Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Malcolm Jolley: Inflation is hurting budgets. But cutting back doesn’t have to mean cutting out wine

Commentary

OpenTable is as good a canary as the hospitality coal mine could get. The San Francisco-based restaurant booking service tracks reservations in real time. OpenTable is a dominant player in the Toronto market, and the news from the internet this week was not good. The Toronto Star reported that the service saw a “double digit decline” in restaurant going: a 10 percent loss of diners year over year for the first 10 days of September alone.

Interest rates are gobbling up discretionary spending. If you’re vulnerable to this, as I suspect many if not most bourgeois Canadians are, then you’re cutting back. Maybe you’re making BLTs or grilled cheese instead of going out for lunch on the weekend. Or maybe (and the OpenTable stats can’t tell us this), if you do go out you’re not ordering from the bottom half of the wine list. The belt is tightening.

Times are all of a sudden tough, and I wonder if the market for $30 to $50 retail wines will suffer. (These would be $80 to $200 on a restaurant wine list, at least in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver.) I stopped wondering about this when I went to a pretty mind-blowing tasting this week.

As most mind-blowing wine tastings (sadly) go, this one was for wines that retail around $100 a bottle. The wines were from Chile, but not the hot, dry, parts of Chile that most bottles we see are. Vinos Baettig wines are from the South of Chile, 600 kilometres south of Santiago in what vigneron Carlos de Carlos calls the country’s “lake district,” or the foothills of the Andes in what are the beginnings of Chilean Patagonia. 

Baettig specializes in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, two grapes that do best in cool climates. The Baettig vineyards sit between 400 and 600 metres above sea level on a hill that was twice a volcano, 15 and then 5 million years ago. 40 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean, de Carlos explained that there is almost always a cool Antarctic wind blowing on the vines.

The Chardonnays were lean, flinty, and mineral like a Chablis, but intense in fruit like a Meursault. They were complex and perfectly in balance, and finished long into stone fruit. The Pinot Noirs were alive with cranberry red fruits on the attack and then calming with roses on the finish. 

The wines were excellent, but the real thrill was the reminder that the world of wine is itself alive and ever-evolving. Another Chilean wine pioneer, Eduardo Chadwick of Viña Errázuriz, remarked recently in an interview that “fine wine” isn’t really that old, if you take 1855 as a kind of Year Zero that saw the first classification of the wines of Bordeaux. The tasting was a reminder to me that the wine world is really just getting started.

Baettig makes a point of putting its appellation, D.O. Traiguen, prominently on the bottle. At the tasting, there was a special guest, in the form of another winemaker from the Southern Hemisphere. Andrea Mullineux makes wine with her husband Chris in South Africa.

Mullineux’s red Syrah and white Chenin Blanc wines are also excellent, and can get well into the $100 a bottle range. They also proudly advertise their region, Swartland, which was twenty years ago considered a backwater suitable for making bulk wine or wine for making brandy and not much else.

I met Mullineux in Cape Town in 2012 when her winery and rag-tag group of young winemakers from Swartland took South Africa’s big wine show by storm. Just a bit more than a decade later, it’s fascinating to see how Mullineux has become a global brand, at least in the world of top sommeliers, and how Swartland has become itself an established and recognized South African region, as respected as Stellenbosch, Paarl, or Franschhoek.

Winemakers Carlos de Carlos (Baettig) and Andrea Mullineux (Mullineux) in Toronto, September 2023. Photo credit: Malcolm Jolley.

New things in the wine world also come from the Old World. I was reminded of that this week when I tasted the 2020 El Petit Bonhomme. This zippy red wine is a blend of Monastrell (Mourvèdre), Garnacha (Grenache), and Syrah from the Jumilla region in the Southeast of Spain.

Jumilla, like Swartland, until recently was known as a place to grow quantities of wine grapes, and not so much for their quality. It was dominated by co-operatives, but a move towards the production of fine wines has made it an emerging region that has caught the interest of vignerons like Nathalie Bonhomme.

Nathalie Bonhomme is a Montrealer who found herself in Spain working as an exporter and marketer to some of the country’s most renowned winemakers, pioneers themselves, twenty years ago. She’s used that experience to make her own line of wines, sourced across Spain, which she exports back to Canada and the rest of the wine-drinking world.

El Petit Bonhomme is juicy, fresh, and alive, but also deeply concentrated in black fruits and Mediterranean scrubby herbal notes. It’s a lovely quaffer and it will retail (in Ontario) for $16.95 a bottle, which leaves room to pay for interest rates while enjoying the ever-evolving world of wine.

Brian Dijkema: Who left the barbarians in charge of our books?

Commentary

Today, the CBC broke a story that showed how the Peel District School Board is culling books that fail to meet “equity-based” criteria for books in school libraries. Among the books that are thrown away, according to reporter Natasha Fatah, is Anne Frank’s diary. While they are not quite going so far as to host a bonfire to burn the books in school parking lots, the end result is pretty much the same. The board is not giving the books away, they are literally throwing them into the landfill to moulder. What an absolute abomination.

This practice is not just some random “woke” librarian on a rampage either. It is being done in response to a directive from the Ministry of Education, whose current minister is Stephen Lecce, a conservative. It comes from straight from the top.

The policy is the mirror image of the “anti-woke” book policy of the conservative governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis. A list of books removed from Florida public school libraries shows plenty of books that are terrible and that really shouldn’t be on the shelves, but also plenty that are not just okay, but genuinely endearing and in line with the tradition of living books. Why should a sweet, rhythmic, story about a Thai mom trying to quiet the animals so her baby can sleep be put out of a school library? I can’t tell you. Arguably, the Peel Board’s practice is even worse, as it simply removed any book published before 2008.

While the policy has since been countermanded by Lecce’s office, these types of policies—one aimed at removing “woke” books and another one aimed at “non-inclusive” books are, sadly, a metaphor for the state of public education these days. The words that best describe this policy are brutal and barbaric.

By this I don’t mean that school administrators are clothed in fur and looking for blood (though, judging from other goings-on in the Peel board, you can be forgiven for this assumption). They are a clear attempt to cut off students from a living tradition of reflection on the beauty and complications of human life, in favour of a simplistic, ideological vision. The dearly departed Australian poet Les Murray describes the situation better in three lines than I could in three pages:

Politics and Art

Brutal policy,
like inferior art, knows
whose fault it all is.

This is the mentality shaping both the Left’s and the Right’s vision for educating our kids. Is this what you want for your kids? It’s not what I want for mine.

This is not to say that libraries shouldn’t make choices about what to put on their shelves. Those choices are both a practical and pedagogical reality and will depend in part on the type of person you are trying to form. Perhaps it’s time to give up the pretense that forming our kids is something a system that self-articulately takes a pass on deeper questions of meaning and formation can do. Given the fact that two ostensibly “conservative” premiers have given North America two perfectly opposite, but equally brutal, policies on the literature that will shape our children’s imaginations, perhaps it’s time to find a new lens for evaluating education. 

And that lens, I should add, cannot simply be the technocratic one that our governments prefer. The culling of books based on ideological differences on sex or race or what have you is nothing compared to the culling of real, living, books that have been taking place in our libraries for years in the name of value-free technological “progress.” In many libraries—both public and school—books that would have once sparked flames of imagination in life in young children have been replaced by Chromebooks and electronic learning games or other bits of metal and silicon that are, literally, planned for obsolescence rather than for posterity. The beautiful, “eye on the object” look of children reading has been replaced by catatonic faces more often found in front of slot machines in a casino. 

The fact that the minister’s office issued a directive without offering clear criteria by which a book would be deemed to be “inclusive, culturally responsive, relevant, and reflective of students” (or even a definition of what it means by these extremely vague terms) is an abrogation of duty. A read of the audit reports produced by Peel indicates that this technocratic mindset is the greater concern for those of us concerned with education as something intended to shape humans, rather than technically proficient machines. It cloaks terms and actions that have significant import for the formation of children in administrative bureaucratese and is executed almost entirely by staff who are accountable to no one in particular, and certainly not Ontarian parents. 

Whether it’s ridding shelves of books like the Diary of Anne Frank in Ontario under Lecce, or Brother Eagle, Sister Sky under DeSantis, policies like this are another step in the alienation of children from the complexities of history and humanity. Even if this all is, as my friend Michael Demoor suggests, simply a case of bureaucratic stupidity brought on by the hugeness of the school boards (a view that is plausible, but which doesn’t deal with the very real and clearly articulated ideological nature of Ontario’s common school system, nor its increased centralization over the last few decades), it’s a stretch to say that this is a healthy way the system should be working. Overreach and bluntness of this sort are, as they say, a feature, not a bug, of systems where education is controlled by a bureaucratic state and massive, largely unaccountable, school boards.    

Perhaps this might give all of us—regardless of which colour you vote for in a given election—some pause, and a desire for something better.    

A month or so ago I was corresponding with the ever-so-gifted Mary Harrington about her recent book (reviewed here in The Hub) and mentioned that I appreciated how many of the concerns she raised in the book fit into an old-school “left-wing” model of politics. Her reply was enlightening. She said, “I don’t have a problem with being recognised as a leftist in some respects; it’s true, and besides I’m not sure the terms really apply anymore, as the split these days is more human vs posthuman.”

This, I think, is precisely where we need to be on education. Another word for brutal is inhumane. Both the Left and the Right are acting like barbarians and pushing a vision of education that is destroying our shared past and the reflections of human beings trying to make sense of the world. It has to stop. It’s time for a more humane, human-scale, vision of education. But to achieve that, humanists—of all political persuasions—will need to unite.