This year’s BC book harvest

I originally started this post back in early August because it was the first time that I could actually sit down and do some proper writing here. Jobs and other large projects had occupied my time up until that point. 

And then the fires started and priorities changed pretty quick. Since then of course, more books have appeared including Jennifer Schell’s coastal sequel to her producer-appreciation cook book “The Butcher, The Baker, The Wine and Cheese Maker” called (deep breath) “The Butcher, The Baker, The Wine and Cheese Maker by the Sea“. I have not picked up the new one yet but it is on my “To buy” list. Until then, there are these two fine BC-produced books to check out:

photo 2Two books have been appearing not inconspicuously on wine shop shelves this year and as a lover of B.C. wine for many years, I have developed a reflex to buy them as soon as a new one comes out. I have even bought some books twice or even thrice as gifts or when a new edition are released. The thrill of reading about the people, places, and wines never gets old for me even though at this point in my career I now know many of the people personally. So while I am freely open to admitting that I can go for days without having to take a sip of wine, it is a rare occurrence when I can make it through a day without reading about wine. Wine books are almost more addictive for me than wine itself.

The two new books this year are “Naramata Bench Vineyards and Wineries” by Garth Eichel and Taryn Liv Parker’s “Okanagan“. Both are regionally-focused and both contain stunning visuals with real experience-based descriptions of the profiled wineries. By that I mean that they don’t just simply review the wines and tell the ‘official’ story of the winery. Instead they try to tell you what it would be like for you to go there. This is a crucial difference from most region-specific wine books which offer a spew of generalized information – facts ‘n’ stats – about the history of the region, the terroir, the wines, and the producers of the area. This experience-oriented style makes both of these books approachable and in my opinion a more honest representation of what the reader will experience if they go to visit the same winery. The drawback is that that at times it can lack depth for people who might want to know some of those specifics.

Let’s begin with Eichel’s “Naramata Bench“.

photo 1Producing a book about a visually stunning place like Naramata and having it not be equally visually stunning would have been ridiculous. That is not the case here as the book is loaded with great photos and excellent layouts. The trick with photographing any wine region is to make it look interesting in a new way. Of all of BC’s wine regions, Naramata has probably been photographed more than any other so the onus was entirely on Eichel to show us something new and avoid clichéd shots that any tourist can capture.

He accomplishes this with diversity. Sure there is scenery – that’s unavoidable – but there are close-up details (Therapy’s weather vane), portraits of owners and wine makers, contributed older photos (Bob and Tim from Kettle Valley with their sons as toddlers), and action shots (Jay Drysdale sabering a bottle of bubbly with an axe) that make each layout exciting to look at. There’s a predictable rhythm to it and a lot of repetition (there is always a photo of someone pouring a wine at every tasting bar) but it works and shows the setting for the winery’s experiences accurately. And just like the landscape clichés, there are no “super-serious” photos of squinting winemakers holding a glass up to the light to “examine” it. Eichel thankfully has avoided this with excellent creativity with the camera. My favourite feature however is that each photo is also suitably captioned with details specific to each photo – wonder but often overlooked element in a lot of wine books.

The text rolls along fluidly and is easy to read. Interviews with the owners are the basis for the text and Eichel uses lots of direct quotes in his narrative. The wineries will tell their stories when visiting the shop in person so paraphrasing is probably not the best way to communicate the experience so this technique is refreshing and fits into the experience theme upon which this book seems based.

photo 3If Eichel’s “Naramata Bench” is Sgt. Pepper’s, full of colourful characters and stories, Parker’s “Okanagan” is the White Album, absolutely anchored to its time and place. It’s physically huge and heavy with a hard cover giving it the same imposing effect of strength similar to large pillars on the façades of banks and courthouses to denote security and authority. The blank white cover simply and elegantly adorned with the word “Okanagan” suggests something epic while the small subtitle near the bottom acts as a perfect tease to the book’s contents. Rather than loudly advertising the fact, Parker’s cover is subtle and uncluttered and let’s the colours inside the book explode more vividly when flipping through the pages.

To me, this book looks and feels more Okanagan. The rough texture of the pages, the high-contrast photos, the light sand-coloured text boxes and highlight squares throughout the book all appear more like something produced in the Okanagan to me. If anyone from around the world wants to know what it’s like to be in the Okanagan, this is the book that I would send them. The layouts give me the impression of a high school or university year book (Oh, there’s a photo of Mike! Hey, there’s Virginia!) which I believe is a perfect form for conveying that very sense of time and place. When I want to relive how I felt working in this industry in 2014-2015 (when this book was in production) I will absolutely pull this book out. It is truly a temporal work of art.

Her attempt to look at the region as a whole entity of the Okanagan not just through the obvious physical elements like geography, but also through time – history. To my delight, Parker seems to be aware of the Okanagan’s past and appreciates its influence on the present. No other B.C. wine book that I’ve read has ever included a photo of Velma Sperling, grand-daughter of Giovanni and Rosa Casorzo. Giovanni was hired by Father Charles Pandosy to work at the Oblate mission. Velma is a living link to that era of our history that roots today’s wine industry and continues to help it grow. The same land is still in the hands of the Casorso family and Velma’s daughter Ann Sperling, also photographed in this book, has a highly distinguished career as a winemaker.

Each winery’s entry gives a snapshot of their style. A list of the property’s signature wines, key varieties, and vineyards are an quick guide for anyone interested in specific varieties. The section “The Property Experience” is a point-form listing of events and special offerings. Every winery has a tasting bar, we all know that. Parker tells us more about what makes each winery unique. For those wine lovers looking for that special experience, you will find one for you while thumbing through “Okanagan”.

The biggest question I have of both books is how the wineries were chosen to be included in each one? Eichel’s “Naramata Bench” has a small section on “Other Wineries” while Parker’s “Okanagan” just doesn’t mention some wineries at all, leaving awkward holes in some of the regions. There is section on the North Okanagan but strangely, no wineries listed there. Eichel’s “Naramata” includes a near phone book of listings for places to stay, places to eat, tour companies, and travel information – all helpful items but curious for a printed book considering Google is now the de facto go-to resource for most people. Both books are self-published and must be financed somehow. However I sometimes get the impression that I’ve bought into very large advertisements, especially turning to the bizarre two-page spread on Greyback Construction, a local construction company that happens to have built many wineries. Neither book purports to be objective guidebooks or anything like that however it makes me wonder if or how the financing may have influenced the content.

This media literacy (or paranoia?) comes to me courtesy of my own “question everything” personality (or disorder?) and perhaps isn’t shared by many others, nor perhaps from the Millennial generation who care about it differently than I do. (A short stint at Simon Fraser’s Communications Department probably didn’t discourage that behaviour either…) Both books are extremely well planned and well executed highly recommend you pick up both as soon as you can. Sometimes regional books don’t make it to a second printing so don’t pass on either of these two if you see them.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Book review: Canadian Wineries by Tony Aspler

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Expectations will play a big part in how highly you rate “Canadian Wineries” by Tony Aspler and Jean-François Bergeron. Expect a researched, academic treatise on the current state of the Canadian wine industry and you will be sorely dissapointed. Looking for a light reading, coffee-table book that introduces you to the wine regions and significant wineries of the whole country? This is the book for you.

Firstly, a sticky point. I can’t comment directly on some of the ‘facts’ from other wine regions but am confident enough with those from BC to notice a few things that should maybe have been checked before publication. For instance, contrary to the sequence of events on p. 20, the new winery facility at Black Hills was constructed 2006, before the sale to Vine Quest International. Matt and Christie Mavety from Blue Mountain are siblings and not spouses as indicated on page 24. And if Vincor has built a stand-alone winery for Osoyoos-Larose away from the Jackson-Triggs facility as stated on p. 55, I’ve never seen it. I had heard that it was part of the original plan but was shelved when Constellation bought Vincor. (Constellation has sincesold their share of Osoyoos-Larose who will effectively be on their own at some point soon.)

I know from experience in wine shops that sometimes the stories told by wine shop staff get stretched a little over time. A 75-acre vineyard in June can easily become a 90-acre estate by Labour Day from anyone telling the same story over and over again. And while wine people love to think they remember vintages and the weather of each year, sometimes the chronology gets a little muddled. It one thing to mix up facts in a wine shop but another altogether include them in a publication.

The list of wineries included is overall quite thought out, although I’m sure that there will be some people who will object to missing their favourite winery. In selecting wineries, Mr. Aspler states in the introduction that he was looking for wineries who sustained quality across their portfolio and from “vintage to vintage”. Wineries also had to be historically significant or have influenced the industry in some way and have an “aesthetic appeal to the property and its setting”. As was expected, most if not all of the large corporate wineries and their brands are represented with a few exceptions probably for aesthetic reasons (Jackson-Triggs in Oliver is more Industrial Park than National Park in its appearance). While there are a few wineries that I would have liked to have seen included here, the most glaring omission in my mind that seems to fit all of Mr. Aspler’s criteria is Gray Monk Estate Winery. Perhaps seen as a little ‘uncool’ to the era of Parkeristic wine criticism because of the Germanic-influenced wine portfolio heavy on aromatic varieties, I’d hoped that we’d moved past that era in some ways. Leaving Gray Monk out of the book leaves out a significant early pioneering family of BC’s modern estate wine making era that named their estate after a white variety that 30 years later is now the most popular grape variety in BC – Pinot Gris.

Regionally it is far more generous to the smaller wine regions than I was expecting. Usually publications that cover wine in “Canada” usually mean wine in “Ontario” or “BC” (weighted according to the author’s or publisher’s home turff) with only a few other outsiders mentioned. Ontario’s wine industry is unquestionably the largest by any measure and they get a generous third of this book while BC makes up a slightly smaller third. Quebec and Nova Scotia split the remainder equally (about 35 pages each) which is honestly about 30 pages more than I’d expected, especially since Mr. Aspler is based out of Ontario and proclaims as much at the start of BC’s section on p. 13. He rightfully deserves full credit for adventurously including Quebec and Nova Scotia’s growing wine scene even though this book is more readily available throughout the country than the wines from these two provinces.

The photography of Jean-François Bergeron is extremely good – not the typical, over-produced, seen-it-a-million-time-already landscape photography that appears in tourist brochures and large coffee table books. The often-photographed MacIntyre Bluff, an icon of the south Okanagan, does not appear anywhere in this book. The BC photos suffer a little from the less than perfect weather that photographer Mr. Bergeron probably had to deal with during his trip. The natural light with slight cloud cover (optimistically called ‘filtered sunshine’ by Vancouverites) won’t make much difference in the rest of Canada. In BC however, the result is mountains with no tops that fade into something unfocused and dull. Diffuse, low-contrast natural lighting tends to blunt what are otherwise spectacular vistas.

Such is the weather in however and fortunately for this book, Mr. Bergeron turned his lenses on something else that is sometimes lacking in other books about wine – fun and casual photos of the people who actually work with the wine. I remember seeing a video clip about wine making years ago with a winemaker who was about to start his day doing punchdowns and he said something like, “If someone tells you he’s the wine maker and he’s wearing clean clothes and isn’t stained purple, he’s not really the wine maker.” A lot of the time, the people who actually do the physical work with the grapes don’t get the same recognition as the wine maker. In ‘Canadian Wineries’ however, I was thrilled to see great shots of Aaron Crey and Gabe Reis, both hard-working and extremely knowledgeable winery personnel, representing their respective wineries (Nk’Mip and Painted Rock) in portraits that accompany their wineries’ profiles. Along with a collection of less formal photos of winery owners such as John Weber of Orofino (sporting what I can only assume is his “harvest beard”), the photography is captivating in its intimacy and that it shows what people in wine country actually do which is work – a lot. Of course there are a collection of clichéd photos of wine makers holding glasses up to the light to ‘examine’ the wine with serious expressions on their faces, but by and large the photos in this book show accurately what those of us who live and work in the industry already know; We love our jobs and it shows.

Overall, this is a good looking year book of the Canadian industry as it is now, or likely as it was in 2012 when the research was likely conducted. As someone who has toured through all of these wine regions at some point, it is great to see so many familiar faces represented here and I largely agree with Mr. Aspler’s choice of wineries to be included. As a current WSET diploma student though, I can say that this book will not be used for any factual references. Even still, I will no doubt turn its pages in advance of my next trip to visit Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia.

Cheers from wine country!
~Luke

Book Review – Wine Wars by Mike Veseth

I recently put up a post about the wine book that I had started reading at the time and it dawned on me that I should probably put up a short review of it and the ideas contained within it. I tried to do all of that but completely left out the word “short.” So here it is, my impressions of “Wine Wars” by Mike Veseth.

My local library (in the Wine Capital of Canada) occasional contains some interesting books on wine. This book was not in the usual section that I frequent. It was out on display in the business section of the stacks and it had the word “wine” on it. Sold.

My first impression on beginning to read was that this was written to be a lecture. There are many trite, “teacher-voice” expressions and turns of phrases in many of the chapter conclusions that make this book seem like either a condescending diatribe or a clichéd, but fun and easy read. The final paragraph of Chapter 5, The Masters of Wine ends with the following; “How will the story end? It’s too soon to draw any conclusions. We need to go back on the road and investigate how wine works in the other key markets. Fasten your safety belts – we are in for a bumpy ride.” Cue the brass section. Ending a chapter like seems more fitting for a teenage mystery novel and a little shallow at times especially considering the weight of the concepts in this book.

But Mr. Veseth is an economics professor, an award-winning one, and probably a very entertaining one whose classes I’d probably quite enjoy. If I had to guess, I’d say that his writing style is probably quite similar to his speaking style and that reading the book aloud would probably make many of the paragraphs like these more appropriate given the rhetorical pace of an orated lecture. The part of me that studied media finds it extremely interesting when one medium’s use (words spoken out loud to an audience) are translated to another medium (printed words read in a book) with little or no adaptation. Very interesting things can happen, not necessarily “good” or “bad.” More like “effective” or “ineffective.” (Which is a more effective use of the medium to convey drama – a staged play filmed using one camera or an edited, multi-camera, drama like CSI or Law and Order?)

To be honest, economics has never really interested me in any way and I’ve always found that is its strict adherents had a view of the world that placed more value in money than I was comfortable with. I clearly remember a group project in my Geography of Economic Activity course from university where a fellow student was convinced that the best way of producing our assigned product was to move the manufacturing to Mexico because the labour costs were so much smaller there than in Canada. It wasn’t the numbers I took issue with (there was no way to argue that) but rather the thought process that assumes that the only actual cost was purely a financial one, ignoring any of the social costs (job losses in Canada, paltry wages for workers, bad working conditions, etc). To my fellow student, those things just didn’t register as an issue when it made perfect sense financially.

However, when wine is involved, everything becomes more interesting. Regardless of viewpoints on economics then or now, this book brings up all kinds of perspectives on the wine world as it is now (or at least in 2011) including issues that we see here in BC. Throughout the book, Veseth uses the visual of the “wine wall”, the sometimes massive array of shelves in stores where wine is displayed to customers, to illustrate his points in each chapter. It’s a strong image since anyone who has shopped for wine will have encountered this wall at some point. Even people more comfortable with their wine knowledge (wine experts) have faced it as a wide-eyed novice at some point in their lives.

According to Veseth, your own view on wine will determine which kinds of wines you prefer and where on the “wine wall” you will be shopping. Are you a “Martian” (after Martin Ray, who purchased Paul Masson in 1935 and believe in the best wine no matter the cost) or a “Wagnerian” (after Baltimore journalist Philip Wagner’s assertion that wine should be an “affordable part of everyday life”)? The conflict between these two views of wine are evident in some way in almost every wine review or discussion. A Martian would never think of purchasing Blue Nun or Two-Buck Chuck. Likewise, a Wagnerian would never even consider shelling out more than $15 or $20 for a bottle of wine, not matter how special the occasion. Veseth sees Wagnerians as the market for the globalization of wine (Two-Buck Chuck, Gallo jug wines, et al). Because that represents a significant portion of the wines on the wine wall, the Martian’s descendants Veseth calls “terroirists” are really start to feel the squeeze.

In the chapter regarding Terroir, two people are quoted at length. Terry Theise and John Nossiter, mostly by way of his film “Mondovino”. Along with examining the backgrounds of some of the people in the film, Veseth stumbles onto Nossiter’s book “Liquid Memories: Why Wine Matters” where he paraphrases the following idea.

p. 181 “Why is terroir and regional identity so important now? Because sharp divisions have caused so much pain and hardship in the past (think Europe and the two world wars). Suppressing differences and rounding off sharp corners to create a more peaceful whole has been the agenda of the last fifty years. Now we find that universalism has gone pretty far, creating the terroir-free transnational world of the European Union and we start to value what we have lost. Sharp edges seem pretty desirable now that we’ve lost them, even if they sometimes bruise or cut.

Veseth then recounts his own experience on a trip to Friuli in northeastern Italy, a place brutalized by the two world wars, where they have planted a special vineyard of peace using grapes varieties from all around the world. Interestingly, Veseth found that the wine produced from this vineyard, Vino Della Pace (Wine of Peace) wasn’t “especially distinctive” on the palate, but was memorable for its “optimistic symbolism”.

A few sentances later on p. 182, “We longed for the taste of peace when we didn’t have it. Now that we do, we find it a little bland. So we seek out terroir, even if it threatens to divide us once again.

It’s an astoundingly simple way to say something so profound and Veseth nails it perfectly. And it’s not only applicable to wine. Just think of the homogenized suburban sprawl of Levittown in the 1950’s and the orderly and structured steel-and-glass Mies van der Rohe-type towers of modern architecture that dominate the skylines of the 20th Century. Out of such chaos, we crave order and predictability.

Maybe there is more to economics than just money.

Wine books I’m reading right now

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I love wine books from all different perspectives and though this is not the first book on the wine business, I’m hoping that it will be better than the last one I read a few years ago. “Wine: The 8,000 Year-Old Story of the Wine Trade” by Thomas Pellechia didn’t cut it at all and was a disappointing start to my intro to wine economics. Hopefully “Wine Wars” by Mike Veseth will be better. I recently borrowed this book from the library and have just started reading it. Has anyone else read this book? Thoughts? Comments?

Perhaps I will start posting reviews in the future. My problem is that I don’t often have a lot of time to read and am not a blazing fast reader. But I will do what I can and post about the most interesting books that I have in my own collection and any new book as I read it.

~Luke