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Malcolm Jolley: Great wines and an even better cause

Commentary

Niagara winemaker Thomas Bachelder may be best known for his single-site bottling, like the Toussaints project of single vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But of course, he also blends parcels for his Les Villages series of wines. What he doesn’t usually do, and what he’s done for a particular “MicroLot” series of Ontario wines, is blend people.

The people are 19 winemakers, who at Bachelder’s behest are combining forces to make collaborative wines (in extremely limited quantities) for the 2024 charity wine auction to benefit Grapes For Humanity. They include some old hands like, Charles Baker, Emma Garner, Kelly Mason, Shiraz Mottier, and Anne Sperling, as well as young Turks like Mackenzie Brisbois (Trail Estates), Gabriel Demarco (Cave Spring), Elisa Mazzei (Malivoire), Jessica Otting (Tawse), and Matt Smith (Cloudsley). As well as vignerons from BC and Nova Scotia.

Bachelder permutated and combined the Ontario winemakers into six supergroups to make six distinct micro lots under the label From The Heart. They include: Pinot Noir (2022, Twenty Mile Bench), Gamay (2023, Four Mile Bench), Cabernet Sauvignon (2022, Niagara-on-the-Lake), Chardonnay (2022, Niagara Peninsula), a “Red Blend” of Malbec and Cabernet Franc (NV, Ontario VQA), and Riesling (2023, Niagara Peninsula).

Last Friday, when bids opened at the online auction, Grapes For Humanity hosted a tasting of these wines with Bachelder and his most of his merry crew from Ontario at hand. The wines showed well, and with only 10 cases made of each, are already collector’s items. Bachelder explained that since the auction included Grand Cru wines from historically significant regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Barolo, he felt that combining efforts from the best products of some of Canada’s best winemakers might even the field. 

Tasting through the wines and talking to the winemakers, I learned that sometimes the blend in the From The Heart bottle comes from a number of different vineyards. For instance, the Pinot Noir collaboration between Bachelder and Kelly Mason includes wines made from fruit from Mason’s own estate vineyard, Bachelder’s allotment at the Wismer-Parker vineyard, and the legendary Clos Jordanne vineyard, where Bachelder provides his services. 

Other times, as in the Gamay co-ordinated by Mottiar at Malivoire, the blend includes wines made from different rows at a single site (the Creek Road Vineyard) made by his colleague Mazzei, Jeff Moote (divergence), and Jessica Polanski (Liebling), whose family owns the plot of land.

Anne Sperling’s women’s winemaking team, which includes Mason and Otting, didn’t just blend wines from Lailey, Queylus, and Tawse properties, they blended from different years, so their Malbec and Cabernet Franc microlot is non-vintage. When I asked her about the process, Sperling spoke frankly about the challenges of collaboration. It wasn’t just the terroirs or the vintages of the wines that had to find the best harmony, but also the personality and style of the winemakers themselves.

Cuvée from the Heart began in 2019 when Grapes for Humanity board member and wine trade veteran Steven Campbell called Bachelder to ask if he could donate a barrel of wine to their annual auction which raises funds for a combination of landmine (Halo Trust) and environmental charities (Tree Canada and The Nature Conservancy of Canada). “He refused,” Campbell explained, “then he said he’d give us two”.

Bachelder matched his two barrels of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with others he and Campbell solicited from other winemakers, drawing on the best sites in Niagara. There are now three vintages of the original red and white Cuvées (which is French for blend): 2019, 2020, and 2021. Lots of all six, in magnum, are also part of this year’s auction.

Steven Campbell, Tony Aspler, and Thomas Bachelder hold bottles of wine. Credit: Grapes for Humanity Canada.

When I spoke with Sperling, she emphasized that everything that went into the Cuvée from the Heart bottles was donated. Not just the juice and the winemaker’s time, but everything from the barrels and equipment, transportation, bottling, auction fees from Waddington’s, storage fees from Dymon wine cellars, where the event took place, to taxes—you name it, it has been covered so that every dollar raised goes to Grapes for Humanity Canada and the charities they support.

Environmental issues are particularly dear to Campbell’s heart. Before he sold one of Canada’s most successful wine agencies in 2020, he oversaw Lifford’s conversion to a completely carbon-neutral company. At the same time, he created the first line of carbon-neutral wines, Campbell’s Kind Wines, recruiting winemakers from across six different countries and was awarded an honorary doctorate from York University for his efforts.

“Our wine community is hurting from climate change,” Campbell said addressing the few dozen winemakers and journalists assembled. He made specific reference to Okanagan producers who face losses of up to 90 percent of the 2024 harvest because of chaotic cold weather earlier this year. “As citizens,” he added, “we need to think of long-term solutions.”

Nicole Hurtubise, CEO of Tree Canada, was at the tasting to remind us that in 2023, Canada lost over 18 million hectares of trees due to forest fires. Her organization plants trees in communities as well as in the course of reforestation projects. Last year they did their best to counter the loss by planting over 2 million trees from coast to coast to coast.

Also on hand was Grapes for Humanity co-founder, the author and journalist Tony Aspler. Aspler created the non-profit in 2000 with Arlene Willis, whose brother was killed by stepping on a landmine in Vietnam in 1968. While Aspler said he was glad that Grapes For Humanity had kept its connection to clearing landmines by supporting the Halo Trust, he saw climate change as one of the great modern challenges to humanity.

Bachelder wrapped things up by reminding the group that Aspler had written about Canadian wines long before they garnered much interest, let alone respect, and the superlative quality of the wines in the room has much to owe to pioneers like him who saw potential in an emerging region. Campbell agreed that the Canadian wine community stood on the shoulders of giants, but added, raising a glass of something red, that the future looked bright too. Then, he told everyone to try and bid up the wines at auction before it closes on Monday, April 22nd—Earth Day.

Sean Speer: The case for expanding the Prime Minister’s Office

Commentary

Last week, The Hub was home to a wonky yet important debate about how to reform the federal government in order to improve its capacity for policy development and implementation. 

The debate started when former Ontario government political aide, Andrew Evans, and I published an essay in favour of a new public administration model within the Prime Minister’s Office that would involve the establishment of a National Economic Council and Domestic Policy Council comprised of relevant cabinet ministers, public servants, political staff, and possibly non-elected appointees, and supported by a dedicated PMO staff, with the mandate to strengthen policy capacity and implementation oversight on behalf of the prime minister. 

Although we recognize that such policy councils would likely contribute to a further centralization of the federal government, we argue that (1) the trend towards centralization has been unabated for decades and so there’s a good case that we ought to organize ourselves around it rather than simply lament it, and (2) in a world in which most major policy initiatives will necessarily involve multiple departments and agencies, then centralized oversight is really the only way to ensure successful implementation. 

The second point is worth emphasizing: as former political advisers, we’ve both experienced the challenges of achieving policy progress in a governmental structure that’s inherently siloed with ministerial responsibility limited to one’s own portfolio. Multi-departmental policy agendas tend to end up orphaned and suboptimal in such an environment. This is an institutional failing.

PMO policy councils, which would involve direct representation from the departments involved in multi-departmental initiatives, represent in our minds the best way to institutionalize the whole-of-government focus necessary to successfully deliver on such initiatives. For those within the “Ottawa bubble”, one might think of them as something like institutionalized, permanent, and sophisticated “four corners meetings.” 

We should also emphasize for those concerned that such councils couldn’t themselves become critics of the government. They wouldn’t be responsible for producing public-facing policy research or communicating publicly on behalf of the government. They would instead be internal councils designed to improve policy development and implementation within the government itself. In practical terms, they would strengthen the prime minister’s capacity to develop his or her own policy ideas, pressure test ones that come from within government departments or external sources, and coordinate the implementation of multi-departmental initiatives. For this reason, we referred to these policy councils as “do tanks” rather than “think tanks.” 

The proposal received a thoughtful rebuttal on Wednesday from former clerks of the Privy Council, Kevin Lynch and Mel Cappe, and former assistant secretary to the cabinet, Jim Mitchell. If one is going to have critics, this is a pretty strong group. 

Although they agree that public administration reform is needed, they push back against the proposal for policy councils housed within PMO. Their principal concern is that it would contribute to a further centralization of the federal government and in turn undermine the principles of cabinet government and ministerial responsibility. They would instead prefer a return to an era of strong cabinet ministers like C.D. Howe, Don Mazankowski, and Paul Martin. 

One can accept that there’s an inherent trade-off here and that our proposal comes with such a risk. But my response to Cappe, Lynch, and Mitchell (whom it must be said I respect a great deal) would be multi-fold:  

  • Our proposal aims to see the world as it is in which there’s clearly a significant gap between the decentralization of policymaking capacity and the centralization of decision-making within the federal government. Their response, by contrast, proposes to return to a system that hasn’t practically existed for several decades. That they cite Jeffrey Simpson’s two-decades-old book, The Friendly Dictatorship, is a sign that the change that they champion is unlikely to come. 
  • They make a big deal about the fact that the policy council model derives from the U.S. presidential system and therefore is somehow incompatible with Canada’s Westminster model. But as they no doubt know, one of the strengths of the Westminster model is its inherent flexibility. For instance, there’s only statutory cabinet committee in the federal system is the Treasury Board. The prime minister otherwise has tremendous scope to organize his or her government as they see fit. One can envision PMO-based policy councils working in parallel with Canada’s system of cabinet governance such that the councils could help to inform cabinet decision-making and then support the implementation of its decisions. 
  • This is a big one: Cappe, Lynch, and Mitchell fail to grapple with the inherent challenge of successfully implementing horizontal policy initiatives in an inherently siloed system. One can point to various instances where it has directly contributed to governmental failures. For instance, during the pandemic, one part of the government entered into a vaccine agreement with a Chinese-state-based supplier at the same time that another part of the government believed that the Chinese state was involved in acts of bio-espionage at the Winnipeg Lab. The failure of these different parts of the government to communicate with one another was not only the source of great embarrassment but it delayed Canadians’ access to a vaccine. Ottawa needs a better mechanism to pull together different expertise, information, and policy tools into a more coherent form of governance. In the absence of centralized coordination, our experience is that the inherent structure of government represents a significant impediment to progress on multi-departmental initiatives. 
  • Yet, as mentioned above, there are few policy issues facing the country today that fit neatly within the Financial Administration Act or other statutes that govern the basic functioning of the federal government. Climate change, aging demographics, Indigenous reconciliation, national security reform, a pro-growth and productivity agenda, and even a policy response to a new Trump administration will require a whole-of-government agenda. Who is going to organize and coordinate such an agenda? An individual line department? The answer is “clearly, it is not.” 
  • Which prompts the question: who is it going to be? If I didn’t know any better, I’d wonder if implicit in their analysis, Cappe, Lynch, and Mitchell would simply prefer if it’s the Privy Council Office itself. For others, anyway, the principle (and unsaid) concern might be more about an expanded role for the political arm of the government relative to the public service than it is about restoring the principles of cabinet government and ministerial responsibility themselves. Yet it must be remembered that while the federal public service is comprised of some great people, it’s far from infallible. The status quo in which the political arm of the government has asymmetrical capacities and resources relative to the public service—particularly in the face of the massive expansion of the federal employment footprint—has produced an overdependency problem including a lack of checks and balances. PMO-based policy councils with dedicated policy staff would create a healthy tension with the system that, based on our experiences, would produce better policy outcomes. 

The upshot: although we’re honoured to have critics like Cappe, Lynch, and Mitchell, we’re ultimately unpersuaded by their rebuttal. We commonly agree that reform is needed. But we disagree about what form it ought to take. We’d argue that our practical proposal better reflects the current federal system and the challenges that it faces than their proposal to return to a distant past no longer up to meeting today’s challenges.