Dialogue

Malcolm Jolley’s unconventional career, and some holiday wine recommendations

A customer pours a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau wine in a restaurant of Boulogne Billancourt, outside Paris, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. Christophe Ena/AP Photo.

Today’s Hub Dialogue is with journalist, entrepreneur, and The Hub’s bi-weekly wine columnist, Malcolm Jolley. He’s had a fascinating career in think tanks, journalism, marketing, and a new and exciting venture called Malcolm’s Wine Box

The dialogue covers Jolley’s unique career, his entry into the world of wine, and his recommendations for Hub readers for the holiday season.

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

SEAN SPEER: Malcolm, we’ve been so honoured to publish your bi-weekly column at The Hub, which we frequently hear from readers is their favourite content on our site. I’m glad to be able to speak to you today.

MALCOLM JOLLEY: Thanks for having me. 

SEAN SPEER: You’ve had a diverse and interesting career. Just by way of a biography, how did you get into the world of journalism on one hand, and the world of wine on the other hand?

MALCOLM JOLLEY: I’m not sure. By accident really. I had a very short career at the McGill Daily, where at least I learned the principle of inverted pyramids and a little bit about journalism. I was an English major as an undergraduate. Then I worked in marketing for a couple of years, during which I was able to develop some of the skills that I needed to draw on later. Because to be the kind of journalist I am, you have to figure out how to market your content and market yourself. 

Then I took a detour following the girl who I was dating at the time and who later became my wife. I went to law school, so I could stop losing arguments to her. Law school is great; I highly recommend it. It changed the way I thought, but I figured out that I probably wasn’t going to be a very good lawyer because I didn’t like reading cases. They bored me to death. 

I was lucky enough though to have a roommate who was a year ahead of me, and he could tell that my prospects of getting a Bay Street law job were pretty small. He said, “Why don’t you go see my friend Rudyard [Griffiths], who had just started this think tank about Canadian history?” because I happen to love Canadian history and Canadian politics. So, I went and saw Rudyard who was in the midst of launching the Dominion Institute, and he offered me a summer job in between my second and third year of law school. My first job was to raise the money to pay my salary. It was literally the two of us in one room in the old Flatiron Building, and the Dominion Institute was really exciting because we were like a start-up. I mean, this is the mid-1990s. It’s the age of the start-up. That was certainly Rudyard’s philosophy, and I clicked into that. 

When it was time for me to leave law school, and I didn’t have a law job, I just stayed with the institute. That was a really fascinating, dynamic place, where we were building these new things called websites, and figuring out how to do that, and also doing our own public relations, and commissioning interesting pieces from really cool, serious writers. So, out of that experience, I sort of began to set a path. 

As the institute became more established, that start-up ethos had diminished, and it was time for me to do something else. Rudyard had to administer this real organization, so I went back into marketing and did that for a few more years with an agency. But I always loved food and wine, and I saw a vacuum in Canada that wasn’t being met. My in-laws live in the UK, and I would go over to England and the newspapers were full of food and wine articles, whereas here there’d be like one page in the weekend paper, and the recommended recipe would only get a colour picture if the ad next to it also had colour in it. The mainstream media, in other words, was, by and large, neglecting this market. 

So, in 2004, I quit my job and started a website called Gremolata.com, which I believe was the first food and wine-focused online magazine in Canada, and I kind of just made it up as I went along. And part of that was covering wine because I was frustrated as a young man with not a lot of money in my wine budget. I found that if I read the paper of record in Toronto, the suggested wines were like $30-$40—I couldn’t afford them, because it was written for collectors. Or if I read the people’s paper in the city, the wines were like $7 and they were not very good. They were cheap, but they were not very good. So, I said “Okay, I got to find that sweet spot in the middle, say between $15 and $20,” at the time, and I couldn’t afford to hire anyone, so I had to do it. And, lo and behold, I discovered this world where you could go to tastings and they would pour wine for you, and you didn’t have to pay for it. It was amazing. And along the way, I discovered that there were people like me who were looking for this kind of content. 

SEAN SPEER: How does one build expertise in wine? Malcolm Gladwell has this theory about the number of hours someone has to invest in a particular field in order to develop the requisite expertise and skill. Is that what it’s like for wine? Is that what it takes to develop the expertise that you now display at The Hub every two weeks?

MALCOLM JOLLEY: Yes, and to be fair, I’m still a layperson. I’ve never worked as a sommelier. I’ve picked a few grapes for fun, but I’ve never done serious apprenticeships in a winery or anything like that. So, I always came to the world of wine as a journalist who was curious, and my job was to talk to the experts and use my communication skills to broadcast that knowledge to a wider audience. Now, there are actual wine experts who become Masters of Wine or Master Sommeliers, and that’s a much more rigorous, pedagogical journey that they have to go through. 

I may have written about this in my last column, but the big difference between wine professionals and wine amateurs is access. Once you can accredit yourself as being in the media or trade, then people will actually try and get wine in front of you. It may not be the one that you want, but you’ll collect experience and get to those 10,000 hours that Gladwell talks about. I was very lucky. When I started, I had a friend whose father was a wine agent, so he showed me some of the ropes. 

As much as there are Gladwell’s 10,00 hours, there’s Woody Allen’s axiom, “99 percent of life is just showing up.” So, if you declare yourself to be a wine trade or wine expert, and you go to a tasting at two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, you’re there and other people aren’t, because they’re doing honest work somewhere else. But you can develop knowledge, relationships, and a perspective that you can then share with others.

SEAN SPEER: One thing that readers will have heard in our conversation thus far is an inherent entrepreneurialism to you and your work. That persists to this present. You’re in the midst of launching a new project called Malcolm’s Wine Box. Why don’t you just tell us a bit about this new project and how it builds on some of these previous experiences that you’ve had? 

MALCOLM JOLLEY: Well, I’ve rendered myself unemployable, so I have no other options but to create my own jobs. Just as I was saying, the real difference between the pros and amateurs in wine is access, and it’s very hard to decide whether you want to invest in wine without tasting it. The people who sell wine know this, which is why they’re actually looking for opportunities to put wine in front of people. Because if they match your palate with their product, they’ve got a customer. 

So, Malcolm’s Wine Box, or www.mjwinebox.com, is my attempt to expand that into the consumer world with a sample wine box. We’re very geographically specific right now in downtown Toronto, but I hope to grow it. And then, of course, also to have some more behind-the-scenes wine stuff and content to build around that. I love what I do and I love The Hub, but I don’t think The Hub is going to publish five wine columns a week from me. So Malcolm’s Wine Box is a great way to combine my journalism, with my interest in web-based marketing, wine, and sharing my knowledge and experience with people. 

SEAN SPEER: Congratulations, Malcolm. It sounds like a great project. In a nutshell, customers or members of Malcolm’s Wine Box will get a combination of curated samples, as well as some of the deeper, foundational thinking and analysis that goes into the curation process, and some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that people may not know about when they’re looking on those massive shelves at the LCBO. Is that the intention?

MALCOLM JOLLEY: That’s the intention, but not just shelves on a website. A lot of the best wine isn’t available on the shelves, particularly in the provincial monopoly markets, like here in Ontario. So, to get access to these small allotments, you have to commit to a case of wine, and that’s a big commitment if you open the first bottle and realize you don’t want to drink the next eleven, which happens. So, this is a way to try and sample a taste, and then if you like it, you can go in and get more. 

SEAN SPEER: Before we wrap up with some recommendations for our readers in the context of the holiday season, you mentioned the distribution and retail monopoly in Ontario. Maybe just more broadly, how should Canadians think about their relative standing in the global world of wine. There are some parts of the country that sort of pride themselves as being major wine producers. I’m thinking for instance of the Niagara region in Ontario and parts of the Okanagan in British Columbia. As someone who’s put the hours in, how do you think we measure up? Do Canadian wines, in your view, perform reasonably well?

MALCOLM JOLLEY: Yes, they do. I mean, the great wine miracle of the last 50 years is that production has been standardized and understood such that with enough money you can make good wine pretty much anywhere. The problem is whether it’s marketable, and as Canadians, we actually pay a premium for our fine wines. We’ll pay more for, let’s say, a very well-made Okanagan or Niagara wine than we would necessarily from one from the South of France or Argentina, and a lot of that is just labour costs. It’s expensive to make wine in a developed country, and we also don’t subsidize in the same way the European Union does. So yes, we do. We win awards, and there is a growing market in the very high collector, fine wine restaurant world for Canadian wines. But we’re still by far a net importer of wine. So, in terms of our place in the wine world, it’s still far more as consumers than producers. 

SEAN SPEER: Let’s wrap up with those consumers in mind. I suspect many of our readers like me will be making wine, beer, and alcohol purchases, maybe even this weekend, for the holiday season. Are there any pieces of advice or recommendations you may have for those of us who haven’t thought as deeply or spent as much time as you have in the world of wine?

MALCOLM JOLLEY: Well, that’s a good question, Sean. Every two weeks at The Hub, I try and figure out about these things. I mean, the last thing I wrote about was residual sugar, which, one of the cool things about our monopoly system, is they tell you how much sugar is in wine. And this is something we don’t often think about so often. To keep alcohol levels down, winemakers will keep sugar up, and you might not want that much sugar in your wine. So, that’s like a small pro tip. 

Generally speaking, I think it’s very hard to make wine that’s going to be palatable for under $10. It happens. No, I take that back. It doesn’t happen. So, I’m always I’m very cautious about anything under $15. 

If you’re shopping in places like Ontario, where there are the main shelves and then there are specialty areas, what are called Vintages here, I almost always stop there because that’s where small allotments of wine come in and out, and medium-size producers don’t like to send different parts of wine all over the world. That’s a chance to try something that may also be auditioning for a bigger allotment. So, often the bargains are there. 

I like Mediterranean wine, so I tend to buy a lot of stuff from Spain, the South of France, and Italy, because I think, with some exceptions across the board in all three countries, there are still very good bargains there, especially from sort of emerging regions that don’t have the marquis names. South Africa, I think, is really undervalued, and they’ve had a really hard COVID, so I sentimentally feel like I want to help them out. But as I say, there’s no place that makes bad wine. I mean, every place makes bad wine, but there’s no place that doesn’t make good wine. So, keep an open mind. I think the best thing is to buy a couple of different things, and then go back and buy more of what you like.

SEAN SPEER: Well, those are terrific insights. Malcolm. Let me just reiterate how grateful we’ve been to have you contributing every two weeks at The Hub. I hear frequently from friends that it’s the column that people are most anticipating each month. We look forward to your ongoing contributions in 2022 and thanks so much for your insights and advice today.

MALCOLM JOLLEY: My absolute pleasure.

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