all that glitters: a note on wine awards

One of the most rewarding things for a producer of goods/services can be receiving recognition and/or acknowledgement in their field. It can come from an independent reviewer, a widely accredited organization, or your great aunt Margaret – wherever the praise comes from, it’s good to hear.

When those accolades are paraded before the consuming public with little explanation or context, I get slightly uncomfortable; it doesn’t negate the award’s value, but clarity in how it was achieved would be nice. Enter wine awards.

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starting the day with 25 rosés has pros and cons – trust me

for consumers: the architecture of awards & judging

Most in the wine/spirits industry are familiar with the architecture of judging, but many consumers aren’t. Format and judging criteria can vary but competitions are, for the most part, a pay-to-play program: a winery chooses to enter wine and pay a fee, which is common. Not everyone chooses to enter. Fees range in price; they cover administrative costs and sometimes help to ensure qualified judges by offering an honorarium – depending on the size of the competition, evaluation process can take several days.

Canada has nationwide awards and regional competitions; some of our Canadian wineries also choose to compete on an international stage in the US and Europe. Professional competitions mandate wines be judged blind, and judges are distributed into small panels or groups to evaluate groups (flights) of wine within pre-determined categories.

Scoring varies by competition. Some allocate number scores, and the cumulative score for each wine represents its place on the podium. Others allocate a group of letter-grade equivalents similar to our school systems. Multiple wines can “win” a gold because that category represents the number value of what in scholastic terms would be a letter grade of “A”.

Confused yet? I’ve participated in regional wine judging and it can be a challenge even from the inside. A good evaluation system is clear and should have measures in place to help judges overcome style biases. We shouldn’t assume a professional evaluator can always overlook her/his style bias – human nature is flawed, and that’s okay. Having more than one panel evaluate a flight (if possible) or submitting finalists to another panel for judging can be time consuming, but these measures can help keep things somewhat objective but this duplication isn’t always possible.

making changes: doing the best with what you have

The Okanagan Wine Festivals Society has recently concluded the 20th annual Spring Okanagan Wine Festival Best of Varietal Awards. I was asked to participate as a panel judge, making this my second judging experience for the Festivals. Recently, the Festivals have changed their format for evaluation and who is invited to judge. What was previously a peer-evaluation with winemakers has become an industry panel of sommeliers and restaurateurs, including a couple of us writer types who apparently drink enough to qualify. (although I’ve done that WSET thing)

The “best of” model used here is a somewhat subjective sensory evaluation of wines in categories based (mostly) on varietal (read: grape/type). The best is that which best portrays the characteristics of the varietal or type. A number (20%) of the remainder are awarded the title of finalist, in no particular order. Panelists were asked to come to a consensus for each of our categories, and other panels would be responsible for their allocated categories. While it would have been nice to send our finalists on to another panel, that would have meant us tasting more wines too – and with around 100 samples on our day’s agenda this could become a multi-day experience. That could increase the cost to administer and subsequently the fee to submit wine.

Disclosure: I agreed to judge for no compensation other than a surprise swag bag that included a bottle of the delightful Sumac Ridge 2008 Stellar’s Jay. by the way, thank you for the swag OK Wine Fests!

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smaller flights meant fewer finalists, and tougher decisions

what it all means

This year’s Best of Varietal winners is a motley group of consumer-friendly sips and wine-geeky love affairs, which is very Canadian. It means we’re struggling to be politely firm about what we should be encouraging our growers to focus on, maybe because we know they need regular sellers to keep their business afloat so they can explore what makes us British Columbia. Stylistically this group is all over the map. So is our BC wine style – we don’t have one yet.

It’s wise to remember that this doesn’t represent the best of everything BC has to offer, because not every BC winery entered each of their wines in the competition. Some hadn’t bottled their latest vintage by the time the deadline rolled around, so they missed out. By not having everyone enter these competitions it allows for people like me to find undiscovered gems and share them with the consuming public. There’s value in that.

Awards like these are helpful to consumers while they navigate an ever-expanding selection of BC wine. When you find a “best of” label, it means a group of wine-type people evaluated that particular wine against at least a few others of its style and proclaimed it to be one of the better expressions of its kind. There’s value in that, too. As a wine enthusiast and one who lives in the heart of BC wine country, I also get overwhelmed by selection and new faces. This experience of blind tasting was invaluable; after the competition, judges keep their notes and have access to the answer key. Something that might not have been as high on my radar before this can be bumped up a slot.

When it comes to selecting something to fall in love with, only you will be best judge of who wins what in your house, backyard, or sitting around the campfire this summer. When you’re in a shop and see a note saying “winner” next to a bottle of wine, take closer look. Not all that glitters is really gold – and not all that sits quietly on the shelf isn’t worthy of sharing that spotlight.

~ Jeannette

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sparkling water with crackers and bread help a palate stay fresh – and lots of spitting (photo taken by Nikos of Theo’s Restaurant)

the wine world is here – well, temporarily

I love a good wine festival. When the feature country is France and the theme is bubbles, it would take a small army to prevent me from attending – so, one damaged shoulder is nothing.

Since 1979 the Vancouver International Wine Festival (#VIWF) has invited a world of wine to the west coast’s front door, if only for a short while. The Festival initially showcased one winery (Robert Mondavi) and attracted 1,000 people over two days. This year, an estimated 20,000+ people tasted wines from 178 countries – no small feat for a province limited by legislation and regulations prohibiting easy movement of alcohol / spirits.

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The busiest man at the festival: Harry Hertscheg, Executive Director of the VIWF. He attends every seminar, tasting, and event – or tries to.

With the opportunity to taste wines otherwise unavailable to us (and bubbles!), I jumped into the Festival with both feet – plus that damaged shoulder and a new notebook. As “media” I was treated to an itinerary designed by the Festival’s public relations firm, Heth PR. It was full-on, with seminars and tastings and lunches from 9am to well into the evening. The folks at Heth took quite good care of me. thanks, Kristine!

The Festival offers consumers a chance to learn about wine; however, its value rests with participating wineries who get products in front of buyers, sommeliers, and decision makers – who influence consumer buying. There are few channels for wines to get on BC store shelves (private or government) and the wines here aren’t all regularly represented at government stores. These are referred to as one time buy* wines, and once they’ve sold out they’re gone.

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The theme region France, in what is supposed to be a quieter hour for “trade” tasting. Still smokin’ busy, and 3-deep at each table.

The tasting room floor is enormous, with one-quarter of the room dedicated to the feature country. I spent the first two tasting sessions in France and elbowed my way through Champagne (tables for the feature country are regional). Hundreds of wines that we might not otherwise see in our province are brought in specifically for the Festival – if you want to pour a wine on the tasting room floor, you must have it for sale on site.

All sorts of politics are at play when it comes to obtaining a listing with the provincial liquor stores. I don’t agree with it, but I can understand how it has come to exist: it’s like an hourglass, with a schwack of wines trying to get through one narrow passage. Fortunately, we also have importers and private liquor stores like Marquis Wine Cellars to help de-homogenize the offerings. How this happens is another story – a long, well-researched one. Stay tuned.

For a few days each year, VIWF offers us an opportunity to be hopeful: of more diversity of product, of increased wine exposure to the pubic beyond the large international labels who dominate our market, and that our newborn-esque BC wine industry can benchmark itself against the world while gaining new fans.

Canada holds its own on the international stage
Canadian wineries hold their own on the international stage. When I thought it was too busy in France, I moved to Canada – where it was hopping.

It’s not inexpensive for wineries to participate, and attendee ticket prices can range from in-lieu-of-lunch to slip-on-a-ball-gown-and-don’t-ask-the-price. Hundreds of volunteers donate time and expertise. Principals and winemakers of international notoriety are available to approach in small group sessions. It’s awesome, and for wine folks it’s worth every nickel. I was (twice) in a room with Michel Chapoutier, met nice people from Louis Latour, and chatted with sommelier Mark Davidson during an Aussie luncheon. Cool beans.

Value in seminars: tasting with M Chapoutier
Good consumer value: time with people like Michel Chapoutier, and the opportunity to taste exquisite wines we might not have (easy) access to.

The value of something like the VIWF varies depending on your perspective. I’ve a piece coming up with EAT Magazine that takes a look at participating from the Okanagan winery angle. Watch for it.

And even when I one day depart from the world of wine-related writing, I know I’ll find value in the Festival ticket – ball gown or otherwise. Because until we change how they get to our shelves, many of those wines will only be available at places like the festival, and fleetingly, if at all.

~ Jeannette

* correction: “one time buy” wines, as pointed out by Paul Rickett, are brought in for the VIWF – “spec” wines are not available at BC liquor stores but are often brought in to private liquor stores

value wine: why we should never utter those words again

When was the last time you used the word value? I’m willing to bet it was recently, and in relation or response to something you felt was a really good deal.

Value has been appropriated by the retail sales industry to deliver a one-dimensional definition of something: value meals, value days, Value Village. In many of these cases, the intention behind using the word value is often to impart a message equating cheap, low-cost, or budget.

This is just one part of the definition of value (noun):

[mass noun] the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something: your support is of great value

the material or monetary worth of something

the worth of something compared to the price paid or asked for it

We’ve allowed ourselves to co-opt a word that means, by definition, an expression of high regard and twist it into something implying bargain basement. Taking it one step further, we have applied and encourage the use of this new interpretation to something as subjective as wine. This is not okay.

I like getting a good deal on consumer goods. Simultaneously, I don’t support paying $6 for a t-shirt made in a location with improper conditions for workers, nor will I pay hundreds of dollars below the true value of an electronics product made in the same conditions. I have fewer things that are pricey. These are choices I make, based on my definition of value.

in my book: good people doing good things = great value (like Orofino)

When tasked with a recent BC wine column for CBC Radio West on “value” wines, I cringed – then I took control of the message. Instead of using that bastardized definition to describe a few examples of under-$20 BC wines, I referred to them as punching above their weight. The intention: to not play the value-wine game.

We – writers – continue to play into the hands of advertisers who have conditioned audiences to read cheap when they see the word value. Some writers might argue that’s not their intention at all, and I believe them. A number of my writer friends dance along the value-wine line with a finesse I can’t muster. I applaud them for it.

I’m not sure how or at what point we accepted value as meaning cheap or less than a certain price point, but it needs to stop. We’re doing a disservice to so many beautiful produts that don’t fit into that construct, and to ourselves for excluding them from those parameters. Do people have real budgets for wine? Absolutely. Am I dismissing the $11 bottle? Not entirely. But an $11 bottle of wine doesn’t mean you’re receiving a better value over the $50 one.

I’d love to consume wine solely based on anticipated pleasure and situation, with little or no regard for dollar. That’s not the case, and I have a budget to follow – as do most of my friends. I can have this budget and also enjoy a wide variety of wines at different price points; holding to a budget and enjoying wines over a certain price point are not mutually exclusive. It might mean we buy fewer bottles in higher price points, but we needn’t exclude them because they’re not in the new contorted description of value.

If I enjoyed the wine in the moment or it wowed me beyond a set of expectations, that’s good value. So when I recommend wines to people, the list is all over the price map. It’s intentional. And yes, I realize that not everyone recognizes $25 as the price we should pay for an decent bottle of wine from British Columbia – but let’s face it, at the moment it kind of is.

I value the efforts the folks in our BC wine industry make, despite facing restrictions in getting their product to market here and beyond. We’re stuck, in some ways, with paying a certain dollar for nice wine made in our backyard. So what? I’ll still buy that magnificently delightful $39.90 Painted Rock Syrah, and grab a bottle of under $20 Koyle. Both over-deliver for their price points and I anticipate each will provide me with a good experience – albeit different ones.

Ultimately, the value of the wine you buy is in your hands because you’re the one having the experience. You make the decision if it’s of good value to you – not the person who wrote that ‘best value wines’ list.

~ Jeannette

f*ck the list: why we love (and loathe) best-ofs

It’s the end of a year, which means the interwebs are chock-full with “best-of” lists: wine, beer, travel, pop culture moments, and <insert random hipster shit here>. Oh joy.

I get that there’s big love for these lists. They help us navigate through an avalanche of consumer options, especially when most of our product research begins with the tippety-tap of fingers on keyboard. A top-whatever guide helped my fella and I select our last car. We got (mostly) what we wanted, too.

In the consumables/experiences world, ‘best-of’ lists are acquiring an air of not-so-humble brags and mutual back-scratchings – I list your product, and you promote me as a reviewer/writer/whatever. It’s icky, but it happens.

With that in mind – and knowing how many freebies float around in the world of reviewing (whether it’s a car to drive for a week, accommodation at a resort, or a bottle of something to taste) – I find I’m becoming increasingly sceptical of ‘best-of’ lists. There are no groups of people roving the world, sampling/trying/testing/whatevering on their own dime. Well, there might be. But I doubt there are many because they’d go broke pretty quickly.

So I say fuck the lists. All of them. And I say this knowing full well that some of my friends write really good lists, fairly, with little if any bias. (we all have bias – it’s knowing how to disclose it that’s important)

Rather than ‘best-of’, let’s call the lists what they are: favourites. Teachers, coaches, and choir instructors all have them. It’s normal to have favourites – partly because they don’t remain static, but also because we have bias. If you have a sibling, your parents likely had a favourite – it changed, depending on who was better behaved or was the first to learn how to mix a rye and Coke just right.

Here are a few of my favourites from 2013, in no particular order. Just because.

Moment of Trust: sheep cull at Covert Farms.

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First, Gene’s trust in me to document a sheep cull on his family farm. Second, EAT Magazine’s trust in me to write something palatable about it. This led me to a few more interesting moments on the farm, and is evolving into a larger writing commitment that has yet to fully form. Mostly, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude to be part of this world of good people. (FYI: the farm will be my hideout during the Zombie Apocalypse)

Example of Generosity With An Almost Stranger: Skype chat with Meg Maker. We have yet to meet in person, and when we do it will be epic (and I rarely use that word). I was faced with a challenge, and Meg offered her time and experience to help guide me through it. She’s a brilliant writer and a kind person.

40th Birthday Present I Didn’t Ask For: tickets to see KISS with Allison Markin.

KISS

The KISS army is real – and very dedicated. This guy (centre) worked super hard all concert, giving huge air-fist-pumps like nobody’s business.

So much happened this year – in my little corner and around the world. We grieved for the loss of Nelson Mandela, witnessed a factory collapse and kill thousands in Bangladesh, and we discussed ad nauseam the birth of a royal baby. Spectacular feats and pop culture spectacles replay at different intervals with no apparent logic. 

You know what? I say fuck my list, too. It has no meaning for anyone but me and I know that; maybe it’s of interest to a few of the friends I’ve mentioned here. But ultimately, my best-of/favourites is a list of things that are central to me. It’s not an objective thing at all, and I get ticked off when people writing a list pretend it is.

The lists are inescapable, and many are entertaining – but enter the best-of melee with caution. It’s crazy out there.

~ Jeannette

PS: the idea for this came during an evening of indulging with Wendy and Jay of Bella Wines – and while we didn’t consume any of their bubbles that night, they are delicious and should probably be on a list somewhere (see Wendy – i wasn’t that drunk and did write about this after all)

farming: how grey is the new green

*disclaimer: some of these words and images might be offensive to some readers/viewers – if that’s the case, you seriously need to rethink what you consider offensive; otherwise, read on

We live with rules. We have regulations and laws for almost everything – from best before dates on food to the height of a secondary building on my property (less than 17′). A packet of silica gel buried in the toe of new shoes advises us not to consume it. Dude, it’s silica gel. As if.

Arguably, rules can help to keep us safe and allow for recourse. People who operate outside of the rules are penalized and held to task. We see this when persons perpetrate crimes: break the law, pay the price.

What happens when regulations that should protect us instead act as a barrier for us? Ideally, we lobby government to amend the rules. Sometimes the rules don’t fit, and we find ourselves unable to reconcile what we think is best for us with what those we’ve elected think should happen.

Of late I’ve noticed a quiet movement in my local farming (and farm-loving) community. This movement operates without leadership, and is woven into the culture of local, slow, and other food tags. Its grass-roots feel is slightly anarchistic in a wholesome way. I refer to it as the greying of farm culture.

I have (happily) become an unofficial recorder of events at Covert Farms – an organic, family-owned grower/producer in the Okanagan (I made the zombie apocalypse cut; long story, but a big deal). This spring I was invited to witness a lamb cull which I wrote about for EAT Magazine. Recently, I attended a bull slaughter. 

That’s right – a bull slaughter. I won’t dress the words in anything other than what they are: people killed two animals for meat. It’s more acceptable to say cull than it is to throw down slaughter, and I’m not sure why. It might have something to do with how we define the word, and popular culture hasn’t done it any favours.

slaughter / n. & v. noun 1. the killing of an animal or animals. 2. the killing of many persons or animals at once or continuously; carnage, massacre. verb 1. kill (people) in a ruthless manner or on a great scale. 2. kills (animals) esp in large numbers.

This definition is from the 9th edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, published in 1995. The first part uses neutral language – the latter inflamatory. How can one word be so loaded? We made it that way.

I spent a day on the farm with Gene Covert, Derek Uhlemann, and three others as they slaughtered two Scottish highland bulls. According to British Columbia’s Ministry of Health, the slaughter of animals for personal use is unregulated – as long as the meat isn’t sold. Let me be clear: these folks purchased the animals and slaughtered them for personal consumption.

In meat inspection and processing, there are (as of 2007) only a few classes of license in this province: Class A allows slaughter and processing (cut & wrap) for retail purposes and Class B allows slaughter only (for retail in the province); secondary tier licenses D and E permit on-farm slaughter of a limited number of animals in each class, confined to regional application (extremely remote areas), and with limits on retail.

All of this means I can’t go to Covert Farms and purchase a steak that came from a locally raised and mindfully slaughtered cow. That really sucks. Others feel the same, and I’m slowly discovering who they are. Here’s where grey is becoming the new green.

This grey zone I see emerging is located in the awkward gaps left behind by an ill-fitting framework. People – intelligent, thoughtful people – are farming these grey areas with care. Locals are banding together to create a sustainable food system that doesn’t fit in the big player rules.

Each invitation to the farm feeds my yearning for a community food system. I’m not alone – I see it in the eyes of everyone present, every time. Knife in hand, one person said “If I can’t handle this today, I shouldn’t be eating the meat I eat.” A bold but fair statement.

I’m not sure where days like these will lead, but I glimpse a larger written work lingering in the shadows. This grey area has more than a few stories in it and I’m hopeful for an opportunity to share them with a larger audience.

Meanwhile, I respectfully and humbly present a few images from another day on the farm with Gene, Derek, and friends – taking the bull literally by the horns.

Gene entices Taco Bill (left) and Black Cherry (right) with oats, hoping they’ll get just a little closer to centre stage.
Last-minute guidance from father to (eldest) son in preparation for a simultaneous firing.
A traditional drink to honour the animals. (at just past 8am)
Lining up to capture the moment for posterity.
No anthropormorphizing here, though they could look as if they were sleeping.
Everyone present relinquishes the lead to Gene, and they learn from him as they go.
Class on a Sunday: these homeschooled kids are taking in a science lesson – they’ll try their hands at dissecting (cow brain) later in the day.
Respectful concentration in all aspects of the slaughter.
Gene’s-eye-view. “This is when it gets surgical.” It’s not easy navigating a rapidly bloating stomach to salvage edible organs. “The enzymes don’t know the cow’s dead.”
Father and (youngest) son, readying the slaughtered bulls for transport to finish the process.
What should be a typical farm view is now a rare sight. This is how food happens – unlike what we’re accustomed to, it doesn’t begin in the store.
Taco Bill and Black Cherry will age up to 28 days. For now, Derek prepares a sample of skirt steak. Age: 4 hours.
Hours-fresh beef. The chewiness I experienced will diminish after cellular breakdown (the ageing), but the flavour was lovely.
Hang time. We’ll revisit Taco Bill and Black Cherry in a few weeks for butchering.