a trip to oz: 2015 Vancouver International Wine Festival

Next week, I’m going to Australia. Also Chile. Probably Germany, Spain, and Italy, too. The best part: I’m carpooling with a friend and it will take about five hours for us to reach our destination.

The Vancouver International Wine Festival runs February 20 through March 1. From wine-paired dinners and minglers to seminars, all roads lead to the main event: a series of massive tastings in an enormous ballroom where dozens of countries occupy hundreds of tables and pour thousands of bottles of wine. It’s a sweet deal, anticipated by consumers and industry alike.

Whether you’re attending one event or diving in for many, there are ways to make the most of your time.

Choosing An Event

  • Determine your goal. Each event is suited to help you achieve something different, with a few overlapping benefits. Decide what’s most important to you: a focused tasting with a smaller portfolio, exposure to a wide variety of new wines, in-depth education on a specific region, etc. Ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience, and find an event that matches.
  • Be flexible. Is the event you want already sold out? Many have wait lists. Get in touch with the organizers, ask, and keep yourself open to jump in at the last minute. It happens.

Getting ReadyVIWF France

  • Skip the perfume/cologne. It interfers with your ability to smell the wine and will make you unpopular with everyone including the visiting winery. We want to smell wine, not you.
  • Dress for comfort and style. Many events are an opportunity to don your best threads, but keep in mind the situation you’re headed for. Dark tops are good for a wandering, nibbling feast (think hand-held bites) as things can get messy/drippy. Stillettos are lovely, but might not be ideal for a 3-hour tasting room tour with no seating to provide respite for tired toes.

In the MomentValue in seminars: tasting with M Chapoutier

  • Be mindful. In a crowd, queue up and step away when you’ve had a taste. In a seminar, try to keep chatting to a minimum so your neighbours can hear the presenters. At a dinner, give the host a chance to talk about the wine and food – even at the end, when we might be a little tipsy.
  • Sip responsibly. Have a designated driver and take advantage of spittoons. Keep hydrated. Eat well, and often. This is a marathon.
  • Try something new. The best part of Festival is discovering a new gem. Break out of your habits and you’ll be delightfully rewarded.

Best Value (not sold out – yet)

  • Seminar: Mod Oz, $45, Saturday Feb 28, 5:15pm. Taste some of the unexpected and hard to find gems coming out of a newer, modern Australian wine culture. Bonus: moderated by the talented Treve Ring and Mark Davidson. Access to these folks is worth the price of admission.
  • Seminar: McLaren Vale Scarce Earth, $55, Saturday Feb 28, 5:15pm. Go glass-deep into the study of single vineyard terroir with shiraz/syrah from this diverse and complex wine region. Bonus: moderated by Rhys Pender, MW. Who better to help unearth the secrets of McLaren Vale than this witty Aussie.
  • International Festival Tastings: $89 Thurs Feb 26, 7pm | $68 Sat Feb 28, 3pm. The Saturday night event is sold out, but don’t mind that. Enjoy a less crowded Thursday evening or Saturday afternoon; get the same exposure to outstanding wines with fewer elbows.

Happy tasting.

~ Jeannette

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.

VIWF 05 HH
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.

VIWF France
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