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Malcolm Jolley: Insider wines for everyone: Touring Italian label G.D. Vajra’s winery

Commentary

Francesca Vaira is showing us the tree in the middle of the wine cellar at G.D. Vajra, her family’s winery not far from the town of Barolo. Or is it outside of the cellar? In fact it’s both. The tree is in a courtyard, glassed in from the cellar, which allows for natural light among the large oak botti vats used for elevating Vajra wines.

The tree is small, not a miniature like a bonsai, but diminutive because it does not receive much if any direct sunlight. Nor does direct sunlight reach the level of the windows of the large courtyard in the middle of a very large cellar. The indirect light that comes in is not hot, just illuminating.

The natural light is also pleasant, which Francesca explains is the point. Her family and those that work with them in the cellar will spend a lot of time working in what is usually a damp and dark place. The open-air terrarium of the courtyard is meant to soothe the souls of the people who work in the cellar.

My son, Alec (20) and I traveled to Piedmont in Northwestern Italy last week after attending a family event in the U.K. I had reached out to Francesca Vaira after sitting next to her at a dinner that was part of a press trip I took about five years ago. Her wines, the G.D. Vajra wines, were my favourite at the table. The Vajra wines are certainly renowned and celebrated in Barolo and beyond (and priced accordingly), but they’re also, in my humble opinion, an insider’s wine.

The winery visit was beginning to give me an insight into why G.D. Vajra occupies its own niche in the Langhe, the rolling white dirt hills in the southern shadow of the Alps, that famously makes the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. Before visiting the tree, we began our tour in the fermentation cellar. There, giant stainless steel tanks are illuminated by long floor-to-ceiling panels of stained glass.

When Francesca’s parents, Aldo and Milena Vaira, built the fermentation cellar in the 1980’s they commissioned the renowned Franciscan monk-turned-artist Father Costantino Ruggeri to design the stained glass windows, which evoke the later collage works of Henri Matisse.

Just like the tree in the courtyard, the stained glass is meant to raise the spirits of the people working long hours in the winery. Those hours are especially long and protracted at Vajra, where they make wine from several varieties; not just Nebbiolo, but other reds like Dolcetto, Barbera, and Freisa as well as whites like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and the rare indigenous Piemontese grape Nascetta.

Different grapes ripen and mature at different times, so harvest at Vajra can last several weeks over a couple of months. As if to prove the purpose of the art in a utilitarian setting, Francesca bends over to move a large hose out of the way. The concrete floor is illuminated in primary blue, yellow, and red hues from the morning sunshine, and it’s hard not to feel uplifted, even for a small moment.

The Vaira family standard of care, of course, extends beyond how they treat their people. G.D. Vajra began as a kind of double act of rebellion in the tumultuous year of 1968. Teenage Aldo Vaira was a city kid attracted to the street demonstrations in Turin. His parents thought shipping him to stay with relations in the countryside would tame his rebellious nature.

The move backfired as Aldo became determined to resurrect the family tradition of farming, and particularly winemaking. By the time he had established the G.D. Vajra label, keeping for fun the misspelling from an old clerical error, he was farming organically and pioneering the ecological winemaking movement in the Langhe and Italy. This ethos was and is firmly shared by his wife Milena, daughter Francesca, and her two brothers Guiseppe and Isodoro, who now act as winemaker and vineyard manager, respectively.

Francesca Vaira at G.D. Vajra, Barolo, Italy. Credit: Alec Jolley.

As a young journalist, I was taught the inverted pyramid method, where one tries to get as much pertinent information into the first few paragraphs of a story on the presumption that most readers will stop after that, and if they don’t it’s because they’ve been hooked by that initial barrage of information. This column is surely proof that I have abandoned that technique, but on the subject of all the wines we tasted with Francesca, it may be worth beginning with the four Barolo wines, since they’re ultimately what the label is most famous for.

We started with the Albe 2019, their gateway Barolo, which is a blend of several of the Vajra vineyards. It’s recognizable from its bright and inviting label, which Francesca explained is meant to attract and reassure consumers unsure about trying Barolo. It generally retails at around $50 a bottle, which makes it a deal for the category. It’s a clear and classic Barolo, with notes of roses and tar over bright cherry. Just released, it’s young and grippy with tannins, but friendly with a bit of air.

The Albe was followed by three single vineyard Barolo. First, the Costa di Rose 2019, with more red fruit and some minty herbal character. Then, the Ravera 2019, more cherry, rose, and that herbal character, but maybe somehow a little more resonant. Finally, the Bricco del Viole, from the highest vineyard. Viole means violets, and it may be the suggestion of the name that evokes some of the darker cherry-to-black fruit notes I caught. All these wines were just released and very young, but absolutely delicious. One can only imagine how they’ll sing in a decade’s time or more.

Before we hit the Barolo, we tasted the Langhe Nebbiolo 2022, made from young vines not ready yet for the major labels. Clean, clear full of red fruit, and still well structured with fruit tannin. We tried the Claré JC Langhe Nebbiolo 2022, a pet project of Guiseppe Vaira. The Claré is meant to evoke pre-modern reds of the Langhe; ones that Thomas Jefferson, the 18th century’s greatest wine critic, admired. The irony is that it tastes (to me) thoroughly modern, clean, and certainly clear (like Claret) with juicy and moreish cherry notes.

The G.D. Vajra Kyè Langhe Freisa 2020 that we tasted also reflected the ethos of the Vaira family as well as any of their fine wines. Freisa is an old Piedmont red grape that was going the way of extinction until the efforts of winemakers like Aldo Vaira to preserve and replant it. Often made in a light quaffable style, as a kind of afterthought to making Nebbiolo or Barbera, Vajra shows it respect and makes a wine from it that is as serious as it is complex and delicious. Peppery and brooding with dark cherry, an enervating acid lift, and enough fruit tannin to hold it together. Wines made with love will always give it back.

G.D. Vajra wines can be found throughout Canada, subject to availability, etc. Google them with your home province, or contact me through comments or Twitter or mjwinebox.com and I’ll send you agent information.

Sean Speer: Canada’s rural areas are falling behind. Here’s how to help them thrive

Commentary

I participated in an event this week hosted by the Canadian Parliamentary Centre on the subject of Canada’s urban-rural divide. The focus of the presentations and subsequent panel discussion was mostly on politics and how the country’s political map has come to be defined by place. The recent Alberta election results, which partly reflected divergent political preferences between Calgary, Edmonton, and the rest of the province, understandably loomed over our conversation. 

But at the risk of sounding a bit Marxist, it’s impossible to understand Canada’s urban-rural divide and its socio-political consequences without accounting for the underlying role of the economy. Those concerned about a growing fault line between our major cities and the rest of the country must confront the economic forces at its core. 

The good news is the U.S. experiment with Opportunity Zones, a new policy model to catalyse private investment in rural and economically-distressed communities, is producing promising results. It’s something that Canadian policymakers—particularly Conservative ones who disproportionately represent these communities—should be studying closely. 

Let’s start by defining the problem. Canada’s economy has long been marked by a high concentration of economic activity, investment, and jobs in a small number of major cities. It isn’t a new issue or challenge per se. But in an era of so-called “superstar cities”, these trends have been far more pronounced. 

The City of Toronto itself now accounts for one-fifth of the country’s economic activity. Adding just five other cities—Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa-Gatineau—brings the total share to more than half of the national GDP. The U.S. comparison, by contrast, involves as many as the country’s 30 largest metropolitan areas to reach 50 percent of total economic activity. 

The same goes for job creation. As Mirko Bibic, the president and CEO of Bell Canada, recently observed, in the five years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly two-thirds of net new jobs created in Canada were concentrated in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. That share surpasses three-quarters if Ottawa-Gatineau, Calgary, and Edmonton are accounted for. Yet some rural and remote communities still haven’t even fully recovered the jobs that were lost during the 2008-09 global recession.

The key point here is that the socio-political dynamics—including signs of normative differences and conflicting political preferences—that are increasingly drawing attention from academics, business leaders, and policymakers are themselves rooted in divergent market outcomes. Put more simply: if you want to understand the urban-rural divide that’s shaping Canadian politics, you need to come to terms with the economic divide that undergirds it. 

It’s important to emphasize here that urban agglomeration isn’t a case of markets malfunctioning. It’s a case of markets doing what markets do: which is to allocate scarce resources—including financial capital and human capital—efficiently. 

Labour markets in cities like Toronto are screaming at the top of their lungs for workers and they’ve by and large been responding. Between 2016 and 2021, urban cities grew 16 times faster than rural areas. Immigration was a key driver. More than half of new immigrants settled in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver alone.  

These market-driven trends have produced a lot of positive outcomes. Canada’s cities are frequently cited as among the most livable in the world. They’re dynamic, diverse, and generally productive. But they’re also relatively unequal, home to what’s been described as a “housing crisis”, and facing outmigration, particularly from young families

Rural communities in broad terms face their own challenges, including population loss, a declining tax base, and a lack of investment and good jobs. The situation on First Nations reserves typically involves these issues as well as other unique complexities and problems. 

These differing political economy experiences have generally come to manifest themselves in differing views about the state of the economy and even in some cases about the prospects for the future. The feedback loop between economic outcomes and political outlooks is complex but there’s reason to believe that there’s a strong interrelationship. 

The upshot: Canada’s urban-rural divide is rooted in powerful market forces that are reflected in economic activity, job creation, migration patterns, and even politics. 

If one accepts that these are primarily the result of market forces, then policymakers essentially have two choices: one is to mostly defer to markets and then redistribute the gains to rural and economically-distressed communities, and the second is to try to boost economic activity in these places. 

The latter comes with risks. Any policy intervention is bound to create distortions. There’s always the strong potential for politicization. And, of course, if history is a guide, there’s an even higher probability that it will fail. 

This is hardly the first call for regional economic development after all. The country’s history is marked by various attempts to catalyse investment and job creation on the periphery. Some have been spectacular failures. Others have produced middling results. Most have been unsuccessful for various reasons. A key one though is they typically haven’t just sought to nudge the market. They’ve essentially substituted government diktat for market forces altogether. They’ve taken the form of business subsidies, mega projects, direct government employment, and other big government approaches. 

The Opportunity Zones model aims to learn these lessons. Enacted in the 2016 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act with bipartisan support, Opportunity Zones involve a series of tax inducements for investors (via Qualified Opportunity Zone Funds) to deploy private capital into rural and economically-distressed areas across the United States. 

The key though is the policy model is relatively flexible and neutral. The only major condition for investors is that their investment must flow to one of about 8,600 designated zones. Investors are otherwise free to choose where and how to invest across a range of asset classes. In this sense, Opportunity Zones represent an economic development model that aims to strike a balance between a desired political economy goal and the inherent benefits of a decentralized market economy. 

Opportunity Zones faced a lot of criticism early on. Much of which reflected common arguments about market interventions of any sort. It’s a fair debate that involves a combination of normative and prudential considerations. 

Yet, as John Lettieri, the co-founder and president of the Economic Innovation Group, a U.S.-based think-tank that has championed Opportunity Zones, recently told us in an episode of Hub Dialogues, the model is working. The early results are quite impressive. Consider the following: 

  • Total Opportunity Zone investment totaled $48 billion by the end of 2020. This capital was raised from roughly 21,000 individual and 4,000 corporate investors and deployed into 7,800 Qualified Opportunity Funds.
  • Nearly half of the designated zones have received Opportunity Zone investment. 
  • Investment has disproportionately flowed to the most economically-distressed communities—ranked from lowest to highest levels of need, they average in the 87th percentile for poverty, 81st for median household income, and 80th for unemployment.

Although it’s far too early to say definitively that Opportunity Zones have worked, there’s enough evidence that Canadian policymakers ought to take notice. They represent the most interesting and innovative policy idea to boost economic activity, investment, and job creation in rural and economically-distressed communities in some time. 

Given the broadly similar economic and political conditions in Canada, there’s reason to think that the model could be imported into the Canadian context. Decisions about designating Opportunity Zones could similarly be pushed down to provincial governments. First Nations reserves and possibly the three Northern territories could automatically be deemed designated zones. Provincial and local governments could augment a federal framework with their own programs and policies. Opportunity Zones could be a national project rooted in the shared goals of growth, inclusion, and broad-based opportunity. 

If policymakers are concerned about the growing urban-rural divide in our politics, they must confront the underlying divide in our economy. Opportunity Zones can help.