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Malcolm Jolley: There’s a reason premium wines have a premium price tag

Commentary

A bottle of the Edouard Delaunay Échezeaux Grand Cru 2020 is currently €278.83 a bottle at the esteemed negotiant’s website. That’s about $400 CAD, though how one would get the bottle here, and what additional duties one might pay for a bottle, is beyond a simple Google search. It would likely cost even more.

The Delaunay winery, which is owned and operated by Laurent Delaunay, great-great-grandson of Edouard, made only 492 bottles and 48 magnums of wine from the Pinot Noir grown in the Grand Cru Vineyard known as Échezeaux (not to be confused with its neighbour, the even more esteemed Grands Échezeaux), which is roughly between Romanée-Conti and the Clos Vougeot. Actually, it gets even more specific, since it comes from rows on a specific lieu-dit, or site, Les Rouges du Bas, which, being higher up the hill from others, has more limestone in its soil.

I know these details, as well as that the wine spent 17 months in French barrels (half of which were new) and that no sulfites were added, because I am reading them off of a tasting booklet I received as a guest at dinner at a large medieval castle in the heart of la Bourgogne.Because the vignerons of la Bourgogne showed me no limit of hospitality, and wish the English-speaking wine press to use the French word for their beloved region, I am sticking with la Bourgogne and not the word in English for a dark, wine-like red colour. One explanation for this wish is Bourgogne is what is printed on the label of the wines.  Given at the former home of the Grand Duke Philippe le Hardi, it was a dinner called Grandes Maisons Grand Crus, featuring some of the more sought-after labels from 20 of la Bourgogne’s great houses, like Delauney, William Fèvre, Jean-Marc Brocard, Albert Bichot, Boisset, Bouchard Père et Fils, Faively, Joseph Drouhin, Louis Jadot, and Louis Latour, to name a few.

I had traveled to France as a guest of the Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne who had invited me and some of my colleagues to this blowout dinner as a last-night celebration of the six days of tasting that made up the biennial Grand Jours de Bourgogne. It began in the vaulted ceiling cellars of the castle, where the wineries set up tasting tables on top of barrels on a gravel floor. We tasted only Grands Crus from 2020, beginning with Chablis, and then moving into reds and whites from one of the 33 Grand Cru appellations.

These wines are literally the 1 percent of the wines from Bourgogne, at least in terms of wine production. To be poured so many at once (36 by my count) was a bit overwhelming. Tightly packed in the cellar, the atmosphere was more like a party than a professional tasting, and the atmosphere was convivial, and the guests chatted with representatives of the Maisons, like Albéric Bichot and Monsieur Delaunay. There weren’t a lot of notes being taken, nor much spitting.

The Grands Crus represented ranged from the famous, like Clos Vougeot, to the insiders’ favourites, like Musigny. The great advantage of the big house, the negotiants, is of course they have holdings and or buy grapes from all over. During the day, when I attended more structured, formal tastings at Les Grands Jours, I would often look for the tables of big houses to get their take on whichever Côte or appellation we were going to be immersed in for the next couple of hours.

This strategy, though admittedly haphazardly implemented depending on which houses I more or less stumbled upon, or didn’t have long lines, proved sound enough. I don’t think one goes to the wines of la Bourgogne for stylistic surprises, and in fact there were few between the houses, nor between the houses and the smaller domaine producers. This is particularly true in the rarefied air of the Grands Crus, but also in the Premiers Crus and Villages appellations.

And up in the Grands Crus stratosphere, the thing about making wines that fetch hundreds of euros a bottle is that one can afford to invest in their production. There are no clunkers in this category. At four years old they were generally a bit tight, but also generally open enough to be enjoyed now, so if one wished to open a bottle when one’s case was delivered, one wouldn’t be disappointed.

Chevalier Montrachet, a Grand Cru vineyard, in la Bourgogne, France. Credit: Malcolm Jolley.

An early frost in 2023 reduced yields between a third to a half of normal levels and created a supply shock that drove the prices of Vins de Bourgogne through the roof, where they’ve stayed. Generous yields in 2022 and 2023 have meant that prices have at least stabilized. The disaster of 2021 has left many producers wary of bad surprises, so they are expected to hold back inventory just in case it’s needed in a year or two.

The insatiable demand for the Grands Crus of Bourgogne has, in some cases, created an inverted market where some wines cost more on release than older vintages on the secondary market. The bad news is that having seen most of the Grands Crus vineyards with my own eyes, I can safely report that they are unlikely to get bigger, and supply will not increase. The good news is that there are sublime wines being made further down the appellation and price pyramid from neighbouring vineyards.

Back to that Delaunay Echezeaux 2020: what I remember about it was the clarity of the forest fruit. Raspberry and blackberry notes were not loud; they were elegant but they resonated and hummed, wrapped in fine tannins for what seemed like a long time into the finish. In fact it’s that quality that I remember about the Grands Crus. The Chablis were particularly mineral and citrus, the whites from further south brought peach on top of the lemon, and a fancy dash of wood sweetness. And the reds worked slowly to reveal their fruit.

Norman Siebrasse: The real problem with the Supreme Court calling a woman a ‘person with a vagina’

Commentary

In last month’s Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v. Kruk, the Court used the term “a person with a vagina” rather than “woman.”R. v. Kruk, 2024 SCC 7 [109] rev’g 2022 BCCA 18 aff’g 2020 BCSC 1480. Contrary to some overwrought comments on social media, the Court was not saying that the preferred term for “woman” is “a person with a vagina.” The use of the phrase nonetheless gives real cause for concern as to whether the Court will be able to fairly adjudicate the cases on trans issues that are sure to come before it.

The main issue in the case was a technical but important point of evidence law. Please bear with some legal background, including with regard to the particular case. Sexual assault cases often turn on the credibility of the accused and complainant, as the crime is typically committed in private and there is often no independent corroborating evidence. In assessing the evidence, a trial judge must necessarily rely on their common sense about human behaviour. But sometimes common sense is not sensible at all; trial judges once relied on the myth that a victim of sexual assault would report the assault immediately and would discount the evidence of a victim who did not do so. The issue in Kruk was how to strike the right balance between common sense and expert evidence in the context of sexual assault.

The accused had been charged with sexually assaulting the complainant while she was blacked out from extreme intoxication. The trial judge convicted, relying in part on the complainant’s evidence that when she woke up, “she felt his penis inside her and she knew what she was feeling.” The trial judge remarked that “[i]t is extremely unlikely that a woman would be mistaken about that feeling.”2020 BCSC 1480 [68]. Focusing on this sentence, the British Columbia Court of Appeal held that the trial judge had erred in law by relying on possibly mistaken common sense about what “any” woman would feel, even when highly intoxicated, when the true question was what this particular complainant had felt. The Court of Appeal therefore set aside the conviction and ordered a new trial.

The Supreme Court unanimously held that the trial judge was entitled to rely on the complainant’s evidence and restored the conviction, with Justice Martin writing for the majority. Justice Rowe wrote a concurring decision, with a separate analysis, agreeing with the result.

The majority decision was almost entirely business as usual for the Supreme Court in a criminal law case: a dispassionate analysis of a technical evidentiary issue applied to disturbing facts. The contentious statement was a single phrase in the Court’s summary of the law: “Where a person with a vagina testifies credibly and with certainty that they felt penile vaginal penetration, a trial judge must be entitled to conclude that they are unlikely to be mistaken.”R. v. Kruk, 2024 SCC 7 [109]. In context, it is abundantly clear that the Court was not suggesting that the preferred term for a woman is “a person with a vagina.” The Court referred repeatedly to “woman” and “women” throughout its decision and discussed at length myths and stereotypes relating to “women.” The only use of the contentious phrase was in that single sentence. The Court never referred to the complainant herself as “a person with a vagina”: the contentious sentence was a general statement of law, not a statement about the complainant in this case.

The Court did say that the trial judge’s use of the words “a woman” was unfortunate, but in context is clear that the word “a” was unfortunate, not the word “woman.” The Court of Appeal has seized on the phrase “a woman” to criticize the trial judge for making unsupported assumptions about all complainants and the Supreme Court spent several paragraphs pointing out that, read in context, the trial judge’s reference to “a woman” was a conclusion about the complainant specifically. By saying the trial judge’s use of the term “a woman” was “unfortunate,” the Supreme Court was trying to soften the blow by providing an excuse for the Court of Appeal’s error.

With all that said, there is still a puzzle. Why did the Court refer to “a person with a vagina” instead of simply “a woman”? The answer seems to be that it is precisely because the statement was a general statement of law and not a statement about the complainant specifically. The Court evidently wanted to indicate that such evidence should be accepted not only when a woman testifies that she felt penile vaginal penetration, but also when a man with a vagina so testifies. In other words, the Court is acknowledging that trans men are men, and by implication, that trans women are women.

The view that trans women are women is politically controversial and legally unsettled. It is also a matter that may well come before the Court. For instance, many of the governing bodies in international sports have implemented policies that biological men cannot compete in the women’s category if they have gone through male puberty.See UCI (cycling); World Athletics (track and field); World Aquatics. If Canadian sports bodies follow suit, it is very likely that there will be litigation on the question of whether prohibiting trans women from competing in the women’s category would constitute unlawful discrimination on the basis of gender identity under the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Litigation on similar questions is already ongoing in the United States.Here and here. Most Canadian jurisdictions allow people to change the sex indicated on the official documentation, such as a driver’s licence or passport, but the legal effect of such a change is unclear, as we do not have any legislation equivalent to the U.K. Gender Recognition Act which provides that when gender recognition certificate is issued pursuant to that Act, the person’s gender becomes the acquired gender.Gender Recognition Act 2004 (UK) s. 9

The Court must have known that this statement would be controversial. No one who takes even a casual interest in public affairs could fail to have noticed the controversy. Why then did the Court comment on this issue, even indirectly? It was not necessary for legal clarity. None of the parties in the case were trans-identified. The phrase “woman” was used throughout the case in every other context at every level of court. None of the eight parties who appeared before the Court raised the issue in their submissions.Which are available on the Court’s website, here and here. In this context, if the Court had used the word “woman” instead of “a person with a vagina,” the lower courts would undoubtedly have understood that the same rule would apply to the evidence of a man with a vagina.

Police stand between protesters opposed to gender diversity in schools, right, and counter-protesters advocating for trans rights, left, in Halifax on Wednesday, September 20, 2023. Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press.

Now, it might be said that given the controversy, it would be advisable to acknowledge the existence of trans men even though it was strictly unnecessary to the decision. But this could have been done while leaving open the question of whether trans men are men in fact and in law, for example by saying “The same rule of course applies to trans men.” 

Using the term “a person with a vagina” without acknowledging the controversy implies that there is no controversy. The Court is signaling that, in its view, the notion that trans men are men is as uncontroversial as saying that the sun rises in the east. This means that the Court has signaled that it has pre-judged a controversial legal issue that is likely to come before it. Now, it is certainly true that this statement is obiter dicta, and so would not be binding in any case the Court might hear dealing with trans issues. And the remark does not necessarily imply that the Court has made up its mind as a matter of law. It would be possible for a judge to hold the view that trans women are women while being open to the possibility that they are not women in law for the purpose of competitive sports.

But the fact that the Court has not strictly bound itself to hold that trans men are men, and trans women are women, is not the point. Our trust in the courts requires confidence that the court will approach any case that comes before it with a mind open to legal arguments and factual evidence. In this case, the Court went out of its way to insert a legally and politically controversial statement into the decision when it was completely unnecessary to do so. That necessarily undermines our confidence in the Court’s willingness to adjudicate this issue with an open mind when it inevitably comes before the Court. 

It has become increasingly common for companies and institutions to take a public position on politically charged issues. It is no coincidence that polls show that trust in all major institutions is declining. We might have hoped that the Supreme Court of Canada would remain a last bastion of impartiality that would retain the trust of Canadians. The Kruk decision suggests that hope might be in vain.