Wine festivals help build, develop & grow a region’s wine community

By / Wine + Drinks / January 5th, 2017 / 21

Wine festivals serve many purposes. They help to expose and educate consumers about wine. They play significant roles in raising money for hundreds of charitable and community organizations and they can provide invaluable learning experiences for those in the industry.

An often-overlooked aspect of many wine festivals is their ability to build, develop and grow a region’s wine community. The Vancouver International Wine Festival is certainly a model for other festivals to closely examine in this respect.

From its humble beginnings in 1979, the Vancouver International Wine Festival has grown to become one of the world’s most respected wine events.

I spent a week in Vancouver as a panelist for a number of seminars, attending tastings and generally getting a sense of the city’s wine culture. The festival’s numbers are impressive: 155 wineries from 14 countries pouring 1470 wines at 55 events to 25,000 wine-loving attendees. But what struck me most about the Vancouver International Wine Festival is how it brings the city’s wine community together.

Hundreds of servers, managers, sommeliers, chefs and wine retailers paid to attend seminars and tastings open only to those working in the wine and hospitality industry. Seminar topics ranged from those focusing on Italy (the festival’s feature country) to highlighting wines that should receive greater attention. Of note, all the seminars ($50-90 each) sold out almost immediately (many of them with over 80 attendees and one in particular with close to 160), a testament to the value the trade in Vancouver place on wine education. It is unfortunate that trade in many cities have an expectation that they should be able to attend all seminars, tastings and events for free, thereby devaluing the very industry of which they are a part.

There were also informal off-the-schedule educational industry gatherings. Ian D’Agata (VinItaly International’s scientific advisor and Decanter contributing editor), considered by many to be the world’s leading authority on Italian wine, attended the festival and led several seminars on indigenous grape varieties. D’Agata also covers the Canadian wine industry for Vinous. An informal tasting of Canadian wines with some of the city’s top sommeliers was arranged for D’Agata by Vancouver-based wine writer, educator and VinItaly International Academy Italian wine expert Michaela Morris. Numerous other informal gatherings took place over the course of the week.

It was the Celebrating Excellence Awards, though, that truly exemplified the significance placed on building the region’s wine culture. Hundreds gathered on a Friday afternoon to recognize, among others, the Sommelier of the Year (Alistair Veen of Tap), Spirited Industry Professional Award (Norman Gladstone of International Cellars) and the Wine Program Excellence Awards.

The objective of the wine program awards is to reward restaurateurs who make the effort to go beyond just accumulating a list of great wines. It is about creating an experience for the diners. Of course this involves selecting wines that have an affinity for the restaurant’s food and having knowledgeable staff that have the ability to convey information to each diner’s comfort level. The wine program awards are not limited to entries from BC, and several restaurants from outside the province entered. Frankly, I’m not sure why any restaurant that possesses a decent wine program would not enter. It’s potentially great exposure and at the very least it would give an indication of how the restaurant’s wine program compared with its peers and how it needs to improve.

Platinum Wine Program Award winners were:

  • Blue Water Café & Raw Bar (Vancouver)
  • Chambar (Vancouver)
  • Gotham Steakhouse & Bar (Vancouver)
  • Hawksworth (Vancouver)
  • Vij’s (Vancouver)
  • Cilantro (Calgary)
  • Divino Wine & Cheese Bistro (Calgary)
  • The Lake House (Calgary)

During the awards luncheon, I wondered about the restaurant wine culture throughout cities in western Canada. Calgary may have some exceptions, but most cities still have a significant amount of work to do to evolve their industry’s wine culture.

Part of the issue may be an absence of true working sommeliers. A true somm (the term gets misused and abused too often) works in a restaurant and his/her job is dedicated to the wine program. They are not serving food and bussing tables. And while having a somm in and of itself will not ensure a great wine program, having someone, somm or not, who is educated, knowledgeable and experienced and whose main focus is building a quality, creative and interesting wine program cannot be overstated.

Wine and food together contribute the majority of a restaurant’s income. Restaurants have chefs that are dedicated to the food. How could they not have a professional dedicated to the wine program if it is to receive the attention it deserves? Not having one diminishes both the importance of having a quality wine program and ignores the depth of knowledge required. It then stands to reason that without professionals dedicated to wine programs, how do you build a wine community within a city’s culinary industry?

Another issue is that too many restaurateurs still create their wine lists not based on quality, but instead on what’s commercially popular or which wine rep has the biggest promotional budget.

The focus should be on quality and interesting wines with a sense of place, wineries that are committed to sustainable practices and how the wines actually complement the food as opposed to how many free bottles the importer will provide. And a greater emphasis needs to be placed on staff education, so that when a diner asks a question, the server’s response will be more insightful than “the Malbec sells the most.”

Many restaurateurs have spent a significant amount of time, effort and resources developing and evolving their food, craft beer and cocktail programs, and it shows. Their wine programs deserve the same attention. And once they receive it, the wine industry community will also grow, evolve and come together. But it takes time, effort and commitment. Just look at Vancouver.


Editor-in-chief for Quench Magazine, Gurvinder Bhatia left a career practising law to pursue his passion for wine and food. Gurvinder is also the wine columnist for Global Television Edmonton, an international wine judge and the president of Vinomania Consulting. Gurvinder was the owner/founder of Vinomania wine boutique for over 20 years (opened in 1995, closed in 2016) which was recognized on numerous occasions as one of the 20 best wine stores in Canada. Gurvinder was the wine columnist for CBC Radio for 11 years and is certified by Vinitaly International in Verona Italy as an Italian Wine Expert, one of only 15 people currently in the world to have earned the designation. In 2015, Gurvinder was named by Alberta Venture Magazine as one of Alberta’s 50 Most Influential People. He is frequently asked to speak locally, nationally and internationally on a broad range of topics focussing on wine, food, business and community.

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