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Oct 31, 2008 03:20 PM

Micro winery in the city??? Olivia's at fifty three

It's been a while since we visited Olivia's At Fifty Three. We decided to go for their Sunday and Wednesday complimentary wine tasting. We tried a number of their wines, called Below Fifty Three cellars, and they were all very good. I didn't realize this before, but they produce some of their own wines in a small 'micro winery' downstairs. Has anyone heard of this before? Very interesting. Our server explained the process to our table. The owner's parents are both A list winemakers from Argentina, and they import whole grapes from a number of wine regions then make the wine in the 'micro winery'. I guess it's the same sort of concept as a micro brewery?
Anyway, very impressive, and I don't think anyone else in the city (or possibly country?) is doing this... I'm not sure why I haven't read about this anywhere. Surprisingly Toronto Life hasn't found out about it yet.

We also happened to walk in on the first day of the new fall menu. The one thing I noticed immediately was that there was no live jazz. The last couple of times we've gone in the past, there has been phenomenal live jazz. Now it's more sporadic, we were told. I must admit, however, that in such a small place the music was sometimes overwhelming, and it was difficult to carry on a conversation. So this was a welcome change for us.
The place really looks beautiful. It's such a romantic spot, with old jazz playing softly on the sound system and the feeling of a European bistro from a long time ago...

To the food. I shared a very nice fresh dungenese crab with avocado and mango concassee with my partner. When we walked in for an early meal we could see live crabs on the kitchen counter awaiting their fate. Needless to say, it was very fresh crab meat. We also shared a fennel salad, which was well balanced by confit cranberries and grapefruit. Then we shared a 'pulled lamb parmentier' with truffled mash and rosemary. I've never had lamb cooked this way, but it was a pleasant surprise. Very delicate, perfectly seasoned. The final item was rabbit in a prune-armagnac sauce. I'm not fond of prunes or dates, but my partner enjoyed it very much. The rabbit was perfectly cooked. So often rabbit is overcooked and dry.

The server told us they have a new chef who had been heading kitchens in top restaurants in Italy and France. It definitely showed. Our previous experiences with the food at Olivia's were always fairly good, but this seemed to be a definite and conscious step up.
The entire experience was very pleasant. The cuisine, and the wine, was very delicious, and the atmosphere was nearly impeccable.
My only suggestion would be to cut the live jazz out completely. As a huge jazz fan it pains me to say this, but it makes for a more comfortable dining experience.

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  1. this has been legal for several years now. And it doesn't surprise me that nobody has really exploited this. If you use grapes then yopu'll have to make a whole year's supply at one time - consider the storage and inventory cost. Or you could use concentrate - in which case it's essentially home-made wine. In theory that 'could' be good - and indeed I've tasted some excellent home-made wines. BUT - the reverse is more often true, and the quoted cost/litre seems low - but that's because the cost of labour, rent, and all the other things are generally excluded. At best you're going to get a fruity wine that has little or no structure - exactly the style that doesn't go with food.
    And I haven't tasted the wine at Olivia's so can't comment knowledgeably on their product - but am aware of several people who abandoned similar projects years ago.

    3 Replies
    1. re: estufarian

      I have a decent knowledge of winemaking, and I couldn't agree more. You are right about the concept. It's not something that is profitable at all. However, from what we were told, at Olivia's, they actually import the whole grapes and from pretty highly regarded vineyards around the globe. The thing is, I think they are going for the higher end 'boutique' market, not simply lowering costs. The organic Malbec and Carmenere we tried were, to be completely honest, some of the best examples I've tried outside of Argentina or Chile. They far surpassed those at LCBO vintages.
      I did a bit of research on the Olivia's At Fifty Three website, and coupled with speaking to our server the other night, this is what I can gather: I don't think it's a profit margin idea, or cost-lowering concept, because the bottles of their exclusive wines are not cheap. They are, however, very good value. I've paid $30 more for a bottle of Malbec at a restaurant that wasn't even in the same league as the Malbec they produce at Olivia's (and it's organic).
      According to my research, they do produce, French oak age, and cellar small batches of various vintages, then bottle age them for, in some cases, over 2 years before releasing them. So this seems to be the real deal. It's basically a fully professional winery, done on a small scale, in a dedicated area of a restaurant. From the website: they don't use concentrates,the wines are professionally produced and aged as necessary (obviously aging differs from wine to wine, year to year), and apparently very low in sulfites.
      The mere fact that the folks who are producing the 'micro winery' wines at Olivia's are well known and awarded winemakers (professional oenologists), who formerly headed Trapiche Winery in Argentina (perhaps one of the best known and respected Argentinean wineries), says quite a bit about the operation. I don't think they would put their name on a fly-by-night mass production of cheap wine...

      I think this is really interesting, and possibly deserves more of a discussion with wine-lovers. It's a new concept, as far as I know, and I think it should be given a fair opportunity. It sort of brings a whole new meaning to 'everything made in house'. They are able to produce a wine to their liking, then create the cuisine in order to compliment the wines, or vice versa. Hmmm.

      Unfortunately I've never heard anything about it before, and it is an odd concept to wrap one's head around, particularly because this is seemingly the first time it's been done to these professional standards. I won't speak for anyone here, but I know a sommelier at Red's through a friend, who highly recommended the micro winery wines at Olivia's. Our server the other night also mentioned that a writer from Wine Spectator was working on a piece about their micro winery. Again, I think the concept should be given a fair chance. I will likely be back very soon to have another taste of their vintages, and I hope some others here will offer either their personal, or professional, opinions about the operation. If it is what it seems to be, which is a new, brave, concept in a restaurant market begging for new ideas and angles, particularly one that brings the glories of wine and cuisine even closer, I sincerely wish them the best of luck with it.

      1. re: donjuan140

        I agree. The approach in the past has been to lower costs. A 'marketing' approach to focus on the wine side could produce a significantly different approach.
        The Spectator rep here is 'free-lance' - if I bump into him I'll see what I can find out.
        And of course Trapiche are strictly corporate in nature (I've visited) - although they did produce some good small batch stuff that was OK.
        But importing whole grapes from South America is not conducive to fine wine making (unless oxidation can be completely avoided - unlikely)! I know some home winemakers who have sourced fruit from California and driven it back 'same day'. So it is possible, but my money wouldn't be invested in that approach.

        1. re: estufarian

          Ditto. I've also been out to Trapiche, near Mendoza, a few times, and while it is a corporate winery, the old Trapiche, owned by Carlos Pulenta, was much higher-end focused. Pulenta's latest winery now holds claim to the Spectator's "Best Malbec on Earth'.
          I very briefly asked a friend of mine who is in the int'l shipping industry, about how delicate fruits would fare being shipped. He did mention that he's heard of a method of flash freezing (at a very, very low temp.) exotic fruits to be shipped globally which does little to no harm with regards to texture, nutrients, taste or colour, both tangibly and scientifically. I will post more info when he gets back to me on this. Again, I'm somewhat with you on this, but am surprised at the high quality of the wines at Olivia's. I'll be sure to try and speak with the owner the next time I'm in to get the full story and figure out how they're accomplishing it.