines are micro-oxygenated and wholeheartedly approve if they are.

Whitehall Lane 2014 Sauvignon Blanc – Refreshing SB with lots of ripe fruit flavor to balance out the herbal aspects. Easily as good as the Tenzen. I would actually drink this regularly.


Domaine Chandon NV Brut Rosé – Very refreshing, fruit forward pink sparkler. Great quality and great price with a lighter touch in body and complexity than Champagne.

Rodney Strong 2012 Brother’s Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon – Top-end single vineyard Cab loaded with earthy black currant flavor. Again, easily drinkable now though it will benefit from age because the tannins are quite smooth.
2013 Benovia Russian River Valley Pinot Noir – a blogger who attended the earlier media session texted me and told me I must try this win. This was the only wine this producer showed at their table which was a strong vote of confidence and it was justified. Clean but strong cherry flavors with light body and smooth tannins. Not a hint of cola, very pure tasting wine if that makes any sense.
Twomey 2013 Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir and 2013 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir – These two wines were great to try side by side as they perfectly represented the two dominant flavor extremes we associate with Pinot Noir, earthy mushroom and bright cherry. The Bien Nacido was all rustic earthen mushroom and the RRV was all bright red cherries. I lean more towards the RRV for that reason but both were extremely high quality.

2013 Bonny Doone Le Cigare Blanc – Refreshing blend of California White Grenache and Roussane was crisp and flavorful tropical white fruit flavors leaning towards fresh coconut. Just a slight notch below the Baker & Brain White Grenache. Could use a touch more acidity.

2010 Le Cigare Volant – This great California GSM easily matches up to any Chateauneuf du Pape in the $50CDN range and far surpasses those in its equivalent $35 price range. Unlike many CdP’s, it has complexity rather than the one-dimensional “grapey” flavor one associates with average CdP.

2012 Bonny Doon Le Pousseur Syrah – Much lighter than I expected, not a fruit bomb by any means. In fact, it was far more earthy mushroom than fruit in flavor and lighter in body than expected which surprised me. This is an instance where I would’ve preferred a fruit bomb style of wine as opposed to trying to show it could be Burgundy delicate.
Those are the highlights of this year’s California Wine Fair. Next up will be the Austrian Wine fair this coming Thursday and I’ll be sure to report back then.