Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Shape of Things To Come?

In many people's eyes, winemaking is just an extension of farming. After all, most wineries have their own vineyards and operate tasting rooms out of glorified barns. As Williams Selyem demonstrated years ago, brilliant wines can be made out of one's garage. Nothing fancy about it, except maybe the labels and the price tags.

But there is a winery on the Niagara peninsula that is the embodiment of a completely different perspective, that everything about wines is chic and hip. In fact, everything about the place is meant to convey a sense of the contemporary, if not the future of winemaking. I'm talking about a winery called Stratus.

Coming upon Stratus for the first time in the Niagara countryside is just a bit jarring. It rises up from its humble suroundings as a rectangular, steel and glass box -- with a few barrels out front to reassure skeptics that they have indeed arrived at a winery. It's an urban look built on a largely black and white color scheme that I'm guessing must be meant to draw on today's sophisticated young wine-sipper down from Toronto for the weekend. I've never seen another winery like it anywhere.

Environmentally Friendly
But it's not all about looks. Stratus bills itself as a "sustainable, innovative winery" dedicated to growing and producing limited quantities of "premium wines." Open since 2000, Stratus believes the building says a lot about the product a winery produces, so they have invested in not just a chic, stylish building but one that has the smallest possible environmental impact. In fact, the Stratus winery is the first building in Canada and the first winery anywhere, according to Stratus, to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the Canada Green Building Council. Never heard of 'em, but it sounds good.

The building includes a "high proportion of recycled materials" and energy-efficient windows, roofing, electrical and plumbing systems. Stratus also drilled 24 wells to pump up 55-degree water that is circulated throughout the building to warm it in winter and cool it in summer. Believing in the benefits of a gentle gravity-flow system, the winery is pump-free. Only gravity is used to move the juice through a unique system of elevators that mimic the design of a hillside winery.

The Wines
As for the wines, the 35-acre estate is planted with 13 different varietals, including all the Bordeaux varietals plus syrah, gamay, chardonnay, gewurztraminer, riesling and viognier. In keeping with the gentle-handling, all-natural philosophy, Stratus relies on low yields, no herbicides and picking by hand to cultivate and harvest the grapes. It is reflected in the prices.

You have your choice of a 2006 Riesling for $35, a 2000 Chardonnay for $36, a 2004 Stratus White (blend) for $44, a 2004 Cabernet Franc for $36 or the 2006 Stratus Red (blend) for $44. The 2002 Merlot, for $64, is sold out. And, the 2006 Riesling Icewine (200 ml) goes for $39.

I can tell you that all the wines I tasted were well made, with good body and some complexity. But the issue becomes, are they worth the price? That is, of course, a very subjective line of questioning. Without going off on a rant about upscale prices, I'll just say that most people I know would not buy these wines -- especially the non-varietals. Most Americans, I think, are willing to splurge now and then chiefly for varietal wines (Bordeaux excepted) from hot producers -- wines with cache.

The Stratus blended wines (they call them "assemblage" wines) are decent enough but lacking in the kind of distinction consumers typically look for when spending more than $40. For example, the Stratus White is a blend of chardonnay, gewurztraminer, riesling, sauvignon blanc and semillon that is supposed to be a quite floral wine with spicy apple, peaches and apricot notes. What I tasted was muddled chardonnay. I got the spicy apple and peach, but not a lot else. Don't get me wrong, a good wine but not distinctive.

I'm sure the staff would tell me I'm all wet because this wine is one of their best selling. I would argue that is a result of their unique marketing efforts. It's clear Stratus has a three-fold strategy for selling its wines: convince consumers theirs is an ultra-premium product unlike others, theirs is an environmentally friendly product you can feel good about drinking, and theirs is a product meant for hip, sophisticated consumers who want products to match their lifestyles. As a well-designed winery located less than two hours from Toronto, the strategy probably works just fine for them. But it would not work everywhere.

A lot of the same environmently safe practices are being used successfully in Oregon and parts of California these days, so Stratus is not unique in this respect. But this environmentally friendly, modernistic winery dressed up in designer clothes certainly stands out from the rest in the way they have combined these separate elements. And, if the look and the prices are not exactly my style, it certainly was fun to experience. It's definitely worth a stop -- maybe it will fit your lifestyle.


Anonymous Tony D said...

So the prices are somewhat... Stratus-Pheric ?

8:37 AM  
Blogger JD said...

Shame on you for that one. But...yes!

10:49 AM  
Blogger Marcus said...

Their $20 Gamay isn't bad.

Never liked the concept of their winery though. You feel like you're walking into a giant meat locker. Spent 10 minutes shuffling around, no one glanced at me or said a word. No one seemed at all interested in explaining why they do what they do. Kind of hollow was my impression.

Definitely a stand-out Ontario producer though.

5:34 PM  
Blogger JD said...

Exactly. These are good wines, and I'm a sucker for anything green, but the rest left me cold. Altogether a tough sell.

Sorry I didn't run into you there. I should have consulted you before. What do you like best on the Niagara peninsula?

7:20 PM  

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