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Malcolm Jolley: Speaking with Ann Sperling, a Canadian wine pioneer

Commentary

Ann Sperling may be best known as the Director of Winemaking Viticulture at Ontario’s Southbrook Farms, although she also makes wine at Sperling Vineyards in BC with her sister and family, and with her fellow oenologist husband, Peter Gamble, at their winery in Argentina. Sperling is also known as a tireless advocate of organic and biodynamic winemaking and was recently named by the Cambridge Food & Wine Society as their 2021 Riedel Winemaker of the Year.

I hadn’t seen or talked to Ann before the lockdown, and the award served as a chance to find out how she came to be one of Canada’s preeminent winemakers. We connected on a Zoom call shortly before Christmas and what follows comes from our conversation.  

Sperling grew up with five brothers and sisters in the Okanagan Valley on a farm homesteaded by her great-grandparents. When she was a teenager, her father planted a few rows of Riesling and she became interested in the winemakers that came to the farm to buy the grapes. After earning a degree in Food Science at UBC, Sperling looked into winemaking programs, but found they were “too expensive for a farm girl.”

Instead, Sperling got a job with Andrés Wines, now known as Andrew Peller, which included winemaker training. Sperling credits growing up in a three-generation household for her curiosity and desire to “always dig a little deeper”, traits she says, are rewarded in the wine industry.

Following a foundational six years at Andrés, where Sperling worked for and with a cadre of winemakers who would go on to shape the BC wine scene in the 90s and beyond, Sperling moved over to make wine at Cedar Creek before eventually moving to Ontario.

By the 90s, Sperling was enough of a seasoned hand to begin consulting with the emerging, family-run estate wineries that began to establish themselves in Niagara, helping them get started. She worked with what are now established brands like Cilento and Creekside. She then moved on to Malivoire, taking over from fine wine pioneer Deborah Paskus, who had left the first vintage.

Sperling credits working with Martin and Moira Malivoire as “fun and good, and where it all started”. Since the Malivoire’s lived in the middle of their vineyard, getting it certified as organic was a natural move in more ways than one, and it suited Sperling’s increasing interest in sustainably made wines.

By the mid-2000s, Sperling was working with Bill Redelmeier and family at their fruit and grape winery north of Toronto, Southbrook Farms. The Redelmeier farm, in Richmond Hill, was becoming encroached by suburban development and Bill Redelmeier told Sperling he and his family were interested in selling it and buying land to establish an organic vineyard and winery in Niagara.

Sperling was becoming increasingly interested in biodynamic vineyard management and winemaking: “Conventional, and even organic, can treat the symptoms of a problem in the vineyard, but with biodynamic, the vine becomes part of the environment it’s growing in.” Sperling also had her eye on a few properties around the Niagara Peninsula she thought would work well for that kind of farming, and Redelmeier agreed to tour around with her to take a look at the potential sites.

The last property they looked at is the one where Southbrook is today, on the Stone Road that leads into Niagara-on-the-Lake. They agreed that they would develop it as a biodynamic vineyard, with mixed-use that includes a stand of forest, a pond, and a herd of sheep.

Southbrook, following Redelmeier and Sperling’s vision, would become the first certified biodynamic winery and vineyard certified in Canada, replete with a gold LEED-certified winery complex designed by the renowned Diamond and Schmidt Architects.

In the decade and a half since the move to Niagara, Southbrook’s success has spread. Sperling buys organic grapes for her “non-estate” wines and has been a catalyst for Niagara growers to switch to organic practice. Having grown up on a grower vineyard herself, Sperling is careful who she deals with, looking for more than good sites. She praises her growers as “people who are nice to work with, conscientious, and want to produce the best quality fruit,” adding, “it’s a nice culture that we have developed.

Sperling likes to build success on success, and describes the attitude she shares with her husband, Peter Gamble, as “we can always do one more thing.” (Gamble is a renowned winemaker and consultant in his own right.) Their first project together was Versado in Mendoza, Argentina. They began making wine there in 2008, from hundred-year-old vines that “needed lots of TLC, which [she and Gamble] were happy to provide to get it on a solid footing again.” They set it up so that they had key people to manage the day-to-day work in the vineyard and winery and their influence, as Sperling puts it, would be “in a guiding way.”

Their next project, at Sperling Vineyards in the Okanagan, on the farm where the winemaker grew up, would be in collaboration with her sister Susan Richardson, niece Jill Richardson-Branby, and their respective husbands, Paul Richardson and Rickard Branby. As the pandemic made regular travel difficult, Sperling and Gamble were thankful for their partners in BC and their team in Argentina. They connected across continents by shipping samples and meeting on Zoom when they couldn’t fly. Both vineyards are, of course, certified organic.

Sperling is not just one of Canada’s leading winemakers, she is also one of the country’s preeminent women in wine. She cites pioneer BC winemaker and consultant Lynn Stark as an early example, since Stark would buy her father’s grapes in the early days. But she also explained that the rise of the estate, or family farm, wineries in Canada in the 1980s and 90s meant that women were very much involved in the production of grapes or wine in BC as she came up. She cites George and Trudy Heiss, who established Grey Monk in the early 70s, as friends, neighbours, and inspirations. As she is also to others, undoubtedly, wherever she tends grapes and makes wine.

You can find Ann Sperling’s wines at these websites:

Southbrook: https://www.southbrook.com/

Sperling: https://www.sperlingvineyards.com/

Versado: http://www.versadowine.com/

Lynn Hu: No, China is not a high-functioning democracy, despite what propagandists may say

Commentary

Over the years, Zhang Weiwei has emerged, both domestically and internationally, as one of the most vocal and faithful advocates of the “China Model”. Notorious for his debate with Francis Fukuyama back in 2011, Zhang has written numerous books and hosts his own political talk show produced by Chinese state media. He was even invited to address top leaders in the Politburo earlier this year on how to “improve the Chinese narrative”, a euphemism for its ideological propaganda. The party’s approval meant that his views are unchallengeable in China (in academia or beyond), and Western media often falsely equate the monopolized party perspective Zhang presents as truly representative, despite the diversity of Chinese perspectives that actually exist.

While his political agenda is clear, Zhang’s polemical arguments and tactics do warrant a closer examination. In a recent interview, Zhang grounded the superiority of the Chinese system of governance in three key areas: 1) China as a unique “civilizational state” with historical and cultural traditions which are incompatible with Western political and economic models; 2) the Chinese political system as a meritocracy in its leadership selection that is also a distinct form of democracy more advanced than that of the West; and 3) China’s unprecedented economic growth as a peaceful nation tolerant of religious and cultural differences. Rebuttals to each of these assertions are easily made.

Describing China as a civilizational state is common among defenders of the China Model. In his bookThe China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State”, Zhang justifies the Chinese Communist Party’s autocratic rule as a continuation of China’s historical tradition of a unified ruling entity. He asserts that China is the only state in the world with a continuous civilization, and by virtue of its long history and unique culture the country will follow its own historical logic and develop its unique path to modernity—one that is distinctively different from the Western model.

However, civilizational exceptionalism is often an artificial construct that flattens the complexities of history to a singular narrative. It was used extensively by conservative literati in China and Japan in the late 19th century to resist political reform. The use of civilizational rhetoric is not limited to non-Western countries either. Some proponents of American exceptionalism like to invoke what they refer to as the country’s distinctive cultural traits to justify claims of superiority. In that sense, Zhang’s insistence on calling China a civilizational state is best understood as a veiled attempt to boost Chinese nationalism. Despite a nominal rejection of the nation-state, his definition of a civilizational state, including “unique language, politics, society and economy” is taken straight out of a nationalist’s toolbox.

Even if we take the concept at face value, we will soon encounter difficulties. Invoking China as a civilizational state has been used repeatedly to reject universal human rights and democratic values, but Taiwan, which shares similar civilizational traditions with China, has successfully transitioned to a thriving democracy.

Zhang himself likens Rome to a civilizational state, but the Roman Republic degenerated into an empire and eventually fell apart. ISIS can be regarded as a contemporary attempt to revive the Caliphate, the Islamic civilizational state, but it has proven to be a disaster for humanity. At the end of the day, apart from stating the obvious fact that every country is different, the civilizational state excuse cannot explain how and why a country chooses a particular path, nor can it offer the basis for justifying a country’s political system. In fact, it cannot really explain anything.

Nevertheless, Zhang extends from this argument of cultural distinctiveness and makes a second set of bold assertions labeling the Chinese model as better governed, more meritocratic, and more advanced than what he calls the “U.S. model of democracy from the pre-industrial era”. Not only did Zhang reject the term “authoritarianism” used by political scientists, but he goes further in claiming that it is a high-functioning form of democracy called “democratic centralism”. While it sounds ludicrous to most Westerners, it is in fact echoed by the CCP as the official position in its latest white paper entitled “China: Democracy That Works”.

There are three common tactics used by CCP apologists to defend the impossible, and Zhang has used combinations of all three. Firstly, they can define democracy narrowly as “one person one vote”, rather than the whole package of civil liberties and constitutional institutions such as the separation of powers and the rule of law. This line of reasoning is also used by others like Eric Li, making it easy to discredit electoral democracy as outdated and ineffective. Alternatively, they can also use Orwellian doublespeak to obscure and subvert the meaning of democracy by performing various definitional sleight of hands and providing alternative definitions. Lastly, if all fails, they can always reject the term altogether, in favor of other standards such as popular support, economic achievements, or political meritocracy.

Even by these alternative standards, the Chinese model’s superiority over liberal democracies remains highly contested. Popular support in China is largely a product of “manufactured consent” through decades of propaganda and censorship. Imagine if every single person in America grew up with only Fox News and pro-Trump messages permeated throughout society with no alternative voices allowed to exist. It wouldn’t come as a surprise that the vast majority of Americans would be supportive of Trump, regardless of his actual performance.

Likewise, the economic progress China has made in the past 40 years since Deng’s market reform was undoubtedly remarkable, but it is not as “miraculous” as Zhang would like us to believe. China’s GDP per capita remains only one-sixth that of the U.S., and, far from poverty elimination, more than 40 percent of Chinese people (roughly 600 million people) still live on a monthly income of merely 1,000 yuan ($140 USD). Other countries, such as South Korea, have achieved similar feats within a generation while also transitioning to a democratic system.

Attributing all economic gains to China’s political arrangement is a gross over-simplification. For every “miracle” that Zhang claims, we can find an equally disastrous episode in modern Chinese history: is the Great Famine or the decade-long chaos of the Cultural Revolution also part of the great success story of China’s authoritarian system?

The conflation of the Chinese political system with meritocracy is not new either. Other proponents of the China Model like Daniel Bell and Kishore Mahbubani also claim that China enjoys meritocratic leadership. But this is a false dichotomy. Western democracies also have strong elements of meritocracy, as most politicians need proven track records to be electorally successful. The fact that Chinese national leaders must first serve as county and provincial chiefs is no proof of meritocracy either. It is merely a prerequisite to the top position and barely reflects competence. Most China specialists would agree that a variety of factors such as patronage, factional in-fighting, corruption, and ideological alliance play critical roles in leadership selection, and the domination of the so-called “princelings” in Chinese politics is well-documented.

Finally, Zhang assures us that China intends a peaceful rise focused on economic development. Did he forget to update his talking points from 10 years ago? China has pushed for an aggressive foreign policy under Xi’s leadership since 2013, abandoning Deng’s guiding philosophy of “hide your strength, bide your time”. Having engaged in over a dozen border disputes on land and sea, its neighbours certainly don’t view China’s rise as very peaceful. Furthermore, China has repeatedly used its political and economic power to bully other nations and international companies to fall in line with its political directives, Canada itself being a victim of CCP’s hostage diplomacy with the arrest of the two Michaels.

Confronted with questions on China’s domestic human rights or issues relating to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or Tibet, the classic rhetoric is to deny or to deflect by engaging in whataboutism (U.S. bashing being Zhang’s favourite hobby). While some of his criticisms of the U.S. are apt, his blatant double standard is telling.

Zhang can shamelessly tell these half-truths and lies with a calm smile because he knows the real audience for his message is not Western viewers, but the nationalistic crowds at home and his top priority is to win brownie points with the CCP. If he fails to convince the foreign audience, he can always blame it on anti-China bias and Western arrogance.