My Canada, 80/150: The County’s best bottles

If Billy Munnelly decides to live Prince Edward County, you know there’s promise a’coming in the County’s wines.

Billy Munnelly started out as a restaurateur in Stratford, Ontario before, as his bio cheekily states, he “switched to drinking full time and hasn’t missed a day of work since.” He has been a wine consultant, a teacher about wines, and a prolific wine writer: he started one of the first consumer newsletters about wine and, for 22 years between 1990 and 2012, published “Billy’s Best Bottles,” an annual print guide to wines you could buy in Ontario and Canada. It was a tall, narrow book that glided easily into a Christmas stocking and for years I bought them in multiple quantities as gifts for family and friends.

Billy is the opposite of a wine snob. He patiently and repeatedly guides people into a better, fun, understanding of wine. His big message: there is no such thing as “the right wine” or “the best wine”. There is a wine that suits each occasion, mood,  location, and food. While he no longer publishes a print guide, he posts recommendations on his Billys Best Bottles website and tweets @billysbest.

While Billy lived in Toronto for many years before relocating to “The County” east of Toronto, as Prince Edward County is often called, he left an indelible mark in Stratford lore from his time there. Stories of his Beaujolais parties are the stuff of legend.

That gift for creating a party, and bringing people together, has fueled the latest evolution in the Billys Best Bottles brand: Billy and his partner, Kato Wake, began to organize and lead wine-tasting travel tours several years ago and that has morphed into a major component of their business. In early 2017, they announced to their mailing list a walking tour of Ireland in June 2018 (where beer and whisky are also on the itinerary) and it booked out in moments: they are now organizing two additional tours in that same month so Billy and Kato will be back-to-back guiding, hiking, and touring for an entire month. Other trips for 2017 are sold out to Portugal, Italy, Ireland, and France.

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Wine and tour hosts extraordinaire: Kato Wake and Billy Munnelly. Photos: Joan DiPoce.

Kato is a graphic designer and organizer extraordinaire who makes the magic happen while Billy charms the guests and teaches about wine. We got to see her in action up close in 2014 when we were on the first Prince Edward County Wine Camp. It seems some Canadians who had been on Billy’s European tours said to him, you’re living in Prince Edward County: we’d love to get your perspective on the wine country there.

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Old Third winery, using an old barn as its headquarters (as do many in Prince Edward County), plants its vines more densely than is usual. Photo: Kelley Teahen

So Billy and Kato set up a Friday afternoon-to-Monday-morning tour in Prince Edward County of their favourites, from wineries to restaurants to galleries to vegetable growers and cheese makers. After our arrival and check-in at Angéline’s in Bloomfield we loaded onto a small yellow school bus and headed to The Old Third, a winery run by partners Bruno Francois and Jens Korberg. Their specialty is Pinot Noir, whose grapes grow particularly well in the limestone-bedrock soil of this region.

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The smiling Jens and intense Bruno at The Old Third. Photo: Joan DiPoce.

Jens is the genial host and Bruno the self-acknowledged obsessive about growing grapes to their peak, and creating the best wine possible. This winery has not joined the Vintners Quality Alliance program in Ontario and has battled — and won — against a restriction that forbid wineries located in Prince Edward County that are not VQA members from saying they were in “Prince Edward County” because that is a formal wine region appellation only allowed to be used by the members. Or so the VQA argued, before the determined Bruno challenged them.

Of course, Bruno is one of Billy’s favourites. The other vineyards he chose for our tour were Huff Estates (sleek with adjoining art gallery, restaurant and accommodations); Rosehall Run, Casa-Dea Estates, Karlo Estates, Closson Chase, Norman Hardie, Hinterland (specializing in bubbly) and Long Dog Winery, another out-of-VQA rebel sort like The Old Third, so named as a tribute to the owner’s long-haired dachshunds and also a play on “Languedoc”, a French wine region.

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A wine cocktail tasting at Karlo Estates as the sun begins to lower, a prelude to dinner at the winery. Photos: Chris Moorehead (no. 1) and Joan DiPoce (2 and 3).

Touring with Billy Munnelly is a zany experience. I’ve only been on this three-day tour, rather than the longer European jaunts, but you learn a great deal about wine, and about enjoying life. Some of our fellow travellers really got into the spirit of things, dressing one afternoon for a Bocce tournament as grape clusters made of balloons — even if the balloons made it necessary to have a friendly helping hand to enjoy a sip of wine.

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Costumed revellers at Casa Dea Winery; Kato showing us some additional spots to visit; and toasting one of the many sculptures at the Oeno Sculpture Garden adjacent to Huff Estates winery. Photos: Joan DiPoce (1,2,3) and Kelley Teahen (4).

High up on my wish list is the opportunity to travel on one of the European jaunts organized by Kato and animated by Billy. In the meantime, I can keep up with his County wine recommendations online and learn from a couple whose careers continue to morph, yet always shaped around the travel, art, wine, and life they love.

Main photo of Billy Munnelly: Joan DiPoce.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Chris Moorehead says:

    You made a reference to the infamous Casa Dea bocce tournament, but neglected to mention Billy’s considerable talents in that arena. Fortunately, I was on his team, so I didn’t have to compete AGAINST him.

    Liked by 1 person

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