People often tell me they wish they had a job like mine, getting paid to drink and all. So I like to remind them of the drawbacks. For example, having to taste coolers. Neon-coloured cocktails in a bottle, they're usually a blend of spirit, sparkling water and enough sugar to topple a front-end loader. I'm not a fan. But of course the point of coolers is not to please wine critics. It's to bring merriment and brutal hangovers to young people.
At least that's what I believed before I tried Bassano Hard Soda. It's the first cooler I would actually buy. Created by Francesco Aquilini, the real-estate gazillionaire who owns the Vancouver Canucks, and his beverage-business partner, wine-industry veteran Barry Olivier, Bassano is based on the old-school Italian-soda playbook. It's less sweet than most of the competition and tastes like real fruit - because it's made from real fruit.
The new brand is bottled in Ontario by Brick Brewing using premium, triple-distilled vodka and water from a spring-fed aquifer in Formosa, Ont. Available in all provinces except Quebec and Newfoundland, it comes in two flavours: raspberry pomelo and lemon sanguinelli. Pomelo is a type of grapefruit, while sanguinelli is a blood orange.
I'm usually no more than two sips into a cooler before slapping myself on the forehead and thinking, "Wow, I could have had a beer!" But on a recent warm day I found these clear refreshments hard to put down.
Testimonials from other geezers are pouring in, including Chad Kroeger, lead singer of Nickelback. "We delivered four cases... to his studio because he said, 'I love this, I've got to have this,' " Olivier told me. Another fan is Bob McKenzie, the hockey commentator, who recently enthused to his 140,000 Twitter followers: "Secure as I am in my masculinity, I have found my new summer drink. Bassano Hard Soda. New vodka cooler but not as sweet/tangy as most." It was brave given hockey's beer demographic.
"When a big, macho hockey guy says that, it's kind of cool," Olivier said.
Ironically, you can't order Bassano at the Aquilini-owned Rogers Arena, home to the Canucks. Mark Anthony Brands, which controls cooler behemoth Mike's, is a long-time arena sponsor and has another year in its concession contract. Olivier said it's not the Acquilini family's style to go sour on a loyal business relationship. Better to kick butt on the ice than in the stands, I guess.
Bassano Hard Soda Lemon Sanguinelli (Ontario)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $9.95 to $11.99 for a 4-pack
At just 5.5-per-cent alcohol, the quality vodka flavour still comes through without delivering too much bite. I love the soft effervescence, natural flavour and smartly tuned, sweet-bitter balance - Grey Goose in a three-way flirt with a lemon and blood orange in a Milanese cafe. It could even pair with food. Think grilled calamari topped with lots of salt, pepper and lemon or a chili-citrus vinaigrette. The raspberry pomelo flavour is very good, too.
Naia Verdejo 2009 (Spain)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
Made from the aromatic verdejo grape in Spain's northern Rueda region, this white is silky and medium-bodied, with a lemon-drop core, floral overtone and crisp finish. It would pair well with butter-seared scallops or cod fillets.
Planeta Rosé 2010 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $16.95
Here's a deliciously dry, orange-pink rosé from sunny Sicily. It tastes like it was squeezed from summer berries. Ripe and silky, it gets a lift on the back end from crisp acidity. Serve it with grilled fish or all by itself on a warm day.
Quartz Reef Methode Traditionelle NV (New Zealand)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $29.95
One of New Zealand's stellar pinot noir producers, Quartz Reef in the southern region of Central Otago excels with this Champagne-style bubbly. Medium-bodied and zesty, it delivers sweet lemon, brioche and red-apple flavours. It would stand up admirably against fine Champagnes costing twice as much.
Moris Morellino di Scansano Riserva 2006 (Italy)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $32.50
Morellino is a local name for sangiovese in the Maremma district of coastal Tuscany. You can almost taste the salty air in this medium-full-bodied, bone-dry red. Bitter cherry plays with spice, herbs and earth while fine, furry tannins coat the palate. Try it with medium-rare steak. To my knowledge, it's available only in Quebec.
Domaine Jaeger Defaix Rully Premier Cruc Rabourcé 2007 (France)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $27.95
Medium full-bodied and silky, with a floral bouquet, this elegant chardonnay from southern Burgundy offers up flavours of toasted bread, orange zest and, in a good way, gruyere cheese. It would be splendid with fish cooked in butter.
Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2006 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $45
Winemaker Pascal Madevon has sculpted another cellar-worthy, Bordeaux-inspired red from the southern Okanagan Valley. A blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec, it's full-bodied and earthy, with notes of mineral and underbrush running through a core of dense dark fruit. Ultra-dry, angular tannins, even at five years of age, make it a tough go now, like eating peanut butter with a spoon. Age it for another five to eight years if you can or decant it and serve it with rare beef.
Morgante Nero d'Avola 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
Also from Sicily, this full-bodied red has a sort of wine-gum flavour, plummy and tangy, with a note of spice and dusting of fine tannins. A good value, it would pair well with grilled lamb.
Tenuta S. Anna Millesimato Brut Prosecco 2009 (Italy)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
Unusual for a prosecco, this is a vintage-dated sparkling wine made from a single year's harvest, rather than blended from several. Translation: It's serious, not simply cheap and cheerful. The substantial, oily mid-palate supports flavours of lemon and red apple and a hint of mineral. It starts vaguely sweet but finishes crisp and dry.
Fifth Leg Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (Australia)
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $15.95
Moderately silky with a tropical-fruit nuance, this crisp, light medium-bodied white from cool Western Australia also shows zesty citrus zest and herbs. Good for outdoor sipping and paired with grilled shellfish. The price is $17.99 in B.C.