The Biggest Change Since Prohibition…NOT!

Within days we will be entering a brave new world in Ontario with lots of competition in beer sales from private retailers, with wine following close behind.  At least that is the hype from the provincial government as it announces “the biggest change since the repeal of Prohibition”, with its recent amendments to the Liquor Control Act.  It’s now time to take a closer look at what these “changes” really are.  This post is more about beer than my usual wine theme, because that’s what’s happening right now, but the current situation illuminates the mindset of the folks who came up with this scheme.

The Beer Store Monopoly

First, a little background to beer sales in Ontario.  Many, many people believe that The Beer Store, which has a near monopoly on beer sales in the province, is government owned.  In an Ipsos Reid survey in 2013 (reportedly, as the survey results can no longer be found on line), only 13% of responders knew it was foreign owned [buzzer sound]  Yes, it is owned by three giant multinational foreign beer companies, none of which is majority Canadian owned:  Molson Coors (read Coors), Anheuser-Busch InBev (owners of Labatts), and Sapporo from Japan (owners of Sleemans).  I say “near monopoly” because there are only two other ways for the consumer to buy beer in Ontario, at the LCBO (also a near monopoly) and at the breweries themselves (not very convenient).  Now here are the facts that will make the situation clearer:

  • The Beer Store (we’ll call it TBS from now on) is privately owned.
  • It sets its own prices, unregulated (to be accurate, prices are set by the brewers, but as we have seen, that is effectively the same thing).
  • Correction, the only government regulation is to set a minimum retail price.
  • Any other beer retailers must sell at the price set by TBS.  Therefore it is effectively a monopoly if competitors cannot undercut on price.

There is no other jurisdiction in the world that licenses a private company to have a monopoly on alcohol sales and then to have no regulation or oversight on pricing.  It’s madness.  And here’s one more point that will make you sit up.  The Beer Store also supplies bars, restaurants, etc. for selling on to consumers.  Since that activity is effectively wholesaling, the price charged will be somewhat less than the price consumers pay, right?  WRONG!  TBS charges up to 30% more to drinking establishments than to retail customers.  They are out of control.  You can see the actual numbers in the recent C.D. Howe Institute report on “The Need for More Competition in Ontario’s Alcoholic Beverage Retailing System”; check out Table 1.

The Truth about Grocery Store Sales of Beer

Starting December 15, 2015, grocery stores are commencing sales of beer to the public.  What we gain is some more outlets selling beer.  That’s good.  More importantly, there’s finally some competition for TBS, right?  Wrong again.  As pointed out in the previous section, the new retailers must sell their beer at the same price as TBS in order to protect it from serious competition.  Here are a few more interesting points:

  • The new retailers can only obtain their beer inventory through the LCBO.
  • There was a bidding process to obtain the right to sell beer at a grocery store.  The regulations required that the retailer’s application stipulate a profit margin of between 3% and 9.9%.  Well, just imagine how successful you would be if you went with the high end.  Therefore the retailer will only have a margin of a few % and the LCBO retains almost all the profit for acting as a middle man.
  • The beer sales counters can only be open during the same hours as the LCBO or TBS, not grocery store hours, so you’ll often go and find beer unavailable.  That surely doesn’t contribute much to the convenience factor.
  • Beer cannot be sold in any package larger than a six-pack, a rule also designed to protect TBS.
  • Stores must have at least 10,000 square feet of food retail space, and must sell a complete range of fresh and packaged foodstuffs.  These rules are designed to shut convenience stores out of the market.

All right, that’s enough about beer – you get the idea.  The government has designed the system to protect the big boys while appearing to increase competition.  The only advantage to the consumer is a very modest increase in convenience while the huge advantage to the government is that they may be able to fend off some lawsuits that are challenging their right to monopolize the business and inflate prices.  Now let’s see what the implications for wine sales might be.

Grocery Store Sales of Wine

At the moment the enabling of grocery stores to sell wine is up in the air because of the purported additional complications in this market, related to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  The possible problem is that there is an exemption in NAFTA that grandfathers winery owned stores that existed before NAFTA came into effect.  At that time many different wineries had retail stores (they were only allowed one each) that were stand alone or on the premises of supermarkets, for example.  Because the number of stores was then fixed in perpetuity, larger wine companies started buying up the little guys in order to gain the retail store space, thereby limiting competition.  We have now reached the point where 260 of the 292 stores are owned by just two companies:  Constellation Brands (the “Wine Rack”) and Andrew Peller (the “Wine Shop”).  This situation has put most small producers at a disadvantage in the marketplace, perhaps contributing to the decline in Canadian wine sales over the past 40 years.

The rule (and I think there is something similar in the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA) is based on the premise that additional stores selling only Canadian wine would put foreign producers at a disadvantage.  But grocery stores wouldn’t be limited just to Canadian wine, so this sounds like a bogus argument to slow down the process until the LCBO figures out how to hamstring the grocery stores so much that the LCBO makes as much money as ever for less work.  Legal opinion seems to agree with me.

So, heaven only knows what the LCBO is plotting (the government basically takes their marching orders from the LCBO in the area of alcoholic beverage sales) but you can be sure that increased competition is the least of their concerns.  We are supposed to find out more early in the New Year.

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The Lure of Provence

The Promenade des Anglais by the Nice seaside

The Promenade des Anglais by the Nice seaside

Earlier this fall I was privileged to spend three weeks dawdling around Provence.  I’ve always loved the pace and joie de vivre of Mediterranean culture, not to mention the climate and the wine.  Provence easily lives up to that reputation.  The traditional province is essentially the south of France east of the Rhône and as far as the Italian border.  It is approximately delineated by the modern départements of Var, Bouches-du-Rhône, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Alpes-Maritimes, and Vaucluse.  The only département that I did not spend much time in was Alpes-de-Haute-Provence.  Most of the best wine comes from Var, Bouches-du-Rhône and Vaucluse, but Alpes-Maritimes is a good place to start out from, since its coast is the French Riviera, a.k.a la Côte d’Azur, and one of the two major airports in Provence is in Nice (the other is Marseille).  The brilliant blue sea and fresh fish are certainly attractive, but the wine is generally from elsewhere in Provence and there is that veneer of artificiality that disappears once you get away into the more rural parts of the province.

View of the village perche of Bonnieux with the vine covered valley below.

View of the village perche of Bonnieux with the vine covered valley below.

We’ll get to the big name wine areas later, but first it’s pleasant to spend a few days in the Luberon.  This is the largely rural area south of Mont Ventoux, full of vine-covered valleys and hilltop villages (villages perchés in French).  This is Peter Mayle country, especially around the villages of Ménerbes and Bonnieux (where we stayed), so there is one wine in particular that everyone knows – Coin Perdu from the book and subsequent film, A Good Year.  The movie was made at Château la Canorgue, just outside of Bonnieux, and the iconic drive up to the main house is shown here.  Coin Perdu is not available for tasting (but it is for sale!);  however everything else is open.

Drive up to Chateau Canorgue, used as the location for the film "A Good Year" starring Russell Crowe and Juliette Binoche

Drive up to Chateau Canorgue, used as the location for the film “A Good Year” starring Russell Crowe and Juliette Binoche

This is an organically managed estate where sulphur use is minimized, so the results can be a little scattered.  The reds are quite tannic but the rosés are lovely, typical of Provence.  The whites exhibit some reduction, likely because of the minimal sulphur use.  While you’re in the area, don’t miss the magnificent Roman bridge, the Pont Julien, only a couple of kilometers down the road.

In the other direction, just past Ménerbes, is one of the best wineries of the Luberon, le Domaine de la Citadelle.  They have three lines of wine.  In ascending order of prestige, they are le Châtaignier, les Artèmes, and le Gouverneur Saint-Aubin.  They are made in all three colours except there is no Gouverneur rosé.  The whites clearly increase in depth and structure through the line-up with the Châtaignier showing off the perfume of Clairette, along with some Grenache and Ugni Blanc.  The addition of Roussanne and Marsanne in the Artèmes provide more body and structure while retaining a floral aroma.  Both these whites are aged in stainless steel, while the Gouverneur has some oak aging – it is built on Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne, with some Vermentino, Grenache, and Chardonnay.  Although the Châtaignier rosé is made using the preferred method of short maceration followed by pressing, while the Artèmes uses the more controversial saignée method, the Artèmes does have more depth, perhaps because it is made from older vines.  As with the whites, the lower level reds are aged in stainless steel, although the Artèmes does spend time in old foudres and also experiences some barrel aging.  Both are based on Syrah, Grenache, and Carignan, with some Mourvèdre added to the Artèmes.  That and the wood aging are likely what gives it greater richness.  Finally there is le Gouverneur red.  Here the cépages are 90% Syrah with a touch of Grenache and Mourvèdre.  The wine is barrel aged for one year (as are all wines at la Citadelle) with 15% new oak, resulting in depth and ripe tannins, although it is currently somewhat closed – clearly a vin de garde.  As a bonus, la Citadelle boasts a rather idiosynchratic corkscrew museum where you can pass a pleasant half an hour.  Afterwards, try some lunch at la Maison du Vin et des Truffes in Ménerbes.  The truffled egg dishes are worth the parking hassle.

View along the sea of vines seen from la Maison du Vin et des Truffes in Ménerbes

View along the sea of vines seen from la Maison du Vin et des Truffes in Menerbes

Truffled egg dishes for lunch at la Maison du Vin et des Truffes

Truffled egg dishes (a brouillade and an omelette) for lunch at la Maison du Vin et des Truffes

Part of the Roman town in Vaison-la-Romaine

Part of the Roman town in Vaison-la-Romaine

Circling around Mont Ventoux, it takes over an hour to drive from the Luberon to the heart of the Southern Rhône wine region, amid the villages of Vacqueyras, Gigondas, Rasteau, Cairanne, also not far from Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe itself.  A nice place to stay is Les Tilleuls d’Elisée in the small city of Vaison-la-Romaine, where you can visit the magnificent Roman ruins (seen at left) between wine tours.

Eric Saurel, owner and vigneron of Montirius, showing off some of his wines

Eric Saurel, owner and vigneron of Montirius, showing off some of his wines

One of my favourite producers, and a must-visit on this trip, is Montirius, located in the Vacqueyras AOC.  They are both biodynamic and a natural wine producer, but not so extreme that they forgo adding sulphur.  Therefore their wines retain the freshness and sense of place that many of us are looking for, but the wines also travel and age well.  The owner/winemaker Eric Saurel, kindly took us through a good range of his wines, including several of the single vineyard bottlings.  His offerings from Gigondas are particularly noteworthy.

A good place to try some Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe is in the eponymous village at the wine shop “The Best Vintage”, where you will be helped out by proprietor Danielle or sister Carole of the Brunet family, owners of Château de la Gardine.  After a tasting, you might want to repair to Le Pistou just up the street for some lunch.  Then remember that you are in the heart of Roman Gaul and visit the magnificent arenas Orange, Arles, and Nîmes, as well as the nearby Pont du Gard.  Much less well known but equally impressive is the Graeco-Roman town of Glanum, just outside Saint-Rémy de Provence.

Waterfront of Bandol

Waterfront of Bandol

Returning to the Còte d’Azur from the west takes us to the lovely seaside fishing town of Bandol and its surrounding wine region.  As you can see from the map below, none of the wineries is actually in the immediate vicinity of Bandol.  Rather they are in semi-circular area up in the hills, encompassing the villages of Le Castellet, La Cadière d’Azur, Le Plan du Castellet, and Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer

Map of Bandol AOC showing the various properties (red dots)

Map of Bandol AOC showing the various properties (red dots)

Some of the top wineries to visit are Domaine Tempier (primus inter pares), Domaine de la Suffrène, Domaine de Terrebrune, Domaine de la Tour du Bon, Domaine Pieracci, and Domaine Lafran-Veyrolles.  We also enjoyed Château Romassan because of memories of a previous trip visiting another of Domaine Ott‘s properties.  After quenching your thirst, enjoy some fine fresh seafood at the restaurant l’Auberge du Port by the quai in Bandol.  A great place to stay in the area is the Hostellerie Berard in La Cadière d’Azur, seen below during market day.  On the right below is the hilltop village itself as seen from Château Romassan.

Main street of La Cadiere d'Azur with the entrance to the Hostellerie Berard at left

Main street of La Cadiere d’Azur with the entrance to the Hostellerie Berard at left

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La Cadiere d’Azur atop its hill with the vineyards of Chateau Romassan (Domaine Ott) in the foreground

The daytime temperature in Provence averaged around 20C or more (~70F) while we were there in October, so go and enjoy fine wine, fine food, and fine weather, along with magnificent classical sites.

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A New Vintage of Wineries in The County

It’s been a couple of years since I last reported on the newest wineries in Prince Edward County (“The County”) and with the continued growth in the number of wine producers , it looks like it’s time once again.  There have been 6 new wineries opening in the past couple of years, one of which (Three Dog Winery) had just opened for business at the time of my last post on the subject, but I didn’t get over there at the time.  It’s in the far northeastern corner of the County (although conveniently accessible from the 401) while four of the other five are in the Hillier region, reinforcing the preeminence of Hiller as the core area for wine production in Prince Edward.  So let’s start there.

Domaine Darius, whose handle reflects one of the middle names of the owner, is located within the eastern reaches of Hiller, next to Sugarbush Vineyards.  All of their grapes are sourced from the County, mainly the estate vineyard.  The Rosé is a blend of Gamay and Auxerrois, made in a traditional way by macerating separately for just one day before pressing off the skins.  The result is medium pink and refreshing in a French style.  Their Chardonnay has more pretentions as it is barrel fermented and then aged for 18 months in a mix of French and Minnesota oak before blending.  Consequently, the usual high acidity found in the County is somewhat balanced by the sweek oaky notes and perfumed nose.  Finally, the red is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Gamay, and Marquette.  Interestingly, the Cab Franc influence takes a back seat to the Gamay, whose spicy fruit is prominent in the nose and mouth, and the Marquette, which provides some characteristic hybrid notes in the finish, although the Cab Franc is probably responsible for the modest tannins.

Domaine Darius boasts beautiful gardens, available for public use (e.g. picnicking), as well as their grapevines.

In addition to their grapevines, Domaine Darius also boasts beautiful gardens, available for public use (e.g. picnicking).

The two new wineries in central Hillier are Trail Estate Winery and Traynor Family VIneyard.  For now, both are focussed on producing wine from Niagara grapes while they wait for their young estate vines to come on line. First up will beTrail Estate, which expects to release its estate Baco Noir before the end of the year.  There is a lot of promise at Trail as the wines on display all exhibit a deft winemaking hand, a light touch that should benefit County fruit.  However, things may turn out quite differently in a year or two since their new winemaker started just last week, and of course the source of fruit will be change.  Time will tell.

All the wines on display employ fruit sourced from Niagara, but the first estate wine (Baco Noir) is due to be released this year.

Tasting at Trail Estate.  All the wines on display employ fruit sourced from Niagara, but the first estate wine (Baco Noir) is due to be released this year.

Meanwhile, Mike Traynor is bringing his many years of winemaking experience to the family vineyard, and is also letting the fruit speak for itself with unoaked Chardonnay and Pinot Gris (sourced from Watson’s Vineyard in Niagara).  Like Trail Estate, Traynor’s first estate offering will be hybird based, the 2014 Alta Red, a blend of 60% Frontenac Gris and 40% Marquette.  They are also showing a major concern for the environment, if all the electric charging stations out front are anything to go by!

The parking lot at Traynor Family Vineyard is marked by a trio of charging stations for electric cars.

The parking lot at Traynor Family Vineyard is marked by a trio of charging stations for electric cars.

The fourth new winery in the Hillier area is Terra Estate Winery, alone on the north shore of Lake Consecon.  The nearest neighbour winery is Redtail Vineyard in Consecon.  To be completely accurate, Terra Estate is really in Ameliasburgh ward (as is Redtail), but Hillier is literally across the street.  Since I first posted this article I was able to meet one of the Terra Estate co-owners, Alexandra Tam.  The owners live in Toronto but the site is overseen by their vineyard manager Edgar Ramirez, who lives locally, while the wine is made by Emiliano Furlan, who lives in Italy but flies over for the harvest and fermentation.  The first acre of the vineyard was planted with Cabernet Franc in 2007 but since then it has grown to 10 hectares, big enough to justify the recent acquisition of their own bottling machine, shown below.

The new bottling line at Terra Estate, inside the winery.

The new bottling line at Terra Estate, inside the winery.

The site is planted with hybrids Frontenac and Vidal, plus vinifera Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and, interestingly, Viognier.  Only the Cab Franc Reserve, from a selected site, sees any oak.  The newly bottled 2014 Cab Franc and Riesling both exhibited clean fruit.  The Riesling was particularly perfumed, likely due to cold fermentation.  It was tasty and crisp, but not at all mouth-puckering as can happen in the County.  The Cab Franc finished with good length but a bit of greenness that was not detectable earlier.  I suspect that some judicious blending will round it out nicely – I understand they have already tried some experiments with Frontenac.  I tasted a barrel sample of the Cab Franc Reserve, which is just completing its eight months in wood.  The oak had added plenty of spiciness and tannins, muting the fruit somewhat in the process – here time will tell.

Far in the east, near Waupoos, lies Cape VIneyard, whose 2½ hectare vineyard boasts some of the oldest vines in the County, planted by owner and winemaker Michael Lewis in the 1990’s.  That antiquity is not entirely unexpected since Waupoos is the home of some of the oldest vines in the County, as well as the first two wineries:  Waupoos Estates and County Cider.  The fruit in Cape Vineyard’s wines is all County, the vineyards are biodynamic, and the wine is definitely part of the “natural wine” movement.  I was only able to taste the three reds, of which the Loyalist Red was the most enjoyable, made 90% from the intriguing and rarely seen Perle Noir, leavened with 10% Cabernet Franc.  Both the pure Cab Franc and the Pinot Noir were atypical for those varietals; both had noticeable oxidation and perhaps some VA.  This may be the downside of more natural wines as they can be unstable.  Both bottles had been opened the previous day, but that is not usually enough time to account for the characteristics.  The wines I missed out on were the Vidal, the Chardonnay, and the Pinotage Rosé, all sold out.  It will be interesting to see how Pinotage pans out in the County climate… perhaps a good reason for another visit next year.  I’d also like to try a snack from Reggie’s Mediterranean food truck, stationed at the winery.

Patio and vines at Cape Vineyards, looking towards neighbour FIfth Town Artisan Cheese company.

Patio and vines at Cape Vineyards, looking towards neighbour FIfth Town Artisan Cheese company.

Finally we come back to Three Dog Winery.  When I visited, John was hobbling about the property, recovering from a badly twisted ankle sustained while walking his (three, of course) dogs.   He still happily poured the portfolio.  The business plan here resembles that of Sandbanks more than anyone else in the County, but on a much smaller scale since the production is only 1700 cases per year.  The emphasis is on good value, user-friendly wines that can be enjoyed with food or on their own.  Most of the fruit is estate grown, filled out with some grapes from the Watson Vineyard in Niagara.  The line-up includes a delicate Pinot Grigio and a nice summery rosé made by vinifying Gamay and Vidal separately, then blending.  Lastly, the late harvest “Sweet Sister” (Vidal) would go well with a variety of fatty or spicy dishes.

Three Dog Winery and tasting room all in one.

Three Dog Winery and tasting room, all in one.

I had also thought that there was a new “virtual winery” in the County, but the “Nicholas Pearce” label from the eponymous importing agency is simply a rebranding of Glenn Symons’ excellent Lighthall Vineyards Chardonnay for marketing purposes.  It’s certainly a good choice since Lighthall’s old vines, planted by artist Peter Mennacher almost 15 years ago, give the wine some real depth.  Speaking of depth, I should add somewhat paranthetically that when I was travelling around the County I stopped in at an old favourite, the Old Third Winery, specialists in Burgundian Pinot Noir.  For one reason or another I was unable to visit them last year, but it turns out that I didn’t miss anything since Bruno and Jens unfortunately lost 90% of their crop to a late frost in 2012 and weren’t able to make any wine in what was otherwise a glorious vintage.  Anyway, the 2013 is out now and it solidifies their position as one of the best Pinot Noir producers in Ontario.  There is a lovely balance, medium body, and fine structure topped off with nicely ripe tannins that presage a long life ahead of it.  If I were to update my ranking of PEC wineries, The Old Third would definitely fall into the top category.  Stopping in at established wineries like Lighthall and The Old Third confirms how important mature vines and great winemaking are in the County.  That realization provides us with a lot of hope that many of these new wineries will also reach great heights in the future as their vines and winemaking both mature.

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Wine Mythtakes, Part 2: Enjoying Wine

In the first half of this essay on wine myths, I focussed on eight misconceptions associated with buying wine.  In this second half I shall be taking a look at ten myths about consuming and enjoying wine, including two that turn out to be generally correct and not myths at all.  Again there will be two major subsections:  Serving Wine, followed by Wine and Health.

Serving Wine

9. Red Wine with Red Meat, White Wine with White Meat

I know this myth has been fairly well demolished in recent years, especially since the landmark publication of the Rosegarten and Wesson book Red Wine with Fish.  Still, I’d like to summarize my own thoughts, many of them distilled from the work of others before me, of course.

This maxim is mainly valid at the extremes.  The traditional thick rare steak grilled on the barby calls for a young full-bodied red wine.  The big fruit from the wine can stand up to the strong flavours of the grill while at the same time the (likely) pronounced tannins in the wine are muted by the meat’s protein.  At the other extreme, a delicate poached white fish would be overwhelmed by anything but a fresh and crisp white.  In between, however, the method of food preparation is more important than the base ingredient.

Take chicken as an example.  With a delicate cream sauce, a crisp medium-bodied Chablis would go well, but pasta with a chicken (or any) tomato sauce cries out for a good Italian red.  In fact, those wines are good with fowl in almost any form.  Don’t be swayed by those half-hearted attempts to match light red wines with chicken or turkey – go with the gusto!  Another example can be found with most Asian foods, where, no matter what the base ingredient, a white or rosé is your best bet.  And, as always, experiment!

10. Serve Red Wine at Room Temperature

OK, so what’s room temperature?  Well, the kernel of truth in this old saw is that when it originated, rooms, especially in winter, were pretty cold and draughty.  So something like 16°C (60°F) was the norm in the house, and it was also a good serving temperature.  But in our centrally heated homes wine is usually too warm at room temperature so it needs half an hour to an hour in the fridge before pouring.  And err on the side of too cool rather than too warm because the wine will warm up fairly quickly in the glass in any case.

But what’s wrong with 21°C (70°F)?  It’s really a matter of balance.  At room temperature the harsher background flavours (alcohol and various bitter components) tend to be emphasized to the detriment of the overall experience.  On the other hand, too cold and you lose a lot of the more delicate fruit and perfume notes while the wine will seem overly tannic.  Since tannins are not an issue with whites and rosés. they can be served a little cooler (but not at refrigerator temperature) to bring out that lip-smacking freshness.

11. Open the Wine Early So it Can “Breathe”

There are two principal reasons why one might want wine to “breathe” a bit before you drink it.  There may be some volatile (easily evaporated) components that are trapped within the wine or under the cork and that you would like to see disappear because they present some off flavours (“bottle stink”)  The most common culprits are sulphur compounds (found more often under screw cap) or volatile acidity (otherwise known as vinegar).  However, there is a much greater surface area and adjacent volume of air available to wine in a glass than in a bottle, so if those volatile components were able to escape during half an hour of sitting or “breathing” (and that’s unlikely), then they certainly should be able to do so within a minute or two after being poured.

Decanter for young wines

Decanter for young wines

The other reason is to expose a young wine to oxygen in the air.  A little oxidation can soften the tannins and improve balance.  However, the same argument applies here as in my previous point.  If you really want to expose the wine to lots of air, then decant it into one of those wide base decanters (shown at right) and really splash it in, don’t pour carefully.  Slow and gentle decanting is for old wines where you want to separate the wine from the accumulated sediment without exposing that liquid gold to much oxygen.  And that thought provides a segué to the next myth.

12. Old Wine is Better

Like all of these myths, there is always a kernel of truth at the centre, but in this case it might be expressed as:  Old Wine Can Occasionally Be Better.  Most wines are not made for long aging, rather for “trunk aging” (or “boot aging” for some) on the way home from the wine shop.  On the other hand, most wines will not be damaged by lying around for a year or two – some may even improve slightly.  There is a small subset of wines that should generally be consumed within the first year after bottling, such as crisp light Vinho Verde or light rosés.  At the other end of the spectrum is the small subset of wines that benefit from significant aging:  Bordeaux, Burgundy (red and white), Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, many Rieslings, and most of the better sweet wines, among others.  But all of these wines do eventually subside into senility and finally, death.  It may take 10 years, it may take 20 or more, but it happens to them all.  Don’t wait for it.

In fact, for most of us, consuming wine when it is a little younger than peak perfection is usually preferable to a bit beyond its best by date.  And it should be said that many people do not, in fact, enjoy the changes wrought by years in the cellar, when the fruit fades and the tertiary aromas are brought forth.  The best way to find out for yourself is to buy a case of decent Bordeaux, for example, and then have a bottle every year or two in order to understand how it ages.  Sure, that takes time, but you can drink younger wines in the meantime as well as having more than one case slumbering in the cellar.

13. Good “Legs” Mean Good Wine

How often have you heard someone with a small but dangerous amount of wine knowledge raise a glass to the light and comment on the fine “legs” or “tears” running down the side of the glass and how this must be a good wine.  Contrary to this myth, however, the presence of legs is not a function of wine body or glycerol content or quality in general.  It mostly means that the wine contains around 12% alcohol or more (but we already knew that, right?) and that the glass is clean, nothing more.  Although the phenomenon is fun to watch.

Legs are a result of the Gibbs-Marangoni Effect.  The wine will wet the sides of the glass, slowly on its own, or rapidly if assisted by swirling the wine in the glass.  Then as the alcohol evaporates preferentially with respect to the water, the liquid beads up on the side of the glass and eventually runs back down under its own weight.  The magnitude of the effect depends in part on the interfacial tension between the liquid and the glass, which explains why dish washing also makes a contribution.

Wine and Health

There is a lot of information on this subject in my earlier post; here I’ll focus on the myths and misinformation associated with wine and health, and I’ll end with two beliefs that are still controversial and may not be myths at all.

14. Wine is Bad for Your Health

Let’s tackle that main overriding myth right off the bat.  Again, there is some truth at the centre of it.  First, very high levels of alcohol, consumed frequently, are extremely bad for your health – I think everyone can agree on that.  Second, moderate levels can be unhealthy for you or someone else when combined with the operation of a motor vehicle or heavy machinery – again, not much dispute there.  Third, it has been well established in recent years that alcohol consumption contributes to the risk of developing cancer.  The effect is negligible at low levels of consumption but does rise monotonically as consumption increases.  There can be other negative effects at low to moderate levels, but cancer is the biggie.

What’s missing here is the significant health benefits derived from consuming alcohol, particularly for the cardiovascular system, but in other areas as well.  These benefits kick in quite quickly and are near maximum with only a very small dose (around half a glass of wine, for example).  Meanwhile, the detrimental effects accumulate slowly with dose, so that for moderate consumption they are greatly outweighed by the benefits.  The result is what’s called a “J curve” (a somewhat fanciful illusion to the shape of the curve), as shown in the graph below.

Fitted relationship between alcohol consumption and risk of mortality.  Risk is reduced for very low consumption and then rises, reaching the non-drinker (baseline) risk at ~2 drinks per day for women and ~3 drinks per day for men (a standard drink is considered to contain 14g of alcohol).

The relationship between alcohol consumption and risk of mortality (mathematically fitted to data). Risk is reduced for very low consumption and then rises, reaching the non-drinker (baseline) risk at ~2 drinks per day for women and ~3 drinks per day for men (a standard drink is considered to contain 14g of alcohol).

The recommended consumption level of 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men results in a significant net health benefit (i.e. lower mortality risk).  It takes at least 2 drinks per day for women and 3 for men before the risk returns to the same level as a teetotaller.  This graph provides a simplified summary of the results of the meta-study by Castelnuovo et al.  There is also some evidence that food consumption reduces the effects of alcohol.  At least one study has shown that a meal eaten with alcohol not only resulted in a 35% reduction in peak blood alcohol content, but it also took 36-50% less time to metabolize the alcohol.

I think the extreme prohibitionist view, at least from the medical profession, comes from the Hippocratic requirement to “do no harm.”  If a medical practitioner only looks at the deleterious effects of alcohol and not at the entire health of the individual, then that approach is understandable if not sensible.  However, it is a disservice to the 90% of the population who are not alcoholics and who do not drive after having had too much to drink.

15. Sulphites Cause Headaches

Some people suffer from headaches after drinking wine, especially red wine, and often within minutes of consumption.  These headaches are frequently blamed on the sulphites in wine, or on the tannins.  However, it is now known that sulphites do not cause headaches and are not allergens (they are not proteins, for one thing), although they may cause a reaction for asthma sufferers (and this is the reason that sulphite content may be quoted on the label, not because of headaches).  After all, there is a lot more sulphite in dried fruit (two ounces contain over 10 times as much as a glass of wine) and in prepared meats.  In fact, the human body naturally produces around 1000 mg of sulphite per day, some 20 times greater than the contents of an entire bottle of wine.

Tannins too cannot be blamed for a wine headache, except perhaps in the case of the unfortunate few who suffer from migraines.  So what is the source?  Well, there is a lot of discussion about the cause, complicated by the fact that there are hundreds or even thousands of naturally occurring substances in a glass of wine.  Some of the more likely culprits are naturally occurring histamines, prostaglandins, tyramine, or residues from the yeast or bacteria involved in fermentation.  The bottom line, however, is that no one really knows what causes a wine headache (other than the one you experience in the morning after having imbibed far too much the night before!)

16. Wine, Especially Sweet Wine, is Full of Calories

Calories in wine arise from the alcohol and from any residual sugar.  Therefore the caloric content of a glass of wine can vary.  Each per cent of alcohol represents 10mL per litre, or 7.89g of alcohol, and alcohol contains 6.9 calories/g.  Sugars (and carbohydrates in general) contain about 4.1 calories/g.  Sugar in wine is usually measured in g/L.  Therefore the caloric content of a 5oz (150mL) glass of wine is:

C = 0.15 x (A x 7.89 x 6.9 + S x 4.1)

Here A is the percentage alcohol by volume, S is the sugar content in g/L and C is the number of calories in a normal glass.  For example, a completely dry wine of 14% alcohol contains 114 calories, whereas a sweet German wine with 8% alcohol and 4g/L of residual sugar contains 75 calories!  So sweet doesn’t necessarily equate to high in calories.  Fermentation simply converts one form of energy delivery into another.  Note, however, that a glass of fortified wine like port, with 20% alcohol and 100g/L of sugar weighs in at over 400 calories.  Fortunately, we tend to drink smaller glasses of fortified wines, so a 2oz glass is “only” 160 calories.

Now that we know what’s in a glass of wine, how does that compare with other drinks?  Well, a 12oz glass of 5% beer contains around 150 calories, the same size of soda pop contains 132 calories, 6oz of orange juice contains 84, and milk has 102 calories in a cup (8oz).  So what’s the verdict?  Unless you’re drinking only water and diet drinks, everything has calories to a greater or lesser extent.  As always, especially with alcohol, the message is quantity.  Just don’t drink too much!  Even that bastion of dieting, Weight Watchers®, has nothing against a glass of wine – it just goes into the calculation of total daily consumption.  Be moderate and you’re fine.  We do need calories (energy) to live – just don’t overdo it.

17. Pregnant Women Should Drink No Alcohol

Here’s one that may not be a myth at all.  First, however, it needs to be made clear that the statement is trying to differentiate between light alcohol consumption and none at all.  It is beyond dispute that heavy drinking is a serious issue and often results in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  Moderate alcohol consumption can result in less serious but still significant Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.  Therefore, the current recommendation of the health authorities of most western countries (e.g. U.S., U.K., Canada) is complete abstinence during pregnancy.  But what about very light drinking (e.g. a half glass of wine once in a week)?  Here is where the only controversy lies.

Two recent studies, one from Denmark and one from the U.K., both show a slight benefit to the child from light alcohol consumption by the pregnant mother.  However, other studies show the opposite outcome, although the effects are always small.  Most of the variations are likely due to other factors that may differ systematically between those who consume none and those who consume a little alcohol during pregnancy.  These effects may work both ways, as described here and here.

Alcohol is a known teratogen that passes easily across the placental barrier.  At the end of the day, it is that clinical knowledge that is the basis for a total ban on alcohol consumption during pregnancy.  Now all potentially dangerous substances do have a safe level below which they are not harmful.  But if that level is a trace amount only, then a total ban is sensible.  The problem is that with the contradictory studies that are out there, we don’t really know what the safe level.  Therefore the injunction against any drinking at all is reasonable.  At the end of day, however, if you are pregnant and have a sip once in a while, especially with food (which slows metabolism of the alcohol), the likelihood of doing any real harm is remote – don’t fret about it.

18. Red Wine is the Healthiest Form of Alcohol

Here’s the other myth that contains more fact than fiction, but to a certain extent the jury is still out.  The benefits of consuming wine in moderation are real, as I detailed in the first part of this double post, and in a previous post, Is Wine Good for You?.  The question is:  are the benefits greater from red wine than from other alcoholic beverages?

Those benefits arise from the alcohol itself (little controversy there), possibly from antioxidants (flavonoids and polyphenols such as resveratrol, for example), and maybe from other trace components.  Ethanol (ethyl alcohol, i.e. beverage alcohol) is well known to increase (good) HDL cholesterol and reduce (bad) LDL cholesterol, thereby providing cardiovascular protection.

The effects of antioxidants are less clear and conflicting studies continue to be published.  In general, however, the quantity of antioxidants required for clinical benefit is so great that the amount of alcohol consumed to obtain it would kill you!  Resveratrol in particular is often cited for its benefits with respect to blood sugar control, cognition, cancer fighting, and weight maintenance.  However, a recent study has determined that dietary resveratrol, including that in wine, does not provide any health benefits, probably because the dietary quantities are so low, as mentioned above.  Now, popular press reports of this study have tended to sensationalize it by equating resveratrol with all of the benefits of drinking wine, which we know is not the case.

All right, alcohol in moderation is good in general.  So what about the purported advantages of wine, and red wine in particular?  One interesting study from Spain showed that red wine consumption decreases the incidence of the common cold by 40%, while there was a smaller reduction with beer or white wine and no effect for other forms of alcohol.  There is other marginal evidence out there, but the bottom line is that red wine is at least as good as other wine and perhaps better for you, but the differences are small.  This myth cannot be considered to be true or false, for now.

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Wine Mythtakes, Part 1: Buying Wine

I frequently find myself providing reality checks for folks who have bought into some of the myths that are floating around about wine.  There are a lot, so I’ve just picked some of my favourites.  A few of these are frequently cited, so that there is already a good amount of explanation and debunking available on line.  However, I have included them here to provide a more complete set and to provide my personal take on these beliefs.  In the end I came up with enough myths, 18 in all, that I have had to divide them into two main sections in order to keep my postings to a reasonable length – the second half of them will be the subject of my next post.

The first eight myths that I discuss all have to do with buying wine – the first four are of interest to wine buyers in general, while the remaining four are specifically geared to Ontario residents who are stuck with the LCBO.

Buying Wine

 1. High Scores / High Prices / Varietals Indicate the Best Wines

There are many clues that the average consumer uses to help make a wine decision, such as critics’ scores, pricing, the label, varietal vs. regional, and recommendations from salespeople.  The problem is that most of these indicators contain a kernel of validity surrounded by a thick husk of irrelevancy for any particular individual purchaser.

First:  scores and critics’ recommendations.  Take a look at my post on scores and you will see that the correlations both between scores and quality, and between different critics’ scores, are weak at best.  The preferred approach should be to try recommended wines from a variety of critics until you find one (or more) whose tastes are a reasonable match for your own.  Then use that critic as a guide.  Now, coming up with that solution takes quite a bit of work, the direct opposite of the intent of easy-to-understand scores.  But then, most of the work is drinking wine after all, so buck up!

There is, of course, some correlation between price and quality, but remember price is really determined by what people will pay.  Therefore a high quality wine will generate consumer demand and the producer can charge a higher price.  Every other consideration is subordinate to that point.  For example, you often hear that low yields, organic cultivation, hand crafted wine, good oak, etc., etc. cost money and the wine will cost more.  However, that only works if the wine is better than a more industrially produced version, and only then will consumers pay more.  Otherwise the winery will not be able to continue along that path.  Famous names and critical hype, will generate demand and higher prices.  That’s why the best quality/price ratios are in the lesser known regions – southern Italy, southern France, northwestern Spain, Greece, Portugal, and Austria, for example.

Varietal labelling is favoured by many consumers because it is easy to remember and comfortably reliable.  However, most of the great wine regions of Europe do not use varietal labelling, so it is in no way an indicator of quality – there is no correlation.

2. All Wines Should (or Should Not!) be Under Screw Cap

Here I am wading into a highly controversial subject.  Producers from Down Under (Australia and New Zealand) insist that all wines should be under screw cap.  In Europe only a very small percentage are sold this way.  Who’s right?  Well, here are my thoughts.

First, any wine intended to be drunk within a year of purchase should be under screw cap – this dictum actually covers the bulk of wine.  Second, any white wine meant to be consumed within a few years should also be under screw cap.  Then we are left with red wines for medium to long aging and the few white wines able to be aged for a decade or more (i.e. most quality Rieslings, white Burgundy, vintage Champagne, and quality sweet wines).  Here the preference should depend upon the tastes of the consumer.  Wine does age differently under different closures.  Many people are familiar with and enjoy the flavour of mild oxidation and related transformations that provide complexity in older wines.  Others like the retention of fresher fruit flavours, but at the risk of chemical reduction, which engenders less familiar (often sulphur-based) flavours that may or may not be appreciated.  Therefore the decision of the producer will depend on some combination of tradition and the preferences of the consumer base for that particular wine.

Second, the risk of cork taint/corked wine/TCA has been greatly reduced over the past couple of decades.  Where I used to find a corked bottle every week or two, now it’s only once or twice per year.  And remember that TCA doesn’t just arise from cork treatment – it can arise from the winery environment and is therefore even found from time to time in screw capped bottles.

Lastly, let’s ditch the fatuous statement that using a cork is some prehistoric practice of “sticking a piece of tree bark in a bottle.”  One could as easily mock the practice of “sticking a piece of industrially modified petroleum on the end of a bottle.”  (i.e. plastic, in particular the plastic insert that makes the seal in a screw cap.)  In fact, cork is one of the most amazing materials known, a material whose properties cannot be duplicated in any laboratory.  One might as easily mock the use of a hunk of tree to make my computer desk or the frame of my house.  Let’s have a rational discussion, please.  And last but not least, cork is a green renewable resource, contrary to metal and petroleum products.  There is room for both closures in the business – neither is an indicator of quality, low or high.

3. Avoid Wine from a Region where there has been a Scandal

I know someone who won’t buy Chateau Pontet-Canet, one of the greatest ones of Bordeaux, because over forty years ago the owner of Pontet-Canet at the time (Cruse) was caught strengthening their cheaper wine with stiff southern swill.  There are other folks who won’t buy Austrian wine because of the antifreeze scandal of thirty years ago.  Then, what about the Brunello scandal from the past decade?  Should you buy Brunello di Montalcino?

There are two points to keep in mind here.  First, wine has been adulterated (to stretch the limited volume of famous quality wine available) since the beginning of time.  However, there is apparently much less of that sort of fraud now than in the past because of regulations that are at least partially successful, and because global warming means that marginal wine regions have less need of assistance.  In fact, there is more concern nowadays about fraud with respect to older and collectible bottles than there is about good everyday wine.

Second, your best bet for fraud-free wine is often the specific region or producer that originally had the problem.  In the process of cleaning up their act, implementing damage control, and attempting to regain market share, the offenders need to be squeaky clean and above reproach.  There’s the good news for the consumer.  So buy and enjoy your Pontet-Canet, Brunello di Montalcino, and Austrian Riesling with abandon!

4. A Sommelier will Always Try to Sell You an Expensive Bottle

A good sommelier is like any good retailer:  she/he does want to make a sale and generate cash flow, but real long term business viability comes from good customer service, a satisfied client, and repeat business.  Therefore a sommelier needs to provide a wine that you will enjoy with your meal and for its own sake, and that falls within your budget.  You will likely have more than one possible wine offered to you, all appropriate matches to the food, but at different price points.  If the suggested wines are too expensive for your budget, just point to a cheaper part of that section of the wine list and suggest that you are looking for “something more along these lines.”  The sommelier will understand and at the same time you will actually sound knowledgeable to your guests!  But don’t forget that the wine is a significant contributor to the enjoyment of the meal.  Divide that cost by the two or three or four people drinking it and compare to the cost of one person’s meal.  You may then feel more comfortable about a slightly more expensive, and perhaps more appropriate, bottle.

The LCBO

You readers who don’t live in or near Ontario and are unfamiliar with the government liquor monopoly, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), are excused at this point and can sit back and await my next post.  For the rest of us, here are four myths about the LCBO.

For a good backgrounder exploding publicly perceived myths about privatization, take a look at this article.  I won’t repeat all the information contained within it.

5. The Status Quo Returns the Most Money to the Province

This myth was exploded by a report from the past decade, authored by a blue ribbon panel that was tasked by the LCBO to determine its future business strategy.  I won’t go into detail since I devoted an entire previous post to this report, but the bottom line is that they unanimously recommended full privatization as the means to make the most money for the government and to provide the greatest customer satisfaction.  Needless to say, the report was deep-sixed by the LCBO and the government as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

Remember, the government of Ontario receives almost all of its advice about alcohol sales from the LCBO, so everything they hear is designed to support the LCBO.  They then parrot the LCBO’s words to the press and the public.  How often do we hear that the LCBO provides billions of dollars to the government coffers? – we couldn’t give that up!  The facts are that by eliminating the enormous costs of running the LCBO (stores built like palaces, inventory costs, high priced help, etc.) and raking in the income from licensing retail sales establishments (along with all the other taxes and duties that would not go away), the government would make more money from privatization than from the status quo.

Recently a new report on the subject was published by the C.D. Howe Institute.  Once again, the strong recommendation is to enable private alcohol sales in order to boost revenues and to provide better customer service.  This report is also an interesting and convincing and unsettling insight into all aspects of alcohol sales in the province.

So why is the government so reluctant?  It’s not the money to be made; it’s not the public perception (a majority of Ontarians are in favour of privatization, according to a 2013 Angus Reid poll); it’s not the social implications (see Myth #6).  The only thing I can think of is that they are scared to death of the unions and the impact of eliminating so many highly paid union jobs.  That opinion is supported by the reality that the NDP is the only political party not to have favoured privatization at one time or another (the other parties have backed privatization, but only when in opposition, never as the government).  Then, maybe the only roadblock is that governments hate change (and the accompanying uncertainty).  Really, all that it will take to provide a big step forward for the Ontario consumer is a little political courage.  Oh well, perhaps in the 22nd century.

6. Private Liquor Stores Are Not Socially Responsible (Contrary to the LCBO)

There are several counters to this particularly insidious myth – I describe it thus because it is circulated by the LCBO itself.  First, private stores operate in jurisdictions all over the world, including other Canadian provinces (and Ontario, see below), without permitting a tsunami of teenagers to buy booze.  I could point to the study that I brought up in a previous post, where the LCBO rated last in responsibility after the Beer Store and corner stores (selling cigarettes in this case).  However, common sense alone should make it clear to any thinking person that private stores have a great deal more to lose than publicly owned stores if they abuse their privilege and sell to minors or intoxicated customers.  A private store could lose its lucrative AGCO licence to sell alcohol.  The LCBO would only get a rap on the knuckles.  And think carefully about those boasts from the LCBO about how many minors were turned away each year.  What counts is how many got through!  They never publish those numbers.

The biggest counter-argument, however, is the fact that there are already hundreds of successful, socially responsible, private alcohol retailers in the province!  And I’m not talking about the privately (and foreign) owned Beer Store.  I am referring to the over 210 operating LCBO Agency Stores.  These are small retailers (general stores and their ilk) in more remote, and not so remote, locations in the province, where it would be uneconomic for the LCBO to build a full scale palace of a store to serve a relatively small customer base.  These stores profitably and responsibly sell LCBO products themselves, using their own sales people.  No wonder the LCBO doesn’t want to bring these stores into the discussion!

7. The LCBO is Customer Oriented

I have patronized many a wine shop around the world and I’ve been to many other retailers, so I have a reasonable idea of what good customer service should be like:

  1. Provide what the customer wants – In the LCBO’s world, the definition of what the customer wants is what sells the most, sort of like Walmart.  Then you throw in some labels in Vintages that have been awarded high scores by critics (see Myth #1).  But where are the really interesting and unusual wines, the small producers, the Greek wines, the Swiss wines, the trocken wines from Germany, the orange wines, etc. that we read about and salivate over?  Sure, one or two of them will show up from time to time, and from the LCBO’s viewpoint that means that the subject is covered.  However, even then the only remaining bottle may be in a store elsewhere in the province.  Then if you want to ratchet up your frustration a little, try to get an inter-store transfer set up.  Success is up to the whim of the local store multiplied by the whim of the remote store, resulting in a depressingly low probability of success.
  2. Put good products on sale – To the LCBO, the word “sale” means “let’s get rid of the stuff that never sells.”  They don’t have to put anything else on sale because there is nowhere else to buy it (see Myth #8).  And what about the case discounts of 10-20% that almost every other wine merchant in the world provides?
  3. Work with the local community – One of the most infuriating practices of the LCBO involves staffing.  Every three years or so they feel obligated to ship your local Product Consultant off to some other cookie cutter store, just when you had established a good customer/retailer relationship – then you have to start all over again.  But at least they promote Ontario wines, right?  Well, many local wines are produced in small quantities, but the LCBO business model requires wines to be available through a large number of their stores – that cuts out many of the small producers (the problem exists equally for BC and small foreign producers).  On the other hand, they are happy to provide lots of prominent shelf space for “Cellared in Canada” (but mostly imported) swill produced by the large corporations.

8. The LCBO is Not a Monopoly

This myth is another favourite of the LCBO itself.  They repeat it endlessly with the justification that there are other places to buy alcohol in the province, after all.  But what are those other retailers?  First there is The Beer Store (TBS), a private monopoly run by three large foreign breweries for their own entertainment and profit.  There is nowhere else in the world where a government has granted beer producers a monopoly on retail sales.  And these are monopolies because the LCBO and TBS generally try to sell non-overlapping brands.  The Beer Store sells mostly the brands bottled by its owners while the LCBO handles the rest, meaning that small craft brewers are effectively shut out of The Beer Store, where consumers naturally go first to buy beer.  In addition, a recently revealed agreement between the two organizations limits the sale of larger cases of beer to the TBS only.

The only other vendors of wine in the province are Ontario wine producers and import agencies.  But you generally have to go to the winery to buy small production volume, quality Ontario wine, and most of us don’t live in those areas.  Forget about the private off-winery stores – almost all of them (Wine Rack and Wine Shop) are operated by the two giants of the Canadian wine industry – Constellation Brands and Andrew Peller.  Of course, they only sell their own brands – hardly a threat to the LCBO monopoly.  OK, what about foreign wines?  There are only two ways you can buy foreign wine outside of the LCBO:  through agencies or by belonging to a wine club.  In general, you have to buy by the case from these vendors and wait days or weeks for delivery, so they aren’t a viable alternative for the average wine buyer either.  Of course there is also no meaningful competition in sales of spirits, but that’s not my main concern here.

The LCBO is not a monopoly?  Sure, pull the other one too.

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So What’s the Score?

Many people who read wine publications on a casual basis or who just peruse the endorsements on the bins at the local liquor emporium buy their wine by the score.  And I don’t mean twenty at a time (although that may be the case).  Rather they buy a wine that scores 90 or more points and fits within their budget, instead of trying to understand what the wine might actually taste like.  In order to get a better idea of the validity of scoring, I’ve done some research on recent reviews and scores in several prominent wine publications, namely:

Basically, I’m comparing British scoring (the last three publications) to the gold standard for American scoring – Robert Parker and his tasting team.  Parker uses his famous 100 point system where 50 is the lowest possible score and 100 is “perfection”.  British writers lean towards a 20 point system where scores can (rarely) dip into the single digits.  Decanter provides a convenient translation between their 20 point system and a 100 point system – we’ll take a look at it a little later.  Fine Wine also has a (different) correlation.  To make the comparison, I selected a few wine types (region and vintage) that were recently reviewed in The Wine Advocate and some of the UK publications.  Then I plotted the 20 point scores against the 100 point scores (each point on the graph is a single specific wine).  First, the bad news.  Here is what you get for 2010 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon:

Comparison of UK 20 point scores with US (Parker) 100 point scores for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from 2010.

Comparison of UK 20 point scores with US (Parker) 100 point scores for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2010 vintage.

Mathematically, we call this kind of a chart “uncorrelated”, especially for the Decanter scores.  In other words, the relationship between Parker and Decanter scores is completely random.  I can’t quite say the same for the Jancis Robinson data as there is a mild positive correlation (i.e. higher Parker scores are roughly matched by higher JR scores), but it’s still poor.  This picture is therefore relevant to the controversy that’s been making the rounds recently about the value of critical reviews and scores.  The studies cited in this article generally conclude that there are so many external variables affecting even an expert’s ability to judge wine that the results are almost indistinguishable from random.  So let’s look at more of the data that I have assembled and see if that idea holds true in other cases.  First we’ll move away from California Cab towards its flip side, French Merlot and in particular St. Emilion 2011.  The results are shown in the graph below:

Comparison of UK scoring with American (Parker) scoring for 2011 vintage of St. Emilion. The lines are statistical best fits to the data in each case.

Comparison of UK scoring with American (Parker) scoring for 2011 vintage of St. Emilion. The lines are statistical best fits to the data for each of the three UK publications.

OK, there’s a bit of a correlation here.  I’ve drawn the best linear fit lines to each of the three data sets, and at least we can say that all of them show a positive correlation.  BUT, there is no indication that UK and American reviewers had conflicting tastes, contrary to all the talk about the supposed preference for balanced food-friendly terroir-driven wines on the one side, and blockbuster fruit-forward winemaker-driven wines on the other.  One thing to notice is that when reviewing for The World of Fine Wine, the scores were somewhat higher in general than when reviewing for Decanter or Jancis Robinson.  Therefore the scores may be consistent within one scheme, but it is not advisable to compare absolute scores across publications.

For the next exploration, we’ll head to Burgundy.  First, let’s look at a very specific wine:  2011 Vosne-Romanée, ranging from simple village wine all the way up to the Grands Crus:

Comparison of UK scores with American (Parker) scores for the 2010 vintage of Vosne-Romanée.  The lines are best statistical fits to the data.

Comparison of UK scores with American (Parker) scores for the 2010 vintage of Vosne-Romanée. The lines are best statistical fits to the data.

At least there’s a bit more action here.  The high scores roughly match the high scores and the low scores also roughly correspond.  Otherwise the conclusions that can be drawn from this graph don’t differ much from the St. Emilion case.  One thing we should remember is that even professionals have different tasting hardware (i.e. nose and tongue) from one another, not to mention different software (i.e. preferences).  Therefore it may still be true that a particular expert taster is consistent within his or her set of scores, according to personal standards.  Now these standards are still partly influenced by training and experience, resulting in the modest correlation between tasters.  If this idea is valid, then we return to one of the most important truisms about taking advice from the experts; i.e., find a taster that likes the wines you like, or better yet, that describes them in a way that lets you make a selection with a high probability of getting something you enjoy.  My personal favourite is John Szabo, who talks about style in preference to rolling out a fruit basket of descriptors.  OK, I’ve got one more example – let’s stick with Burgundy but switch to white wine (at last, say some!).

Comparison of UK scores vs. American (Parker) scores for white Côte d'Or Burgundy 2012. The lines show how Decanter and Fine Wine make the correspondence between their 20 point scales and the 100 point scale.

Comparison of UK scores vs. American (Parker) scores for white Côte d’Or Burgundy 2012. The black lines show how Decanter and Fine Wine (solid and dotted lines) make the correspondence between their 20 point scales and the 100 point scale.

Immediately you can see that there is a much better correlation here between the UK scores and Parker.  Perhaps because there is less emphasis on power and fruit and oak in white wine evaluation, the tasters are in better agreement.  The standard deviation from the straight (purple) line is about half a point, so that gives us an idea of the uncertainty in scoring under the best of circumstances – that ½ on the 20 point scale turns into about 2 on the 100 point scale (math nerds can derive that correspondence from the slope of the line).

It is also interesting to look at the Decanter and Fine Wine published translations of a 20 point scale into a 100 point scale.  They are in agreement for high scores but Fine Wine plunges much lower below 90 as they force their equivalence to be 0/20 for a 50/100 score (which is the minimum possible on the Parker scale).  What can also be seen is that the Decanter 100 point equivalents are lower than Parker.  A good example is the highest score at 96, which is conveniently on the line (it is that average line that is the real source of the comparison).  That wine gets 96 from Parker, and 18.25 on the 20 point scale.  But if you look at the solid black calibration line, that 18.25 is considered to be equivalent to 94 on the Decanter scale.  Another important example is that the 90 point threshold that so many people are fascinated by would be scored 16.7 on average by the UK crowd (purple line), which is equivalent to about 88.5.  In other words, stop being fixated on absolute scores.  Look at how your favourite critic rates wines on a relative scale and most of all, buy on description, not score.

Let me summarize the conclusions that I have drawn in this post:

  1. Comparisons of scores from different reviewers is chancy at best.
  2. Pick a critic whose tastes are close to your own.
  3. A wine with a very high score will usually turn out well, and conversely for a very low score, but in the middle ignore the scores and focus on the description.  Note that “90” is in the middle, so it is not some magic number.
  4. There is at least a 0.5 point random variation on the 20 point scale and a 2 point variation on the 100 point scale; i.e. scores separated by that amount or less are not meaningfully different.
  5. This conclusion is a bit of a stretch from such a small sample, admittedly, but scores appear to be more reliable for whites and least reliable for New World reds.
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A False Dawn

Over the past few months the LCBO has been making a lot of noise about how it is growing and changing to provide greater service to the Ontario consumer.  However, if you look at the grandiose announcements and press releases more carefully, it is clear that this is the false dawn of a new era at the LCBO.  In fact they are playing their same old tricks of kill the competition and feed propaganda to the consumer.

So what’s been happening?  Let’s look at some new LCBO initiatives and try to understand what they really mean, beyond all the hype and government pronouncements.

First we heard, in late 2012, that the KGBO would be increasing access to their products by opening ten “Express” outlets attached to major supermarkets and the like, similar to the way winery stores are currently located; the first will open some time in 2014.  Such an attempt at so-called increased access is pitiful – ten stores?  That’s hardly 1% of the existing number of outlets, including Agency Stores.  In fact, the LCBO wants to restrict access, as then Finance Minister Dwight Duncan made quite clear during the announcement, stating that he wished to “…make sure we don’t have alcohol on every street corner in Ontario.”  (This is certainly a  differentiator from private industry, which would commit the unpardonable sin of placing stores where the market and the demand are.  If there is more demand a store opens; if demand wanes, a store closes, whether it is on a street corner or not.)  So increased access is not the objective of these “Express” outlets – then what is it?  Well, the locations give a clue.  They will clearly compete with winery stores and maybe put them out of business because of the LCBO’s broader selection.  That fulfills the twin related goals of killing the competition and reducing independent sales by wineries (independent of maximum LCBO profits, that is).  Of course, these locations beg the question:  Isn’t is silly to to have a separate retailer right next door to, say, Loblaws, who could do a much more efficient job of stocking and retailing, with more convenience and lower cost to the customer?

A related move by the LCBO took place this summer when they revealed their plans to place “Our Wine Country” VQA boutiques within selected stores.  Let’s once again give the finance minister (this time Charles Sousa) a chance to explain:  “These new stores will give smaller wineries increased access to larger markets.”  OK, the smaller wineries, who can’t ordinarily get SKU’s in the mother ship, as well as limited production labels from Ontario wineries in general, should have better access to consumers.  Of course, the first few of these corners will best fulfill the stated goal and reach the largest number of customers by locating in the major population centres (the “larger markets”) of Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, and London, right?  So then why are they are being located in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, and Windsor?  Wait, aren’t those cities all in wine country where locals already have access to limited production wines?  If one were cynical, one might almost think that the aim (again) is to limit competition and reduce the amount of direct sales by wineries.  I did hear a contrary view from one small winery proprietor who pointed out that most people, even in wine country, don’t head to a winery for something to accompany their evening meal; they just stop at the LCBO.  But through VQA boutiques her products could reach that audience.  Perhaps, but the selected locations really put paid to that idea.  It is increasingly clear that the LCBO considers Ontario wineries to be a nuisance.  They cut into profits and the sooner they are put out of business the better.  After all, then they would be in a true monopoly position and could just sell millions of bottles of Fuzión and make tons of money with little effort.

Just to underscore this message, and here’s my third point, we find that the LCBO/Ontario government combine has found yet another way to stick it to Ontario wine producers and Ontario consumers.  As described in an earlier post, federal Bill C-311 now allows the private importation of wine from one province into another for personal use.  This action should finally remove that ridiculous impediment to trade that makes it illegal to order wine from one province for delivery in another, as if the provinces are separate countries.  No wait, you can freely move goods between countries in the European Union, so we have been even more regressive than sovereign nations!  But now, problem solved, right?  Wrong.  Implementation of C-311 is still subject to the whim of the importing province.  So far, according to Free My Grapes,only BC and Manitoba allow wine to be shipped directly to their residents from a winery in another province.  Nova Scotia is in the (slow) process of changing their rules.  Even the territories have made no change to the federal statutes governing wine purchases, although it was the federal government that changed the rules!  Most other provinces are dragging their feet, especially Ontario, whose Premier Wynne who has been quoted as saying that she would not allow the LCBO to open up the borders.  In fact, there is a legal grey area here as there does not appear to be a statute restricting the import of wine, only an LCBO policy.  For more on the convoluted legal status, check out Mark Hicken’s article.

Now, it has been pointed out, most recently by Rod Phillips in Vines magazine‘s October edition, that few people wish to order wine by the case, especially from out of province, so this is a bit of a non-issue.  That  may be a valid point, but if so, why not get rid of what is a needless barrier to interprovincial trade?  If it does not harm, but helps a few, then let’s go for it.

So how does the Ontario wine industry feel about this?  After all, if BC consumers can import Ontario wines while Ontario consumers cannot import BC wines, Ontario has the upper hand, right?  Well, aside from the extreme dog-in-the-manger nature of that attitude, it misses the point that if all provinces free up their rules, all wine producers are winners since there is a larger market outside of any one province (even Ontario, Premier Wynne!) than within.  And usually it takes some of the larger provinces to lead the way.  As for the producers themselves, some may take the narrow view.  More representative, however, is Hillary Dawson, president of the Wine Council of Ontario who, when talking about on-line ordering, reminds us that: “It’s actually called modern wine retailing. That’s what they do all around the world.”

To discuss the fourth and last recent development, I’m going to circle back to the question of access and availability.  A recent initiative from the Ontario Convenience Stores Association is a push to make beer and wine available at corner stores, as is already the case in Quebec.  They have so far collected 112,500 signatures for their on-line petition at freeourbeer.ca.  In 2012  a secret shopper study showed that convenience stores are significantly more diligent about checking for underage purchasers than either the LCBO or the Beer Store.  This study was based on cigarette sales in the case of convenience stores, but it highlights how store owners are more stringent than public institutions because their livelihood depends on following the law rather than being an arm of the lawmaking body, as is the case with the LCBO.  Imagine an industry where both the setting of the rules and the ultimate enforcement of the rules lies in the hands of the business owners themselves.  Ouch!

As for the contrary view, there are a few apologists out there drinking from the LCBO Kool-Aid.  An example is this article in the Toronto Star.  The key point made is the assumed loss of revenue; but that argument makes no sense since the province can place whatever taxes and licensing fees on the vendors that it wishes.  Revenue can easily increase.  The second argument is the old chestnut about not putting alcohol into the hands of minors; for the counter point, see the preceding paragraph.  Finally, that meaningless statistic is trotted out once again, that the LCBO denied 322,000 out of 7.8 million customers in a year.  But how many get through undetected?  With respect to that much more significant question, the LCBO is tellingly silent.  Finally, the Star columnist asks, how can these minimum wage convenience store clerks possibly have the training, time, and inclination to ask for ID?  Well, their jobs depend on it, of course!  They do it every day with cigarettes.

The final argument for sales by corner stores comes right from the LCBO playbook – they are doing it already!  There are some 218 Agency Stores in Ontario.  These are small stores licensed by the LCBO to sell LCBO products on their own.  It’s almost as if convenience stores were selling wine and beer!  Except that spirits are included as well.  There seems to be no problem with these clerks and cashiers taking responsibility for selling booze and asking for ID.  All of the LCBO and Ontario government arguments simply fall flat in light of the existence of Agency Stores.  And they are not just in the far north or other parts of the province remote from normal outlets.  I live in Ottawa and I counted over half a dozen Agency Stores in the greater Ottawa area.  So there is no new legislation required to enable wine and beer sales by corner stores.  All that is necessary is that the LCBO increase the number of Agency Stores and remove any rules they have about store location.

My conclusion is that the alcohol sales landscape in Ontario needs a complete overhaul.  The current system’s attempts at innovation are feeble at best and regressive at worst.  Now, the province did announce recently that it is once again assembling a blue ribbon panel to map out a future direction.  I expect the recommendation will be similar to the last time this was tried – full privatization.  Then will the provincial government follow through on the advice, or will the response be the same as before, to “deep six” any opinion contrary to their own?  Let’s be optimistic and hope that in a couple of years we will be toasting the true dawning of a new age of wine availability in Ontario.

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The Latest from Prince Edward County

It’s time to revisit “The County” since I last posted on the subject.  I was unable to get around much last summer for personal reasons, so I have two years to catch up on.  During the past week I visited a number of the newer wineries located all over the County, ranging from one that had been operating for four years or so, but which I had not yet visited, to a winery that only opened the day before I arrived.

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Lighthall Vineyards winery building in the south of Prince Edward County

Lighthall Vineyards has a long history as it boasts some of the oldest vines in the county, planted by Peter and Alice Mennacher in 2000.  For many years these quality grapes (notably the Chardonnay) were supplied to the likes of Closson Chase and Huff Estates, but after Glenn Symons purchased it in 2008 he opened the winery, with 2009 being the first vintage for sale.  Glenn uses a concrete fermentation tank for his Pinot Noir and all oak aging is carried out exclusively in French oak.  I’m familiar with the quality of

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Lighthall Pinot Noir 2011

the Chardonnay, both from the days it was vinified at Huff Estates and more recently, so I was looking forward to the tasting.  Unfortunately, the examples of the 2009 and 2011 that I was offered had been opened for a while and the level had reached the heel of the bottle, so I hesitated to make a judgment.  Please, winery pourers, never offer wine from a bottle that was opened the day before!  The Gewürztraminer had a lovely perfume, but faded a bit in the mouth – it would, however, make a very nice and refreshing summer wine.  The star that day was the Pinot Noir, which exhibited that classic County mineral backbone along with delicate fruit.

Jennifer pouring at the Devil's Wishbone tasting bar at the winery

Jennifer pouring at the Devil’s Wishbone tasting bar at the winery

Another winery that has been open for a couple of years is the Devil’s Wishbone, located east of the Lake on the Mountain.  Like Lighthall, they got the business up and running by selling grapes to wineries and they continue to do so, although after 2013 the vineyard will supply the estate only.  In their case it had been Stanners that benefitted from the Devil’s Pinot Noir and

Devil's Wishbone Pinot Noir 2010

Devil’s Wishbone Pinot Noir 2010

Cabernet Franc.  The Franc was sold out when I visited, but there was Pinot Noir and two variations on Pinot Gris to enjoy.  The first is called Pinot Grigio and is appropriately made in a minerally County style, while the other is vinified from grapes that were left on the deep pink Pinot Gris skins for a day or so and had therefore picked up enough colour to make a nice, slightly sweet rosé, perfect for a summer patio.  The Pinot Noir is particularly recommended as it has very good complexity for relatively young vines.  It’s also a pleasant visit to the winery as owner Paul Gallagher has maintained the ambience of the nineteenth century barn, including the byre where the tasting room is located.

Hubbs Creek Winery on Danforth Road in Prince Edward County

Hubbs Creek Winery on Danforth Road in Prince Edward County

Hubbs Creek in the Hillier area has also been growing grapes for years; in fact their first high density Pinot Noir vines were planted in 2002, so the Calvieri brothers (John and Joseph, whose family hails originally from Calabria) have waited a long time before starting their winery.  Their first vintage was 2009, but only with the 2010 have they been able to sell much at retail.  Their Pinot Noir is classic County, showing real finesse with a solid backbone of acidity balanced by lovely fruit.  They also have Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.  This is definitely a winery to keep an eye on for the future.

Broken Stone Pinot Noir 2011

Broken Stone Pinot Noir 2011

Also in the Hillier area is Broken Stone, where the previous owner planted the first vines in 2008, just before selling to the present owners, Tim and Micheline Kuepfer.  Tim is the winemaker while Micheline runs the tasting room.  They have about 2 acres of vines, comprising Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay, but only the Pinot Noir is available for purchase so far.  I tasted a vertical of 2010, 2011, and 2012.  The 2012 is already released because the owners are aiming at value wines, so they (oak) chip their wine, obviating the necessity for long aging in barrel.  At this point the butterscotch oak nose is overwhelming; some time will be needed before the flavours become properly integrated.  The 2010 was a also slightly unbalanced with notable tobacco aromas dominating.  The 2011, however, exhibited very good PEC character and acid/fruit balance – it was easily my preferred vintage and definitely a smart buy.

Tasting Bar at TerraCello Winery, just up the road from Huff Estates

Tasting Bar at TerraCello Winery, just up the road from Huff Estates

TerraCello Riesling 2011

TerraCello Riesling 2011

Certainly the newest winery that I visited was TerraCello - in fact it only opened the day before I showed up!  Like the Calvieris at Hubbs Creek, the owners Anthony (“call me Antonio”) and Daniela Auciello are proud of their Italian heritage – in their case their families came originally from Puglia, the heel rather than the toe of the boot.  The Pinot Noir 2010, although three years old, still had a newly vinified nose, perhaps because winemaker Antonio uses no oak at all.  The Riesling was the most promising with a lovely floral nose followed by a steely backbone, arising from that ubiquitous PEC acidity.  The entire winery, as well as the outdoor pizza oven and the nascent art gallery, were all built by Antonio.  The picture below shows the tasting bar.

Daniela at the tasting bar, TerraCello Winery

Daniela at the tasting bar, TerraCello Winery

A couple of the newer wineries have come and gone (although in one case only temporarily).  I can remember not too long ago enjoying the fine Cabernet Franc from Fieldstone Winery, vinified at Rosehall Run.  However, with the unfortunate death of owner and pioneer County grape grower Dick Singer in 2010, Fieldstone no longer operates as an independent winery.  Management of the vineyard has been taken over by Norman Hardie.  These vines will broaden the Norm Hardie portfolio with Cab Franc and Syrah, as welll as providing an additional source of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay.

On the 8th Winery opened in late 2011, but with the recent serious illness of one of the owners (who sold up to his partner), the business has closed to the public this year and is reorganizing before reopening in 2014.

If you haven’t been to the County for two or three years, more has changed than just the wine scene.  Some well known restaurants are gone and others have arisen to take their place.  After Michael Potters closed Harvest at the end of 2010 he signed on as chef at the restaurant of Angeline’s Inn in Bloomfield.  Haute cuisine only lasted a year at Angeline’s before Michael moved on to the position of Head Chef at Hockley Valley Resort in the Caledon area.  At that point Angeline’s closed its dining room, but this year a restaurant has reemerged there, called The Hubb.   Also closed for almost two summers has been the Devonshire Inn and its restaurant in Wellington, as it undergoes extensive renovations – current plans are for a September 2013 reopening under the name Drake Devonshire Inn.  However, that loss in Wellington was balanced by the 2011 opening of Pomodoro, owned by East & Main and serving quality Italian cuisine.  Another interesting place that has come on the scene recently is the Agrarian in Bloomfield.  It offers beautifully cooked small plates or tapas in the rustic dining room, along with a gourmet food and cheese market.

The Duke of Marysburgh pub in Waupoos.

The Duke of Marysburgh pub in Waupoos.

Finally, for a surprise dining experience that’s been around forever, try the Duke of Marysburgh pub in Waupoos, which has been in business for some 20 years.  Owner Vas da Silva may entertain you with live music while his French wife is an accomplished chef who provides quality fare at a fair price indoors or, preferably, in the fully screened patio.

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A Few Notes on Wine in China

Apologies for being away for some time, but life happens.  One activity that took me off for a while was a trip to China.  This was not a wine-centric tour, so I don’t have comprehensive notes about the Chinese wine experience, but I have a few observations that you might find interesting.

The Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin, as channelled by the Oxford Companion to Wine, reports that China is the seventh largest producer of wine on the planet.  One might think, then, that the Chinese are great wine consumers, especially as very little of their wine is exported.  However, when you factor in the enormous population, real consumption is only a fraction of a bottle per person per year.  There is no tradition of grape wine consumption in China, although the history of rice wine consumption is very long, as indicated by the wine vessel shown below.

Bronze Chinese wine vessel from the Xia Dynasty (18th century BC).   From the collection of the Shanghai Museum.

Bronze Chinese wine vessel from the Xia Dynasty (18th century BC). From the collection of the Shanghai Museum.

The new young middle-class urban generation has embraced grape wine to a certain extent, at home and in modern style restaurants within major cities.  In such establishments it is possible to see a wine list, while in most Chinese restaurants grape wine is unknown, although beer is everywhere.  You can also always order rice wine or, especially, distilled rice wine (báijiŭ) – both of these beverages commonly accompany meals.  If you are able to obtain a list of a few available wines, most are red and almost all come from the large nationally distributed producers.  In corner stores, you often can only find red wine.  Remember, red is the colour of good fortune, while white is the colour of death.  Since symbolism continues to be very important in China, you can understand why red wine (hóngjiŭ) predominates over white wine (báijiŭ).  Notice that white wine doesn’t even get its own word (it’s the same as rice wine), while the word for red wine is often extended to mean wine in general.

Chinese wine production is dominated by a few large companies, notably China Great Wall Wine Co., Ltd. and the Dynasty Wine Ltd, as well as Changyu Pioneer Wine.  Each has a wide range of wines priced from a couple of dollars per bottle up to fifty dollars or more.  At the low end they are simple, fruity, and at least drinkable, while at the high end you get better balance and complexity.  So far they have not fallen into the heavy overextracting overoaking trap, but are instead quite food friendly.  Most of the better wines come from cooler climate regions in the north central part of the country, particularly Ningxia province, just south of Inner Mongolia.

Wine from Dom. Helan Mountain.

Wine from Dom. Helan Mountain.

One of the best wines I encountered on my trip was from a smaller producer:  Domaine Helan Mountain Cabernet.  These lesser producers are harder to come across, but worth the effort.  Several have recently won medals at the Decanter World Awards, including 2011 and 2012 International Trophy wins for He Lan Qing Xue Jia Bei Lan 2009 and Chateau Reifeng-Auzias Cabernet 2010, respectively, both in the Red Bordeaux Varietal under £10 category.

It is not yet possible to try Chinese wines at home (the LCBO only has a single example listed, and it is only available in a couple of Toronto stores).  However, if the Chinese industry decides to make a concerted export effort, you can be certain that there will be a lot more “Made in China” wines in our future.

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Way to Go, Véronique!

This past week our very own Véronique Rivest, long time sommelier at Les Fougères in Chelsea, Quebec, reached a pinnacle in the world of wine by taking the runner-up position in the Best Sommelier in the World competition, held every three years by l’Association de la Sommellerie Internationale.  She is the first woman ever to reach the finals in this competition.  Many congratulations and bonnes félicitations, Véronique.  We have even greater hopes for you in the future – remember, this year’s winner (Paolo Basso of Switzerland) was runner-up in 2010!

Sure, you say, that sounds wonderful, but then, what exactly is a sommelier?  Well, we usually think of a sommelier as the person responsible for the wine selection and wine service at a decent restaurant, but in days gone by the sommelier had a broader mandate than just wine, being responsible for all aspects of customer service.  Even today, a sommelier must have a deep understanding of dining and particularly of the menu being served, since food and wine pairing is the most important and visible component of the job.  Therefore even the most expert wine lover, when dining out, will consult with a sommelier in order to choose wine, since the sommelier will have a much more intimate knowledge of the food and its preparation in that establishment.  Never be hesitant about calling on the sommelier for assistance – he or she will love to provide you with the best wining and dining experience possible, while respecting your tastes and your budget.

Sommeliers are professionals whose on-the-job experiences are the greatest teachers.  These days, however, most have had professional training to some degree, at the very least completing a sommelier program at a nearby college.  But, please remember that such training does not make one a sommelier.  For example, I am a graduate of the Sommelier Certification Program at Algonquin College in Ottawa, but I am not a sommelier.  Only those working in a professional food and wine service environment should have that distinction.  Even so, there is a wide range of wine education available to the interested wine lover, amateur or professional.

Along with the professional sommelier accreditation programs offered at community and technical colleges, a range of similar courses is also available in Canada, the US, and China through the International Sommelier Guild.  Their most advanced course also provides accreditation.

Somewhat in parallel with, and ultimately moving beyond the standard sommelier programs, we have the series of courses offered by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.  This institution is headquartered in the United Kingdom, but its program is now offered worldwide by various contract organizations.  In Canada the courses may be taken through Fine Vintage Ltd. in Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and some smaller centres, through the International Wine Education Guild in Toronto and on-line, through the Vendange Institute in Ottawa, and through The International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Vancouver, in Vancouver.

Beyond the WSET, there are two paths that one can take when shooting for the highest levels of wine certification.  The best known is “Master of Wine” (MW) from the Institute of Masters of Wine.  Also headquartered in the UK, its accreditation was originally only available to wine professionals but, although most MW’s continue to be in the wine trade, the institute now also welcomes amateurs who are willing to invest the time and money required to follow through with the program.  Working towards the MW can be a full time occupation and requires upwards of three years to complete.  There are three parts to the examination – theory, practical, and dissertation.  Currently there are some 300 MW’s worldwide, of which approximately one third are from outside of the UK.  There are four in Canada – James Cluer, Rhys Pender, Barbara Philip, and Igor Rijenkov.

The alternative to MW is through the Master Sommelier (MS) route.  This distinction is strictly reserved for professional sommeliers and is even more difficult to achieve than the MW.  Only 186 individuals have ever succeeded in attaining the MS designation and just two of these are Canadian – John Szabo and Jennifer Huether.  Even our own silver medallist at the Best Sommelier in the World competition is still putting in the thousands of hours required to attain the MS designation.  The organization that certifies an MS, the Court of Master Sommeliers, is once again headquartered in London.  It also offers courses and certifications at several levels below and leading up to the MS.

So if you want to follow in Véronique’s footsteps, you will need years of experience and years of study.  If you only want to add to your enjoyment of wine, take a couple of courses and then pour your own experience!  Either way, you can be proud of your accomplishments and we can all be proud of our new wine superstar.  Way to go, Véronique!

 

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