Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ask, and I will find: A good paella place

J said...

Find me a good paella place, preferably in the cheap-moderate price range, good value, family atmosphere, etc :)

May 27, 2009 9:40 AM

According to, "Paella is a traditional dish of Spain. Its home is Valencia, but variations exist in the different Spanish provinces. A colourful mixture of saffron-flavored rice and various meats, paella's name comes from the paellera, the flat, round pan in which it is cooked. Traditionally, the paella is cooked out of doors, over a wood fire."

I don't know what makes a "good" paella (I've never had an authentic, homemade one before), but I highly recommend the paella at the Diamond Alumni Centre (SFU Burnaby Mountain -- on University Drive East at the north end of the SFU campus, overlooking Indian Arm and Deep Cove), where I tried my first one.

I loved every bite -- from the yummy seafood (mussels, shrimp, etc.) and veggies to the yellow saffron rice. The lemon-blueberry cheesecake I had for dessert was also amazingly good (see below for someone else's photo of it), and I hardly ever find a cheesecake I really like.

I know that the great meal I had at the DAC wasn't a fluke because I attended a wedding reception catered by the restaurant a few years later, and found the food there to be better than any I've tried at other Lower Mainland buffets -- including several more-expensive ones at hotels. I enjoyed every one of the desserts they had available (and there must have been around 20 different kinds!), especially one of the cheesecakes, which was up there with some of the best I've ever had. But I digress.

The Diamond Alumni Centre is one of my favourite secret spots, and not only is their paella super-tasty, it's also one of the least-expensive in the Lower Mainland.

Sadly, I don't think that paella is a regular menu item anymore. I know that the DAC still serves it, because a menu from a Mexican-themed lunch buffet it had back in May listed "Spanish paella" as one of the entrees, but I'd call to check whether or not and when it's available.

I've had paella at La Bodega Restaurant (1277 Howe Street) as well, which neither I nor my dining companion liked. Although the restaurant is known as one of Vancouver's most authentic Spanish tapas places, we found its paella to be dry and unflavourful, with only a small amount of seafood. To the left is a photo of La Bodega's "Paella de la Casa" from its website.

The only thing I liked about the paella was the price -- I remember that it wasn't too expensive -- maybe around $10.95? Back when I had it, reviews described La Bodega's paella as "lacklustre" and "oversalty"; however, I've also seen other reviews that have been more positive, so it wouldn't hurt to try it yourself, as it's quite affordable.

To get a more holistic view of Vancouver's paella offerings, I looked through reviews of pretty much every restaurant serving paella in the Lower Mainland. Sadly, I haven't found one place that garners consistently good reviews about its paella.

Here are some of my findings:
  • Latin Quarter (1305 Commercial Drive): Apparently, their $45 paella (meant for two people) is their house special. Here's what one reviewer from Feb. 2007 had to say: "Disappointing -- flavourless -- boring!! ... My partner and I shared the paella which is their signature dish -- which I guess at $42 [old price] just means it's the dinner with the most profit in it for them. Mussels undercooked, shrimp overcooked, rice flavourless, empty clam shells -- If they think that's how paella is meant to taste they had better go back to cooking school -- I won't go on -- but I definitely won't be going back to this sham of a restaurant. I think enough said about this place -- you have been warned! There are plenty of great choices on The Drive but this one is certainly not one of them." Later reviews and comments all appear to show that nothing has improved over time.
  • Baru Latino (2535 Alma St.): Their $20 "Paella Classical" consists of "Spanish chorizo, mussels, prawns, chicken and halibut, rice, fresh cilantro and smoky tomato salsa, served with homemade flatbread. One reviewer from May 2008 commented that "... Baru's paella tasted more like jambalaya than it did paella."
  • Me & Julio (2095 Commercial Drive): Their $18.25 paella consists of "smoked chicken, red wine poached chorizo, poblano peppers and fresh local seafood steamed in a spicy tomato and saffron stew, [accompanied with?] crispy chili plantains." Of the many reviews I found on it, none made it sound particularly good:
  1. From May 2009: "The paella entree was probably the weakest of the items we chose. However, my dear husband liked it. It had nice, fresh seafood and decent flavour -- I just found it had too much broth for my liking."
  2. From August 2008: "The food is good, but I must say I was a bit underwhelmed each time. On my dinner visit we tried the tortilla soup (sopa de tortilla) and paella –- both which were a bit light on the spices..."
  3. From May 2008: "[the paella] was bland and uninteresting. It seemed to cry out for salt, but at the same time one knew that would simply change it, not improve it."

Other restaurants that have had mixed or no reviews about their paella include --
  • Chivana Restaurant Bar Lounge (2340 West 4th Avenue): They have two kinds of paella. Their Havana-style paella ($21) is a "fresh mixture of shrimp, chorizo sausage, scallops, black tiger prawns, chicken, mussels and daily catch with saffron, pineapple and lime, coconut sauce", while their vegetarian paella ($14) is a "fresh mixture of green peas, broccolini, sugar snaps, snow peas, baby carrots, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and saffron, pineapple and lime coconut sauce."
  • Century Restaurant & Bar (432 Richards St.): Their $18 Spanish paella consists of "saffron rice, halibut, mussels, clams, prawns, seasoned chicken, chorizo sausage, lemon, green peas, and sweet peppers."
  • Senhor Rooster Restaurant and Catering (850 Renfrew St.): This Portuguese Restaurant serves paella that's a whopping $29.95 -- a "rice casserole with mussels, clams, prawns, pork, chicken, and chorizo."
  • Senova Restaurant (1864 West 57 Avenue): This Portuguese and Spanish restaurant dishes up seafood paella every Sunday. From the description of the Spanish paella they served during their Spring Paella Festival this May, it likely consists of "clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari, chicken, chorizo and porti."
Senova's owner and sommelier, Manuel Ferreira, was invited to prepare paella for EAT! Vancouver 2009's International Culinary Stage -- which might indicate that Senova's paella should be particularly good -- but I haven't found a single review that mentions Senova's take, except the following review, which also discusses Senhor Rooster's paella:

"I have heard really good things about the food [at Senhor Rooster] from some of my friends. It's not the greatest 'hood but not bad. I also heard that he will make things that are not on the menu if you call ahead and a friend of mine says that the Paella there is fabulous (you have to call ahead for it I think) which is great as someone else told me they were really disappointed in the Paella at Senova. Having said that, isn't Paella a Spanish dish?"

La Masia (19209 Fraser Highway) also serves paella, though you won't find it on the menu. A Spanish friend of a colleague of mine said that the paella there was very good and was authentically made by a Spanish family, so I emailed them about it, and here's what they had to say: "We serve paella when people ask for it when they come for dinner; we make it for two people or more; it is a seafood and chicken paella and it is $30.00 per person."

In the end, I still recommend trying the paella at the Diamond Alumni Centre. I can vouch for its great taste, and it meets all of J's criteria: It's moderately priced, set in a great atmosphere (with a gorgeous view), and delivers great value.

Now that you have a list of the great majority of places serving paella in the city, you can try whatever sounds good to you.

If you have a favourite paella place or have had a poor paella experience, let us know.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Menu review: Marcello Pizzeria and Ristorante

I don't normally make repeat visits to restaurants. Usually, it's never as good the next time I try it, and if I didn't like it, it doesn't get any better -- even if I really, really want it to be.

So I was a bit skeptical about giving Marcello Pizzeria & Ristorante (1404 Commercial Drive) a second shot, as I wasn't impressed by it the first time I went, despite having heard very good things about it (both from a friend and from online reviews).

Marcello is known as one of the best pizza places in the city -- apart from Lombardo's Pizzeria and Ristorante (1641 Commercial Drive, and 970 Smithe St.). Lombardo's and Marcello actually used to be owned by the same guy -- Marcello Lombardo -- until his ex-wife was awarded Lombardo's as part of their divorce settlement. Apparently, Lombardo wasn't a very honest guy: "... Lombardo had secretly skimmed almost $300,000 from his previous Commercial Drive restaurant, Lombardo's Restaurant and Pizzeria, which he ran with his wife Patricia for years before they separated. Marcello used $200,000 of the money to start Marcello Pizzeria a few blocks away in 1999, the judge found earlier."

Both places have pretty similar menus, and both use wood-burning ovens, though I'm sure Lombardo's oven can't be as cool as the one at Marcello (see below).

The first time I went, my friends S, K, and I split a medium pizza ($13.95). We had one that was half "Marcello" (tomato sauce, mozzarella, anchovies, black olives, capers, and onion -- see below for another blogger's pic of this pizza), and half "Palermo by Night" (tomato sauce, mozzarella, salame, inferno sauce, and baking cheese -- see below for yet another blogger's image of this pizza type).
I was intrigued by the anchovies (which I had never had on a pizza before, and which ended up tasting pretty much like sardines) and the baking cheese. We had one slice of each kind of pizza apiece, and they were good, but unmemorable.

We also shared a small "al quattro formaggi" gnocchi ("traditional Italian home-made potato & egg dumplings sauteed with 4 mouth-watering cheeses and broiled to perfection"; $12.95). I can't find anything that looks exactly like it, but if you picture the gnocchi below without the black specks, with more uniform shapes (a rectangular/squarish, tubular shape) and a whiter sauce, you'll get an approximation of what it looks like.

It was the first time I had ever tried gnocchi, and I was excited, because a friend who had eaten at Marcello had said it was really good. Unfortunately, none of my dining party particularly liked it, although we all agreed that it was interesting. It was just okay, and very rich (we had quite a bit of it wrapped up, since we had to save room for some dessert on the Drive!).

Fortunately, today's meal at Marcello was one of the few times when my second dining experience was much better than the first; from appetizer to dessert, it was all delicious.

I let my dining companion, the talented writer DB, lead the way with the ordering, since he's dined at Marcello many times, and has lived in Venice (though he's not Italian). We started with a red wine and an "insalate pomodoro e cipolla" (a tomato and onion salad with gorgonzola dressing; $9.95).

I actually enjoyed the wine, which surprised me, since I generally don't like reds; I don't know what kind we had though -- from an online list of their wine offerings, it may have been a "Tommasi, Amarone, Veneto".

It's too bad that I can't find any pictures that come close to capturing the salad, because it didn't look any other I've ever seen before (apart from when DB made it during a dinner party, with boccocini instead of gorgonzola cheese). Basically, it was three huge wheels of juicy tomato with gorgonzola cheese smeared on top, on thick white rings of onion, submerged in a pool of balsamic vinegar, with one slice of some of the tastiest foccacia (normally 95 cents for one slice) I've ever had. I'm glad DB suggested it, since I never would have thought to order it, as it sounded quite boring on paper. I did find a pic of one of Marcello's caesar salads, however, with a wedge of foccacia on the side (see below).

Next came the pizza ("thin-crust pizza baked to perfection in [Marcello's] wood-burning oven"). DB was adament that we stay away from the half-and-half option -- stating that it was something introduced for Americans -- so we stuck with a single option and shared a medium "al due formaggi" (tomato sauce, mozzarella, ham, salame, baking cheese, and mushrooms).

It was one of the best pizzas I've ever eaten. I think it had a lot to do with the baking cheese -- DB explained to me what it was but I can't remember anymore, so maybe he'll comment and let us know what it is if he ends up reading this. The Palermo by Night I'd ordered the first time I came to Marcello was supposed to have had baking cheese on it, but I don't think I'd had any on my slice. I feel gypped now that I've actually tried some.

Baking cheese is sooooooooooo yummy. I don't know how to describe it, but it's even better than mozzarella. I wish it had been more evenly distributed on the pizza, as one of the slices on our pie today didn't have any baking cheese on it either.

I can't find a shot of the exact pizza we had, but it looked as good as the professional shot of a Marcello pizza featured below. The crust, toppings, and everything looked and tasted soooo good, and DB thinks it's because we ordered our food right when the lunch rush ended (after 1:30pm), which gave the chef time to get our pie just right.

That's something to keep in mind if you decide to head to Marcello -- the first time I went was during a busy Saturday night; sometimes it pays to eat later during the day.

Our waitress asked if we wanted dessert, telling us that the tiramisu (it's called something else on the dessert menu, but I don't remember the exact name; $9.95) was amazing. Since they were all out of their white chocolate dessert (boo!), and I'd never had an authentic tiramisu before, we split one.

It didn't look like the cake I was expecting -- it came in a wine glass, and consisted of two layers of marscapone with chunks of lady fingers in between, soaked in Frangelico at the bottom of the glass. It didn't have the sprinkling of cocoa on top that I've come to associate with tiramisu. It was very good -- better than all the other tiramisus I've ever tried -- but I wasn't blown away. DB pronounced it very good. I would not recommend getting one on your own, as it's extremely rich.

Along with dessert, DB had an expresso and a grappa, and I had a caffe mocha. DB thinks that there's nothing like a coffee and grappa to end off a meal.

Grappa is "a fragrant grape-based pomace brandy of Italian origin, made by distilling pomace and grape residue (mainly the skins, but also stems and seeds) left over from winemaking after pressing... It was originally made to prevent waste by using leftovers at the end of the wine season... [and in] Italy is primarily served as a 'digestivo' or after-dinner drink."

DB let me take two sips of his grappa (which I'd never even heard of until today), and it was really interesting -- it felt like drinking liquid echinacea, making my nose tingle -- and left a pleasant aftertaste.

The mocha was okay, but I wish it had tasted more strongly of chocolate, because I couldn't detect a hint of it in my drink -- to be fair, I think that the taste of coffee seems to overwhelm my tastebuds whenever I have it, regardless of what it's mixed with.

Overall, it was an excellent lunch -- DB pronounced it as being perhaps the best lunch he's had in years.

Contrary to the dinehere reviews I saw just before my meal, the service we got was excellent, our pizza was perfect, and I was very happy with all aspects of my meal.

My second experience was more in line with those of Yelp reviewers and the people on, which is a good thing.

DB tells me that the pizza at Lombardo's is actually better (their pizza options sure look more intriguing), while Marcello is better for the ambience.

This post on which place has better pizza seems to favour Marcello.

I'd say try them both yourself. I still need to try Lombardo's!

Note: I just remembered something not so great about our otherwise fabulous meal -- we found a hair on our pizza plate, and since neither I nor DB have short brown hair, I don't think it was from us. Hmm...

If you've had anything at Marcello and/or Lombardo's, let us know what you thought -- and if you know of an even better pizza place, be nice and share your pizza-expertise, please! :)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Who knew?: Ronald McDonald, lady's man

Believe it or not, that creepy-looking fellow up there is Ronald McDonald the First, starring in McDonald's first commercial.

He may have been beaten out of the role of the national Ronald McDonald by this dude:

(he blames his chubbiness), but he did get quite a few perks, including this: "Women would offer themselves to me. I actually had groupies who followed me from gig to gig."

For a string of fun "Who Knews" about McDonald's (e.g. Did you know that more than 50,000 students from all over the world have graduated with "Bachelor of Hamburgerology" degrees from "McDonald's Hamburger University"?) check out the following Pop-up Video-style mockumentary of four McDonald commercials. The last commercial is particularly awesome, especially if you're a So You Think You Can Dance fan like I am!

Be sure to watch till the end -- there's a surprise! Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ask, and I will find: Latvian food

Rosanne said...

So my mother wants to know about Latvian food. Is there any in Vancouver?

"Truly Latvian cooking" has been described by and numerous other sites as --
  • consisting of very cheap, self-grown ingredients (such as dried peas and cheap cuts of meat, such as pork hocks or bacon)
  • having few or no spices (as imported spices were expensive and normally only available in Latvia's major cities)
  • being high in calories (to ensure enough energy for the Latvian people's daily, backbreaking labour!)
"Hearty" and "typically quite basic, without the fancy sauces and ingredients found in other places in Europe ... [Latvia's dishes have] much in common with its neighbouring countries -- Lithuania, Poland, Russia and the Ukraine -- and ingredients such as potatoes, cabbage, eggs, pork, wheat and barley feature prominently."

Heavily influenced by German, Swedish, and Russian cuisine, "a typical, truly Latvian dish would be something like boiled black peas with small snippets of bacon".

Today, a "Latvian dinner at Lido" would look something like the meal featured above; from left to right, there's "Russian-style kvas, a gherkin, a cotlette, pot-cooked cabbage, sour milk (kefir) and cold beetroot soup."

A dessert might include "Rupjmaizes kartojums" (see below) -- "a parfait of rye bread layered with whipped cream."

Some national Latvian dishes include --
  • Janis' cheese (Janu Siers -- see below)
  • Latvian bacon buns (Piragi -- see the first image on this post)
  • Latvian sour cream soup (Skaba putra -- see right)
  • Latvian beet soup (see below)
  • Latvian potato salad (Rasols -- see right)
  • Latvian kringel (Coffee cake)
  • Latvian-style cheese danishes (Biezpien maizites)
  • Latvian manna (Buberts)
  • Latvian fruit sauce or fruit jelly (Kiselis)
My search of all the European and Eastern European restaurants in the Lower Mainland has revealed that there are no Latvian restaurants or restaurants of any kind that serve Latvian food in Vancouver.

My findings have been confirmed by all my "Latvian food contacts" -- great people who participated in my search for Latvian food. These included members of the Lutheran church where Vancouver's Latvian community congregates, a member of an Estonian church, participants in this year's Eurofest (where Latvia was represented), friends from the Russian community, and the online Latvian community, Latvians Online.

As Andris Straumanis, editor of Latvians Online explained,

"Few Latvians live in British Columbia, so you will not find any Latvian-specific shops or restaurants. Your reader might have better luck finding a Russian or East European shop (which probably would be run by Russians or Ukrainians) that might stock some Latvian imports, such as sprats, chocolate or bread."

With Andris's help, I discovered one Latvian food that you can find in select stores throughout the Lower Mainland: authentic Latvian Riga Sprats.

According to the BBC, "'Riga Sprats' have been produced in Latvia since the 19th century, [and] have become one of the country's most famous brands.... The Baltic sprat is a small, herring-like fish, found mainly in the Baltic Sea.... While other countries along the Baltic coast also catch and smoke the fish, it is Latvian sprats that have become a byword for delicacy and sophistication -- the gourmet's choice.... and it is the Russians who are still their most enthusiastic consumers. At big celebra
tions, when the food's laid out, a party is not a party in Russia without a can of Riga Sprats."

At Latvians Online, they "really, really like sprats" -- enough to create a Sprats Index: "a guide [on] where to find sprats and -- more importantly -- how much you should expect to pay for a 160-gram tin."

According to the index, Pavel's Food Store (3740 Chatham St.) in Steveston, Richmond is one place where you should be able to find it.

Another place I've found that sells them closer to home is Euro Food Plus (1688 Robson St.), which, according to one Yelp reviewer, has "at least 10 different kinds of canned sprats." A phone call to the store and a talk with my new Russian friends has confirmed that Euro Food Plus is the place to go for sprats in Vancouver. The store also used to sell Latvian bread as well, but not anymore. :(

If you're thinking of trying sprats but aren't sure of how to serve them, the following suggestion is apparently "bloomin' marvellous":
  • Lightly toast two slices of rye bread
  • “Butter” with a good mayonnaise
  • Add a layer of sprats to both slices of bread
  • Add some slices of celery or cucumber for texture
  • Add some chopped parsley, coriander/chili, or dill
  • Squeeze some lemon/lime and shake a few grounds of pepper on to finish

Try it, and let us know how it is!

If you know of a place that sells Latvian food that I haven't found, or of another location that sells sprat that's not already listed on the Sprat Index, tell us -- you'll make not one, but several people very happy. :)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Menu review: La Grotta Del Formaggio

La Grotta Del Formaggio (1791 Commercial Drive) is known for making some of the best sandwiches in Vancouver, so I had high expectations when I tried my first one today.

Unfortunately, I was kind of let down.

Letdown #1: The size. Sandwiches come in small ($5), medium ($6), and large ($7.25) buns, or in half ($6.50) or whole ($11.50?) focaccia buns. The small is small -- slightly larger than a dinner bun, the medium is a six-inch, and I have no idea how big a large is, since they were sold out by the time we got there (2pmish). I assume it's the best deal.

JW2 (I just realized I have a LOT of friends with the same initials) and I split half a focaccia sandwich, since she was still full from a big breakfast and I was still feeling the after-effects of an excellent potluck I attended the night before.

Since neither of us were hungry to begin with, our sandwich left us stuffed. I have no idea how filling it would have been otherwise, since our sandwich-maker was neither skimpy nor super-generous with the fillings. My half of the sandwich looked pretty much like the one below, only with different meat:

Letdown #2: The enthusiasm of the staff (or lack thereof). "What's your favourite sandwich? I asked the two girls behind the counter.
Girl #1: It changes all the time!
Girl #2: I'm sick of these sandwiches!

Since most food people I've talked to tend to be super-enthusiastic about the stuff they sell (most usually reply, "EVERYTHING!"), Girl #2's comment kind of put a damper on my own enthusiasm.

Letdown #3: The taste. Don't get me wrong. It was a good sandwich -- but it wasn't a spectacular one. The main draw to La Grotta sandwiches, in my opinion, is the veggies you can add to them. Clockwise from below, starting from the right, you'll see that you can choose to put in tomatoes, roasted red peppers, marinated artichokes, chopped green olives, hot peppers, eggplant, red onions, and lettuce -- a step above your standard sandwich fillers.

I was super-excited about those toppings, but I think they're what let me down the most. The flavours did not each individually pop out, and they suffocated the flavours of the condiments that JW2 and I chose (pesto mayonnaise, honey mustard, and olive oil) for our sandwich . I couldn't taste any of the condiments at all, so they felt like wasted calories. I don't know if I tasted the eggplant at all, which was weird, since I had asked for extra eggplant. JW2 discovered she didn't particularly like marinated artichokes. If you have a more refined tongue than me, the veggies and condiments are actually probably very tasty.

On top of unlimited veggies, you can get two meats and one cheese, if you go with a meat (as opposed to a cheaper vegetarian) sandwich. I liked the fact that the meats aren't pre-sliced, and you can watch the counter people use a meat shaver to slice your meat selections for you. It would have been nice to have more exotic meats to choose from though.

We settled for a Montreal smoked meat and ham sandwich with provolone cheese. From what I remember, other meat choices included turkey, prosciutto (add $1) or roast beef (add $1), and other cheeses included cheddar, edam, emmental, and havarti.

The meat didn't impress me, and the portions were not particularly large. What we were served didn't look anywhere near the amount this guy apparently got:

Maybe the guy ordered extra meat, paid an extra dollar for the more expensive stuff, or opted to go without cheese. The guy in line ahead of us ordered a roast beef sandwich with no cheese, and seemed to have a whole lot more meat in his sandwich than we did.

I'm a meat-a-tarian (not a carnivore, but just about) so I like my sandwiches with a lot of tasty meat. Too bad for me.

We had the option of toasting our sandwich, so of course we did. Nothing beats melted cheese on grilled/toasted bread.

Overall, it was a good sandwich -- and a very good-looking one at that -- but does it deserve the title of Vancouver's best sandwich? I don't think so, but a lot of people out there do (re. The Georgia Straight readers, Yelp reviewers, and more).

Try one yourself, and if you already have, comment and let us know how you liked it.

Or, recommend another Vancouver sandwich shop/vendor/deli/restaurant for us to try. There are soooooo many options out there!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Food 'file: Wine Diva Daenna Van Mulligan

When I first met Daenna Van Mulligen at EAT!'s volunteer appreciation party, I had no idea I was talking to one of Canada's biggest names in the wine industry. As her numerous online bios indicate, "In Canada, Daenna has become the go-to person for online wine knowledge."

Her two sites, Wine Diva (her tongue-in-cheek approach to wine) and Wine Scores (her response to constant requests to score wines out of a 100-point scale), together pull in a combined 735,000 hits per month.

If that weren't enough, Daenna's also incredibly active in both the Canadian and international wine scene.

You name it, and this wine writer, wine educator, accredited sommelier, and Vancouverite has probably done it. In addition to regularly contributing to Canada's Vines Magazine, the BC Liquor Stores' Taste Magazine, and Food Vancouver, she reviews wine each Saturday on Terry David Mulligan's radio show The Tasting Room, and makes regular appearances on CityTV's Breakfast Television and Lunch Television.

Daenna has also had significant roles in Vancouver's restaurant industry and at
many top wine and food events: Among other things, she's developed and consulted on wine lists for numerous Vancouver restaurants, hosted the wine stage each year at Eat! Vancouver and Eat! FraserValley, and presented and served as a panelist at Cornucopia, Whistler's premier wine and food extravaganza.

Daenna's wine expertise has also been sought to help judge wines for such events as VinItaly (the world's largest wine fair), and ViniPax in Portugal.

Now, she's here to give us the exclusive on how she got started, what it's like to be a Wine Diva, and much, much more!


What drew you to wine, and what led you to specialize in it?

I began seriously drinking wine in 1995 when a friend (now my husband) introduced me to Wolf Blass Cabernet during a trip home to Manitoba for Christmas. We both grew up in Brandon, Manitoba. I still say he wooed me on Wolf Blass.

I was fortunate enough to visit the winery in Barossa Valley this past February.

From that point on, we made it a point to travel to local wine regions (BC, Niagara Ontario, and Oregon) and learn as much as we could -- tasting, trying new wines and reading. It was when we moved back east to Toronto in 1999 that I lucked into taking the sommelier program at George Brown College and became an accredited sommelier. I had previously worked in restaurants and knew that I was not cut out for that line of work, so my goal was always to write about wine (and food initially).

I had taken journalism and writing night courses at Langara in Vancouver and Ryerson in Toronto, so I had some writing experience, but very little. And having very little experience makes it hard to be hired, or to be taken seriously as a wine writer, so I started teaching, public-speaking and lecturing about wine part time.

How did you come to be a “Wine Diva”?

When my husband and I returned to Vancouver in December 2003, I knew it was an opportunity for a fresh start, and I wanted to fully immerse myself in wine -- not just enjoy it as a hobby (collecting thimbles would be far cheaper than collecting wines for the cellar).

So, in February 2004, I told my husband I wanted to start a website to write about wine -- after all, no one was going to hire me, because no one knew who I was. I told him I wanted to called "Wine Diva" (after drinking several bottles of wine).

He didn't like it -- he thought it had bad connotations. But I insisted, and we bought the site name and launched a simple blog-type site, decorated with my own hand-drawn illustrations that I filled in with tasting notes from bottles we bought and tasted. I gathered names and started a newsy-letter I sent out every two months.

Meanwhile, I was working in a wine store in Kitsilano called Vintropolis, and I was also the sommelier for the attached wine bar of the same name.

I had 75 hits the first month I launched, which was very impressive (or so I thought). I never, ever anticipated that, five years later, I would be getting nearly 750,000 hits per month... especially since I had no computer abilities. Seriously, my website was virtually my first foray into the internet. looks like such a fun site! How did you think up the concept for it? Did you have it all mapped out in your head, or did it emerge bit by bit? When did it all come together?

It was without a doubt, a process -- don't let anyone tell you differently. But I had a couple things in my favour: one, I love colour (high impact) and two, I was a clothing designer in my previous career.

Visuals are very important: colour, balance, lines, and recognizing trends and the speed at which they change. From my early days living in Paris (when Grunge was just taking off across the world in Seattle), I saw the world of fashion begin to change. No longer was Paris couture dictating the fashion world -- street wear, and urban dissent were.

I worked between Asia and Vancouver for several years, designing clothing and watching trends. People were getting busier, and with more magazines, websites, technology and information bombarding us every moment of the day, who had time to stop and read or peruse all that? In fact, here I am blathering on, and it's way, way too wordy!

I watched the shift from ten-page Vogue spreads to “sound bites” of colour in new magazines -- one page with brilliantly-coloured snapshots of the hottest shoes, bag, dress and lipstick, designed to appeal to the masses and give as much information in as little space as possible.

Basically my site evolved to do just that -- provide impact, colour, pictures and easy-to-read reviews for the 98% of the population who are not wine geeks.

How about How did that come about?

There are two camps of wine drinkers. Those who love to recite wine scores from famous wine critics, and those who don’t give a da*n.

I've always said WineDiva was not about “scores” and I had no intention of that changing. But, after constant requests to score wines out of the 100 points scale that has become the accepted international scoring method, I started to capitulate.

My business partner/husband and I worked on a plan for about eight months. The plan was two-fold: 1) to build a secondary site with serious content and wine scores on all of my wine reviews that would benefit WineDiva readers who wanted more or who were becoming more knowledgeable, and 2) to show that I was not a pink flake who really knew nothing about wine.

I have never needed to prove to my peers what I know about wine -- in fact, I go out of my way to hide it. Yammering on about your wine knowledge often makes you a bore, especially when you are yammering to other wine geeks. I call it “talking to the mirror”. proved to critics that I knew what I was talking about, it gave score lovers something to reach for and, in the end, it also gave me a fabulous outlet to write about my wine travels.

What’s it like to manage two websites at once? What made you decide to make two separate sites instead of putting all the content into one?

I think I answered that above. But having two sites is simply double the work...

What’s it like having more than 500,000 hits a month on your page? What do you do to maintain and increase that number?

A surprise, but a pat on the back for a lot of work.

The sites are now pulling in a combined 735,000 hits per month and growing.

To maintain and increase my number of visitors involves providing quality content and information, and making the sites more user-friendly. Word of mouth is how we got here -- now we work hard on keeping and maintaining the momentum.

How did you get into doing interviews with radio and TV stations? What’s it like?

Same thing -- through word of mouth and a solid five+ years of writing about wine on

People see my sites and hear about me via other mediums, and it's a snowball effect. I have never gone out and promoted myself, except by simply showing up and doing my job.

I have never been a nervous person in front of crowds. Give me a mic or a camera, and I am happy as long as I am familiar with my subject matter. Wine is second nature to me now, and no matter how much more I could (and want to) learn, I am comfortable enough in my knowledge right now to jump in front of an audience and talk wine at a moment's notice.

I like to make it fun, like to be funny and like it when people get that “ah-ha” look on their face. It means I have shared something with them they did not already know.

How do you like judging wines?

It’s very, very good training and important to understanding quality, typicity and character in wine. There is no better way to become a better taster once you’ve gotten to a certain level in wine.

Of your many wine-related jobs, which do you enjoy most? Which aspects do you like best?

The freedom to choose what to write about and to work for myself and choose my own hours.Where have your journeys as a wine writer taken you?

In the last year, all over the world. Italy twice, Germany, Portugal, California, Australia, South Africa, Chile and here in British Columbia of course...

Between September 2008 and February 2009 I was in wine regions on five continents.... but prior to that, other regions in Greece, France, Washington State, Oregon and Niagara Ontario.

So you get paid to travel the world, drink great wine, and eat great food. How awesome is that? How exactly does it work? How long did it take you to get to the point you’re at now?

There was no single “starting point” for me. You could suggest it was 1993 when I worked with wine in restaurants or in 1995 when my husband really turned me on to wine. Or, when I became a sommelier in 2001 or when I started my site in 2004....

Basically it took me three years after was launched to get enough notice worldwide that I was going on trips -- first just within BC, then Washington State, then further abroad.

But it's not about “free stuff”, being a writer -- a mistake most wannabes make. You have to prove your worth, have people follow your writing, and prove you are not only capable, but easy to get along with. Most important of all, you must be reliable.

I just kept chipping away, giving my all, and producing... the rest fell into place as people began to notice that I was serious and hardworking.

What’s the best work-related trip you’ve ever been on?

I cannot say. I honestly love all the regions I have visited for different reasons: Germany's stunning, steeply-planted Riesling vineyards, South Africa’s rugged beauty and old-world/new-world charm, Australia’s laid-back allure and incredibly varied terroirs, Portugal’s tradition, uniqueness and captivating stubbornness, Chile’s purity and incredible scenery, California’s quality and diversity, and Italy... well, Italy’s pure romance...
What’s the most interesting food you’ve tried during your wine travels?

Regional diversity -- the cuisine of each region paired with its wines -- is always the most interesting. The dishes are not always to my taste, but they have interesting history and are often subtly tweaked from place to place -- Italy's food is a classic example of subtle shifts in cuisine from province to province. It could be how they prepare the cingale (wild boar) or if they use risotto or pasta as their starch.

In Portugal, cod is a mainstay (even though cod has been fished to extinction in their own waters, they buy it from Sweden) along the Atlantic; in Bairrada, suckling pig is the favoured dish, and in Alentejo, porco preto (or black pig) -- similar to wild pigs -- is the meat of choice; all pair well with their regional wines.

In Australia, food is fresh, simple and modern with strong Asian influences, and in Germany, the schnitzel and potato dishes and copious spargle (white asparagus prevalent in May to June) topped with Hollandaise, are perfect with a Riesling...

What’s your secret spot to enjoy a drink in the city?

At home, usually -- especially in the summer. My husband and I are early day people, so we tend to go out in the afternoons and have wine with lunch. I love Nu for the views, but anywhere I can get a glass of bubbly in a nice, quiet atmosphere is great.

What’s your favourite wine, and where can we find it?

Whatever I am drinking at the moment -- it’s summer so I am all over summer sippers -- Roses, Gewürztraminers, Pinot Blancs and of course my favourite -- Rieslings!


Rieslings are some of my favourite wines too!

If you have any questions for Wine Daenna, now's your chance to probe!