Windsor Essex County
A well rounded and vibrant art scene is not something I expected to find in my recent Fam trip with the iYellow Wine Club to Windsor-Essex. Invited to take in the sights and sounds of ‘the county’, I imagined field after field of corn (yes, saw that!) and one small town blending into the next-also something I encountered. But the emerging wine landscape and the history and beautiful landscape and architecture were unexpected and totally and enthralling.
Cooper’s Hawk hosted the 22nd annual Vintage Tasting- yes, the county has been growing grapes for a long while, and celebrating the tradition with this yearly event. EPIC wine county brought a bounty of winemakers in for the event, with a beautiful tent neatly covering everyone with shade. A banquet of cheeses were on display, many I’ve never seen before, all local cheese makers showing off their skills. Wines from Sprucewood Shores, Crew Winery, Pelee Island Winery and many more made for an eventful afternoon trying to taste them all. Some favourites were not only great summer sippers, but also their gorgeous bottles make for a great hostess gift.
Cooper’s Hawk had a full band playing on their ridiculously adorable stage, which is also home to their Shakespeare in open air-this year’s production was A Midsummer Night’s Dream- can’t think of a better way backdrop then row after row of vines!
After touring the property on tractor, the wine angels were in full bloom and ready for more. High on life and eating chardonnay grapes has that effect- as does all the pristine fresh air and friendly faces.
Our next stop afforded us with more scenery and unexpected artful touches. The newly renovated The Grove Hotel in Kingsville is something you would expect in a modern city- it’s got a distinct boutique vibe- each room decorated differently and channeling a totally different aesthetic- my room featured a vintage bike hung on the wall like art- my friend’s room boasted a mural of colourful butterflies. Another was a glamour girls dream come true, with ornate wallpaper and a bed fit for a princess.
A work in progress, the property is under going a gut job, with our top floor rooms completed. The upcoming addition- a brewery and restaurant will be the jewel in the crown when this Kingsville Hotel is complete.
Ready for dinner, our group headed over to Birdie’s Percha ‘bustaurant’ serving up the finest local fish finds and mega sized poutines. The double-decker bus is an import straight from England, converted lovingly into a dining experience like nothing I’ve experienced! Their menu boasts burritos, tacos and hot dogs, but as soon as I saw Perch Po’ Boy it was settled. The tasty white fish was slathered in Birdie sauce served on a ciabatta bun. If you haven’t experienced perch before (my many trips to Port Dover have afforded me ample opportunities) you must try it- especially when it’s as fresh as this!
Birdie’s is more than just fresh fish- they also have decadent ice creams and a beautiful tuck shop- I snapped up many ‘cottagey’ finds, it was easy to go overboard when you see such lovely crafted goods- many by local artists. After snapping up a Bee House (yes!) we soaked up the last bit of daylight on Lake Erie for a perfect sunset at Mersea Park. Night came swiftly- and we crashed hard. I slept better than ever in that king sized bed at the Grove Hotel- so much so I almost hugged the host- I never sleep well away from home, that night I slept like I hadn’t closed my eyes in a year.
A breakfast of champions awaited us at Merli’s Cafe, and to my surprise, a healthy dose of art too. Merli’s crams his restaurant FULL to the brim of local art- free of charge. Art takes on so many shapes here- from photos to abstract art, stained glass, and even a little manga. This county is clearly talented, with one wine angel grabbing a few pieces to come home with. Our host Frank was passionate in not only what he creates, but also was dedicated to nurturing local artists too. His art was contained to our plates- we thoroughly enjoyed not only the eggs, but his unique perspective on living in Kingsville.
A stop in at Wolfhead Distillery meant not only a visit to one of the newest distilleries in the county, but also the opportunity to chat with an artist of a different medium. Couple and co-owners Tom and Sue Manherz spoke to us on how they created the brand, and the tasting notes and profiles that go into making their line of products. Artisan alcohol here is small batch- they sell out of popular Grapefruit Vodka or Apple Caramel Whisky on the regular, and rightly so- they are cranking out some very premium product, all based out of an area that flourished during the Prohibition era.
Squirrel Cage in downtown Windsor also boasts an artful array of vintage style pinup posters and framed art. Around back in the adjacent alley, more art awaited, this time in the form of graffiti. Having never been to Windsor before I was pretty surprised to find gritty city style murals blanketing their buildings too- clearly my city-iot roots were blinding me from seeing that Toronto isn’t the only place in southern Ontario to find such stunning talent.
Hanging with Adriano of Windsor Eats brought more history and focus to the why’s behind the region. Kicking off at The Canadian Club brand centre, or mecca to a rye gal like me, we were welcomed into the historic building with an Old Fashioned- a perfect complement to the mood and aura around this storied building.
A former bank building, the building has served as CC’s headquarters and now brand centre with a picturesque view of Detroit just beyond the river. They offer daily tours through the building- with multiple floors and a basketweave of rooms, all stuffed with sculptures, paintings and portraits, it almost felt more like walking through an art gallery then a rye tasting!
Hiram Walker had great taste, and the conservation and care that has gone into keeping up this meticulous space is breathtaking. I spied more than a few Group of Seven landscapes decorating the walls in the gallery, with the old bank safe below stashing even more.
After a tasting of both 100% Rye and their rich 12 Year Whiskey we were let loose on the streets with Adriano. He guided us about Walkerville, pointing out various buildings that Hiram had built in his heyday. Walkerville is a really nice little town, surrounded by history from both prohibition and The War of 1812. The architecture reflects a lot of that history- from the brewmaster’s house down the block to the grain silos that tower over the main drag.
It had been over half an hour since our last shot so we were all ready for another drink, so a swift walk over to the brewery was just the ticket. The brewery is part of the history of this town, formerly it was owned by Hiram back when his company was in the beer business. Now our brewmaster Ian has stepped into his shoes with his stellar lineup of beers at Walkerville Brewery.
The flight was quickly quaffed, I dug my heels into the Geronimo IPA, a bubbly and crisp beer that was perfect on the super hot day. Complimenting Ian on his unique packaging, he was quick to offer that the cans were designed in house, and named after a lucky booze baron that ended up scoring his boat back after it was confiscated by the Yanks.
More and more I came to realize that history and art are woven together in the county. Windsor-Essex is scenic beyond belief, an exciting and emerging landscape for wineries and distilleries following in Hiram’s foot steps, and just as exciting for the residents who are lucky enough to call this place home.
Special shout out to the iYellow Wine Club angels for having me on this amazing ride and to Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island for the tour! Read more on this the stunning Ontario Southwest region here.