In film and theatre particularly, the ‘fourth wall’ is the invisible wall that separates the on-stage actor from the people watching. When a character ‘breaks the fourth wall,’ they leave the conversation with the other actors and speak directly to the audience. For Joel Wilcox, that definition transcends, extending into the world of wine.
His virtual winery, aptly named Fourth Wall Wines, operates under the principle that wine should be as transparent as possible. Guided by the desire to create distinctive, singular wines at the highest levels of quality, this project allows him and his wines to be just that – super focused and hyper-specific in terms of where they’re grown, produced and made by exactly who.
The idea of creating what Wilcox calls a ‘novel vinous project’ was born out of a dream for a winery, but a lack of money and land to build on prompted the idea to go virtual – as many others have had to do – and create a collection of individual wines that allows the finished product to break the fourth wall and speak to its sense of place and time, ultimately connecting with the drinker.
Wilcox doesn’t make any of the wines himself (his impact is on the final blending process). But what makes his brand interesting and unique is that this is a collaboration with different winemakers and grape growers, with an intent to build a portfolio of wines that highlight what Ontario does well – a greatest hits album for the Niagara region, so to speak.
“I like to think of it like “Top Five Records” in the movie High Fidelity,” says Wilcox. “It’s modeled after a restaurant’s wine list: the sommelier selects wines, trying to capture a variety of styles for every occasion and palate. The wines should be representative of their area/style/variety, and most importantly for Niagara, appropriate to both climate and vintage.”
“Wine is interpretation. One who drinks wine can – and I’d argue, should – think about what they’re tasting.”
Being a sommelier himself, including time spent at famed Canoe Restaurant in Toronto, Wilcox has had a long history working in the wine business that stretches back to 2000 when he was still in high school working at Riverview Cellars. When he left for University, the wine bug stayed with him.
“My major was English Literature, but I was constantly studying wine books,” says Wilcox. “Eventually I completed my M.A., but I knew I was more interested in wine as a career. I completed my Sommelier certification and worked full-time in Niagara until moving to Toronto in 2011. An amazing experience but challenging for family life.”
After almost four years at Canoe, he now works as an account manager at Woodman Wines and Spirits. “I wanted to see and work with all phases of production, service and sales channels.” He now calls the Greater Toronto Area his home, but Fourth Wall keeps him close to those early beginnings when he was in high school, and to his roots in Niagara.
“The wine speaks — the drinker is the audience. The wines that stand out say something special.”
Currently producing six distinct wines – including a riesling, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, gamay noir, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon – each is a proud collaboration with what Wilcox refers to as different winemakers, winedrinkers, and winethinkers. “We need to learn from each other,” adds Wilcox. “I’ve been lucky enough to make the right kind of friends over the last 20 years. People who I’ve laughed and dined with; who love what they do and have been generous with their time and knowledge. These micro-bottlings are a way to contribute to the big picture of the local industry, and collectively put our best feet forward.”
For Wilcox, it’s these types of partnerships that matter most because now, more than ever, local matters, and home is special. The wines he produces may not always have riveting origin stories. But as Wilcox indicates on his website, “they will have a purpose and place, and will be damn well stunning with food. They are the intersection of passion, experience and camaraderie.”
In fact, these wines tend to be Wilcox’s own reflection of his learning process – specifically his exploration of the different terroirs of Niagara. “There is a lot of variability by vineyard which we’re still learning as a region,” he says. “There are certain vineyards that have become rightly popular in recent years, but there are so many more we’re coming to learn about.” And while not every bottling has been single vineyard so far, Wilcox makes sure to note full vineyard composition in the winemaking notes to give credit.
Looking back on his experiences, Wilcox can’t help but be philosophical. As he further points out on his website: “Wine is interpretation. One who drinks wine can – and I’d argue, should – think about what they’re tasting. The words we use are essentially metaphors we drink by. The wine speaks — the drinker is the audience. The wines that stand out say something special.”
“These wines should speak directly to you. If wine through terroir is a reflection of place and time, Fourth Wall is a reflection on that reflection. The wines can handle the rest of the conversation.”
All of Fourth Wall’s wines can be purchased online at fourthwallwines.com. I was able to sample three of his six wines currently on offer:
Fourth Wall 2019 ‘Meta’ Gamay Noir
This is a collaboration with the Malivoire Wine Company and winemaker Shiraz Mottiar. The four different vineyards selected to comprise the blend were sought out for the energy and intensity that the fruit exhibited over the course of the 2019 vintage. Located within a reasonable proximity (three vineyards are within the Four Mile Creek sub appellation, the fourth in the Twenty Mile Bench sub app), the result is a limestone terroir-driven wine that’s loaded with fruit-forward flavours and an acidic backbone – somewhat teetering on the edge of bearable tartness. The stony mineral wash on the mid to finish is what helps keep this wine in check, but this is one for serious fans of high acid reds. Better with food. ($30)
Fourth Wall 2019 Pinot Gris
Fourth Wall’s chief orchestrator Joel Wilcox writes: “I’m not sure there’s a chorus clamouring for pinot gris in Niagara, but could it be that we’ve been looking at it wrong? If chardonnay and pinot noir can work in Ontario, then gris should have an inside track to making great wines.” The truth is, he’s right. What we’re seeing, on an increasing level, is the more traditional styled pinot grigio being passed over in favour of a more exciting, more expressive pinot gris – something that’s got flavour and electricity to it, rather than the safe and more muted vibes that grigio tends to convey. With this expression, Wilcox works with Riverview Cellars Estate Winery and winemakers Alyssa Bator and Nick Salvatore. The majority of this cuvée was raised in stainless steel on fine lees for about nine months; five percent was aged for the same time in a 3rd use French barrique. There’s a beautiful chemistry of fruit (pineapple, pear, apricot, orange) interplaying with a squeeze of honey and a splash of lime. ($24)
Fourth Wall 2019 Riesling
This pale coloured, dry, low alcohol riesling (7.8 g/L RS, 10.9% alc./vol) is a collaboration with Ravine Vineyard and winemakers Lydia Tomek and Eden Garry from a vineyard site located within the Four Mile Creek sub appellation, near St. David’s Bench. Green apple, lime, and stone minerality waft from the glass. Brace yourself for the immediate impact of citrus fruit, fresh acidity and a bone-dry finish. As Wilcox puts it: this wine is “vibrant, vivacious, vinous harmony.” A very fresh tasting wine that’s bound to add some extra pizzazz come dinner time. ($22)