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Category Archives: Thinking Outloud

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A Master of his Craft

We’re thrilled to welcome our first guest writer of the year, Chef Michael Allemeier CMC.

Despite the perceived romance of the restaurant industry, it is not easy being a Chef. If you crave chaos, then perhaps this position is suited for you. The stress is high. We deal with an inventory that has ever-rising costs, and yet is very perishable. It is not the glamorous industry portrayed by the Food Network.

As a Culinary Instructor at SAIT, I teach in the Professional Cooking and the Apprentice Cook Programs. I came to SAIT with 25 years of industry experience. That translates to 25 years of working an average of 80 hours per week.

Unlike other trades, cooking is very much a craft. Cooking is not just about technical skills. They are important, but all trained Chefs share the same relative technical base. It is the personal creativity of the Chef that takes a dish to the next level. This artistic component – drawing up unique flavours, presentations, and experiences – brings me back to the kitchen day after day.

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Chef Michael Allemeier CMC with his commis

I have always loved this profession. You must if you want to be a successful Chef. A lot of my own growth and passion for this craft comes from the fact that I always keep pushing myself. I’ve never been complacent.

In 2011, the Canadian Culinary Federation launched the Certified Master Chef or CMC program. In the spring of 2013, I became a CMC candidate. My road to becoming a CMC took four years. Candidates have a total of five years to complete all the components – including 11 exams. Currently, the pass rate is only 5 percent.

Of the 11 exams, six are academic programs. Each of these programs is eight weeks in length, with an average commitment of 20-25 hours per week. The academic courses are:

  • Pastry and Baking: the theory behind the craft of baking and pastry
  • Garde Manger: the elements of the cold kitchen
  • Nutritional Cuisine: the science of nutrition (including dietary restrictions), body metabolism and chemistry
  • Entrepreneurship and Hospitality Marketing: the business and marketing principles specific to a successful business
  • Facility Design and Management: the theory of kitchen and equipment design, including designing a HACCP certified kitchen
  • Product Knowledge, Purchasing and Cost Controls: professional purchasing standards, accounting practices, inventory, and auditing controls

These courses involve complex projects, cited researched papers, and weekly assignments and videos. In addition, a CMC must also complete the WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) Level 2 Wine and Spirits designation.

All candidates must then pass four rigorous and extremely technical kitchen exams. As these exams are held in Toronto, it required cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen under the scrutiny of a demanding group of Master Examiners. The kitchen exams are:

  • Pastry and Baking Exam: a two-day exam testing proficiency in bread making; fabricating molded and hand-crafted chocolates; skills in gateau and cakes; and creating three different plated desserts for 12 guests.
  • Garde Manger Exam: a two-day exam to create a formal buffet platter for 12 guests with terrines, pates, and forcemeats, complete with appropriate garnishes and sauces. In my case, mandatory ingredients were foie gras, venison, quail, pheasant, morel mushrooms, white asparagus, spinach, and dried apricots.
  • Black box gastronomic meal: a six-course menu with wine pairings. This exam expects the candidate to cook a creative, elegant, and formal menu displaying skills and techniques in the moment with a supplied “black box” of mandatory ingredients.
  • Nutritional exam: while this is the shortest kitchen exam, it is equally as hard. I had to create a three-course lunch suitable for vegans, lacto-ova vegetarians, and diabetics that was then thoroughly analyzed for nutritional accuracy.

These exams are physically and mentally demanding. They are meant for the individual to display and successfully demonstrate a career of experience and to show workmanship at the highest level. The process is as much a test of skills as a test of the individual.

This June, I became the third Canadian Chef to earn the CMC designation.  I join Chef Judson Simpson, who runs the kitchens at the House of Parliament in Ottawa, and Chef Tobias McDonald. The road to becoming a CMC has been a very humbling experience. I have a profound respect for the physical effort, business acumen, and artistry that is required to not only become a CMC, but to be in a trade that demands all these things from a Chef.

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Chef Michael Allemeier after receiving the CMC designation

As a CMC, I am now part of an elite group that becomes the custodian of this craft. I will work to find others who possess the qualities that make up a Master Chef. I love my craft, and I want to continue to be actively engaged in it.

Chef Michael Allemeier CMC has traveled the world and Canada learning his craft. Prior to joining SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology) as a Culinary Instructor, Chef Allemeier ran some of Canada’s most recognized kitchens, including Bishops Restaurant in Vancouver and Teatro Restaurant in Calgary. During his career, he’s earned numerous accolades, including being honoured with leading one of the “Top Five Winery Restaurants in the World” while at Mission Hill Family Estate. Most recently, Chef Allemeier earned his Master Chef certification, becoming only the third in Canada to receive the prestigious designation.

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
Source: en.climate-data.org

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.”

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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.

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Gerard Comeau
Source: theccf.ca

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.

It’s Complicated: Sub-Regions

There is a sense that a mature wine region must have established sub-regions or sub-appellations. France, of course, is inevitably the model.

It's Complicated: Sub-Regions

Appellation systems like France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée are hierarchical – a rank order that has been established over centuries. For example, nestled within Burgundy is the Côte de Beaune, Puligny-Montrachet, and then Montrachet. The more precise the geographical delineation, the higher the quality level. At least in theory. Italy goes a step further, layering in a classification system for each region. In Chianti, wines can be labelled as Superiore, Riserva, or Gran Selezione, in increasing order of quality, based on meeting certain standards. Again, in theory.

An appellation system not only suggests a quality pyramid, but also intrinsically emphasizes the diversity of the region. For a sub-region to exist, it has to be different from its neighbour. This is important for regions that are perceived as monolithic. Napa Valley Vintners uses sub-regions to promote Napa as more than just Cabernet: “[the] great diversity within the Napa Valley allows a wide range of fine wine grapes to grow well.” Sub-regions are an intuitive way to frame this story and influence consumer perception.

The diversity implied by sub-regions can also provide depth and nuance. This may be important for regions that have developed a signature variety, such as Argentinian Malbec or Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. By promoting its three sub-regions, Marlborough is seeking to elevate its brand and pricing as well as counter laughable claims that it has “no terroir”.  The logic is easy to follow: if Sauvignon Blanc tastes different from one sub-region to the next, then it has to be vineyard-driven.

(The Lack of) Sub-Regions in the Okanagan

Currently, British Columbia is legally divided into five recognized Designated Viticultural Areas. The Okanagan Valley is the largest, with 84 percent of the province’s total vineyard acreage. It is in a unique position: the current appellation system does not capture the diversity of the Valley.  That’s because there is only one official sub-region to date. As a result, the vast majority of wines are simply labelled as “BC VQA Okanagan Valley.”

The challenge is that “BC VQA Okanagan Valley” doesn’t tell you much about what’s in the bottle. The Okanagan stretches over 250 kilometres north to south. The result is considerable diversity – both in terms of climatic conditions and soil types – from one end of the valley to the other. Napa, as a point of reference, is only 50 kilometres in length.

This diversity means the style of a wine will depend on the source of the fruit. A Chardonnay from Osoyoos will be soft and rich with exotic tropical fruits; one from Lake Country will be fresher and more citrus fruited. But both will be labelled as “BC VQA Okanagan Valley.” Sub-regions may provide the consumer with more informed expectations.

Certain grape varieties are also better suited to some areas than others.  Whereas Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the landscape in Napa, having one signature grape variety for the Okanagan is simply not realistic. Plantings change from north to south and east to west. However, sub-regions inherently have the uniformity to support a meaningful signature variety. Riesling from East Kelowna or Syrah from the Black Sage Bench could be the next Torrontés from Cafayate.

The Problem with Sub-Regions

However, some sub-regions are simply not meaningful to consumers.

Exhibit A: Cafayate.

Cafayate Torrontés and Napa Cabernet

This is especially problematic when a sub-region is supposed to indicate a higher quality level. Take the example of AOC Corbieres-Boutenac. This relatively new AOC is a sub-region of AOC Corbieres, which is itself a sub-region of AOC Languedoc. Confused? You’re not the only one: AOC Corbieres-Boutenac has little to no search traffic, and AOC Corbieres only fares slightly better. Maybe it’s not surprising that some Languedoc producers would bid adieu to its sub-appellations.

Google Trends and the Languedoc

Sub-regions, in short, are a brand – and some are more successful than others. Robert Joseph argues:

Wine appellations are like football teams. There are a few world-famous teams like Real Madrid, Manchester United and Bayern Munich, of whom even people with only a passing interest in the sport will probably have heard.

The remaining appellations are largely irrelevant except to the most feverish wine geek.

A sub-region’s brand can also have negative implications. Regardless of the producer, an appellation connotes a certain price and style. Put another way: your neighbourhood can impact the value of your home. This explains why some producers are working outside of their respective appellation system – even in France. Domaine Sainte Rose bottles its wines as “Vin de Pays” as opposed to a more specific appellation. In this case, the aspirations of the producer outweigh the limitations of the Languedoc brand, which has a reputation for value priced wines. “Unfortunately…Languedoc wines will only ever be able to command a certain price point, which is a crying shame as in many cases these wines are worth a lot more,” said the Domaine to Wine-Searcher.

Lastly, sub-regions risk weakening the brand of the region as a whole. “It’s better to be under one identity rather than splitting, and diluting the message,” said one Languedoc producer in Meininger’s. In the Okanagan, the problem is reduced through conjunctive labeling: the sub-region and region must be listed. However, each new sub-region creates more noise for the consumer. The quality hierarchy suggested by an appellation system also puts the sub-region and region at odds.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy for wine geeks and the trade to see the value of sub-regions. At the same time, does wine need to be more confusing for the average consumer? Engaged consumers will ask about a producer’s vineyards regardless of whether a sub-region is listed on the label. So, maybe we should have the answers without posing the questions. Let’s identify appropriate sub-regions, but not forget that Okanagan is the brand.

The Fallibility of Taste

The flavour characteristics of a wine are objective. It’s how we interact with wine that is not.

In a glass of Syrah, I may smell blackberry, black pepper, and violet. I could then analyze the aromatic compounds in the wine using gas chromatography and see if what I’m smelling is present. Blackberries are not added to the wine – a surprising misconception. However, if present, the wine will have the same aromatic compound as a blackberry. Saying “it smells like wine” doesn’t truly capture our immense sensory abilities.

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The challenge is that people have varying sensory thresholds to different aromatic compounds. In extreme cases, one may not be able to sense a specific aroma. Twenty percent of the population can’t smell rotundone, for example, the compound for black pepper. In other words, our interaction with wine is subjective. This is why one person’s tasting note will differ from the next one.

But that still doesn’t mean we, as tasters, can’t be wrong. Finding dark chocolate in a youthful Riesling? In this case, it’s more likely you haven’t found the correct vocabulary to describe what you are tasting. This is a skill in itself. Hence the more common refrain, “it tastes like wine.”

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This quote from Oz Clarke illustrates the effort required:

You must love flavours. Taste everything. Tap water, milk, coffee. Fresh baked bread, frozen peas, the breath of wind on a Spring morning, the new-laid tar by the roadworks, your Auntie Doris’s eau de cologne… Take every chance to revel in the joy of our senses – of sight, of taste, and, above all, of smell. When you do have to sit down and taste wine seriously, you’ll have the vocabulary and memory to make sense of those glasses of anonymous red and off-white liquid sitting sullenly in front of you.

At the same time, our sensory abilities are limiting. There’s good reason to believe that we cannot reliably identify more than four aromas from a glass of wine. Tasting notes that wax poetically about ten or fifteen different aromas not only are unhelpful, but also likely exaggerated. Some senses are also more accurate than others. We aren’t programmed to sense sweetness with any great precision. This is why there’s disagreement over what constitutes a “dry” wine in the first place.

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And let’s not forget a very important sense: our eyes. Research has shown that a wine’s colour will influence what aromas we smell. Wine experts described a white wine that had been dyed red more accurately when it was presented in an opaque – as opposed to clear – glass in one study. Put another way: we are prone to tasting with our eyes.

Our perception can also be skewed by expectation. The price, label, and context may all influence how we taste a wine. This happens subconsciously, too: a 2007 study found  “that increasing the price of a wine increases…activity in [the]medial orbitofrontal cortex,” which corresponds to our experience of pleasantness. We don’t just think we’re enjoying the wine more, we actually experience increased pleasure.

Maybe all of this helps to explain why drinking wine engages more of our brain than any other behaviour. And, ultimately, the fallibility of taste and why blind tasting is so challenging.

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On Syrah

“What’s the most effective way to sell Syrah?” The industry joke nowadays: “Don’t put ‘Syrah’ on the label.” In the United States, the number of consumers who purchase Syrah has decreased by roughly 36 percent since 2008. In British Columbia, the acreage of Syrah has been relatively stagnant over the same period of time:

Syrah_Acreage_Chart

It’s hard to understand this trend. Syrah/Shiraz – the same grape variety – is responsible for many of the greatest wines in the world, whether from the Northern Rhone, Barossa, or Okanagan. The wines are complex and savoury, ranging in style from refreshing and quaffable to dense and ageworthy. It is a grape variety for nearly all occasions: it’s even made into sparkling wine.

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Old Vine Shiraz

Maybe that’s part of the problem. You’re never sure exactly what’s in the bottle given the range of styles and flavours.  In theory, “Syrah” should refer to more restrained, savoury expressions of the variety from cooler climates. “Shiraz,” on the other hand, should denote fruit-forward, high octane wines from warm regions. But it’s not this straightforward. The decision to label a wine as “Syrah” or “Shiraz” is often left to the marketing department, and the style of the wine may not be a consideration.

For a long period, Syrah also became ubiquitous with Australian Shiraz. Not Barossa Shiraz. Or McLaren Vale Shiraz. Australian Shiraz – typically generically labelled as from “South Australia” –  competed on price. Bottles were often adorned with critters or the like. An argument could be made that it cheapened Syrah’s brand equity. Also likely: consumers simply tired of Shiraz. This helps to explain in part the boom and bust of Australian Shiraz, and why Argentinian Malbec’s stock is now stagnant. The wine industry may be more similar to financial markets than we’d like to think.

There’s hope on the horizon, however. Washington brought in a record 21,000 tons of Syrah in 2016. It trails only Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot as the most planted variety in the state. Both Washington and the Okanagan have established a reputation for the variety. “British Columbia is renowned for outstanding Syrah,” writes acclaimed wine critic Ian D’Agata.

At Phantom Creek, our estate vineyards also have a recognized history with Syrah. Anthony Gismondi has written that Phantom Creek Vineyard, planted in 1996, is “a great site for Syrah.” And there’s no question that the wines we have in barrel are distinctly and uniquely Okanagan Syrah. We’ll proudly put “Syrah” on the label.

So, we’re bullish about the future for Syrah in the South Okanagan.

On Fine Wine

As an MW student, you’re supposed to be able to quickly and concisely define key terms. I never quite managed a definition for “fine wine”.

If fine wine somehow related to price, the concept would be less abstract. Sure, we could argue over the appropriate price range for a bottle to be considered “fine”. It could be any wine over $50. Or maybe $100.

A price-based approach is more fitting for terms like “luxury wine”. Within the global wine industry, Dr. Liz Thach MW classifies “luxury wine” as a bottle priced from $100-499. An “icon wine” is one from $500-999. These are wines that have to be perceived as unattainable. Consequently, the notion of luxury is just as much a function of marketing as it is what’s in the bottle. Of the seven defining attributes of “luxury”, only one has to do with the quality of the product.

But that’s not really what we mean when we talk about fine wine. We’re referring more to the wine itself. Imagine yourself in a marketing void with just four ounces of wine in your glass. Does it taste, well, fine?

It’s a rather laughable question, and demonstrates that this second approach also doesn’t capture the notion of fine wine. It’s not merely a quality judgement. Take the example of two different $30 bottles. You’re served both wines blind. You say, “Both wines are excellent. Why shouldn’t these be considered fine wines?”

Then, you’re shown the labels. The first is from a small, family-owned winery practicing organic and biodynamic principles. The second is from a publically traded company that makes 50,000 cases of this particular SKU per year.

Is one now finer than the other? Ask yourself: which of the two wines would you buy? Even if you liked both wines equally, your perception of the wines has changed.

Jamie Goode has previously said, “I want the good guys to win, not just the guys with big marketing budgets.” We like our underdogs, whether real or perceived. It helps to explain the uproar over Bianca Bosker’s article, Ignore the Snobs, Drink the Cheap, Delicious Wine, in the New York Times. Alder Yarrow, in his articulate response on Vinography, wrote “those of us who know something about wine…have a responsibility to point people towards something better” than mass-market wines.

At this point, you may think it’s unrealistic that both wines showed equally well blind. The biodynamic wine has to be better than the mass-market wine. Maybe it’s a root day, you said to yourself. I’m not so sure.

So, what about fine wine then? I’d argue the term refers to a concept of what wine should be. A quality product that’s not too cheap and made the right way. It’s this last qualification – made the right way – that makes fine wine difficult to define. And open to endless interpretations.