By Jamie Drummond

Winemaker Keith Nichols has been producing wine in Paso Robles, California under the Nichols label since 1991. Nichols sources fruit from all over the appelation, utilising Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Zinfandel to produce numerous small lot releases, usually within the 400 – 800 case range.

Keith was born into a dairy farming family in upstate New York, and after a career in electronics found himself based in California. After a few years of eating and drinking “California style”, Keith made the decision to start making some wine for himself…

Having met Keith Nichols a number of years ago, when his wines were first released into the Ontario market, I have closely followed both the evolution of his wines in bottle and his growth as a Winemaker. With this in mind I was delighted to discover that Keith Nichols’ Ontario distributor Le Sommelier were hosting a Winemaker’s dinner at Toronto’s Crush Wine Bar.

Crush’s General Manager/Sommelier (and erstwhile contributor to Good Food Revolution) Mark Moffatt greeted us warmly at the King Street entrance and led us to the restaurant’s private dining space, just below street level.

It was most interesting to taste Keith’s current releases alongside some of the new menu items from Crush’s Executive Chef Michael Wilson.

The SILVER FOX aka Winemaker Keith Nichols and Le Sommelier's Bernard Stramwasser

Lake Erie Pickerel with Purple Potato Lobster Hash & Chive Beurre Blanc

Sauteed Laughing Bird Shrimp with Israeli Couscous, Caper Berries, Oven-Dried Cherry Tomatoes, Fennel and Spicy Saffron Nage

Wellington County Steak Tartare with Traditional Garnish, Toast Points & Gaufrette

Roasted Ontario Lamb Rack with Lentil, Fresh Bean & Pea Ragout, Rosemary Jus & Goat Yogurt

Bacon-Wrapped Venison Loin with Heirloom Carrots, Brussel Sprout Leaves, Jerusalem Artichokes, Hazelnuts & Cassis Jus

Crush GM/Sommelier Mark Moffatt, Keith Nichols, and Bernard Stramwasser

2006 Nichols “Silver Fox” Sauvignon Blanc San Miguel California
Made/aged in stainless steel with not even a touch of oak, this Sauvignon exhibits Empire apples, honeydew melon, and lime leaf. The wine is crisper and more refreshing than one would expect from San Miguel fruit. Medium-bodied, decidedly New World, and best paired with asian-influenced dishes.

2001 Nichols Chardonnay “Paragon Vineyard” Edna Valley California
With quite an amazing amount of age on it, this wines has developed an amazing richness and complexity that is rare to find in the few Californian whites capable of ageing. It also shows remarkable vitality considering it’s from the 2001 vintage. Toast, toffee, and pineapple certainly dominate on the nose. The palate is most intriguing, with so much going on in each glass. Dry with a satisfying finish. A very good bottling.

2001 Nichols Pinot Noir “Edna Ranch Vineyard” Edna Valley California
I tend to be quite picky when it comes to my Pinot Noirs and this one didn’t quite pass muster. Despite utilising the traditionally aromatic 777 clone I found this wine slightly muddy and quite raisiny, lacking freshness, not characteristics I am particularly drawn towards. Some people seriously love this style of pinot, one where some extremely long hangtime is apparent.

2000 Nichols Merlot “Vinas del Sol Vineyard” Paso Robles California
Augmented by a touch of both Cabernets, this wine clearly knocks the ball out of the park. Having tasted many Nichols wines over the years I feel that this could be his very best yet. The nose is classic Merlot with simply bags of black fruit (cherries, blackberries, brambles) and a very defined French oak influence that sits in complete harmony with the fruit aromatics. The tannins are smooth and silky with a wonderfuly attractive mouthfeel. Drinking perfectly right now. Grab some while you can!

2000 Nichols Cabernet Sauvignon “Vinas del Sol Vineyard” Paso Robles California
After opening a few bottles of this to check for consistency we were quite surprised by the mocha/chocolate aromatics that every bottle was showing. Underneath this we could pick up on the mature fruit, but only just. Although quite enjoyable with our dish, we all felt that the wine was perhaps not showing as well as it should be. It was quite frustrating as one could see this wine’s potential.

Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… and he does find Mr. Nichols most entertaining.