La Dolce Vita: Facing limited choices

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While I knew finding a match for my major cooking effort of the week would be chancy, I didn’t expect the options to be quite so limited.

We were in Northern Alberta, Spirit River to be precise. Yes, the same Spirit River that less than two weeks ago made national news when escaped murder convict  William Bickell surrendered after a lengthy standoff with police. My son is a member of the Spirit River detachment and he spent two hours with the behemoth in his rifle sights before Bickell finally surrendered.

Anyway, we were there to look after our 21-month-old granddaughter while her parents took a well-deserved holiday. We were expecting guests from Edmonton and for dinner I planned to make a version of jambalaya with chicken, sausage and prawns (all of which I found while sorting through the freezer), brown rice and cheddar cheese-jalapeno pepper corn bread.

Small-town (Spirit River has a population of about 1,000 and is an hour’s drive north of Grande Prairie, in the heart of farming and natural gas country) shopping is always an adventure, and not always a negative one. Twenty years ago we made it a regular habit to pop into small towns when we were travelling. My sons and I were collectors of sports cards and items, and hockey figurines were our obsession for a while. As often as not we would find a couple of Kenner figurines hanging on a display rack in a pharmacy or general store, ones that might have been difficult to find in a city.

So it was with a mixture of optimism and trepidation that I completed my grocery shopping and stopped into the town’s only liquor store, which had been added into a tiny corner of the pub and hotel. I entered into the cramped space and saw only shelves of hard liquor. Around a corner was a beer cooler and I had to glace around for a second time before I found the store’s wine selection. A wire rack held about a dozen different wines. There were several whites, one British Columbian Pinot Noir and some other reds, including Manischewitz, that sweet Kosher wine that is often mentioned in comedy routines.

I did, however, find a couple of bottles I thought worthy of taking home (there was some wine at my son’s home, but I didn’t really want to drain the meagre selection). At under $14 each, the bottles, a French Beaujolais and Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon were a decent buy.

The Beaujolais was just what we expected. It was light in colour, thin in body and fruity in taste. Nothing wrong with it at all. The second was a bit of a surprise, though. The Chilean maker was Montes, a winery we have an affinity for, having met the younger of the father-son winemaking team and been given a copy of a book about the winery, signed by both.

Montes makes a number of premium wines and also issues some lower priced, but still good quality single variety wines. It came as no great surprise that the Cabernet Sauvignon was good. Nice, full body and typical Cab Sauv flavours, it was also unfiltered. The amount of sediment and wine diamonds in my first glass caused me to take a better look at the bottle. It turned out to be a 2002 vintage, certainly not what one expects to find in a good wine shop’s shelves, let alone a small-town liquor store. More than eight years after it was made, the Montes Cab Sauv is still drinking beautifully, and I wondered how it got to Spirit River. Has it been hidden in a warehouse somewhere, finally discovered and shipped off to small, unsuspecting retailers on the assumption that it is long past its best-before date? Or has it been right there in Spirit River, overlooked by a population that obviously consumes a lot more beer and whisky than wine?

I don’t have the answer and it really isn’t important. I was happy, in the end, to have discovered such a nice wine at a low price, just as I was 20-odd years ago whenever we found an elusive Kenner hockey figurine in a small-town general store.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.