What Walker Wants
The worst wine I’ve ever tasted was given to me by a Zen Master. He handed me a slim bottle of Icewine at the end of one of the meditation classes I attended at his Buddhist temple, on the outskirts of Toronto. “A Korean parishioner gave me half a case,” he said, “So take some or the Abbot will drink it all. She’s already gone through one.” I looked across the room at the Abbot, a middle-aged Asian nun. She grimaced at me as I put the wine in my backpack. I’m encouraged to know there are other Buddhists who abuse the vow to abstain from intoxicants.
When I got home and examined the bottle, I was immediately suspicious. There was no winery mentioned on the label — just the words “Riesling ICE Wine.” The alcohol was listed at 14.5 per cent, which is high for Icewine (it’s usually around 10 per cent). Cracking it open didn’t help. The nose reeked of crab apple and wet hamster shavings. Sipping it, I winced from the double blow of sour acidity and cloying sweetness. The finish lingered just long enough to segue into a glucose headache. I guess this is my karma for stealing wine from a nun.
What I had on my hands was one of those frightful imposters made from grape juice concentrate to satisfy Asia’s appetite for Canadian Icewine. I should have known immediately because the bottle lacked a vital mark of authenticity: there was no VQA stamp. The Vintners Quality Alliance is a not-for-profit corporation that acts as Ontario’s fine wine labelling authority. BC also has its own VQA system. These organizations police wine labels to ensure the correct use of our appellations and sub-appellations like “Niagara” or “Beamsville Bench,” as well as industry terms like “Icewine.”
Anyone who loves Canadian wine is used to seeing the grape-cluster imprint of the VQA, signifying that the contents are 100 per cent fresh, local fruit. The mark is critical because it distinguishes locally made wines from “cellared in Canada” wines (that lack the VQA’s stamp). Cheap and popular “cellared” wines are made by several large wineries (like Jackson-Triggs) from grapes imported from Chile and other warmer climes. Connoisseurs tsk-tsk them for lacking personality or terroir, and Canadian growers consider them a blight on the industry because they ruin the demand for a local product.
The VQA/cellared-in-Canada divide is an imperfect system, but at least I thought I understood it. That’s why I was thrown for a loop when I first saw a bottle from one of Niagara’s newest producers, Walker Hall Winery. I was at a party, and a criminal defence lawyer that I had just met handed me a bottle of Walker Hall. “Try this,” he said, “it’s made by one of my clients!” When you think about it, getting your defence counsel to talk up your wine is actually a form of advertising, but not one used by most wineries. I was intrigued.
What intrigued me more was Walker Hall’s label. It had no VQA, but instead boasted the imprimatur of an organization called the “AOCC” or Appellation of Origin Control Canada. I’d never heard of them. Out of the blue, it seemed that VQA had a competitor.
“My father was one of the original growers in the Niagara region, cultivating grapes since the late 1950s,” says James Lukezic, the proprietor of Walker Hall Winery. “He bought the Walker land in the 1970s … My father grew grapes for Baby Duck — that’s how it started in Canada.” Walker Hall is named after Colonel William Walker, a Tory Loyalist who moved from New York State to the Niagara region in the 18th century and built the manor house that still stands in the middle of the Lukezic land.
Like Col. Walker, James Lukezic also migrated between New York and Ontario. “My career started as a banker in New York City and I moonlighted as a wine importer. I started selling Canadian wine and did that with a bit of success.” He returned to Niagara to take the reins at the farm in the 1990s. Soon he decided that instead of selling his grapes to other wineries, he wanted to establish his own winery.
He’s a lover of Ontario wine who has a big problem with the Ontario wine industry. “The single most devastating thing in the Peninsula today is blending foreign juice,” Lukezic told me. “My father believed that in the 1970s and I believe it today. The saving grace was supposed to be the VQA — it started in the right direction with Donna Lailey from Lailey Vineyards — but the organization quickly became controlled by the blending wineries.”
So not only did Lukezic start his winery, but he created his own system of appellations to govern it in place of the VQA. This is the AOCC. The name of this organization immediately reminded me of France’s system of geographic indication for their 300 wine regions, the “AOC” (appellation d’origine contrôlée). The first and only region appellation recognized by the AOCC is the “Walker” region, but its website states applications from other wineries are welcome. The central requirement? “100 per cent Niagara grapes in every year.”
Lukezic’s decision to reject the VQA originated from the time he did business as a wine importer with high end restaurants in the USA. “All the comments and opinions in New York led me to really research appellation control. Sommeliers in New York heard about all the blending and so never trusted anything from Canada … People in New York don’t believe in the guarantee of the VQA, and when I started to peel the onion, I realized they were right.”
He believes that the VQA has ruined its own credibility by allowing Ontario wineries to use foreign juice to supplement their wines during poor vintages. “In bad years, they are allowed to add foreign juice to their Ontario grapes and call it VQA. That’s why places like New York don’t take us seriously; sommeliers in Manhattan have no respect for VQA because it doesn’t mean anything … It’s like going to school and the professor allowing you to grade your own papers. Or cheat.”
Bucking the system is an uncommon but important part of the world of wine. The most famous example is Sassicaia, the Tuscan winery that chafed under the restrictive laws that governed the making of Chianti — rules that many believed encouraged the creation of mediocre wine. Instead of playing ball with the authorities, Sassicaia dropped the “Chianti” designation from their label in the 1970s and made their wine the way they wanted. Now it’s one of the most prestigious estates on the planet.
The only problem with Walker Hall’s gutsy rebellion is that it’s not clear that Lukezic has got his facts right. When I asked Laurie MacDonald, VQA Ontario’s executive director, about VQA allowing foreign juice into wine in short crop years, she said, “That’s just not true. Full stop.” She explained that in bad years, the Ontario government liberalizes its liquor licensing rules so small wineries can use foreign grapes to keep themselves in business even though they don’t have an official blending permit. The last such year was 2005. However, she is not part of this decision and such blended wines are not eligible for the VQA’s stamp. “VQA never allowed foreign juice,” she states, “Ever. Ever.”
Recently, Lukezic has realized that refusing to play ball with the VQA isn’t as easy as it looks. Because VQA is the legally mandated labelling authority, there are many wine terms that you can’t use without its permission. These include specific regions like “Niagara Peninsula,” but also more generic terms like “Meritage.” Even placing “vineyard” or “Ontario” on your wine label is illegal unless your wine meets the VQA standards. Thus, when Walker Hall starting selling wines that used terms like “Icewine” (another protected term), he was charged with breaching the VQA Act — a criminal offence punishable by a fine of up to $100,000.
“These people have gone too far. The VQA has nothing to do with wine — it’s just a labelling authority with way too much power,” says Lukezic. “I’m considering a constitutional challenge. It just costs money.” Recently, the AOCC website shut down and Lukezic replaced the labels on his wine to make it more VQA compliant. MacDonald couldn’t discuss the Walker Hall case because it’s before the courts, but she did note that prosecution is not usually their first reflex. “We have escalating compliance measures. We lay very few charges — we’ve only charged three wineries in 10 years.” For her, it’s a matter of consumer protection. There has to be one authority to act as gatekeeper over important wine terms.
I asked Lukezic if his troubles have affected the sales in Canada. “Absolutely,” he said. “I had a three-year contract with the LCBO, but when they found out I wasn’t VQA, they cancelled the order, knowing damn well that the product was 100 per cent Canadian.” Lukezic says he lost a 3000-case order in the LCBO’s General List, but as a “consolation prize,” Vintages agreed to buy 250 cases from him. “I’m still thinking about whether I want to fill this order — as a matter of principle.” At the time of writing this article, no Walker Hall wines are available at Vintages.
The sad irony of Walker Hall’s prosecution is that its labels weren’t misleading: Lukezic’s wines really were made from 100 per cent Niagara grapes that had been estate bottled. His product isn’t a fraud like the abbot’s Icewine. He just wouldn’t cooperate with the VQA as a matter of high-minded principle — or perhaps stubborn intransigence, depending on your viewpoint. In any case, despite their differences, Laurie MacDonald and James Lukezic seem to agree about one thing: the average consumer is often bewildered by the distinction between a true VQA wine, and bottles marked “cellared in Canada.” And that’s not good for anyone.
Walker Hall Winery Viognier 2008, AOCC Walker Appellation, Canada
Walker Hall’s Viognier starts strong with a lush nose of peach blossoms, green melon and cantaloupe, but the palate isn’t as well-developed. It has mellow hints of apple and Viognier’s typical oily quality, but the overall tone is sour without being zippy. The finish is flat and abbreviated.
Walker Hall Winery Riesling 2008, AOCC Walker Appellation, Canada
This mid-weight Riesling has a nice, clean bouquet with a touch of floral perfume. A complex blend of delicious apple, pear and lychee takes centre stage. However, these flavours fail to cohere — this wine is a teenager still in the awkward phase. Hopefully future vintages will come to fill the palate.
Walker Hall Winery Chardonnay 2008, AOCC Walker Appellation, Canada
This is an unoaked Chardonnay made from a decent vintage. I blind tasted this bottle during an informal tasting of Niagara Chardonnays. It did not keep pace with its peers. The fruit was half-ripened and it lacked any distinctive varietal character. This is a tart, ungenerous wine.