Monday, June 24, 2013

GBS and Wine

We decided to spend a few days in Niagara on the Lake last week, to taste their wine and take in a couple of plays at the Shaw Festival held each year.  Its only 120 kms from Toronto so we hired a monster Jeep and headed down the QEW, a very pleasant drive.

These days Niagara on the Lake (NOTL) is very cute, very leafy and very touristy.  We stayed at a country inn near the town, well village centre, to enable us to stroll into town with ease.  It is certainly an idyllic spot these days but it was not always this way.

The Town Hall and Cenotaph on Queen Street

Its around 200 years since the 1812-14 war between Britain and the USA (were they called the USA back then or simply America?) which started for a couple of reasons: firstly the Americans resented the Royal Navy stopping US ships bound for Bonaparte's Europe -- we were blockading the Continent of Europe very effectively at the time -- and also were quite put out because we were also supporting the Indian tribes in the west where the Americans were looking to expand.

This wasn't a good time for the British as we were fighting a really big war of survival in Europe against Boney so we were hideously undermanned in Canada and in particular the first place the Americans would go were they to simply stroll up through New York state which was Niagara on the Lake.

NOTL had been settled after the War of Independence by loyalists from America and in the 1790's was the first capital of Canada... except it wasn't called Canada yet, that would come in 1812-14.  By the 1790's it was apparent that NOTL wasn't a great choice so the capital was moved 40 miles across Lake Ontario to York (today's Toronto) and NOTL went back to sleep again.

Toronto 40 miles away on a clear day

Except that it didn't really as in 1796 the Americans finally got around to taking over/back their fort on the south side of the Niagara river (called Fort Niagara) that the British had captured from the French in 1759 and had ceded to the US at the end of the War of Independence.

Fort Niagara on a good day.  It too has been rebuilt.

News travelled slowly in those days and as nothing much was happening to that point, the Americans simply hadn't bothered to take it over.  Now they did and that prompted the British to build a fort on the opposing side of the river -- Fort George -- to guard against possible incursions by the Americans.

Block Houses at Fort George.  Grade 9 students were staying over night when we visited as part of their Canadian history school curriculum.  Must have been great fun!!

And boy was that prescient for in 1812 the Americans promptly bombarded the fort flat and then landed and took over the fort plus nearby town of NOTL (then called Newark).  They marched on and were thoroughly thrashed in the field first at Queenstown and then later at Stoney Creek and so with the winter closing in and their NOTL garrison (apparently even filthier than the British soldiers and so more prone to disease) dwindling down due to sickness and the demands of the field, they left but not before burning the town flat.  This in the middle of December in the midst of a blizzard which action was promptly condemned by both British and Americans (the guy who ordered it done was promptly fired) and the British responded in 1813/14 by first flattening Fort Niagara and then burning to a cinder every American town, city or village within 100 miles.

This is why none of NOTL's buildings pre-dates 1813 (and very probably the same for Buffalo and other towns that reaped the whirlwind of the original action).  Thankfully we're talking again!

But this didn't really concern NOTL too much as with the end of the war and the building of the canal that enabled shipping to work around the famous falls just up river, NOTL fell back into being a backwater.

The Seward Canal -- the reason why Niagara on the Lake became sleepy again

With no further strategic use, Fort George was abandoned but restored in the 1940's and adds to the tourist lustre of the town which since discovering that grapes could be grown in the region (it always was a fruit and veg region) from which decent wines could be grown (particularly whites), its fortunes again picked up.

Riesling grapes at Pondview Winery.  The roses at each end are planted as early warning devices against pests that affect the grape vines which are hardier than the rose bushes.  If a rose is sick, the grape growers know that they have to treat the grape vines too.

Interesting the way tastes drive business.  At the same time that people were losing the taste for canned fruit (grown in the NOTL region), interest was growing for new world wines (including NOTL) so it also made economic sense to make the switch and with Canada being as cosmopolitan as it is, there were heaps of people just arrived from Europe knowledgeable about wine making.

And then came George Bernard Shaw (or GBS to his friends).  While he never visited NOTL, a local lawyer named Brian Doherty in 1962 decided to put on a couple of Shaw plays, the success of which led to the current 4-month long festival which attracts thousands of people to the sleepy town... including us.

George Bernard Shaw

But I'm getting ahead of myself for Viv had organized a wine tour for us first up which was great fun as we visited 3 wineries, one famous for whites (Pondview), the next for eco-organic-green etc (Hinterbrook) and the last for ice wines (Pilliterri).  None of them have been around for many years but they all made some nice wines -- the blush wines for summer being particularly nice.

The cellar at Pilliterri.  The 2nd longest poured concrete table in the world.  Don't try moving it alone.

As for the plays, the first was a play by Somerset Maughan called "Our Betters" and the second by an Irish playwright called Brian Friel was called "Faith Healer".  The first was fun being a light hearted Roaring 20's style romp but the second was ... interesting, well if you consider it was about a drunk, Irish faith healer who was beaten to death by some home town bhoys for not being able to cure their paraplegic friend, his drunk wife who ultimately left him and committed suicide and his drunk cockney manager who simply shook his head and said 'what a shame'.

Sets for 'Our Betters' (top) and 'Faith Healer' (below) 

We certainly needed a stiff drink after that day!

The following day we spent on a Taste of the Town tour Viv had found on 'Living Social' -- great site, by the way.  We ate nibbles in 6 places and had a history tour by tour guide Bill who did a great job imbibing a lot of local color for us.

Polish cemetery commemorating the 80,000 US and Canadian volunteers of Polish heritage that trained nearby in 1916-17 to serve in the Great War and later in Russia but died in training.
Great trip.  Thanks Niagara on the Lake!!  

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