Pointed reviews, pointless policies and the decolonization of Bordeaux
The Final Blend: A look back at 2014
By Anthony Gismondi
It’s been another crazy year in wine, especially in Canada where government involvement in the liquor business, as they like to refer to it, is at an all-time high. Some 365 days ago not a single British Columbia winery was allowed to ‘export’ its wine to the kingdoms of Ontario, Quebec or Alberta and despite numerous photo ops, and vineyard visits, plenty of rhetoric and a televised tastings featuring MPs and their favourite wines, nothing has changed regarding the shipping of Canadian wine within Canada.
It’s worth noting that since British Columbia opened its borders to wines produced from other Canadian provinces our provincial economy has managed to withstand the onslaught of Canadian wine criss-crossing the country one case at a time.
Whatever progress British Columbia boasts regarding local wine, when it comes to the business of selling wine the province has gone mad in 2014. Pressured to modernise its liquor laws and the business of liquor (there’s that word again) government officials invited every one and their dog to comment on the current state of BC liquor laws. As a result the changes resemble a dog’s breakfast at best.
Refusing to address the number one issue of the highest wine prices on the continent and thinking they could distract consumers by announcing Happy Hours and the sale of wines at farmer’s markets, government has moved to set up a new ‘wholesale’ monopoly responsible for collecting a massive, stage one, ‘wholesale’ tax applied to the landed cost of every bottle of wine in the province. The plan brings the business of buying wine back into government hands where it will be taxed at source before being doled out to the retail sector, one that now includes government stores. From here all retailers will apply their markup (estimates run from a 10 to 40 percent markup) to cover costs and an expected profit margin. That retail price will be further taxed at the cash register as consumers leave the store with the ten percent provincial sales tax applied to all alcohol before it is taxed another five percent by the federal government and voila the highest prices in the nation just got higher.
To be fair government claims their undisclosed formula and pricing won’t raise prices but every model I have been shown points to significant increases to wine over $15 and we all know there is very little worth drinking under $15 in British Columbia. It’s hard to believe government could damage the on-fire local wine industry but blatant favouritism, no wholesale pricing to industry buyers, skewering of the original private wine stores and a stupid grocery store policy have inflamed a lot of people working in the trade selling wine, and that is bound to have an effect on all wine sales.
The idea of a wholesale price is hardly new but this government’s interpretation is so far off the map it’s going to take more than a GPS device to get it back on track. The accepted trade view was along the lines of the Alberta model, charging a flat tax (say $3 a bottle, or whatever the number required) to raise the same tax revenue already collected. After that retailers would be on their own to sell the product at whatever price they fancied and consumers would be free to shop province-wide for the best deal. That right would also be extended to restaurants, hotels, golf clubs, caters etc., allowing them to finally purchase at wholesale prices. Eschewing a real wholesale transaction for the British Columbia trade ensures further growth of the Alberta food and hospitality sector and allowing the wild rose province to attract better wines and people at the expense of the British Columbia hospitality sector. It also fuels the trade in illegal liquor draining millions of dollars from British Columbia into Alberta.
In short, the playing field has been slanted to favour government stores, the only retailer that can supply the needs of restaurants, hotels and clubs. Local wine appears to have escaped unscathed but its involvement in the new grocery store model, BC wine only, will likely end poorly in court when the rest of the world stands up for its rights under several trade agreements. I’m sure grocery store owners are betting on just such a ruling. After all, the wine sweet spot in grocery stores is going to be much closer to $10 a bottle, a number that the vast majority of BCVQA wines can’t compete at. It’s a massive mess to say the least. (Download a copy of the BC Liquor Policy Final Report here)
Ah, but what about the rest of the wine world in 2014?
Was there any good news? I’m glad you asked. In many ways it was a pivotal year especially when it comes to the business of review points and oak.
The 100-point scoring system came under increased assault this year, although personally I still find it useful for the studious wine buyer who knows the reviewer and his or her scale. The problem is over-inflated scores. Wineries can’t help themselves when they get 94 points even if it’s the first review ever published by the reviewer. In fact, the proliferation of high scores especially for ordinary wines has hurt all reviews. Many are predicting that the impending withdrawal of Robert Parker from the everyday world of wine and the rise of social media will render the 100-point system obsolete, but wines will always be reviewed by experts and we don’t see that model disappearing anytime soon.
What has disappeared in large numbers are new oak barrels, or barriques, as the French would say. The reduction in new oak used in many of the best wines worldwide is perhaps the best story of 2014. Larger oak (more liquid-to-wood ratio) older oak, fermentations finished in oak, and a massive rise in the use of concrete has changed the nature of many wines made in both the New and Old World. In many ways it signals the beginning of the end of the worldwide colonization of Bordeaux. Seriously. When you think about it, there are very few places that even resemble Bordeaux around the world yet most set out to make a first growth, Bordeaux style with a lot of new French oak.
Ironically it’s the French concept of terroir that has brought about the sea change in oak as wine growers around the globe seek to make wines that speak to their site. Origin over oak and grape variety is where the best are heading and with the assistance of information and technology it is happening at an accelerated rate. Once you make a wine that tastes like its origin, and by definition no one else’s, it gets easier and easier to be yourself.
Case in point is the concept of ‘Vi de finca,’ a village and vineyard demarcation championed by Alvaro Palacios in Spain. I love what is a simple concept of authenticity that recognises either the village or the vineyard in the village where the wine is made. It takes Priorat to yet another level of authenticity and ultimately protects it from being copied by any other region in the world.
At M. Chapoutier being different and staying different means “paying attention to each plot, listening to the world, the environment, anticipating the needs of the earth”. What I like most about the Chapoutier brand and what should appeal to all wine drinkers is his pride in crafting regional wines with the same dedication given to the most prestigious bottles. He says “the aim is always to convey the same love of wine, to give complete beginners a chance to discover its diversity.”
Like I said it’s been a crazy year but don’t be distracted by the machinations of politics and special interest groups. Wine has never been better and the future has never been brighter. Come to think of it it’s probably why government is sticking its nose into something it shouldn’t be. On the eve of 2015, we can only resolve to continue to track down and report on the most interesting wines in the world. Where you buy them is your business.