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Sean Speer: The Olympics can be a modern redemption story for Canadian nationalism

Commentary

The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo are being held at an unusual moment in Canadian national life.

Not only are we facing the nagging uncertainty of the pandemic and the prospect of an unpopular federal election campaign, but the country has been going through a reckoning about its historic failings of Indigenous peoples and broader questions about its ongoing worthiness. Subdued Canada Day celebrations, including their cancellation in as many as 50 municipalities, reflected these complicated public sentiments about our imperfect past and present.

This perceived gap between Canada’s high-minded ideals and its actual record seemed, at least temporarily, to have sapped a collective sense of good feelings about the country. That one third of respondents told pollsters in late June that they believe “Canada is a racist country” didn’t bode well for overwhelming expressions of patriotism in the context of the Olympic games. Half mast flags across the country symbolized this current spirit of nationalistic ambivalence.

Yet as the Olympics enter their second full week, it’s been impossible not to be swept up by the athleticism, determination, and youthfulness of the Canadian team. The performances of our female athletes, in particular, have been the source of great entertainment and tremendous pride in recent days.

Penny Oleksiak, Margaret Mac Neil, and others haven’t just dazzled us with their amazing personal accomplishments. They’ve reminded us that, notwithstanding the country’s imperfections, there’s still something worth celebrating about Canada. It’s a big idea that transcends sport and speaks to deeper, more fundamental questions about nationalism, identity, and our common experience.

This may be an anecdotal and non-empirical observation, but I’ve found myself more invested in this year’s Olympics than previous ones. A big part of that may reflect my own personal circumstances (including the ongoing pandemic restrictions) but, at some level, I cannot help but think it’s driven by an elusive search for something aspirational and positive at a time of such uncertainty and despair. At the precise moment that the idea of Canada is facing unprecedented scrutiny, I’m sub-consciously searching for something good to believe in.

I suspect my sample size of one may be representative of others who similarly have been following the Olympics more closely than usual. More than 2.35 million viewers tuned into watch Mac Neil win gold in the women’s 100-metre butterfly. And more than half of all Canadians had watched CBC television coverage of the games overall as of a week ago.

The relationship between the Olympics and Canadian nationalism isn’t new.

This year’s Olympics have provided Canada with the basis of a modern redemption story: the country’s best athletes (many of whom belong to ethnic or religious minorities) have been given the implicit responsibility of helping to rebuild a sense of Canadian nationalism.

It’s fair to say that they’re succeeding. The Olympic model of head-to-head competition between athletes representing individual countries is arguably one of the most powerful expressions of nationalism in the modern age. Seeing our athletes compete and win in such a high-pressure context invariably produces a sense of unity and pride. It’s an opportunity to temporarily suspend contentious debates about colonialism, genocide, and systemic racism and just feel good about the country for a moment.

Canada’s athletes represent the fundamental promise of the highly imperfect yet fundamentally aspirational Confederation project: the notion that Canada and its peoples were not only capable of, but were indeed predestined for, greatness. Oleksiak, who at the age of 21 has already become Canada’s most decorated Olympian ever, personifies the best aspects of this aspirational impulse.

The whole experience has reminded me of Churchill’s famous 1951 remark about Canada: “There are no limits to the majestic future which lies before the mighty expanse of Canada with its virile, aspiring, cultured, and generous-hearted people.”

It would seem that Oleksiak and the rest of the Canadian female swim team have internalized this insight. They’ve embodied the Churchillian no-limits ethos as evidenced by their impressive medal performances (and still counting) against the world’s best competition. That’s bound to stir up some nationalistic feelings.

The relationship between the Olympics and Canadian nationalism isn’t new, by the way. In March 2010, Ipsos polled Canadians on behalf of The Historica-Dominion Institute in the days following the Vancouver Olympics (which were held between February 10 and February 28, 2010) to determine whether they had contributed to a stronger sense of Canadian nationalism.

The data were quite overwhelming. Consider the following:

  • 80 percent of respondents self-described as “Canadian nationalists”
  • 94 percent said they were “proud of [their] country”
  • 90 percent said that if they could live in any country in the world, they’d select Canada
  • 83 percent said that “Canada’s Olympic athletes” inspired them

I’ve always had a hypothesis that this nationalistic boost that followed from the Vancouver games contributed to the Conservative government’s majority win in the following 2011 election. As the political party most comfortable with a positive view of the country and its history, Conservatives were uniquely positioned to benefit from these elevated public sentiments of patriotism and pride.

(This hasn’t changed much either: according to the Angus Reid Institute, only 18 percent of Conservatives believe Canada is an inherently racist country, compared to 38 percent of Liberals and 55 percent of New Democrats.)

One wonders if we’ll see a similar nationalistic surge in the aftermath of the Tokyo games. We could sure use it right about now.

While the recent reckoning with Canada’s historic failings and renewed efforts to bring voice to marginalized and discriminated peoples are a crucial part of the process of reconciliation, we shouldn’t lose sight of the inherent promise of our country and society. It’s precisely what enables us to confront these past wrongs and continue to make progress towards our idealized vision of the country and ourselves.

In that sense, Canada’s Olympians are a metaphor for our own ongoing pursuit of individual and collective improvement. I’m rooting for them and the rest of “the virile, aspiring, cultured, and generous-hearted people” who make up this country.

How to find the sweet spot in the cost of a bottle of wine

Commentary

How much should a bottle of wine cost? This question reminds me of Marshall McLuhan’s answer to the question of what is art: “anything you can get away with.”

I used to think of that line a lot when I looked over a restaurant wine list in the pre-COVID days. Being close to the trade, I knew the “licensee price” of most of the wines and could calculate by degrees of precision the mark-up. Often there would be no set formula. Some wines would be well marked-up, while others (maybe favourites of the house) would be modestly so.

Restaurants, of course, have lots of very good reasons to mark-up the wines they sell, like making payroll, rent and keeping the lights on. The margins in the fine dining hospitality business are notoriously low, and after the last year and a half one can only imagine the depths of the holes out of which surviving restaurants must now dig.

One surprising development out of the COVID shutdowns in Toronto was the willingness of many consumers to pay restaurant mark-ups for wines at impromptu “bottle shops” that were hastily formed when the provincial government allowed take-out liquor sales. Context matters, and we’ll pay more for a wine when it’s part of a special occasion (see Champagne).

The retail world is a different matter. Just under half of the wine sold in the world is “bulk,” which is to say it’s not initially sold in bottles, but more likely in tanks, to be bottled or boxed by the initial buyer, as a consumer good that costs around $10 for a standard 750 ml bottle or less. Even in the markets for “bottled wine,” that has been bottled where it was made, anything that costs more than ten American dollars is considered “premium.”

If, and when, I am asked if I have found any good wines lately, I always ask for a price range before I answer. In anticipation of being asked again, as our double vaccinated social lives begin to resume their pre-March 2019 pace, I thought I would organize my answers in a general way below. Prices are for a standard 750 ml bottle of still wine, bought off of a shelf, and intended to be drunk soon.

$10 and under

Cheap wine is often a false economy, especially the next morning. It costs money to make wine all throughout the creative process, from farming, to production, to bottling, to transportation and distribution, and to marketing. It also takes time to ferment and form. Any wine that sells for $10 or less is very likely going have cut corners in at least one of those things. So the trick to finding anything decent is to look for wines where there is an external factor that keeps costs low. More often that’s cheap labour, coupled with a favourable exchange rate. There are good wines from South America and South Africa that float around this price point for this reason. Alternatively, there are concept wines from Spain and Portugal that take advantage of surplus production there, and a ready market in Northern Europe. In my home province of Ontario, the liquor monopoly publishes the sugar levels in all the wines they sell. I am generally wary of any wine with a residual sugar level of more than six grams per litre. At $10 or less it’s worth checking this level.

$10-$15

The low end “premium” level of wine is less fraught with cut corners. I look for organic wines from South America or South Africa, or co-operative wines from Southern Europe. I realize that recognizing a co-operative wine is a bit of insider baseball, so put another way, wines from regions of France or Italy where rock stars don’t buy estates and there is no longer a landed gentry. As with the previous price tier, I find sugar levels a relatively good indicator of quality: a wine with lower sugar may have higher alcohol, but unpleasant flavours won’t be masked with sweetness. A wine with only two grams per litre of residual sugar is probably not trying to hide anything.

$16-$20

This is my sweet spot and the price point that drove me to become a wine writer nearly 20 years ago. The two newspapers that I read in the early 2000s had wine critics, but they almost always ignored this category. The populist paper stuck to wines at $10 or less, while the critic at the haute-bourgeois paper (who I respect very much) tended to write about wines for collectors that began at $40 and up. I started a newsletter to tell my friends and family about the great deals for $20 and less.

These days, a lot of those $20 wines now cost $30 or more, but new ones from emerging regions have taken their place. Furthermore, the places that a generation ago made $20 wine, that now costs twice as much, also make second or third wines from younger vines or parcels that don’t quite make the grade of their flagship bottling. But they are still made to the same high standard. So, the producer from Vacqueras that I used to buy from regularly 20 years ago has doubled their estate bottling, but now they have a Côtes-du-Rhône that’s great and benefits from those extra two decades of winemaking skill and relationships with local growers. It’s in this price level that exciting things happen. Watch this space for more, and more specific, coverage.

$21-$50

This premium price range is a minefield. The greatest value per mouthful of wines exist here. This year a $30 wine made a few years ago in a corner of Northern Italy might cost $60 next year because they sold out their allotments in Milan, New York and Montreal. This is to say, if as a consumer you win in this level, you win big. This also the level of top of most restaurant wine lists. So, if you order something you really like for $70-$90 at your local bistro, Google it and order a case from the importer at least half the price. It’s also full of giant turkeys. Wines that are way over valued and and trading reputations that ought to have expired a long time ago.

This is also zone where most well made Canadian wines live. It costs more money to make wine in Canada than nearly anywhere else in the world, and our industry doesn’t benefit from the kind of help that is on offer to agricultural industries in the EU. If you want to drink local, then you’re going to have to pay more. That’s just the way it is, at least for now.

$50-$99

After $50 wine pricing is more about demand and scarcity of supply than anything else. There are, for instance only so many acres of vines in the Napa Valley or the Côte-d’Or, and there are millions of people who want to drink the wines. It’s Economics 101. There is value in these wines in so far that one might buy one today from a recent vintage at $60 and find in ten years that it’s now worth $200.

At any price, wines that cost this much ought to be very good. That is to say they should be in balance and showing some complexity or distinct and pleasing character. And generally, in my experience, they are. Though sadly, not always.

$100+

The New York City restaurateur, sommelier and winemaker, Joe Bastianich writes in his memoir, Restaurant Man (2012) that no wine should cost more than $100. What he means is that all the best inputs, from the the site of the vines, to the cost of hand farming to the craft in the cellar, could exceed this price for 750 millilitres of what is mostly rain water and molecules of alcohol. This is a man who has made a lot of money selling a lot of wines that cost much more so, of course, he knows there are many wines that are worth much, much more to many.

I have been fortunate in my life to have been put in front of many wines that pull more demand than supply. There is a magical quality to tasting them, since it’s not just about what they taste like, per se, it’s also strongly about the experience of tasting them. If I really liked to drive, then I believe I would want to try driving a Ferrari, if only just to find out what it was like. The concept of value with these experiential wines becomes meaningless. Just drink them if you got them.

Coda

Very early in my career as food and wine journalist, I interviewed Jancis Robinson, who may be the English speaking world’s most respected wine critic and was a gracious subject to a young man who was clearly out of his depth. In the mid-2000’s, she impressed upon me a two-sided coin view of the wine world, which was really exploding. On the one hand, she lamented that the great Grand and Premier Cru wines were increasingly only being tasted by oligarchs and top end critics like herself as their cost climbed and climbed to stratospheric heights. On the other hand, she told me, the quality of regular table wines had never been better and would only improve. She was right then, as she is now.