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How Oregon wine came back to Canada

Commentary

In 1974 Dick Erath began to experiment with French clones of the Pinot Noir grape in the Dundee Hills of Oregon.

Until then, Oregon winemakers had used California clones, expecting to replicate the success of Northern California wineries in the Pacific Northwest. Erath was himself was a transplanted Californian who had graduated from the University of California’s Davis in the late 1960’s before more or less homesteading his winery. His experiments with the so-called ‘Dijon’ clones paid off and by the mid-1980’s he was winning awards and the wines of Oregon began to come into their own and receive recognition beyond state lines.

That first wave of popularity reached as far as Canada and by the late 80s and early 90s Oregon wines found their way to store shelves and wine lists north of the border. They found a niche audience, somewhere between the big fruit wines of Napa and Sonoma and the more reserved and elegant Pinot Noir of Burgundy. Canada looked like a pretty good market to Oregon wine producers until all of a sudden it didn’t when the economy faltered and the Canadian dollar began to sharply decline in value.

For wine exporters to the Canadian market, a low value on the Canadian dollar can be overcome in two ways. At the very high end, let’s say $100 bottles of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or Grand Cru Burgundy, 20 percent extra cost doesn’t matter. Much of this tier of wine is bought on expense accounts or privately by people for whom the whole of the expense is incidental. At the other end of the range are the economies of scale put to use by big producers in places like California’s Central Valley, or bottles whose price is kept low from European Union agricultural subsidies.

A very unscientific search on my provincial liquor monopoly’s website brought up a little over 80 Oregon wines available, or at one time available, for sale. The prices ranged roughly from $20 to $200, but my estimate of a median range for what came up wold be between $30 to $50 a bottle. A wine at that price point might be described as an affordable luxury. A step up from everyday wine, it might be bought off the shelf as a reward at the end of the work week, or ordered at a restaurant at roughly twice the retail price.

Oregon produces lots of wine that costs less than an affordable luxury, Friday night wine. But those are the kind of wines they tend to export and they made up the bulk of the wines that were poured recently at a trade tasting I attended last month in Toronto. The masked attendees, at the first real life gathering of wine professionals of any size since COVID, were made up mostly of sommeliers and restaurateurs.

It makes sense for Oregon to market wines in this price range. Pinot Noir is the grape that dominates the state’s vineyards. Though it is more than evidently suited to the Oregon terroir, it’s also notoriously fickle and difficult to make cheaply. So, in this way the supply is there and ready for the demand.

In another way, there isn’t that much of a supply to choose from in the first place. Oregon is the fourth biggest wine producer in the U.S. by state. That sounds impressive until one realizes that California makes more than 60 times as much wine and sits solidly at number one with 82 percent of national production, and 95 percent of all exports. States number two and three, New York and Washington, each respectively make more than three times as much wine as Oregon as well. Competing with California for market share on cheap wine seems like it would be a pretty hard row to hoe.

If Oregon were a country, its production of wine would be comparable to all of Canada’s, and the good news is that Oregon’s relatively low production affects its export strategy in a way that benefits Canadian wine drinkers. Like Canadians, Oregonians tend to drink most of their wine, and most of the rest gets poured into the glasses of their fellow Americans. While it might be prestigious to export to a wine loving country like France, or even the U.K., for the volume reasons outlined above, it’s not very practical. Even before the challenge of building a brand for Oregon wines and marketing them abroad, they’d have to be shipped. In North America they only need to be trucked, and Google Maps tells me it’s a 39 hour drive from Portland to Toronto, and just six hours to Vancouver.

It’s one thing to have our market desired, but how do Canadian wine enthusiasts know they’re truly being courted? In romantic terms, it’s because the Oregon wine producers are putting their money where their mouth is. One of the producers I met at the trade tasting was Greg Burger of Yamhill Valley Vineyards. Burger’s father Denis and mother Elaine McCall established their winery in the mid-1980s, when Dick Erath’s Dijon clones were taking over and Oregon wine began to get noticed. While I was enjoying their food-friendly and bright red fruit Estate Pinot Noir 2017, I asked him how much it cost. It was right in that $30 spot, so then I asked him quietly if that wasn’t more or less how much it cost in U.S. dollars at his cellar door? It is.

The upshot is that Oregon producers of affordable luxury wines see opportunity in the Canadian market and are willing to discount their product to make-up for our weaker purchasing power. A bottle of Oregon wine sold in Canada for $30 is really worth more like $40, plus whatever duties and import taxes. That makes the luxury all the more affordable, at least in my mind.

Like most New World regions (and many Old), there is a spectrum of production for Oregon wines, and Pinot Noir in particular. Some of this climate-based, depending on the site, and some is due to the technique of the winemaker. The Oregon wines that interest me tend to be lighter with good acidity to go with food and bight red fruit flavours like cherry and cranberry. Here is a very meagre list of some producers whose wines I have enjoyed recently and are worth looking out for.

Adelsheim Vineyard – https://www.adelsheim.com/

Alexana Winery – https://www.alexanawinery.com/

Elizabeth Chambers Cellar – https://elizabethchamberscellar.com/

Erath – https://www.erath.com/

Left Coast – https://leftcoastwine.com/

Pearce Predhomme – https://www.npwines.com/

Troon Vineyard – https://www.troonvineyard.com/

Wine by Joe – https://winebyjoe.com/

Yamhill Valley Vineyards – https://www.yamhill.com/

P.S. I don’t believe in “turkey wine” and subscribe to the minority view that trying to pair any wine with the Thanksgiving meal is a fool’s errand because of typically wide array of foods served. However, if one were to pair a wine with just the meat of the bird and a little tart cranberry sauce, then Pinot Noir from Oregon would be just fine.

Kelden Formosa: Why are we making young children wear masks at school?

Commentary

During a press conference last week, B.C. Public Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside announced new mask mandates for children aged four to eight when they are at school, which expands upon the mask mandate for children aged nine to eighteen and school staff, including those who have been vaccinated.

Until now, health officials in B.C. have resisted pressure to mandate masks for such young children, citing the concern that masks can be irritating and distracting, and may not even be the best form of protection for children. Even today, the website of the B.C. Centres for Disease Control counsels that, “for young children over the age of two, masks are generally not recommended as they can be irritating and may lead to increased touching of the face and eyes.” 

This new mandate will affect thousands of young children every day, so B.C. residents should expect our government to provide a compelling and data-driven rationale for it. Unfortunately, we don’t have one yet, and there are serious questions about the relative benefits and drawbacks of imposing mask mandates on very young children at school. 

I am an elementary school teacher, so I see the effects of masking on student behaviour, learning, and mental health every day. I am not writing here on behalf of my school, and as an employee, I will be sure to follow my professional obligations to uphold the mandates as directed. Instead, I am writing as a private citizen who takes COVID seriously but is also concerned about other aspects of children’s learning and mental health. To be clear, I wear a mask in indoor public spaces, am fully vaccinated, and like all of us, have generally put parts of my life on hold these past two years to help protect our community. I respect Dr. Henry and am grateful for many of the decisions taken by our provincial government during the pandemic. But I still have reservations about this K-3 mask mandate. 

Let’s start by thinking about the actual risks that COVID poses to very young children. Children infected with COVID have a very low risk of hospitalization and death. In Canada, 1,707 people aged nineteen and below have been hospitalized, 196 have been admitted to an intensive care unit, and 17 have died of COVID since the beginning of the pandemic.

This means that those under the age of 19 have made up only 2 percent of total hospitalizations, 1.2 percent of ICU admissions, and 0.1 percent of total COVID deaths in Canada. For comparison, in 2019 alone, 160 people aged nineteen and below died in car accidents across Canada. While each early death is tragic, COVID risks for children have been comparable to other diseases and problems that we have always tolerated and that do not require major changes to ordinary life. 

The new Delta variant spreads more easily than previous variants, which has led to a fourth wave of the pandemic concentrated in unvaccinated populations, including children. But even children who are diagnosed with the Delta variant of COVID remain at very low risk of hospitalization or death. Most have mild symptoms and some are asymptomatic and may not be diagnosed at all. According to Dr. Laura Sauvé of the B.C. Children’s Hospital, “the most significant health effects of the pandemic on children in Canada have been the mental health, developmental and educational impacts.” She further notes that “trying to balance safety with maximizing connection with peers and activities continues to be important.”​​

With this context, we can consider the benefits and drawbacks of the new mask mandate. Research from the United States is ambiguous about whether mandatory masking for young children does much to reduce COVID spread. To quote from New York magazine’s summary of a major United States Centers for Disease Control report on COVID-mitigation measures in schools in Georgia last year, “distancing, hybrid models, classroom barriers, HEPA filters, and, most notably, requiring student masking were each found to not have a statistically significant benefit.” 

The report in New York also notes that many peer jurisdictions do not require in-school masking for young children, including England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, and all of Scandinavia. These nations all have experts who know as much and care as much about their children’s health as ours do. So why have they come to such a different set of decisions?

One thing that is clear from my experience is that there are real and obvious drawbacks to mandating masks for young children when they are trying to learn. Mask wearing is uncomfortable, leads to fogged-up glasses, makes faces itchy, warm, and sweaty, and can make breathing feel more difficult. Forcing kids to wear masks all day makes it harder for them to learn and feel safe and happy at school.

I have noticed that constant masking makes students less engaged and more passive in class. I suspect this is because talking in a mask is even more uncomfortable than just breathing in one. Many children are less likely to volunteer to share their ideas or read aloud when they are wearing masks, and if they do share their ideas or read aloud, it is often hard to hear them, particularly if there is background noise from open windows or the ventilation system. This is especially true for students who struggle with reading, are English Language Learners, or are just more shy than their peers. 

The discomfort of hours of masking also produces a more stressed group of students and teachers. I wear glasses and know that I feel less patient and find it harder to teach when I am constantly speaking into a warm, sweaty mask or wiping my fogged-up glasses. A whole day of slightly increased discomfort and stress makes my teaching worse. I observe that masking for hours has a similar effect on children, many of whom appear uncomfortable in class when wearing them and then eagerly tear off their masks and breathe happily the second they go outside. 

I teach children in Grade 5, who are mostly 9-10 years old and who have been told they must mask at school since last spring. If these children have issues with masking, then it’s likely that younger children, whose language and literacy development is much less advanced, will have even more trouble with it. For example, good teaching of phonics often requires children to see their teachers’ mouths and for teachers to see their students’ mouths. This is so they can learn how to form sounds and match them to letter combinations. Mandatory masking makes this more difficult. Moreover, young children are still learning about facial expressions and social cues. Not seeing their peers’ or teachers’ faces may negatively affect this learning, with the possibility of unforeseen consequences for these kids’ futures.

These concerns are anecdotal, but I suspect that many parents and teachers will recognize similarities with their own experiences. Of course, there are also children who tolerate mask-wearing at school well, and who wore masks even without a mandate. Until now, masking in school for the youngest children has been a family decision. Parents made decisions based on evidence, their personal risk tolerance, and how well their own child is able to learn and feel comfortable while wearing a mask. I always respected the choices that my students’ parents made about mask-wearing, which came from the caring, cautious perspective of parents who usually know their children’s needs best. 

It could be that there is new evidence that the drawbacks of mandatory masking for very young children are outweighed by new risks of not masking those children. My opinion on this topic would change if we found a new variant of COVID that was far more harmful to children, for example, or even if it became clear that we did not have the resources to treat the small percentage of children that face serious health effects from COVID. But so far, the B.C. government has not provided us with this evidence. 

Last year, Dr. Henry remarked that “I think it’s important to recognize that we don’t always get it right, right off.” This may be one of those times that the province didn’t get it right, right off.

I hope our government will either provide more information to justify these new mask mandates for young children or else reconsider them. This would help all British Columbians to feel more confident in our leaders’ decisions and could help B.C. kids to have a better and more successful time at school.