Canada’s Wine & Food Culture: Something’s Missing

Rhys Pender, MW

Rhys Pender, MW

Admittedly, this article is a bit of a rant, a lot of head scratching, reflection and question asking, all blended with opinions. It is about Canadian wine and food culture, or the lack of it.

The Canadian wine and food scenes have come an incredibly long way over recent decades. Until recently there was no real Canadian cuisine, and the wine industry was set more on maximizing subsidies than making quality wine. Now there are  exciting, regionally driven, locally supported wine industries to be proud of in four provinces. However, in spite of this achievement, and wines that continue to climb higher and higher in terms of quality, there is something missing in wine and food culture in most of Canada (perhaps with the exception of Quebec). What is missing is where the two cultures come together, the understanding and, more importantly, the pairing and enjoying wine and food as one as common practice.

There are certainly many reasons why the culture of matching wine and food in Canada is not as advanced as in some parts of the world, but that doesn’t make the fact that culture is lacking any less disappointing. While chefs, farmers and the media have worked hard to build an enviable local-based Canadian food scene and passionate winemakers and grape growers have followed on from the hardworking pioneers to produce wines that are starting to be a real, and really interesting, reflection of their Canadian terroir, there has been very little crossover between the two fields. It begs the question why?

One might ask, isn’t this the job of sommeliers? Trained sommeliers, working across the country in restaurants, are doing their bit to help the cause, but their playing field is almost exclusively high end restaurants and clubs, circumventing most Canadians who can’t afford to eat out in top spots. The low end restaurants, where the Joe average can afford to eat regularly, generally have terrible wine lists, seemingly purchased purely on price, and staff who know little about the food or the wine they are serving. The customer, with little guidance, ends up settling for some large, uninspiring brand and the likely overall restaurant food and wine experience is unmemorable. It is not surprising then, when glancing at diners in a restaurant, to see so many tables going without wine altogether. There is no incentive to develop any food and wine culture in this environment. Contrast this with restaurants in most of Europe where even the inexpensive and casual places have staff who seem to know, at least, the local wines and wine is so part of the meal it is regularly included in the affordable prix-fixe menus.

pairings restaurantThe culture of pricing wine in restaurants also does little to encourage consumers to embrace food and wine pairing. Most restaurants choose to use a percentage markup system, essentially punishing their customers by taking higher profits as they order better wines. The result of this? Consumers will dumb down their purchases, ending up with a lesser quality pairing experience and no gains made to the advancement of wine and food culture. Could a flat rate per bottle not encourage greater interest and passion, not to mention maybe more bums on seats in the restaurant? Restaurants in most other western countries get by with much lower wine margins and seem to survive. I know I personally would eat out more often if wine was not so expensive.

The media, too, has done little to join wine and food, typically focusing its attentions on one area or the other. When trying, as so many media outlets seem to end up doing to survive, to become “lifestyle” publications, they generally end up doing a terrible job of covering both. Watching cooking shows in the United Kingdom, Australia or New Zealand, there is always a link to wine and how it pairs with whatever has just been cooked, but in North America this is a rarity.

Why is Quebec seemingly an exception to all this? It is not only the ties to the culture of the French, the famous devourers of all things food and wine, but some stronger link to and passion about their terroir. A wine and food culture is deeply engrained not just in fine restaurants but also in the home. And a true wine and food culture can only exist when it is part of daily life, not a one off experience.

The pairing culture in Quebec seems to penetrate all walks of life. Wine lists in Montreal are loaded with food friendly, crisp and mineral whites and juicy, savoury red wines that are made for the table. Contrast this with lists in much of Canada centred around big brands and big wines that are generally the worst for successful food and wine pairings. Culture can’t be forced on us and it certainly takes time to evolve. Many of the diverse cultures who settled Canada, and made it the patchwork quilt it is today, still maintain strong food traditions. Maybe, simply, it was only the Quebecers who were settled with any wine culture?

If we want to start the cultural change for Canada’s wine and food culture to develop, more needs to be done from all angles. Some of the less expensive restaurants could benefit from some consulting and staff training to get a basic, but interesting, wine program together. I think it is fair that if a server expects to be tipped then it is fair that they should know a little bit more about what they serve, both wine and food. Media needs to help bring the culture of wine and food into the home and sommeliers and educators need to promote wine and food as a part of everyday life, not some snobby form of luxury lifestyle.

The liquor laws in Canada have certainly not helped. Provincial liquor boards and licensers have somehow managed to make buying and drinking wine feel Rhys BC storesomehow morally wrong, giving the feeling that the prohibitionists are watching, looking down their noses at you. Exorbitant percentage based markups again have the effect of dumbing down the experience. This has the effect of driving the sales to the low priced big brands, those often doing little to support or care about quality driven, terroir based wines and great food and wine experiences. And the profits are usually sent out of the country to large corporations.

What if liquor boards focused their attention on interesting, high quality, hand picked wines, had a flat per bottle markup and then trained staff to be able to share information on the wines? The result would be better experiences for the customer and lower prices in restaurants. Sales of wine might increase in all channels, helping to further a culture of quality. Unfortunately the provinces are addicted to the profits rather than building any culture.

There are some positive trends, but they always end up preaching more to the already converted. Winemakers’ dinners and programs like Gold Medal Plates help to celebrate Canadian bounty, both wine and food. The British Columbia Wine Institute has launched a Perfect Pairings program to promote the best of BC, but none of these reach regular Canadians and let them see how much benefit, both gastronomically and on a larger scale of things that matter, great local wine and food combinations can bestow.

Maybe at the end of the day regular Canadians don’t care. But if they don’t, the erosion of wine and food culture will continue, and the proliferation of increasingly dumbed down wine and food experiences will intensify. Money will flow to the big corporations and small and local will become even smaller. Hope springs from mini success stories such as the rise of organic foods and success of farmers’ markets and city gardens.

The wine world seems to be going in two ways, simplified, sweet and manipulated wines are growing their market share at an alarming rate while at the same time a counter culture of quality, terroir driven and individual wines are fighting back, winning small successes. The trick is getting these stories to the masses, getting people to care and feel good both about where they are spending their money, and discovering the joy that wine and food culture can bring. The food and wine Canada is growing and making is certainly deserving of a culture around its enjoyment.


Rhys Pender, MW

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