County Rd. 50: Explore the Shore

Alexandra Lucier | August 4, 2016

The sky is fire-blue and cloudless. It’s a perfect day to get out of the city and this part of the province offers plenty of reasons to cruise the Lake Erie shoreline. It’s Saturday, so the farmer’s market is set up in the parking lot of “The Little White Church” at the end of Howard Ave., just as it is every weekend from May to September.

We hit five wineries that afternoon. Among them is Black Bear Farms, a rustic, intimate tasting room secluded in a copse of maple trees. They specialize in sweeter fruit wines like elderberry, black current and strawberry-muskmelon. My personal favourite is Mama’s Special Delight, an original recipe.

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Viewpointe (our next stop) is a stately stone building crowning a grassy expanse between the lakefront and vineyard. Compared to Black Bear, it’s impressively grandiose, with a high-ceilinged entranceway, retail shop, fireplace room, event rooms, and expansive kitchen which seems to be made entirely of stainless steel. I pick my favourite wines for a tasting while I reminisce with former colleagues. The newly-released 2013 Riesling is particularly good, the barrel-fermented Chardonnay still smoky and robust – a red-drinker’s white. After purchasing a bottle of V-Bronze (a blend of Syrah and Cab Sauv), I hike out to the bluff with my sister and her friends, my heels sinking into the grass as we squint at the sun dancing on the waves.

We’re meant to end the tour at Oxley, but we’re hours early for our dinner reservation, so our driver agrees to add Sprucewood Shores to the itinerary. The main building is warm and rustic like Black Bear – a log-cabin feel – but rivals the size of Viewpointe. It’s also on the water. Here we indulge in more sweet varieties, like ice wine and mulled wine (perfect heated up for holiday parties), and of course Sprucewood’s famous Caboom!, a fruity burst of grape and raspberry. I pay for a brick of specialty wine chocolate and then we’re off to dinner.

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Oxley Estate Winery is elegant, with a refined tasting room, white tablecloths and a wood-fired oven nestled in rows of several grape varieties, some specially developed for Colchester and Essex County. We are allowed to take a leisurely tasting at our table before our pre-order arrives. My flat-iron steak is cooked to a flawless, succulent medium, accompanied by a rich béarnaise sauce, smoked king oyster mushrooms and ramp-smashed fingerlings that are golden-crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.

It’s my sister’s sangria that finally does me in around 3AM, and I crawl fully-clothed into the tent she’s set up for us in the backyard, feeling every delicious ounce of the long, hot day. I go home to shower in the morning, then make the forty-minute drive once again from my downtown apartment to the Essex County wine route.

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I still have more to see. My entire list is easily do-able in one day, but with the formal wine tour filling the afternoon yesterday, I decided to stretch it over the weekend. Over the next two hours I hit Farm Dog Cycles, a combination bike-rental, farm and produce stand; Garden Gate Treasures, a quaint garden and gift shop; and John R. Park Homestead, a historic conservation area with buildings restored to bring the nineteenth century to life.

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I save the alcohol-centred stops for last. The only winery I haven’t been to is Cooper’s Hawk. It’s the first time I’ve seen the newly-added on restaurant with exceptional gourmet fare. Lonsbery Farms Brewing Company is part of a new wave of craft breweries in the area, sourcing local ingredients to provide a true farm-to-glass experience. As part of Explore the Shore weekend, Lonsbery has a food truck and sample stand from Wolfhead, the first premium craft distillery in Essex County. The coffee whisky liquor is surprisingly smooth, even in my current condition, and strikes me as being good drizzled over ice cream. I chase the samples with a sweating glass of Lonsbery’s homebrewed root beer, a truly old-fashioned sarsaparilla with bold flavours of vanilla, liquorice, molasses and honey.

For dinner that night, I join my family at Billy’s Taphouse in Essex, a gastropub with fourteen craft beers on tap and an attached chef’s garden complete with barrels for harvesting rain. Despite the restaurant’s deceptive air of a casual, blue-collar eatery, the charcuterie board of local butcher-cured meets, cheeses, roasted peppers and house-candied pecans is worthy of any upscale place on the wine route. My mac and cheese arrives in an ample cast-iron pot, rich and bubbling with a crispy top and mounded with the smoky-sweet barbecue flavour of melt-in-your-mouth pulled pork and just enough spice to make you want to shovel it in. Afterwards, another cast-iron skillet of broiled S’mores Cake, the perfect cap-off to a meal (and a weekend) that’s well-worth the trip, the expense, and the hangover.

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