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Malcolm Jolley: When it comes to drinking wine, the where (and the who) matters as much as the what

Commentary

In Alba on the Piazza Duomo with the cathedral lit up behind me on a warm Monday evening at the end of May, I study the Carta dei Vini with great intent and some small amount of panic. I am dining al fresco with my eldest son, on break from university, at La Piola, one of my very favourite restaurants in the world. We have had a glass each of Roero Arneis from Ceretto, the label that also owns the restaurant. But, now it’s time to get serious and order a bottle of red to take us through dinner.

I would like to impress him—and impress on him—that we are in one of the centres of the Wine Universe, and beyond the carne crudo, bagna cauda, agnolotti del plin, and tajarin, the bottle of wine fetched from the hallowed cellars of the osteria should above all express a “taste of place” of the Langhe region of Piedmont.

The stakes are high; higher maybe than the budget. Barolo or Barbaresco would seem to be a pricey path of least resistance. But kind of boring, since the names of the houses I know best are wines that can be had back home. I start looking at the front of the list of reds for the local red wine grapes that are exotic in Canada: Freisa, Pelaverga, Dolcetto… And then I see the name: Accomasso.

Lorenzo Accomasso, Commandatore of the Italian Republic, is something of a wino celebrity. Though, at 89 years of age, Accomasso is a celebrity in the way that J.D. Salinger was a literary celebrity: despite himself. Something of a recluse, Accamasso is known for defying all forms of fashion, and, having survived all trends affecting winemaking in the Langhe, has stuck to the way he has made wine since he was a young man.

Or so we think. Walter Speller, who is the chief critic of Italian wine for jancisrobinson.com and has met Accomasso several times, writes: “It is…complicated to learn anything about Accomasso, not least because he doesn’t allow anyone to see his cellar.” There’s nothing like a bit of mystery to pique curiosity.

I’d never tasted Accomasso’s wines. I’m not sure if they’re even available for sale in Canada. An internet search suggests they are not. But, I knew of Accomasso because I had seen him interviewed in restaurateur and winemaker Joe Bastianich’s 2014 documentary film Barolo Boys, and heard his conversation on top New York City sommelier Levi Dalton’s podcast I’ll Drink To That. Here was a chance to taste something of what I had seen and heard. I wouldn’t be the first or last person to choose a wine based on this kind of mediated knowledge.

I gave my order to our waiter, but the bottle arrived in the arms of a young and dashing sommelier. I took this as a good sign. Had I tried this wine before? No, I had not, but I knew of the maker. He smiled and looked at me wisely and knowingly so that I felt as though the world had reversed and I was twenty years younger than him. I was relieved to hear that I had made a good choice and this was one of their last bottles.

He was right. The wine was fantastic, though it was unlike any Dolcetto I have had before or since. It was more like an old Barolo, strangely full of tertiary or third-order flavours like leather and smoke, but on top of a crystal clear crimson cherry note that stayed on resonated. I would have been smugly happy with myself for actually impressing Alec across from me, but the only emotions I was capable of after the first sip were humility and greed for another mouthful.

I thought of that glass of 2020 Dolcetto this week when another glass from the Langhe was put in front of me at the end of a “master class” seminar at the annual Italian Trade Commission tasting in Toronto. This glass was also very good. But context in wine is everything, and 11:30 in the morning at a desk in a row of wine trade colleagues is not as magical as 10 in the evening in the piazza on a father-son getaway to Northern Italy.

In any event, the 2018 Borgogno Barolo Cannubi was absolutely delicious, and drinking very finely for a relatively young wine of this type. Light but also deep; redolent of dark red fruit, what the English might call “hedgerow.” If I had had an expense account on the piazza, it would have also made a deep impression, just as it was doing under much brighter lights.

The Borgogno was the sixth and final wine of a flight meant to illustrate the theme of the master class entitled “Geographic Precision: Understanding Italy’s Latest UGA’s, MGA’s, Contrada’s, and Pieve’s.” The lecture was given, and the wines were chosen by, Master Sommelier John Szabo, who expertly navigated his audience of several dozen wine pros through the intricacies of Italian wine label rules. (It may not surprise those with a passing familiarity with Italian wine that what can be put on a label to describe where a wine comes from in that country is complicated.)

Cannubi is a famous (for cork dorks) hill in Barolo, and wines from there have been celebrated for their higher quality since the 19th century. I’ll save the tale of my Maserati morning in Barolo for another column, but the 2018 Borgogno wine made me think of the 2020 Accomasso Dolcetto because I remembered looking out the backseat window of a speeding car, on my way uphill from Alba to Vergne, to catch a glimpse of the distinctive Borgogno typeface on a sign announcing their Cannubi vineyard. Ah, I thought, I must be passing through Cannubi, now I know where it is.

That sign will be a touchstone and marker for the wine for some time, but maybe the seminar will be too. The mediated idea of Commandatore Accomasso will also be a touchstone and motivator to find more of his wine, but the rawer memory of dinner with my son will loom larger going forward.

It’s funny that there are fights about what can and cannot go onto a label on a bottle of wine when the real power of the words rests in the memories they trigger. May we all collect many more of the pleasant ones across the table from family and friends.

Livio Di Matteo: Health spending continues to be a paradox of simultaneous feast and famine

Commentary

In the post-pandemic world, health spending in Canada continues to be marked by the paradox of simultaneous feast and famine, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) release of the National Health Expenditure Trends 2023.

Total health spending in Canada for 2023 is projected at $343.8 billion, up 2.8 percent from 2022. The lingering effects of the pandemic contributed to growth in hospital expenditures of 11 percent in 2022 and 4 percent in 2023. Meanwhile, physician spending grew almost 10 percent in 2022 and nearly 7 percent in 2023. As a share of GDP, health spending’s projected share of GDP in 2023 is approximately the same as the previous year, at about 12 percent which is still above the pre-pandemic figure of 11 percent.

However, despite what seems to be robust overall growth numbers, once one factors in population growth as well as inflation, it turns out that real per capita health spending in Canada is expected to be down for the second year in a row. Indeed, for 2023, the change in real total health spending per capita is -0.5 percent which comes after a nearly 2 percent decline the previous year. However, it remains that real per capita spending is still substantially higher than it was going into the pandemic.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

Figure 1 provides some historical perspective on the long ascent of real per capita health spending in Canada providing a plot not only of total spending but also provincial government and private sector health spending. The pre-pandemic period saw a slowdown in the growth rate of real per capita spending, which was more pronounced at the provincial government level.

From 2010 to 2019, the average annual growth rate for total real per capita spending was 1.2 percent, but provincial government spending grew at 1.1 percent while private spending grew at 1.6 percent. By way of comparison, during the heyday of the federal transfer escalator, the 2000 to 2010 period saw average annual growth in real per capita total health spending of 3.2 percent—3.3 percent for provincial government and 3.1 percent for private.

The pandemic, fueled by emergency federal health transfers, saw real per capita public sector health spending surge, but also a decline in private sector. Figure 2 dramatically illustrates the 2020 surges in real per capita health spending for total and provincial government health, which each clocked in at about 8 percent respectively, but this was accompanied by a nearly 8 percent drop in private spending. The next year, provincial government spending grew at a slower but still robust rate at 4.7 percent, but real per capita private health spending rebounded at 8 percent and total health spending at 4.9 percent. For the subsequent two years however, decline sets in for real per capita total health spending at -3.9 and -0.5 percent driven mainly by declining provincial government spending at -2.2 and -0.5 percent given that private spending rose at 1.8 and 2.2 percent. However, this decline in per capita spending was partly driven by the wind-up of COVID-19 supports as well as other public health spending.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson.

It should be noted that for 2023, real per capita provincial government health spending is projected at $5,723. If after 2019 spending had continued to increase at the same average rate from 2010 to 2019, then 2023 would clock in at approximately $5,450 which means that real per capita health spending in 2023 is still projected at several hundred dollars above what the previous trends might have placed it at. Indeed, compared to 2019, real per capita provincial government health spending in Canada is 10 percent higher. Overall, despite the recent declines due to both a winding up of pandemic-specific health spending as well as robust population growth, it would appear that there has been an enrichment of per-person health spending.

However, performance varies across health spending categories. In the case of provincial government health spending, for 2023 the largest components are hospitals (36 percent), physicians (20 percent), other institutional care including LTC homes (14 percent), and provincial drug plan spending (7 percent). If one looks at a comparison of real per capita provincial government spending between 2019 and 2023 for these key categories, hospital spending is up 6 percent, other institutions is up 25 percent, physicians is up 1.3 percent, but drugs is down nearly 2 percent. As for some of the other categories, real per capita provincial government public health over the same period is up 29 percent, other professionals at 10 percent, administration is up 9 percent, and home care/community care is up 14 percent.

So, what is one to make of all this in the current context of waiting lists and health care shortages that continue to plague health systems across Canada? Despite the post-pandemic decline in emergency health spending and the resulting slowdown in real per capita health spending growth for 2022 and 2023, it remains that real per capita health spending is up substantially. But two areas still lag the others: physician spending and drugs. Drug spending by provincial drug plans is linked to physician spending: if people cannot access physicians because of shortages in family doctors, then they are also going to find it more difficult to fill their prescriptions.

Of course, the Canadian health spending paradox of more spending and yet growing issues of access and timely service delivery is not a new one. It has, however, entered a more concerning phase given that physicians are the primary gatekeepers when it comes to health care access. If large proportions of provincial populations are not able to access physician services and get in line for care, how exactly are all these spending increases going to meet the health-care needs of Canadians?

For the time being, provincial health-care systems appear to be dealing with access issues by changing the access rules to some health services. Take the case of Ontario. Pharmacists in Ontario can now prescribe treatments for nineteen health services including diaper rashes, canker sores, and yeast infections. And most recently, Ontario has expanded the ability to self-refer for screening tests by lowering the age for women’s breast screening without a doctor’s referral to 40. One expects that eventually you may be able to self-refer for other routine screening tests in order to free up scarce physician time.

While such measures are a way of dealing with current physician shortages by reducing some of their gatekeeping requirements, it remains that they are short-term stop-gap measures. Eventually, once results from self-referred tests come back and short-term pharmacy treatments are exhausted, people will still need to see a doctor. Expect to see within a year or two complaints that despite a test result requiring follow-up, people cannot get in to see a physician. The next health-care accessibility crisis is already taking shape.