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Malcolm Jolley: The simple, all-encompassing key to really knowing wine

Commentary

By the time this column is posted to The Hub, it will be nearing the middle of the day in Paris. If I survive the vagaries of post-pandemic air travel this week, and keep to my itinerary, I will be arriving for a 1 p.m. European Central Time reservation at a restaurant that has been continuously open for almost a century, and I will be thinking about what wine might go with whatever my wife and I are contemplating having for lunch.

Assuming we have not been seated next to the toilets or in a basement, nor have we unwittingly gravely insulted the staff of the restaurant, we should be settling into a pleasant couple of hours, and going through la carte des vins, which will be both a prelude to the larger pleasure of lunch and a small pleasure in of itself. It will also be relatively straightforward, since we will be in a French restaurant, in the capital of France, chasing a French wine to go with French food.

This ought to be fun. For a combination of accidental and purposeful reasons, I hold a pretty firm knowledge of French wines. I have a few myopic, if not actually blind, spots, like the wines from Alsace, but even then I usually know enough to ask reasonably intelligent questions. The big guns, Bordeaux and Burgundy, come with a classification system built in, if you can afford the top tier. But I’ve spent the last 20 years of my professional life trying to find good-value wines from France, so the chance to play in the big leagues for a few days is exciting.

I am not above playing the greatest hits from Burgundy or Bordeaux, but I will be looking for things less likely to be found in Canada, at least outside of Quebec. I am thinking of the wines from the Loire Valley, particularly dry whites made with Chenin Blanc. For bigger dishes, I look for bigger wines, perhaps from Cahors in the Southwest, or particular villages in the Languedoc like La Livinière. Anything I can afford from the Northern Rhône Valley will be tried. But I don’t really know, and the sport will be as much in the discovery as in the expectation.

In The Food and Wine of France (2016), the American Francophile writer Edward Behr describes the interplay between customer and server, especially in the bistros of Paris. The difference between a pleasant experience and the less pleasant experience that all of us tourists dread, and anyone who has travelled in France has experienced at least once, is an understanding of the expected dynamic, and a sense of purpose between all parties:

The server knows you are there to accomplish something serious, even if that serious thing is pleasure, and it’s the server’s job to assist. The server shares the view that not only is the sensual an important part of life but even that it’s unbecoming for anyone not to know how to enjoy good food and drink. I’ve certainly never heard it spoken, and it sounds a little grand to say it, but the server seems to believe that knowing how to enjoy yourself at the table is a part of French civilization.

I’d like to think I know how to enjoy myself at the table; I certainly want to, which might be the broader point. Curiosity ought to be rewarded, if it’s combined with an appropriate amount of respect for the subject. A good demonstration of respect would be to show up with some minimal understanding of what’s trying to be accomplished. In other words, doing a little bit of homework.

Edward Behr is enjoyable gastronomical homework. He writes about food and wine, in his books and the newsletter-turned-magazine-turned-website he founded called The Art of Eating in a way that is both informative and takes the reader on an entertaining journey. The best writers find an elegant and balanced way of doing both, while those who have yet to find their voice often try too hard to be amusing while cramming their readers with a litany of facts culled from a website written by a PR.

A lot of information about wine seems to sit on opposite ends of a spectrum that spans from folkloric to statistical. Some numbers are helpful in understanding how or why a wine is like it is, like the elevation of a vineyard, or the rules an appellation imposes on its members, like how long, and in what, a wine must be aged before it can be sold.

A customer pours a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau wine in a restaurant of Boulogne Billancourt, outside Paris, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. Christophe Ena/AP Photo.

Some folkloric information can be correspondingly helpful, like how long wine has been made in a specific place, and why. Though one wonders, for instance, how much the popes cared about the terroirs of Châteauneuf-du-Pape beyond their proximity to their palace. And can we ever be really sure if one group of vignerons or another truly invented rosé?

Most wine information seems to be directed towards the benefit of those who sell it. That makes sense. In the absence of being able to taste a wine, how else can a consumer make a decision without numbers and stories? Tasting notes offer an approximation based mostly on metaphors. But all analogies are ultimately rendered false. When I write a note, I commit to my impression but then play a game to see what other critics have found. My raspberry could well be someone else’s cherry; they vary all the time.

The only real way to know about wine is to live it: see it, smell it, taste it, drink it, talk about it, and start all over again when you can. I suppose like Socrates, I understand that really, “I know that I know nothing,” or that I will never know everything. But that’s fine because every bottle and meal is a lesson, and there’s extra credit for lunch in Paris. I will do my best to report back on what I learn.

Alisha Rao and Amal Attar-Guzman: From making strides in STEM to the PWHL, the future is bright for Canadian women

Commentary

Today is International Women’s Day, where there will be much commentary on the status of women in our society. Undoubtedly, much of the focus will be on the gender-related challenges that women still face. And rightfully so. 

While it is important to reflect on these obstacles, this year, we also want to focus on efforts that seek to proactively improve women’s lives, particularly here in Canada. 

Here are some people we would like to draw attention to today. 

Public policy

On matters of public policy, readers should keep an eye out for two Senate bills currently in their first reading stage. 

S-263, introduced by Conservative Senator Salma Ataullahjan, aims to formally introduce a national strategy to combat human trafficking. Canada is, unfortunately, a source, destination, and transit country of human trafficking, primarily in sexual exploitation and forced labour. According to Statistics Canada, in 2022, 94 percent of police-reported human trafficking incidents involved women and girls. Additionally, Indigenous women and girls, migrants and new immigrants, LGBT folks, and children in the foster care system are especially at risk. 

Most troubling, 91 percent of victims were trafficked by someone they knew and 34 percent were trafficked by an intimate partner, according to Statistics Canada.  

The second bill making its way through Parliament looks to combat the latter case. S-249, introduced by Conservative Senator Fabian Manning, aims to formally introduce a national strategy to combat intimate partner violence. This bill is coming at the right time. In 2022, almost eight in 10 (78 percent) of victims of intimate partner violence reported to the police were women and girls. Last month, experts rang the alarm saying that it is an “epidemic” here in Canada. So, the Senate bill rightly calls for the minister for Women and Gender Equality and Youth to “prepare a report setting out [a] national strategy” to combat the issue head-on. 

Business 

The world of business is not an easy path to endeavour for anyone, let alone women. Beyond any moral case, women’s full and free participation in the economy makes fiscal sense. Studies have shown that by advancing gender equality, Canada’s economy could add up to $150 billion in GDP. Despite these lost socioeconomic opportunities, Canada is still a global leader of women in business, and we have seen great progress made by Canadian female entrepreneurs and business leaders. 

One sterling example is Ami Shah, the co-founder of Peekapak Inc., an educational technology platform that enables educators teaching from pre-kindergarten to grade 12 to implement social-emotional learning (SEL) skills. This is done through game-based learning and evidence-based lessons. Educators can review reports on student’s progress and emotions, which allows them to be proactive in their students’ mental health. Gratitude, self-regulation, compassion, and respect are emphasized as a part of the learning process for growing children. Shah has been recognized as a Compass Rose Entrepreneur.

Not only is this a viable business venture, but it also serves a necessary role in childhood development and curbing mental health challenges.

STEM

Women in STEM face similar challenges to those in business. Numbers show that while 34 percent of Canadians with a STEM degree are women, they only make up 23 percent of those working in science and technology. Like in business, Canada is leaving valuable fruit hanging on the tree, as scientific innovation and progress are stunted by not maximizing women’s potential in the field. A 2022 study’s findings “reveal [that] gender and teamwork synergies…correlate with scientific discoveries,” and thus innovation and progress. 

While there is a small margin of women in STEM, the ones who are there are still making waves, especially one in particular. 

Take the case of Dr. Ellen Kenchington, a benthic ecologist based in Nova Scotia working at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. Her work focuses on the organisms that live on the seafloor. She researches the relationship between the structure of sediment and seabed to understand how these organisms are distributed in oceans. Importantly, her scientific knowledge contributes to how we can monitor the impacts of climate change and better protect our oceans.

Kenchington previously served on the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea Scientific Committee (ICES) and was recently honoured with the ICES Outstanding Achievement Award for her work. 

Sports

Now, we can’t celebrate women’s advancement without mentioning Canada’s favourite pastime: hockey. 

On New Year’s Day, the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PHWL) officially premiered at Toronto’s Maple Leafs Gardens where it held its first game: New York versus Toronto. 

Billie Jean King, an infamous tennis player who won the Battle of the Sexes tennis match and is now a co-founder of the PWHL, dropped the first puck in the league’s history: 

When the all-female hockey league was initially announced, there were naysayers claiming there wouldn’t be any interest and that “it was bound to fail.” If the initial buzz is any indication, they will be proven decisively wrong. The first-ever game was played in front of a sold-out crowd of 2,537 attendees. Many young girls watched in awe, screaming their support in the stands. 

While New York beat Toronto 4-0, it was Canadian hockey player Ella Shelton, fourth draft pick for New York, who scored the first-ever PWHL goal. Fingers crossed it will soon become a Canada Heritage Minute. 

Social media and arts 

Canadian artists, actors, singers, filmmakers, and writers have always been powerhouses in North America’s globally dominant entertainment industry, and Canadian women are no exception. Nowadays, though, we can add content creators to that list of luminary influencers. Model and TikToker Willow Allen is just one of many up-and-comers who are bridging gaps. 

An Inuvialuit model from the town of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, Allen has made major strides in the last year, building her influence and integrating her culture into her content creation. In 2022, she was featured in the Accelerator for Indigenous Creators TikTok program, which helps creators extend their social media reach and connect with fellow Indigenous creators. Her content focuses on bringing light to Indigenous culture and issues for a wider audience, including the history of Inuit tattoos and social work vacancies across Northern Canada. Her audience is currently 775K TikTok followers and counting, 

Now embarking on the journey of motherhood, Allen communicates how, in becoming a mother, she incorporates land-based teaching into her everyday life and imagines how her newborn son will carry on the cultural lessons that she learned, as he grows up. 


The folks listed here are only just a small portion of many who are committed to not only improving the lives of women but also to their communities and the country as a whole. They are working towards building a Canada where women are not only secure but also can thrive and be triumphant. 

They show that despite the complex, gender-based challenges ahead of us, instead of cowering, we can confront them, persevere, and make conditions better for future generations of women.