Tio Pepe and Opimian Society

Tio Pepe and Opimian Society

Last Wednesday evening, I was in the courtyard at Bodega Gonzales Byass in Jerez, Spain, enjoying copious copitas (small glasses designed for fino sherry) of Tio Pepe, the company’s landmark brand, and world’s largest selling fino sherry. I was amazed at its continuous ability to refresh the palate through two hours of assorted hot and cold tapas. I was also ruminating on the incredulous news that the folks who run the LCBO’s General List back home had de-listed this iconic wine. Importer Russell Woodman was informed of this in early May, with a curt fax saying that Tio Pepe had not made quota. Woodman claims a three-month out-of-stock situation had hurt the sales numbers, and has appealed. Meanwhile he is also taking steps to get Tio Pepe moving through Vintages stores where he feels it will be better handled by product consultants who have some idea of what this wine is all about. Obviously, given the General List’s thoughtless (computer-generated?) action, the folks there do not understand this wine. Certainly, the fortunes of sherry continue to fall globally, so the industry in Jerez must look itself in the eye and figure out a way to stop the slide. Ironically, Tio Pepe had already tried just that—recently reconfiguring the contents to make it one of the fruitiest, gentlest of fino sherries, then re-packaging it in a new white wine-looking bottle that even included the grape name—palomino—on the label.

While in Spain attending the bi-annual Vinoble sweet and fortified fair in Jerez, I compared all major fino brands side by side, and, no question, Tio Pepe Palomino Fino**** ($14.35, LCBO) is the brightest, friendliest dry fino sherry on the block. Traditionalists may miss the rancio, nutty and salty tang rife in other brands like Domecq La Ina, Osborne Fina Quinta or Hidalgo La Panessa, but modernized Tio Pepe is still the best bet to attract new consumers to the category. As of June 3, dozens of LCBO stores had showed remaining stock at www.lcbo.com/lcbo-ear/ProductResultsController, so you may be able to stock up this week at a store near you, while waiting for Tio Pepe to re-appear at Vintages in the weeks ahead. You can contact Woodman Wines and Spirits (416-767-5114) for updates. Serve it chilled this summer long with all manner of salty snacks—smoked salmon, shellfish, sushi/sashimi, olives, cold veggie plates, nuts, corn chips, even Ruffles and dip.

Speaking of LCBO alternatives, the Opimian Society chugs along with over 3,000 members active in three chapters in the GTA alone. Founded in 1973, when Canada’s liquor monopolies were even more antiquated and restrictive, it has morphed into a nationwide wine buying co-op with a full range of tasting/social events, tours and publications including Tidings magazine. Members can buy wines by the case in eight “offerings” per year. 40 to 50 wines are in each catalogue, with products selected largely by British Master of Wine Ken Christie. They aren’t available in liquor stores, thus one doesn’t see mainstream, well-known or documented brands. Foreknowledge of purchases is further constrained in that Opimian doesn’t offer independent ratings and reviews. So, to help familiarize members with various suppliers, the society began offering a program called Opimian Select wherein members can “blind” order mixed six-bottle sampler packs. It’s billed as an educational experience, and as any wine lover knows, it is essential and fun to continuously try new things. However, it is also a risky way to buy—albeit at the reduced risk of only one bottle of each wine, not a case or half-case. I recently sampled a six-pack of mid-priced Italian wines ($94.00) provided in the Society’s May offering, and my reaction was lukewarm. I found one corked bottle, and I was wary of seeing a 2003 Pinot Bianco offered where 2005 is the current vintage on LCBO shelves. Fortunately Elena Walch 2003 Pinot Bianco, Alto Adige*** is quite rich, fruity, almost opulent and still good thanks to a big vintage. It’s still evolving, though, so drink up by Christmas this year. Bel Colle 2004 Dolcetto d’Alba, Piedmont**1/2, Corsi 2004 Rosso di Toscana**1/2, and Pontemagno 2004 Rosso Piceno, Marches** are not recommended at an average cost of $15.65/bottle. Corsi 2004 Chianti, Tuscany*** however is good, typical basic Chianti with some charm and better flavour depth. Full information on the society can be found at www.opim.ca.

Ontario’s short cropped but high quality 2005 vintage takes the spotlightthis weekend in wine country during New Vintage Niagara. 25 wineries areshowcasing new bottlings at a gala Saturday, June 10, 7 p.m. at the St.Catharines Golf & Country Club. For more information: www.niagarawinefestival.com

Update: Since posting the story above, the Opimian Society has advised that theItalian selection is not from their May offering, but from an offering lastyear (which explains the older vintage of Pinot Bianco). The wines are notavailable but we leave the notes posted for those who may have samples stillon hand. Watch for further Opimian reviews in the weeks ahead.