I’ve just landed in Vancouver and hopped a cab to a festival party hosted by California Wines. It’s not the vibe one usually associates the wine crowd. Two voguing, posing gymnasts in skintight spandex contort into a human sculpture while single-serving spoons of sablefish float on by.
Hey – isn’t that Mondavi’s Master of Wine Mark DeVere doing his version of the funky chicken as DJ MotoGPri throws down some serious old school beats? Very ‘left coast’ indeed. Note to self, as I survey the ‘TIFF like’ crowd dressed up to the nines: Wine culture is different here… kind of funky, kind of mainstream, and definitely popular.
Wine Country Canada – It’s a crazy notion isn’t it? The idea of Canada as a wine country, you know, like, France, Italy, Spain or Germany. But there we were… Canada. Not BC. Not Ontario. Not Nova Scotia, but the entire true north featured as a destination unto itself, centre stage and in the spotlight at the Vancouver International Wine Festival.
Is that a big deal? The answer is: fer sher, eh? (But don’t get too used to it. Read on…)
According to the festival’s executive director, Harry Hertscheg: Canada is ready for its cuvée close up:
“we knew that trade and media support for Canadian Wines was keen but the enthusiastic consumer support was an added pleasure. People were completely blown away by the quality.”
This festival is a big deal (the biggest by far in this country and with an average of 25,000 admissions per year), entering its 40th year has earned the status of being one of the world’s biggest and oldest events of its kind. Then there’s the stunning tasting room itself. 180 different stations sprawled out in a gorgeous 53,000 square foot hall overlooking the Pacific Ocean’s Burrard Inlet and the North Shore Mountains, which are part of the Coast Mountains, (Pacific Range.) I shudder in the shadow of such majesty, then cringe, as I think of Toronto’s meek and drab convention centre.
Almost all of the individual sessions and tastings here at the VIWF are sellouts. This year, even journalists with press passes couldn’t get in to many of them. That’s why attendees snap up tickets as soon as the festival schedule is set each year. The only people who don’t like this event are the glasswashers. This year the fest served up 82,000 glasses of the good stuff poured from 42,000 bottles of wine. The festival is definitely great business. Factoid: Last year the pop-up on-premise wine store sold $480,000 in vino.
So this year, ladies and gentlemen, Vancouver presents the largest ever public tasting of Canadian wines: 76 different wineries pouring 304 different wines. Another 70 wines were added for trade-only tastings. The reason this festival could only happen in Vancouver is because of the incredible strength and loyalty of the province’s wine drinkership. More than 50% of the wine consumed in the province is from BC’s wine regions. We were unable to confirm the urban myth that 90 – 100 % of all BC wine is consumed in the province.
New regions in this province are finding success with new wine types at an alarming rate: Check out the sparkling wines from Vancouver island and stunning Pinot Noir from the Cowichan Valley. We’ve known for years that big red varieties can ripen in the heat of the Southern Okanagan but now Syrah based wines brimming with white pepper and black currant are emerging from along the Naramata bench, some 60 kilometers north. I ask winemaker Jacqueline Kemp of Moraine Vineyards about this:
‘The bolder flavours show through from Osoyoos where it is warmer during the season. Whilst the more elegant, violet and cassis aromas show brightly from the cooler Naramata sites. To have such wonderful difference being shown from areas which are only 50 minutes away from each other is well….really cool and amazing.”
We’re at a sold out brunch celebrating the hospitality industry in the province and the man of the hour – the recipient of this year’s SIP (Spirited Industry Professional) award is local wine legend Harry McWatters. With his Sumac Ridge and See Ya Later wineries and as the BC pillar of the VQA, Harry’s deserving of his praise as a founding father of the industry. Known as a great and sometimes, longwinded storyteller, today, Harry has remarkably few words to share:
“I’m humbled, I’m honoured and very proud of all you producers and merchants for making Canada a great wine producing country.”
There it is again – a national reference to Canada as a wine producer. So where are we at as a country? Are we a brand yet? Or are we really just a bunch of regions that are doing anything but working together? International writers like Jancis Robinson and Matt Kramer have been effusive about Canadian wines for years and years. Wine scribe Jamie Goode presented a sold out master class in Vancouver celebrating our sparkling wines. There’s even a newish Wines of Canada branding campaign. All of this begs the question once more: Is Canada ready to unify as a nation… are finally poised to take on the world?
I’m musing about this at brunch when I look up and see just the man who can possibly answer this question. Seated a few spots over, is John Schreiner, the man who wrote the definitive book: The Wines of Canada way back in 1994… he’s also part of the selection process for this festival. According to BC based author, the answer is: maybe… maybe not.
“Well part of the problem is the provincial structure of liquor regulation in Canada.
The only time we’ve had national regulation of the wine industry in this country – and that was during the First World War, when the temperance movement talked the federal government into bringing in prohibition and the minute the war ended the federal government handed the whole thing back to the provinces and said – you guys deal with it and that’s where it has stayed.”
So why can’t we just join hands and get along? According to Schreiner
“You know, provinces don’t work together on a lot of things and certainly wine is one of them. And wine and other alcoholic products have also become major revenue sources.
I think in British Columbia they get about a billion dollars a year right off the top in liquor taxes and money from the markup and Ontario has a similar model. So that when British Columbia wineries want to ship into Ontario the liquor board says you’ve got to do it through our mechanism so we can collect the tax and vice versa.”
Not surprisingly, the same syndrome applies to books about wine: Schreiner’s books about British Columbia’s wines sell off the shelves – but none of the books he writes about Canada:
“Not many people want to buy a book about the wines of Canada when you can’t find all the wines in the book near where you live.”
So how would the provinces work together to create a national wine brand, with an accompanying library of great wines? It’s a billion dollar question that was put out there… and ultimately, left hanging in Vancouver.
Kim Gertler was in Vancouver to promote the Best Ontario Sommelier Competition happening March 5th at George Brown College, Tourism and Hospitality Campus, 300 Adelaide Street East.
For tickets click here.
Kim Gertler is a Toronto-based journalist and documentary filmmaker keen about food, wine and culture. Kim is known for his work with CBC TV, Global News, Discovery Channel, BRAVO! and The Economist. He’s also a WSET certified (Level 3) wine educator who writes and produces content for the Constellation Academy of Wine. twitter: @kgertler