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Malcolm Jolley: Tasting and talking: Highlights from a packed wine show

Commentary

This week one of Canada’s larger importing agencies, Profile Wine Group, celebrated it’s 30th birthday by holding a portfolio tasting for the first time since the pandemic shut everything down. I was invited to the wine-tasting event, held in a big ballroom on Toronto’s waterfront, which featured hundreds of wines from dozens of producers, many of whom had flown in from the four corners of the wine-making world. 

Although I got there early in the day, it was packed, mostly with restaurateur clients of the wine agency. They were there to check out wines that they might buy for their restaurants, especially high-end ones like Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley or Barolo from Piedmont in Italy.

Like any trade show, the portfolio tasting was also a social event. For journalists too—the tasting was a chance to catch up with colleagues and some of the producers at the show. There was no way I was going to taste all, or even most, of the wines. It was too busy and too social. It’s hard to taste while you’re talking, let alone take notes.

The strategy was to take advantage of some of the visiting producers and try and get a feel for what’s happening in the wine world. But first, there would be bubbles. Champagne Mailliard is an old house, but a new one to Profile. The Cuvée Gregoire, a non-vintage, was crisp and finely moussed. It was hard to spit out. So were the grower Champagne’s Cuvée Alexia Rosé NV and the blanc de blanc Cuvée Prestige 2016.

Next, it was time to see some familiar and friendly faces like Dr. Lily Fazio, who runs her family’s eponymously named winery in the west of Sicily. The star of her table, for me, was the 2022 Fazio Anima Solis Bianco, an aromatic 50/50 blend of indigenous Sicilian white grapes, Zibbibo, and Cataractto. Underneath the white flower bouquet was a solid fruit base of stone fruit and citrus. Again, hard to spit out.

Then, it was time to travel around the world and see Justin Taylor from Wakefield in South Australia’s Clare Valley. Justin was pouring some of his family’s fancier Cabernet Sauvignons, going back into vintages seven years old. The real star of his table though might have been the 2021 Jaraman Chardonnay. This blend of fruit from the Adelaide Hills and Clare Valley retails for $24.95 in Ontario and tastes like a fancy bottle that might cost twice as much. It is, Taylor told me, his house wine that’s always in the fridge.

Apart from enjoying the wine, Taylor had some serious things to say when I asked him how his year had been. Inflation is weighing heavily on production, and costs have gone up steeply just as consumers are getting pinched by the same market forces. His challenge is to find ways to keep his pricing competitive and quality high.

Back to the Old World with a tasting of Château Haute Selve Blanc 2022 ($38.99) from Graves in Bordeaux. From what I read, Bordeaux, at the higher end, is having a bit of a comeback after being somewhat overshadowed by Burgundy. This classic blend of Semillon (50 percent) and Sauvignon Blanc was, well, classic. The delicate aromatics from the Sauvignon settle into a mellow fruit bed from the Semillon. I resolved to keep my eye out for white Bordeaux. Stay tuned.

I worked with my friend and Good Food Revolution co-founder, Jamie Drummond for a dozen years. On the floor, Jamie was one of the country’s top sommeliers, a rank he has retained since focusing on media. I am sure I learned more about wine from hanging around Jamie than anything else.

An iron-clad Jamie Drummond rule is that if Peter Franus is in the room, proceed to his table. This rule is doubled in intensity if Peter’s wife and winery partner Deanne is also there. It’s good when there are two of them because their tasting table will inevitably be crowded and one might pour while the other explains what’s in the glass.

What’s in the glass will be an argument that California, or even the valleys north of San Francisco, isn’t actually a wine region. Rather it’s a collection of them, and ones capable of bringing forward wines that defy cliché. A case in point might be the 2019 Peter Franus Brandlin Vineyard Zinfandel made from old vines in Napa Valley. Wonderfully perfumed and playful, it’s nothing like the stereotypical fruit bomb that defined big-label California Zin in the 1990s.

After the better part of two hours, it was time to wrap things up for me. The tasting was getting more crowded and it was getting harder to reach the spit buckets. It was time to see Robin Shay, a Californian who has built a career as a marketer and educator in the Italian wine industry, and who was pouring the very fine wines of Poggio San Polo from Montalcino in Tuscany.

The San Polo table was as crowded as any other, and when I got a spot next to it, it was the end where the top wines, from the single vineyard Brunello di Montalcino Podernovi, were being poured. I arrived just as Shay was pouring the 2017 Podernovi and I extended a glass right away so that instead of the usual routine of tasting up, I would start from the top and work down. The 2017 Podernovi, and the 2016 that followed it, were sublime, and finishing after the brooding dark cherry was a herbal note of juniper.

From the Podernovi, which retails for over $200 a bottle, I tasted the estate-grown 2017 San Polo Brunello, then the 2020 Rosso di Montalcino, and finally the 2020 Rubio Toscana IGT. The prices of the wines would roughly decline by half per bottle as I tasted through. No doubt worth it in every case, but I have a special place in my heart for the San Polo Rubio, which is still (just) under $25.

Like the Taylor family in Australia, the Allegrini family in Italy, who own San Polo, make it a point of pride that they produce both wines that cost hundreds of dollars and ones that cost under $25. The Rubio might lack the sublime complexity of the San Polo Brunello, but it’s a lot of fun with a lot of juicy red fruit deliciousness. I left the show happy and optimistic about more good wine to come, even ones I might be able to afford on a Friday night.

Sean Speer: We no longer need the CBC

Commentary

This past weekend, I was a guest on the CBC’s weekly call-in show, Cross Country Checkup, to discuss and debate the question: do we still need the CBC?

I was there in particular to make the case that the news media market has evolved over the past decades such that a public broadcaster of the size and scope of the CBC is no longer justified. Others argued in favour of preserving the CBC. And then there was a combination of callers and experts who found themselves somewhere in the middle. 

The premise behind the episode was that there are a few big developments looming over the CBC that threaten its ongoing existence. The first is that Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre has promised to defund the CBC and seems committed to delivering on his commitment. It remains one of the most popular applause lines in his speeches to party supporters. 

The second is growing polling evidence that CBC is not only losing its salience with the Canadian public but that even a majority of non-conservatives believe that the public broadcaster has an anti-conservative bias in its news reporting. 

The third is the broader disruption in the media industry itself including the decline of legacy news media organizations and the rise of web-based start-ups that are experimenting with new and different business models to reach their audiences and sustain their operations. 

In light of these developments, there were various arguments put forward during the episode in favour of the CBC including the need for a single public institution to connect Canadians from coast to coast, that it represents a bulwark against the rise of so-called “misinformation” and “disinformation”, and that its listeners and viewers like its content. 

Due to the number of guests and callers, I didn’t have the opportunity to address these arguments as directly and fully as I would have liked. Let me respond to them now. 

The first one speaks in part to a conservative concern that in a world of growing fragmentation and diversity, there are few sources of common citizenship and identity in Canada and the risk is a gradual drift from what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has referred to as a “home society” to a “hotel society.” That is to say, in an absence of common stories and shared understandings of ourselves and the country, the danger is that we devolve into a loose collection of individuals merely living in the same geography. 

This is a legitimate concern that we’ve written about and discussed at The Hub. Yet the notion that the CBC is a key source of common identity belies the facts—including its relatively small audience, divided public opinion about its ongoing purpose, and growing tendency towards micro-narratives at the expense of a broader national story. 

The latter point is worth addressing more fully. Although the CBC should be lauded for concerning itself with diversity and representation within its organization and content (including news reporting), there was a sense among many of the callers that it has overcorrected for the historical underrepresentation of different stories and voices. 

This is consistent with my own experience as a listener and viewer. The network’s emphasis on identity issues can cause it to lose the forest for the trees. It has increasingly contributed to a narrow and unrepresentative conception of Canadian civic life that undermines its ability to still play a nation-building role.  

The next argument that the CBC is needed to contest misinformation and disinformation (which has been advanced by CBC’s president and CEO Catherine Tait herself) isn’t a self-evident one. It may be that these issues ultimately require some form of collective response—though the past several years have demonstrated the risks of groupthink and so-called “established narratives”—but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it requires a public broadcaster in general or the CBC’s current size and scope in particular. 

One might even argue that the right lesson is that centralization and consolidation are a threat to overcoming misinformation and disinformation. They can cause bad ideas and wrong information to calcify in the public discourse and undermine the ability of others to challenge them. The COVID-19 “lab leak” story is a powerful example. The CBC (which referred to the lab leak theory as a “conspiracy theory” and “one of the most persistent and widespread pieces of disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic”) and other major media organizations plainly got it wrong. Smaller, less established, and typically less liberal outlets were generally the ones prepared to pursue the story and its facts. 

The key point here is that today’s fragmented and more decentralized media landscape may be messier and more complicated than the old one, but it’s not obvious that the trade-offs are inherently bad or that it necessitates an ongoing role for the CBC. 

The final case that the CBC’s content is good and well-liked by its audience members was both the most common one cited during the episode and the most counterintuitively unpersuasive. No one doubts that the CBC produces good programming or that some Canadians enjoy listening to or watching it. But that’s not a justification for the current level of public resources dedicated to the CBC or a public broadcaster in and of itself. 

There are a lot of claims on the public purse that might be popular but that doesn’t make them a good idea. Public policy needs to be rooted in something more principled than “Some people like it.” Even the show’s host, Ian Hanomansing, who deserved credit for his fairness and neutrality, seemed to miss this point. 

During the conversation, I observed that The Hub’s podcast is the eighth most popular Canadian-based one in the “culture and society” category and that six of the seven ahead of us are CBC productions. It strikes me as an odd use of scarce public dollars since it’s hard to argue that there’s a market failure in the production of podcasts. 

Yet Hanomansing’s reaction was that the relative popularity of CBC’s podcasts is somehow market proof that its content resonates with Canadians and therefore a justification for its ongoing role. The reality is that the CBC has a huge financial advantage (which is based on public subsidies rather than market competition) and is able to cross-promote its content across its well-established channels, including its internet, radio, and television assets. That of course doesn’t mean that its podcasts aren’t good or worth listening to, but it does mean that it’s not a fair measure of the CBC’s true competitiveness or a compelling case for maintaining it. 

I don’t mean to be presumptuous but I’m reasonably confident that if we received $1.24 billion in annual public funding (which suffice to say is considerably more than The Hub’s total budget), we could probably climb to higher than the eighth-most popular Canadian-based podcast in our category. We wouldn’t presume however that it was necessarily evidence of our real public support or entitled us to ongoing government resources. 

I guess the upshot is that while I was glad to participate in the conversation and think it generally speaks well of the CBC that it permitted such a discussion on its network, I came away no less convinced of the case in favour of “right-sizing” and even defunding the CBC. What that means in practice is still an open question and, as I said on the program, there will soon be a growing onus on Poilievre and the Conservatives to bring greater definition to their plans. But their basic instinct is right as a matter of principled policymaking.  

Do we still need the CBC? My answer is still no.