Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Beating Canada's Wine Communists

Dwayne PERREAULT - To this day, most Canadian wine consumers go to the same place Soviet citizens went to get their wine: the government shop, monopoly and cash cow created for and by the state.

Growing up in Canada in the seventies and eighties, I remember the wine section was almost an afterthought in the Provincial Liquor Board shop in my town, one or two aisles filled with mostly Liebfraumilch, Mateus and Baby Duck, a Canadian sparkling sweet wine made from vitis labrusca varieties. It was extremely popular, so much so that Andrés, the company that made it, actually discouraged Canadian vintners from planting vitis vinifera varieties.

The vintners eventually did plant European vines, and the quality of Canadian wine increased dramatically, thereby not only creating a viable Canadian wine industry but also sparking consumer interest in wine in general. The selection in the government shops has grown better: I can buy Grand Cru Classés and even Dom Perignon in my Saskatchewan hometown, and happily I came across some wines by Chapoutier in New Brunswick.

Still, I find it appalling that so many years later, provincial govenment shops still have a monopoly on the liquor industry in Canada. And it is ironic, since the province of Alberta has been quietly showing for the past 25 years that there is a better way. In 1985, the Conservative government there toyed with the idea of privatisation by granting three licenses to privately operate wine stores. By 1988, this had grown to twenty licenses; strangely, the number is now five or six.

I visited Andrew Hilton Wines in Lethbridge, where owner Max Baines holds one of these licenses. It is obvious from even outside the shop that this a store with some individuality, which takes pride in the wines it sells. Compare the following two pictures:

Andrew Hilton Wines in Lethbridge, AlbertaAndrew Hilton Wines in Lethbridge, Alberta

Government store, Moncton, New BrunswickGovernment store, Moncton, New Brunswick

Baines had started a local Opimian chapter in the late 1970s, and I hope in the future to post about Opimian, a very useful and ground-breaking wine society in Canada. He jumped at the opportunity to get one of those early licenses, and now runs a succesful business in the rather unlikely location of Lethbridge, Alberta (pop. 86,659).

According to Baines, real privatisation happened in 1994. “At that time, there were only three private wine stores. (Then-premier) Ralph Klein saw what private wine stores were able to accomplish. So he privatised the entire industry, effectively creating two industries: retailers and wholesalers, including importers and sourcers.

“To sell wine in Canada, producers need to work through an agent. In 1994, we had about 100 agents. Now we have over 400. This allows small producers to find specialized agents. Some of these are small, maybe only bringing in 20 cases a year. But the agents consolidate the orders, which saves costs which is passed on to the customers.”

Max Baines, owner of Andrew Hilton WinesMax Baines, owner of Andrew Hilton Wines

And this is how one competes with a government goliath, by offering top quality wines from smaller producers, creating more variety for the consumer. By instilling a sense of pride and individuality in your assortment, instead of having a huge stock for a homogenous selection available everywhere.

“A government controlled system isn’t able to support the small orders, say five cases, that I get,” says Baines. “But this was the idea of the government: they wanted 50% of my sales to be from own import. They wanted to offer more choice to the consumer.”

And it has worked. There is now seven times as much choice for wine consumers in Alberta compared to pre-privatisation. The private wine store also seems to be catching on in neighbouring Saskatchewan, where two stores have opened. British Columbia has speculative listings, where certain wines not in the common stock may be ordered and shipped through government stores. So there are signs of progress.

What stands in the way? Well, there’s the cash cow thing. It’s not that a government willingly relinquishes a multi-million dollar monopoly overnight. One serious roadblock would be the union. Government store employees work for the government of course, and they have a very strong union that would naturally resist privatisation.

And yet, so much could be gained, not only for wine professionals but especially for the consumer. It would be a big step forward, perhaps creating a renaissance for wine in Canada. I just doubt it will happen soon.

In the meantime, the house wine of choice for most seafood restaurants in New Brunswick is French Cross Pinot Grigio, a blend of Canadian and French wines (one would hope made from Pinot Gris). It tastes as good as it sounds and is available everywhere.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Outpourings: how to sell a precious wine, or not

There's one wine in my collection that I do not often talk about. I'd rather drink it, and I'm afraid it sells out too soon. The last time that I mentioned the wine was in the beginning of March, just before the Bordeaux 2009 frenzy broke loose, so it is about time that I get back to the Burgundian jewels of… David Clark.

David Clark's Bourgogne rouge 2007 from the En Pelson vineyard
First, a sidestep. Over the years I have noticed that writing a posting about a certain wine does not necessarily spark sales. A safe feeling of course, but do I understand it? Not really, to be honest. Or perhaps I do, a bit. What do you think about the following assumptions:

1. Many readers of this blog do not live in the Netherlands (just a fact, but wait, there's more).
2. I have never made a strong commercial "call to action", as it is called officially. Something like: "Are you interested? Then try this wine now and get three bottles for the price of two!"
3. Most readers are wine geeks (or lovers si vous voulez) who decide for themselves when they buy something, and when not. And that is not necessarily right after they have read something, but perhaps some time much later, more as a result of a long term relationship, as a follower of the blog.

I like that last thought. I've been publishing here from October 2007, and ever since I have shared many thoughts with − if I should believe Google Analytics − many people. The vast majority are anonymous readers. I'm perfectly fine with that, and at the same time there is a smile inside when I meet someone who confesses that he or she is following the blog.

Now back to David Clark. As said, I have posted about this former Formula-1 engineer before. David has been making wines since about 2003-2004, and works meticulously on his AOC Bourgogne and several Village-vineyards. I think it is hard to find producers who work in such an extreme perfectionist manner. As I sometimes say: David owns some decent yet not grand vineyards, but tends these as if they were Grand Crus. I even dare to say that many Grand Cru vineyards do not get the same amount of attention as David's vineyards.

David works organically, and his technical background helps him to optimize every bit and piece of the work he's doing. For example he designed his own bottling machine, because the ones available from the shop did not satisfy him. His machine operates gentler (gravity only), more careful (minimal exposure to oxygen), and slower. That asks for some patience, but of course it's only the result that counts (see David's story of the bottling machine).

David's last invention is the solar powered vineyard buggy. This light and clean vehicle enables the farmer to do what he ought to do: work in the vineyard, taking good care of his plants. Only perfectly healthy and well-tended vines are capable of producing great fruit. And only great fruit… well, the rest is obvious (see David's story on the buggy).

Then the wines. What David makes has a distinctive style. His wines are more powerful (and grand) than most simple Burgundies, and at the same time there is plenty of leniency, pureness and freshness in his wines. Sometimes they need some bottle ageing to open up, as is the case with the 2007s.

Apparently the style is so distinctive that it can be recognised blind. My friend Jan van Roekel had brought to Amsterdam the 2008 Bourgogne rouge from one of his many Burgundy-travels, and poured it unexpectedly. He wanted to know what I thought. I said it made me think of a David Clark, yet different from the vintages that I'd tasted so far.

I know, I'm bragging, but it's the truth. Tasting blind is difficult in a world with more and more uniform wines, with industrial yeasts, and plenty of risk-avoiding growers. But these wines simply stand out.

A last thing about the Clarks: they're rare. Most are exported to the UK (Berry's sell the wine), and a bit goes to the US and Japan. In the UK, Clark − being a Brit − is better known, and sold out halfway the year. So I get phone-calls from British enthusiasts asking if I do ship to England. And while I think every wine geek deserves his or her Clark, I have to say no. The small allocation that Bolomey Wijnimport has, should stay here. And thus, such is the situation now: there is a warehouse in Amsterdam holding a few cases of Clarks, and there is an ignorant city roaring around this warehouse...

Sommeliers could be interested of course, but have you ever tried to get in touch with a sommelier? Most of them are too busy, or worse, lack true interest. No, that's certainly not true for all of them! But sometimes I would expect a bit more… curiosity. There are simply too many average wine lists here.

So most Clark's I sell to wine geeks who − curious as they are − surf the internet for rare wine pearls. Or people who have tried to buy at David's door in Morey-Saint-Denis, which doesn't work, because he's got nothing left to sell.

Let me finish. Fellow Dutchmen, here are the wines. I'm curious what happens. No discount, no specials or jokes, just a special wine. And please be modest, as the little pile I own is also my private stock.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Intermezzo on drugs

Last week I was confronted with a less pleasant part of wine: its weight. As a matter of fact, I did something very stupid: I lifted two six-packs, all the way from the floor, while chatting and not paying attention to what I was doing, making a bad move and *tsjak* is what my back said.

It's painful but moreover, it's annoying: I am very limited in what I can do all day.

And I even can't drink. The stuff I that got prescribed is called Tramadol, quite heavy stuff that gives a slightly intoxicated feeling, invokes hot flushes and - just as with smoking pot - gives a dry mouth. Altogether not even that bad with a glass of water within reach, but a refreshing wine would of course be better.

However, alcohol overrules the effect of the tramadolhydrochloride I was told, so I shouldn't do that.

What actually bothers me is that I hurt my back with a case of my favourite wine… Well, I know this is never going to happen to me again. Carrying cases is serious business, obviously.

No worries, my next posting will be about wine again. Or about Port. Yes, I look forward to opening a great bottle of Port soon.