When the Rogue Rangers meet, good wine isn’t too far off
The Rogue Rangers. Every so often, when time and distance permit, they come together for a board meeting and a few beers in a tiny, crowded Grimsby, Ontario garage, to discuss the business at hand: Fermentation, pH, oak, battonage and the finer points of crafting a homemade wine that they can collectively call their own.
Their scavenged array of winemaking equipment shares quarters with hibernating lawn chairs, bikes, long-forgotten pots and pans, discarded children’s toys and lots and lots of empty beer cans.
They are friends from various backgrounds — a doctor, a wine and food writer/editor, a winemaker, a marketing specialist, a management consultant and a wine accessories salesman. All lead complicated and busy lives, but as soon as harvest is over in Niagara these Rogue Rangers begin the annual ritual of finding enough grapes to make a single barrel of wine that they will eventually guide through the winemaking process, bottle, label and divide between them.
It is their pride and joy, a badge of honour, and most importantly, says Stephen Gash, “A good excuse to get together and chew the fat. Camaraderie is what drives it, for sure.”
They call their little project the Grimsby Garage Cru and it began like all cool projects do, over a pint or two of good beer. They were sitting around and “someone says ‘it would be fun to make some wine of our own,’” Gash, whose day job is managing director of the Malivoire Wine Company on the Beamsville Bench in Niagara, explains.
He says the group wanted to focus on white wines because of the time and attention to detail needed to make red wines. Their first effort was The Grimsby Garage Cru Chardonnay 2011, a bold statement with ripe pear, citrus and a creamy-buttery-spicy profile on the palate from the new, single French oak barrel they bought for the project.
The wine was purchased as juice from the Beamsville Bench sub-appellation, then fermented in barrel inside Gash’s garage at his family home in Grimsby and finally transferred to a steel tank for finishing.
Gash watched over the wine with Jay Johnston, winemaker at Flat Rock Cellars, popping by every so often to make sure everything was coming along the way it should. Lab analysis was conducted from samples taken to friends’ wineries.
The toughest job is bottling and labelling everything by hand. The whole gang comes together for that. More beer flows. The music is cranked up loud.
“We’re not aiming for award-winning wines,” says Gash. “We just want a true expression of the vineyard.”
The Grimsby crew took a break in 2012 (“the group needed a reprieve … it’s very stressful, you know,” says Gash) but got back in the game in 2013 with a barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc called the Grimsby Garage Cru Fume Blanc Niagara-Lakeshore 2013, an expressive Sauvignon Blanc with grapefruit, kiwi, herbs, citrus and spicy oak nuances on the finish.
For Jamie Drummond, director of programs and editor of Toronto’s Good Food Media, the idea of the Grimsby Garage Cru is “akin to a bunch of Italian guys getting together in the garage and making wine.”
Drummond is the newest member of what he calls Grimsby’s “guerrilla winemakers” and enjoys as much as anything the friendship of six guys in a garage creating something they can call their own.
“We all have a love of wine. It’s just an excuse to get together, drink beer, listen to music and make wine.”
The Grimsby Rogue Rangers certainly aren’t the only brave souls to make wine off the grid, chasing their dreams of the vinous kind.
It has become a passion for more and more amateur or wannabe winemakers to craft wine from scratch that they themselves like to drink, from grapes they source at trusted vineyards.
Take Niagara chef Ryan Crawford. His interest in making wine was piqued while working at the Stone Road Grille, which was a winemakers’ hangout in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
“With myself firmly established in wine country I was eager learn more: What is bottle shock? Why does filtering dumb down a wine? What does the wine taste like in different vintages of oak? How do yeasts affect wine? Barrel ferment or not?”
He started visiting wineries and asking these questions of key winemakers and eventually helped out around wineries to soak up as much knowledge as he could.
Working with Lailey winemaker Derek Barnett, a special block of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Dyck Vineyard was sourced in 2010. And with a lot of help from various wineries and winemakers, the Crawford Wine Project was born.
Cabernet was first, Pinot Noir “The Duke” 2011 was next and the wines found favour on select restaurant wine lists in Ontario.
“Now as I begin to sell the wine, I share with everyone the camaraderie and spirit of the community of Niagara,” says Crawford.
Then there’s Toronto sommelier William Predhomme and partner Jonas Newman, owner and winemaker at Prince Edward County’s Hinterland winery. Together they created the North Shore Project with the goal of making Syrah from sourced grapes grown in Lake Erie North Shore.
After a successful launch of their first wine, the North Shore Project Syrah 2012, their second wine was a rosé style Syrah from the 2013 vintage. Predhomme believes that Ontario, and more specifically the Lake Erie North Shore region, is perfect for making cool-climate Syrah in the style more commonly associated with the Northern Rhône, rather than those big jammy examples from Australia. Perhaps not at the Côte-Rôtie or Hermitage level but more in tune with Crozes-Hermitage. Their wines now appear on restaurant wine lists around Ontario.
With crop damage to Syrah throughout Ontario in 2014, Predhomme and Newman have turned to Gamay from Niagara for their next project.
Newman, who makes some of Ontario’s finest sparkling wines in Prince Edward County at Hinterland, goes far afield for yet another project of his, the Terra Lemnia wines from the Greek island of Limnos.
The red grape called Limnio (which means “of Limnos”) is indigenous to the island and was written about in the Iliad by Homer over four thousand years ago.
The white grape, called Muscat of Alexandria, has been grown on the island for over a century. The Limnio thrives on the rugged, hard to access terrain on the east side of the island and the Muscat is grown on the west side.
Newman has coined the phrase “the Valley of the Muscat” which is an area around St Demetrios where one can see a dramatic valley planted to the Muscat vine.
His Terra Lemnia Muscat of Alexandria 2012 (which can be purchased through private order) has an aromatic nose of lemon drop, lanolin, oyster shell, citrus and grapefruit that is, oddly, reminiscent of Hunter Valley Semillon. It is quite delicious on the palate with grapefruit and lemon flavours in a perfectly dry style all bolstered by bright acidity.
Taking the “Rogue Ranger” moniker to a much higher level is Brad Royale, a Calgary sommelier and wine director for Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts. Royale created the Kitten Swish brand of wines after a decade of trundling through the world’s vineyards to discover what works best and what would fit into his vision of a brand.
He calls himself a “micro négociant” who “finds curious little drops of delicious wine from parts of the world and then puts these drops into mouths.”
His focus has been on California, in particular from the Stuhlmuller Vineyard in California’s Alexander Valley, where Royale will go into the barrel cellar and taste and come up with a blend he’s happy to produce under the Kitten Swish label.
The Kitten Swish “Mouth Flowers” Cabernet Sauvignon Stuhlmuller Vineyard 2012 from Alexander Valley is a bold expression with maraschino cherry, black currants, cocoa and violet notes that is mouth-filling and a fine example of Alexander Valley terroir in California. He also currently has a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir on the shelves, mostly through his company’s network of wine shops and restaurants in Calgary, which is sensational. He tweeted me his impression of the wine, as only the colourful and expressive Royale can do:
“2012 Kitten Swish Pinot Noir ‘I’m Here Now’; the warm pack of nibs in your pant pocket, juniper, cherry jam on her lips.”
You get the sense that this Rogue Ranger is just getting started. With a couple of Zinfandels, a Chardonnay, Cab Sauv and Pinot Noir, under his belt, and a plan to distribute his wines far beyond Alberta, Royale is now looking beyond California for his next Kitten Swish wines. He wants to make Grenache from the Languedoc, Riesling from the Rheingau, and is currently making a Cabernet Franc from the Okanagan Valley’s Laughing Stock vineyards.
His ultimate goal is to create a global brand as a full-blown negotiant, not unlike a curator at a fancy museum.
“The museum is set up,” says Royale, “I just need to go in and rearrange the art work.”
Rogue Ranger Wines
They may be difficult to find but they are worth chasing down.
92 Kitten Swish Pinot Noir I’m Here Now (wait … what was that?) 2012, Russian River Valley, California ($39)
A nose of warm cherry pie, raspberry puree, soft vanilla spice and subtle savoury-earthy notes. It is a complex yet comfortable Pinot on the palate with tangy red berry fruit kissed with anise in a polished, spicy package that’s supple and smooth through the finish. Very different, very fine.
93 Kitten Swish Mouth Flowers Cabernet Sauvignon Stuhlmuller Vineyard 2012, Alexander Valley, California ($33)
A dark, ruby impression in the glass with an expressive nose of maraschino cherry, black currants, cocoa, violets and baker’s rack of spices. It’s a mouth-filling drop with flavours ranging from blackberry to mature cherry that melts in your mouth. Interesting espresso note melded to a range of spice completes the package. Pure pleasure.
88 Grimsby Garage Cru Fume Blanc 2013, Niagara (NA)
Sourced from the Niagara-Lakeshore sub-app but not officially a VQA wine, this oaked Sauvignon Blanc has a spicy nose with grapefruit, kiwi and grassy-herb notes. It has good verve on the palate that lifts the quince, grapefruit, tangerine and oak spice through the finish.
90 North Shore Project Syrah Rose 2013, Lake Erie North Shore ($22)
This is a delicious rose with a gorgeous nose black cherry, cassis, mature red fruits and a touch of white pepper. It’s made in a bone-dry style and shows vibrant and savoury red fruits bolstered by fresh acidity.
88 Terra Lemnia Muscat of Alexandria 2012, Greece ($23)
This is an extremely rare and dry Muscat from Limnos with an aromatic nose of lemon drop, lanolin, oyster shell, citrus and grapefruit that is, oddly, reminiscent of Hunter Valley Semillon. It is quite delicious on the palate with grapefruit and lemon flavours in a perfectly dry style all bolstered by bright acidity.
91 Crawford Wine Project “The Duke” Pinot Noir 2011, Niagara ($24)
I love the nose on this non-textbook Pinot with its rustic nose of black cherry, foraged mushrooms, wild field raspberry, forest floor, lifted perfume and light spice notes. The fine and silky tannins are fully integrated with complex earthy-bramble, cran-cherry and wonderful mocha-vanilla flavours. There is a polished feel on the palate but still enough wildness to stand out in a crowd.