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Malcolm Jolley: Four great Golden State wines that prove Canadians’ obsession with California is more than justified

Commentary

The United States of America is the world’s largest wine producer outside of Europe, fourth behind only Italy, Spain, and France. More than 80 percent of that production comes from California, as do 95 percent of U.S. wine exports. By far the largest export market for American wine by revenue is Canada, which bought USD $484 million worth in 2022, more than number two U.K. ($192M) and number three Japan ($125M) put together. Isn’t it nice to know we’re valued somewhere?

Canada is valued enough to have its own office of the California Wine Institute which, among other things, promotes trade and consumer shows like the one that toured Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal this month. I attended the Toronto show this week, which California Wines Canada Director Danielle Giroux explained was the 32nd held in the city and named Eureka! after the state wine industry’s continuing commitment to innovation.

With over 500 wines poured, there was a lot to taste and not enough time to do it all. A strategic mix of the familiar and new had to be adopted, and to the extent that the strategy worked, here are four wines out of a great multitude that made an impression.

Harvey & Harriet White Blend 2021, San Luis Obispo County

Harvey & Harriet is the “entry-level” label wine made by Eric Jensen, whose Booker vineyard is in Paso Robles, and whose serious wines, made under the Favorite Neighbour and Booker labels, have what wine writers call a “cult following,” which in practice means they command very large price tags. The Harvey & Harriet line, which is priced around $30, is named after the winemaker’s parents and seems to be designed for fun. The white is certainly a blend, with grapes whose origins come from all over Europe but get along just fine in their Central California melting pot: Chardonnay, Albariño, Viognier, and Pinot Grigio.

There’s weight and a generosity to this wine with soft aromatics over big tropical fruit. The Harvey & Harriet is a 21st-century California wine with more in common with Provence than Burgundy. It was introduced to me at lunch, where it held up very well to a salad of mixed greens with pistachios; had the main been white wine-friendly, it would have very happily continued through the meal.

McManis Chardonnay 2021, River Junction

California makes some of the world’s most expensive wines. Several years ago a vintner who makes one of them explained that, due to real estate prices alone, the break-even point on a bottle of wine from the Napa Valley was USD $65. It can only have gone up, which is why it was good to see a wine that has held value, despite these inflationary times.

The McManis wines, like their classic California Chardonnay, come from the not-so-sexy Central Valley, but the family-run wine business has kept an eye on quality since they started bottling their own wines in the 1990s. Their Chardonnay is a bit like going back to the 90s, actually, with lots of round fruit (peaches and lemons) and a distinctive, if old-fashioned, buttery note. It’s a much more luxurious wine than its CAD $22 (in Ontario) price tag. I was pleased to be reacquainted with it, as well as their equally solid black-fruited Cabernet Sauvignon. This Chardonnay wants seafood, or maybe a BLT for lunch on Saturday.

Foxen Pinot Noir 2020, Santa Maria Valley

I try to avoid bigotry, but I am innately suspicious of Pinot Noir that’s not from a “cool climate,” like Burgundy, Oregon, or Ontario. I need to get over myself. The whole idea of a cool climate in the age of global warming might itself be obsolete. In any event, as anyone who’s seen the movie Sideways knows, the Central Coast of California makes some of the world’s prettiest Pinot’s and, after tasting through a bunch of powerful Cabernet Sauvignons and Zinfandels, it woke my palate right up.

Foxen is one of the region’s more established wineries, and their Pinot is full of bright red fruit, oscillating between cherry and cranberry, with a touch of earthiness and sandy tannins holding everything together. It’s the kind of wine that commands attention and contemplation. At around $40 it’s not cheap, but these days that’s the floor for well-made Pinot.

Ridge Geyserville 2021, Alexander Valley (Sonoma)

I remember buying my first bottle of Ridge red wine sometime in the late 1990s because I broke my self-imposed $20 price barrier. It was recommended by a slightly older American friend and I had high expectations, which were ultimately met, though the thrill of tasting the complex and intriguing was tempered with the knowledge my encounters with it would be infrequent. This has turned out to be the case since these legendary wines with their distinctive wordmark labels are priced to be reserved for special occasions.

Once I’d negotiated the line of sommeliers at the Ridge table, I tasted through three of their Sonoma County reds, including the Geyserville 2021. I particularly like this wine in part because it has a good story. (Context matters greatly when tasting wine; blind tasters try and eliminate it, but I mostly try to embrace it.) Ridge has been making wine from this vineyard since the 1960s. It was planted in the 1880s and holds some very old vines. It’s a “field blend”, which means the different kinds of grapes that make it are grown side by side and all mixed up when they’re picked so that they are fermented and elevated together.

It’s dominated by Zinfandel (69 percent) but has a high proportion of Carignan (20 percent), rounded out by Petit Sirah (8 percent), and two wildcards: Alicante Bouschet (2 percent) and Mataro (1 percent). It’s the old vine Carignan that I think gives it a particularly deep dark fruit character. Or maybe it’s the old vine Zinfandel that shows more to plums. Or maybe it’s everything grown together and put together in a magic way and the sum is greater than its parts. It’s a wonderfully complex wine that marries power with elegance, a bit like the state it comes from.

Mathew Giagnorio: Why an Ontario chief librarian was fired for her thought crimes

Commentary

What is the purpose of a public library? It is a local gateway to the world and all the knowledge that it contains. It is a sanctuary of the written word and a cornerstone of civic life and the community it serves. It provides a foundation for lifelong learning, curiosity, and independent critical decision-making, along with the personal, social, and cultural development of individuals and social groups. 

Participation in and the development of a robust democracy in a diverse and open liberal society is contingent on unrestricted access to education and knowledge, thought, culture, and information. In engaging with this content, we must have the intellectual freedom to refute, question, and debate topics. 

The role of the librarian is a steward and protector of this public space. They must allow for equal access to the knowledge it houses. That knowledge should be eclectic, inspiring, insightful, and provocative.

The wonderful thing about a library is that if you don’t like a particular book, you are not obligated to read it. There are plenty of books to choose from. 

This approach to free thought was not the case in the shameful dismissal of Cathy Simpson, chief librarian, and CEO of Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library. The treatment she endured demonstrates a complete disregard for viewpoint diversity demanded in the forum of the public library. 

Simpson wrote a column entitled “Censorship and what we are allowed to read: public libraries should be home to many viewpoints, not just progressive ones” for a local newspaper. It was published, ironically, on February 22nd  during the “Freedom to Read Week,” an annual event that encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which they are guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It also happened during the Toronto Public Library’s intellectual freedom series.

It was a column I would have written myself, and I commend her for doing so. In it, she addresses genuine concerns about hidden censorship in libraries that amounts to a selective defence of books and authors based on the valour of victimhood. She also raised the narrowing of book choices which now dare not diverge from what is now deemed absolute truth. If they are questioned, the questioner faces strong political forces that will be out to get them. “Viewpoints that don’t conform to progressive agendas are rarely represented in library collections and anyone who challenges this is labelled a bigot,” she wrote. “We ask our colleagues to ensure ‘Freedom to Read Week’ does not become ‘Freedom to Read What We Decide You Should Read Week.’”

Shortly after Simpson’s article came out, Matthew French, a resident of Niagara-on-the-Lake, wrote a response letter that served anything but an intelligent rebuttal to the views presented. It reads largely like a hit piece designed to cast Mrs. Simpson as persona non grata and damage her emotionally and financially, leaving her reputation in shambles. He implies she’d be open to the discrimination of gay people and denying the Holocaust. 

What I find most amusing is that instead of responding to Simpson’s article and presenting arguments, he instead chose to smear her. He actually proved her points by claiming in fact that her balanced views proposing library neutrality and the freedom to read, and her association with the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR), are horrid “far-right” American talking points.

Now, when you think of far-right folks, do you think about people like Shadi Hamid, a respected professor of Islamic studies and Washington Post columnist? How about respected New York University psychologist and author  Jonathan Haidt? What about Daryl Davis who is a musician, author, actor, and lecturer noted for “having interviewed hundreds of KKK members and other white supremacists and influencing many of them to renounce their racist ideology”? Davis is a Black man, by the way. 

Or wait, maybe you think of someone like Andrew Sullivan. He’s a writer, blogger, and author whose 1989 landmark essay “Here Comes The Groom,” made the first real case to conservatives for gay marriage in the U.S..  He was an influential force in the American Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage less than four decades later. He’s also gay. All these people sit on FAIR’s board of advisors.

Or maybe you think of someone like Monica Harris who is an activist, lawyer who graduated from Harvard and worked with Barack Obama, and author who “advocates for balanced, common-sense solutions to systemic problems based on our shared values and goals.” She is a gay Black woman. She’s also the executive director of FAIR.

Graphic novels have their own shelf at the Marshall Public Library in Marshall, Mo., Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2006. Orlin Wagner/AP Photo.

I find it frightening yet unsurprising that Simpson’s article, which calls for a return to liberalism,   was labelled as  “right-wing dog whistles” because it did not adhere to the current tribal doctrines whereby you must give absolute obedience to one side. 

We now live in a world where these sides of the political spectrum have drifted to become so far apart from one another; where any deviation of thought from either side’s tribal doctrine is seen as “extreme,” and where the person who espouses it must be branded as an undesirable and banished from the public square. The letter that French wrote was just that: a signal of absolute obedience to his tribe, and an effort to brand Simpson as an undesirable who must be banished.

We are living in a world where books, authors, and even librarians are being removed because they do not ascribe to the absolutist ideas of the Right and Left; where you must obey the sacred tenets of your “side” or “tribe.” Attempts to ban and censor have become mainstream. 

Over the years, in our Canadian school libraries and public libraries, books such as The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Maus by Art Spiegelman, Underground To Canada by Barbara Smucker, The Wars by Timothy Findley, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, Salma Writes a Book by Danny Ramadan have all been the targets of some form of censorship and calls for removal. Some are still being targeted today.

Books are art. So, like any piece of art, there will be people who are going to like them and people who won’t. However, that doesn’t mean that we must then not make it available to everybody else. If we start removing works deemed controversial because of their themes or their authors from the shelves of public libraries, school libraries, and bookstores, then we are restricting people’s ability to engage with those topics. We are depriving them of topics that challenge their perspectives; topics beyond the ones that make them feel comfortable.