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Memories of Labrusca

***

There’s an old cliché that one should,
whenever possible, avoid French automobiles, British cuisine, and Canadian
wine.
National stereotypes die hard, and for many years it was true that
just as driving a French car or eating an “authentic” British meal was a risky
endeavour, so too was drinking a bottle of Canadian wine. But while French cars
and British cuisine have gotten better in recent years, those improvements are
inconsequential compared to the transformation that the Canadian wine industry
has witnessed in the past ten years.

The Canadian wine industry has made tremendous strides towards international
respectability in the last thirty years, moving from the vinegary Labrusca
wines that were popular in the 1970s to the wide variety of award winning wines
that are produced each year in British Columbia
and Ontario today. The grapes
used by Canadian vintners in the 1970s and 1980s – Concord for reds, Niagara
for whites – were more appropriate for jams and jellies than fine wines and
were worthy of our collective scorn. Classic vinifera vines, which produce
fewer but higher-quality grapes, have, for the most part, replaced native
grapes, and these grapes are crushed and stored in expensive French and American
oak barrels. Smaller estate wineries have replaced the massive vineyards that
used to produce Canadian wine according to Wal-Mart standards of quantity over
quality. First-rate irrigation and computerized processing systems have been
implemented at many of these estate wineries, and the wines themselves are
grown according to, rather than in spite of, local soil and weather conditions.
This emphasis on quality was formalized by the introduction of a domestic wine
rating system, the VQA, in 1998.

Today’s Canadian wines are, in short, world class. The watershed moment for
the Canadian wine industry took place at the International Wine Challenge in London,
England, in 1994.
Okanagan-based Mission Hill took top prize for its Chardonnay and the judges,
unwilling to believe that a Canadian wine could win, threw out the results and
started again, with the same shocking outcome.

It isn’t shocking when Canadian producers win ice wine competitions, in
large part because they’ve been doing it for so long. Canada’s
climate is perfectly suited for the production of ice wines, the sweet dessert
aperitif that is produced from semi-frozen white grapes and is wildly popular
in Japan, Australia,
and the United States.
Perhaps the best indication of ice wine’s international reputation is the fact
that it is the first Canadian varietal to receive full access to the fiercely
protected European wine market.

The success of ice wine isn’t terribly surprising, if only because it makes
intuitive sense. Canada
is a cold and unforgiving land, according to the stereotype, replete with tall
mountains and months of snowy weather in which the people live in igloos and
travel by dog-sled. But stereotypes aside, anyone who has spent a summer in Southern
Ontario can attest to the fact that it can get pretty damned hot
here as well. Ontario’s three
wine regions – the Niagara Peninsula,
Lake Erie’s North
Shore, and Pelee
Island – are all nearer the equator
than any region in France
and approximately the same distance from it as the Chianti Classico zone of
Italy.

They’re also blessed with an enormous volume of mineral-rich topsoil
transported from northern Ontario
on the backs of shifting ice-age glaciers. British
Columbia’s Okanagan
Valley, while technically a
semi-arid desert, is on the same latitude as France’s
vaunted Champagne region and its blazing summer days and
crisp evenings yield a climate that is among the best in the world for growing
the kind of grapes that produce first-class wines.

These northern stereotypes help explain the difficulties that Canadian wine
producers face when marketing their non-icy wines. But Canadians should know
better, right? Wrong. While domestic wines comprise the majority of table wine
sold in France,
Australia, and
the United States,
only one in three bottles consumed by Canadians is made in Canada.
This puts domestic wine producers in a difficult position, as they have to
depend more on exports – an expensive proposition at the best of times – to
make ends meet in an already risky business.

There are some easily remedied structural flaws in the distribution and
marketing of Canadian wines that would certainly improve domestic sales. First,
there’s the self-defeating protectionism that makes it virtually impossible to
acquire Ontario wines in British
Columbia and British Columbian Wines in Ontario.
That it’s easier to buy a wine from Australia,
South Africa,
or Argentina
than another province in Canada
is plainly absurd.

Another structural flaw in the Canadian wine industry is the de-facto
segregation that Canadian wines are subjected to on the shelves of your local
LCBO. The LCBO requires producers to offer at least 200 cases before they’ll
consider stocking their wine, which immediately disqualifies most, if not all,
of the vintages offered by the Niagara
Peninsula’s smaller wineries like
Stratus, Daniel Lenko, and Malivoire, who all produce exceptional wines that
most Ontarians have never heard of, much less tasted. This short-sighted
practice is compounded by the utterly inadequate presentation that Canadian
wines receive in most LCBO outlets.

Take the flagship Summerhill store located in Toronto’s Rosedale as an
example: while the French, Italian, and New World vintages each receive their
own aisle and are housed in elegant and spacious oak cabinets, the Canadian
wines are jammed in a corner next to the bargain table and housed in cramped,
cheap looking cabinets that look like they came from IKEA. In a wine store in New
York or Los Angeles,
this would be understandable; in a government owned and operated LCBO in Toronto,
it’s unforgivable.

Canadian vintners can justifiably be frustrated with the provincial
government’s protectionism and the LCBO’s negligent salesmanship, but they also
have a few things to work on. While they’re making some pretty fantastic wine,
they’re also putting those wines in consistently ugly bottles. It might seem
like a minor quibble, but if you take a random sampling of Canadian wines and,
say, Australian wines, the difference is noticeable. It’s simple, really;
whereas light coloured labels with dark lettering look good, the dark labels
that Canadian wineries seem to prefer get washed out against the dark glass
bottles they use. There are a couple of wineries who understand this simple
aesthetic trick, most notably displayed by Stratus’s elegant packaging and Mike
Weir Estates’s (yes, that Mike Weir) French-inspired labels complete with
tactile design features.

These flaws really are superficial, however, compared with the challenge of
trying to sell a product to a nation of self-loathing patriots who seek the
exotic and foreign and shun the domestic and familiar. In other words, the
prospects of bringing domestic wine sales in Canada
anywhere near the levels enjoyed by distributors in other countries are still about
as slim as Celine Dion, because it would require changing the very essence of
the Canadian national character, a quest that small-c conservatives and Quebec
nationalists have been pursuing for decades with limited success.

It’s not that we are a people of failure, or that we share a national inferiority
complex. After all, Canada
has produced a wealth of b-list sketch comedians and world class curlers, and
the Canadian beaver eradicated its European cousin in a matter of decades. But
we share a national superstition about these successes, as though celebrating
them in anything other than hushed tones would attract the ire of some cosmic
karmic force.

Moreover, Canadians take a justifiable measure of pride in our shared
aversion to the flag waving, chest-pounding, and, at times, nation invading
nationalism of our neighbours to the south. In most situations, our quiet
confidence serves us well. Generally speaking we Canadians don’t bully our
neighbours, we don’t insert our own priorities into the affairs of other nations,
we don’t demand a single-minded loyalty from our own citizenry, and we aren’t
afraid to examine our weaknesses without being regarded as disloyal.

George Orwell observed that “the abiding purpose of every nationalist is to
secure more power and more prestige, not for
himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own
individuality.” Canadians, in contrast, do almost the opposite. Our reluctance
to celebrate our own intrinsic greatness, a national pastime of the Americans,
the French, and the British, makes it difficult for us to acknowledge our
strengths, champion our leaders, and share in our successes. This shared
humility is good for building a decent, peaceable society in which to live.
It’s just a pain if you’re trying to sell wine to its citizens. Americans, who
never miss an opportunity to tell others how great they are, drink plenty of
their own product. The French, who take great pains to remind the world how
great they used to be, do the same in spite of the fact that French wine has
over the past few years been more pedestrian than ethereal. And Australians
just like to get really, really drunk, an end to which cheap domestic wine is a
popular means.

In each country, a shared national personality exists that encourages the
celebration of anything that comes from within its borders. Canadian wine
makers don’t enjoy that luxury, and shouldn’t expect it to appear anytime soon.
Instead, they’ll have to work harder than their international competitors, both
to convince their domestic consumers that Canadian wines are drinkable and
their international buyers that Canadian wines are desirable.

 

Toronto, February 12th, 2007 — 1,563 w.

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Max Fawcett

Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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