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Toronto Wine + Spirit Festival (+ Rain)

The Toronto Wine + Spirit Festival, the city's first outdoor trade / tasting event, got a unfortunate taste of the unpredictable nature of the skies yesterday at the Distillery District.

While the throngs that attended on Friday had a lovely evening weather-wise and drink pourers struggled to keep up the crowds, Saturday took a turn for the really wet and put a real damper on attendance, but not on the fun and tasting.

For those of us who donned ponchos and braved the rain, plenty of sheltered tent space kept us (mostly) dry, and the selection of food and drink kept our taste buds (mostly) whetted.

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Comparisons to the other big tasting events in Toronto, namely the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo and the Toronto Wine & Cheese Show, are inevitable but not entirely appropriate. Being the festival's first go, it was expected to be much smaller an affair...and it was.

Small is fine, but I was a bit disappointed by the lack of variety of vendors and products. There were only a handful of spirit brands to sample (two flavoured vodkas, one scotch, one rum, and a few liqueurs), and the majority of wines available for tasting were of the mass-produced general listed LCBO vein. Only a few Vintages products were being sampled, so there wasn't much opportunity to try anything out of the very ordinary.

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Whether or not the venue was perfect was a subject of debate amongst my friends. While we all loved the idea of meandering through the picturesque cobblestone walkways and popping in and put of some of the galleries of the Distillery, we weren't all that thrilled by the outdoor setup. The vendors were divided up into small, gated sections with wristband access (with as few as two and as many as five or six exhibitors in each), and we weren't able to walk freely from one section to the next with alcohol in our cups. In a way, this served as a benefit to the vendors (they got to keep us close while we sampled), but it also posed as an easily surmountable (i.e. gulp!) annoyance for those that like to sip and wander freely. We can only blame our completely archaic liquor control laws for this drawback.

Without an overbearing crowd of fellow tasters, it was really easy to approach exhibitors, sample at a very leisurely pace without having to wait in line, and have uninterrupted conversations with friendly pourers and fellow tasters.

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Wines that particularly tickled my fancy included the medium-bodied, spicy and fruit-forward Chivite Gran Fuedo Reserva Blend (Spain, $15.95), the approachable, lightly-oaked and deep red fruit-centric Red Knot Shiraz (Australia, $16.95), and in the bang-for-buck summer sipper category I liked the Banrock Station Unoaked Chardonnay (Australia, $10.95).

It was also really great to meet both Chadsey's Cairns and The Grange of Prince Edward County (representing Ontario's Prince Edward County) and sample their small-production, lively, cool climate wines.

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Catching my surprise in the flavoured vodka realm (I don't generally gravitate toward flavoured spirits, natural or not) was the award-winning Pearl Pomegranate Vodka (Alberta, $27.95). On ice, it was sweet but quite pleasant.

On the snackables front, the crafty spicy pepper and fruit jellies of Hot Mamas provided a tongue-flaring, sweet/savoury/spicy break from liquid splashes, but were better saved for later in the experience (to preserve the taste buds).

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Although food wasn't the focus, the highlight of my afternoon was what I ate at the booth manned by Rod and Graham, representing The Rosebud and The Citizen restaurants. Their pulled pork (Rowe Farms) sandwiches were mind-blowingly juicy and delicious. The sauce (which was crafted using tomato, vinegar, spices, maple syrup, and a splash of beer) was awesome, and the pickled cucumber (courtesy of Andrew MacDonald at Le Petit Castor) was a really nice touch as condiment.

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Aside from the weather (which organizers couldn't control), there were a few contentious points raised amongst my group that are worth addressing. With admission at $25 (+$5 service charge) the $5-worth of included drink tickets was perceived as rather skimpy. Also, and immediately upon arrival, tasters were given a small plastic glass that was not at all suitable for properly tasting and experiencing wine (can't swirl, can't keep in aromas). To obtain a glass suitable for tasting wine, patrons had no choice but to pony up an additional $3 for one. This had some in my group rather peeved, and certainly wasn't a great way to start off the experience.

Some of the gated areas weren't well-equipped with spit buckets or rinse water, so if you were there to taste, you had to seek out a place to dump overpours and then head to the rinse station (outside the gated areas) for a rinse. Some of the vendors picked up on this and provided buckets and rinse water, but many didn't.

Hopefully the festival returns next year, grows in scope and variety of sampling, and gets a more cooperative weekend weather-wise. All-in-all, it was a fairly enjoyable afternoon out with friends, despite the rain, and an opportunity to hang out at the Distillery transformed.

We ended our experience with a Mayan hot chocolate from Soma, and then walked on over to the Beerbistro for a delicious beer-infused meal.



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