Monthly Archives: July 2017

Trialing Palissage

Grapevines grow upwards towards sunlight. But this isn’t necessarily obvious when you walk through a vineyard. Each shoot is uniform in length; generally, no taller than 6 feet.

Canopy Management 101

There’s a reason for this: to prevent one vineyard row from shading the next. Uniform sun exposure means fruit will ripen at an even pace within the same block. We don’t want to worry about fruit from one vine being overripe while the next is green and unripe. We’re aiming for uniform ripeness.

Palissage.jpgThe magic ratio is 1:1. In other words, the height of the canopy (or shoots) should not exceed the width of the row.  The solution is often to cut the tips of the shoots, what’s known in the industry as hedging or shoot-tipping. This isn’t done with pruners, but rather with what’s best described as a chain-saw attached to a tractor. (It is more sophisticated than a mechanical version of Leatherface, though.)

However, hedging eventually perpetuates the problem it is meant to solve. Shoot-tipping stimulates additional shoot growth (specifically laterals), resulting in more shading. This then leads to another round of hedging, stimulating even more – well, you get the idea.

What’s Palissage?

Which brings us to palissage. With this technique, shoots are trained back down into the canopy by hand – not trimmed. Palissage is much more time consuming, but advantageously slows down shoot growth, reduces the number of laterals, and focuses the vine’s energy on ripening fruit. And no tractor passes are required, reducing our carbon footprint.

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We’re trialing palissage for the first time this year on both Phantom Creek Vineyard and Sundial Vineyard. Thus far, we’re encouraged with the results. According to Ross, palissage-treated vines at our estate vineyards show better overall balance when compared to hedged vines due to reduced vigour and lateral growth. It may also have the added benefit of retaining higher acidity levels, providing more freshness and vibrancy in the resulting wines.

But let’s not forget another reason for hedging: aesthetics. Vines are often carefully manicured, with no leaf out of place. So, don’t be surprised if our vineyards look slightly different. There’s a natural reason.

The Old World Fallacy

New World wine regions have a tendency to liken themselves to the Old World. The idea is that the perceived prestige of the Old World will rub off on an emerging region and its producers, i.e. honour by association. Of course, this is a logical fallacy.

Comparing Growing Conditions

Regions start by comparing themselves to the Old World based on similar growing conditions. The argument goes something like:

Burgundy is a classic wine growing region

x wine region has a similar climate to Burgundy

Therefore, x wine region can be a classic wine growing region

The problem – outside of the flawed logic – is how we define “similar climate.” The most common variable used to compare regions is Growing Degree Days (GDDs).

 Growing Degree Days (GDDs): a measure of the heat accumulated over a period of time.

However, GDDs don’t holistically capture how a vine experiences a growing season. As Jamie Goode describes, “Even an identical number of GDDs can have very different effects on two vines. Early season GDDs count a lot more than later ones, because the benefit of later GDDs will be incrementally more, because the vine will make more of those later GDDs with its bigger canopy.”

A simple comparison would be two hiking trails with the same elevation gain. An experienced hiker will know that the difficulty of the hike will depend on how gradually the elevation changes, whether it’s all in the first kilometre or over the trail’s entire duration.

Take the Okanagan and Bordeaux. Both regions have similar GDDs in some years. But the actual climates could not be more different. The Okanagan is a dry continental climate with hot summers and a relatively short growing season. Bordeaux, in contrast, is a maritime climate with more moderate temperatures and a greater number of frost-free days.

Temperature Comparisons: Bordeaux v. Okanagan

Comparing Bordeaux and the Okanagan

Osoyoos in Blue; Pessac (Bordeaux) in Red

There’s also a significant difference in rainfall. The Okanagan is a semi-arid climate with little rainfall during the growing season. As such, careful irrigation is required. In comparison, Bordeaux has relatively high rainfall, resulting in high disease pressure and potential fruit dilution. Harvest rainfalls can make or break a Bordeaux vintage.

A comparison of the GDDs of the Okanagan and Bordeaux simply doesn’t capture the complexities of each climate.

Comparing Winemaking Techniques

The mistake, then, is thinking that what works in one region will work in another. This applies not only to vineyard management, but also winemaking. The argument goes something like:

x famous winery uses winemaking techniques x, y, and z

We use winemaking techniques x, y, and z

Therefore, our wines can be as good as x famous winery

The problem – again, outside of the flawed logic – is thinking that winemaking techniques are universally applicable. Just because you use the same winemaking techniques as Domaine Romanée Conti (like using only François Frères barrels), doesn’t mean that’s what’s best for your fruit. A talented winemaker adapts to what best suits the fruit from each individual vineyard in any given vintage.

That’s not to say that learning from other regions and winemakers is not important. It is essential. Or that there’s only one correct approach. As Nova Cadamatre writes, “multiple winemakers can get fruit from the exact same vineyard however the translation of the terroir will be different depending on that individual winemaker’s concept of what the terroir should give them.”


But let’s take the example of tannin management for red wines. In the Okanagan, hot summer temperatures can result in thick skins with high tannin levels. Consequently, soft, gentle extraction is critical to avoiding overly assertive tannins in the finished wine. Alternatively, regions (or vintages) with lower tannin levels would require more aggressive extraction to build structure and weight.

And, Well, Who Cares?

The other challenge, as I’ve noted previously, is that Old World comparisons often fall flat to consumers. You should know this if you’ve ever worked in a tasting room. In the United Kingdom, only 59 percent of wine consumers are aware that France is a wine producing country. We should not expect the average consumer to understand our analogies to Bordeaux or Burgundy. And why should they care? If they wanted to drink Bordeaux or Burgundy, they’d do exactly that.

Let’s not forget that one of our greatest advantages in the New World is our ability to innovate without the restrictions of tradition or legal regulations. Randall Grahm argues, “I don’t think that the New World can afford any more to be derivative – the world’s gotten too competitive.” In Australia, many wineries have embraced Australian – not Bordeaux – blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Other New World regions may benefit from thinking similarly.

Ultimately, I’d argue that comparisons to Old World regions portrays a lack of confidence and maturity. To be sure, Bordeaux is not comparing itself to any other wine region. The story of a region should be self-sustaining; Old World analogies are a crutch.

At Phantom Creek, we’re an Okanagan winery growing what we consider to be the Valley’s signature grape varieties. Period.

On Tasting Notes

“Tasting notes are a clinical approach to what is, at heart, an emotional connection.” – Ron Washam, also known as the HoseMaster

Wineries use tasting notes for – well, it’s not clear. A Cornell University study found tasting notes do not sell wine. Think about it: would you buy a wine just because it has flavours of blackberry or cola? And what if you didn’t like one of the fruits listed? Worse yet, tasting notes can be comically inaccurate. It doesn’t help that some tasting notes are written months before the wine is bottled, so that the note can be included on the back label.

Tasting notes also verge on the bizarre. Flavours of dried tobacco leaves, cigar box, and forest floor? It’s hard to imagine anyone who would willingly chomp down on a clump of dirt. And that’s not even mentioning minerality. Instead, we’re more likely to embarrass and put off consumers who don’t know the peculiar vocabulary of wine. Some aromas – smoke, tar – sound better suited to a construction site than a glass of wine, after all. If we’re “selling poetry,” we’re often failing.

On Tasting Notes

There’s also the risk of the consumer’s focus becoming the tasting note and not the wine itself. The sheer pleasure of wine is neglected; instead it becomes a desperate search to find strawberry or raspberry. If one doesn’t taste what’s described, then self-doubt creeps in. One’s tasting ability is brought into question. And this can go on for five, ten, or fifteen different flavours. To borrow a quote from the Journal of Wine Economics: “The pretense that we shall be able to discern all those tastes and aromas is pure bullshit.”

The problem is actually ours: using the “language of wine,” or insider jargon, over the vernacular. This may help to explain why consumers cannot identify a wine from its tasting note. Trying to speak in the same language as the consumer doesn’t mean we’re talking down to them. Would you insist on speaking English to a Francophone even if you were bilingual?

The truth is the wine trade often isn’t bilingual. In the United Kingdom, only 59 percent of wine consumers are aware that France is a wine producing country (!). And yet we continue to describe our wines as “Bordeaux blends” or “Burgundian.” Worse, we use confounding vocabulary (“terroir,” “cépage”) when perfectly fine lay terms could be used instead. In short, we simply can’t manage to translate our gobbledygook. This isn’t surprising: we can’t even agree on the meaning of minerality.

To be sure, wine vocabulary has a place. The trade has largely coalesced around a common language to talk about wine. This is due, in part, to the role of educators like WSET and the Court of Master Sommeliers. For example, WSET Level 3 aims to “develop to a high-level your ability to describe wine accurately” using a systematic approach to tasting. Just as problems arise when lawyers or engineers use different languages, the same can be true for wine professionals.

So, while there’s a pragmatic side to conversing in “proper” wine vocabulary to wine enthusiasts and professionals, we need to be able to communicate with the average consumer. This means moving past tasting notes and flavour descriptors to focus on style and structure. Is the wine “light and juicy” or “rich and full-bodied?” Eric Asimov, wine critic for the New York Times, makes a similar argument. More importantly, we need to emphasize and communicate our “emotional connection” to the wine. I may not remember exactly how some of my most memorable bottles tasted, but I do remember where and with whom I had them.

And this is why our goal at Phantom Creek is to move past tasting notes, and focus on the story and emotion behind every bottle.

Free My Grapes: R. v. Comeau

Canadian wine law is confused and confusing. Legislation is often out of touch with how wine is consumed and sold in the 21st century. Currently, one of the most contentious issues is interprovincial shipping of Canadian wine.

The wine industry won a minor victory in 2012 when the federal government passed Bill C-311. This bill removed the federal prohibition on transporting wine across provincial borders. But the regulation of alcohol is provincial jurisdiction. In other words, Bill C-311 was largely symbolic, and could not compel provinces to act. To date, only British Columbia, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia have opened their borders to all Canadian wineries. Unbelievably, BC wineries can only legally ship wine to 23 percent of Canadians.

Put simply, this is due to archaic legislation that dates to the period directly after the bootlegging era of Prohibition. You wouldn’t think twice about transporting most goods – clothes, jewellery – from one province to another. Free trade, perhaps now more than ever, is being debated. But free trade within the same country? That should be uncontroversial. Wine is the rare exception.


Gerard Comeau

That brings us to R. v. Comeau. The facts of the case are relatively straightforward: Gerard Comeau was fined for transporting alcohol from Quebec to New Brunswick under the New Brunswick Liquor Act.

Mr. Comeau’s bounty from Quebec:

  • 2 cases of 24 bottles of Sleeman’s Light beer;
  • 2 cases of 24 bottles of Miller Genuine Draft beer;
  • 2 cases of 24 bottles of Molson M beer;
  • 3 cases of 20 bottles of Budweiser Light beer;
  • 3 cases of 20 bottles of Budweiser beer;
  • 3 cases of 30 cans of Coors Light beer;
  • 2 bottles of whiskey, 750 ml per bottle; and
  • 1 bottle of Stinger Premixxx liqueur, 1.4 litre.

However, rather than pay the $292.50 fine, he decided to challenge the legislation in court. Specifically, he argued that the New Brunswick Liquor Act contravened s. 121 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which states:

 “All Articles of the Growth, Produce, or Manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other Provinces.”

I’m not a lawyer, but to me this clearly suggests that alcohol produced in Canada can be sold and transported interprovincially. And, in this case, the New Brunswick Provincial Court agreed: the offending provision of the New Brunswick Liquor Act was struck down. This meant not only a victory for Comeau, but also that Canadian wineries, at least for the time being, can legally ship to New Brunswick.

However, the case has been taken to the Supreme Court, where it will be heard on December 7, 2017. Comeau now has the potential to open interprovincial trade not just in New Brunswick, but all of Canada. This would be a major victory for Canadian wineries.

A similar case in the United States had profound implications for the domestic industry. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Granholm v. Heald (2005) that state regulations regarding the shipment of wine could not discriminate between in-state and out-of-state wineries. This explains why, today, direct-to-consumer shipments are still prohibited in six states. And regulations for direct-to-consumer shipments in “open” states can still be arduous and limiting – far from “admitted free.”

Nevertheless, the Granholm decision did result in significant growth in direct-to-consumer sales. In 1996, direct purchases accounted for less than 20 percent of domestic wine sales. Today, in contrast, DTC is the dominant sales channel for domestic wineries, accounting for 59 percent of overall sales. Of course, there are other factors that impacted the rise of DTC sales – the consolidation of distributors, the emergence of online wine sales – but the Granholm decision set the stage by striking down protectionist state regulations.

Which brings us back to Canada. The scope of the Comeau case may mean its legal impact is even greater than Granholm. The best possible outcome is interprovincial free trade with no barriers or limitations. According to a 2016 Senate report, eliminating all provincial trade barriers has the potential to add billions of dollars a year to the Canadian economy.

Canadian wineries would then be able to legally ship wine to customers in any province. It’s not a secret that many wineries are shipping to “closed” provinces already. But the existing legal grey area undoubtedly discourages both consumers and couriers alike. This has the potential to change with Comeau.

However, there is always the possibility of defeat, and that could result in a significant step backwards for the industry. If the Supreme Court upholds the protectionist policies of the New Brunswick Liquor Act, it may give provincial liquor boards the confidence to move away from the status quo and take a harder stance on out-of-province shipments. It’s not surprising that every province will be represented at trial. In other words, the stakes are high.

It only seems fitting that during the 150th anniversary of the Constitution Act, 1867, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to uphold the principles for which it stands. The wine industry is ready and waiting.

Want to show your support? Donations to the Canadian Constitution Foundation go towards supporting their representation of Gerard Comeau. The case is being argued, pro bono, by Ian Blue, QC.