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Winemaking Mission

The Toronto Star – Gordon Stimmell –

There’s a new kid on the Ontario wine block, a winery dedicated to making super-premium wines of the first order.  It’s name is Stratus.

What’s in a name?  Lots.  When owner David Feldberg conceived of the concept for making a winery, he reportedly mused aloud ablout creating “something small, maybe like Opus.”

Opus, of course, is the jewel of the Napa Valley, a Mondavi-Rothchild collaboration gem of a winery that makes hedonistic cult reds from a building that looks likea spaceship set inside a Greek temple.

So in the quest for a name, they brainstormed with consultant Peter Gamble who had made his mark by putting the Vintner’s Quality Alliance on the map.  Names like Opus, Dominus, Petrus and Trius danced and echoed in their heads.

Trius, because the winemaker was J.L. Groux, 48, who created the line of wines bearing that name at nearby Hillebrand during his  year stint with them.  Luring Groux into the new winery was the first really big move.

Stratus was finally settled upon as the name of the state-of-the-art winery.  Like lofty upper atmosphere stratus clouds.  A rarified atmosphere concept, that ties into the winery’s many windows and natural light.  And Stratus can also signify stratigraphy, the complex layers of soil so important to growing great grapes.

The land, aparcel of 62 acres, was purchased in September 2000 from grape grower George Werner along Highway 55 leading into Niagara-on-the-Lake.  The vineyard work began immediately, tearing off low-yield grapes in preparation for the first harvest, which was already upon them.

Feldberg, who trained as a lawyer and is CEO for office furniture manufacturer Teknion, is a design-oriented guy.  But the concept for the wiinery was to be strictly gravity flow, which means the grapes being processed into wine move in stages from high to low points by gravity in the winery.  This avoids too much handling and pumping which can destroy the quality of the final wine.

Problem was, most gravity flow wineries are set into hillsides.  The grapes get loaded in back on the upper hill level, then mother nature helps with gravity.  Stratus is located on land as flat as a proverbial pancake.  That’s where the elevators came in, to move tanks up and down.  The winery was designed as a winemakers dream.

Groux’s favourite saying these days as he shows visitors around is: “The grapes take the elevator, we walk.”  With his frizzy, out of control hair and wild gaze, Groux reminds one of a mad winemaker genius, with visual echoes of Einstein.

I won’t bore you with tank talk, but while the outside of the building is reminiscent of a big glass shoebox, the inside has every conceivable piece of ultra-modern equipment, from moveable double sorting tables to massive elevated oak Grenier wood fermenters.

Groux is as excited as a kid with a big allowance in a candy store.  As winemaker at Stratus, he has total control of the grapes and vineyards.  His mission in life is to coax world-class flavours froma myriad of grapes, including clasic Bordeaux varieties (cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot), Burgundy varieties (chardonnay) and Rhone grapes (syrah, viognier) – not to mention gewurztraminer, sauvignon blanc, semillon and malbec.

The art of blending grapes, which Groux mastered at Hillebrand, is in full play in the Stratus wines.  The flagships are Stratus  Red ($38, rating 90/100) a blend drawn from cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, gamay, syrah, malbec and merlot with blackberry, vanilla and mellow chocolate accented tones.  Stratus 2002 White ($36, rating 88/100) selected from varieties such as chardonnay, gewurztraminer, sauvignon blanc and semillon displays clean white peach, lime and melon character.  It lacks the ripe complexity of the famed multi-grape white Conundrum from California.

Several single varietal stunners have been sculpted so far, including an amazing 2002 Chardonnay Reserve ($55, 93/100) drawn from only four barrels with refined crushed pineapple, guava and coconut spice elegance.  Also delicious are 2002 Merlot ($55, 90/100) with big licorice, black cherry and cedar structure, and 2001 Gamay Noir ($26, 90/100), one of the best gamays I have tasted from Ontario, with exotic spice, smoke and earthy flavours finishing with a slight gamey tang.  But what about the barrels of wine that do not quite make it to the stratosphere?  They go into a lower-price blend called Wildass, which is meant to be a fun, bistro-style wine for sale to restaurants.  Wildass 2002 White ($17, 89/100) is quite classy, with buttery spicy apple from reserve oak treatment, and Wildass 2002 Red ($19, 87/100) is a fairly wobbly effort, with candied black cherry and cedar stylings.

Groux and Gamble liken Wildass to Lee and Stratus to Susur, in reference to Toronto’s top chef Susur Lee, who has opened a price friendly Lee restaurant next door to his culinary opus, Susur.

Quantities are small and availability limited to the winery.  The Wildass duo will be available via wildasswines.com and in restaurants.  The upper-tier Stratus wines are coming in tiny amounts to Vintages later this fall and in June via their website, stratuswines.com.

The official winery opening is set for late June, but if you venture down to Niagara, the winery is open to visitors Wednesday to Sunday from noon to 5pm.  A special three-glass tasting in stemware especially suited to the varietials is available for $10 at the winery tasting bar.

And if sipping Stratus stimulates your hunger, there’s noted regional chef, Tony de Luca’s wonderful deli operation with its sinful sandwiches next door, which is just a footpath away.

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