I originally wrote this story for The Hamilton Spectator. Thanks to the Niagara Wine Festival for the photos.
It’s not a party unless someone brings wine.
Niagara has both the tipple and the ensuing festivities covered this month. September is when the region turns into a giant crush pad and celebrates the grape growing season that was.
This year marks the 65th edition of the Niagara Wine Festival, the oldest of its kind in Canada. It’s easily the region’s biggest bash where locals raise a glass — or several — to the area’s farming roots while oenophiles from Toronto, Timmins, Texas and beyond come to see what all the hype is about.
“It’s the best time of year to experience Niagara hospitality on the wine route,” says Kimberly Hundertmark, the festival’s executive director. “The surprising offerings that the wineries have at this time of year are not to be missed.”
How does Niagara stretch a celebration of grapes and wine into a two-week affair? It starts with the formalities on Sept. 14 — the crowning of a Grape King, the event’s regal figurehead — and a celebrity luncheon. This year comedian Gerry Dee will be the headliner, injecting some star power and outrageous humour into the proceedings.
Niagara Wine Festival at Montebello Park
The real party starts two days later, Sept. 16, when wineries and local restaurants take over Montebello Park near downtown St. Catharines, pouring and serving their comestible celebrities for mostly local revellers. The park is the festival epicentre for the last two weekends in September.
There will undoubtedly be a few Cabernet Francs and Chardonnays vying for your glass — Niagara does both well — and the food offerings promise to be diverse. They’ll range from kid-pleasing pizza and hangover-preventing poutine to refined seasonal fare featuring local ingredients.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure there’s not much repetition so that the Montebello Park experience is a highlight of local chefs providing regional cuisine,” explains Erik Peacock, a longtime St. Catharines chef who overseas the culinary direction of the festival. “It’s the best local food and wine pairings at that time of year.”
Peacock, who helms the kitchen at Wellington Court, will put his stamp on food at the festival in another way. He’ll beef up charcuterie plates, available only in the park’s Harvest Lounge, with his house-smoked fish, crostini and pickles.
They’ll complement the work of his charcutier comrade, Justin Downes, who’s usually behind the burner at Vineland Estates. He’s busy doing up terrine for the wine festival’s meat and cheese platters.
Culinary handiwork aside, Peacock promises the lounge, in the Walter Ostanek Pavillion, is the festival’s hidden gem. Admission to Montebello Park is free but $10 gets you into the adults-only Harvest Lounge and to the front of the line at park security gates.
It’s all about creating a relaxed vibe within the hubbub of the park, Peacock says. The Harvest Lounge will be equipped with couches, bar tables, TVs. Wood-fired pizza by Niagara College will be offered as another dining option. The “ultimate experience,” Peacock notes, would be sharing a plate of charcuterie, pizza and a bottle of wine with friends there.
“It’s a really cool feel. It doesn’t give the feeling being in the masses in the centre of the park. That’s not for everyone. I feel it’s really a hidden gem.”
The Harvest Lounge also has access to dedicated washrooms while the rest of the park relies on a pack of port-a-potties. That alone may be worth $10 for some, Peacock adds with a laugh.
Do the Discovery Pass
Those really thirsty for a harvest experience can officially start their Niagara Wine Festival on Sept. 10 with a Discovery Pass. The ticket for a self-guided tour of the region’s wine route costs $40 ($30 for designated drivers) and includes eight “experiences” at wineries of pass-holders’ choosing.
The pass, however, isn’t “a hustle from winery to winery,” says festival boss Hundertmark.
Instead, it offers leisurely food and wine tastings that give visitors an intimate glimpse into the harvest and winemaking. They can see and smell, rather than simply taste, the work that happens in the vineyard and on the crush pad.
“From a sensory perspective, it’s overload,” she adds. “Everyone’s really proud of what they do. From the time (grape growers) watch their vines come to life, go through veraison, and now wait for what’s next, it’s birthing a new vintage.”