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Malcolm Jolley: With CRUSHABLE, Laura Milnes finds fine wine, finer conversation, and a simple way to create community

Customers toast with glasses of wine in a restaurant outside Paris, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. Christophe Ena/AP Photo.

Until recently, the word “crush” had two principal usages. The first, to mangle the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, is a “violent compression,” which is what happens to grapes in a wine press. The second, following again my 1993 edition of the NSOED, is an infatuation, or the person or thing that the infatuation is directed at, which is how many of us continue to feel about wine.

Lately, the word has a new usage as a verb meaning to drink enthusiastically; perhaps because of a violently compressed infatuation with whatever is being drunk. From the verb comes the adjective “crushable”. A particularly pleasing and easy-going down wine can be, I have heard the youth say, “crushable.”

I don’t know which of these definitions, if any, Laura Milnes chose to name her club, organization, society, or whatever exactly it is. It doesn’t matter, because CRUSHABLE is one of the more interesting Canadian wine culture projects to emerge out of and beyond the COVID era. One that belies the conventional wisdom that consumers, particularly younger consumers, are turning their interest away from wine.

Tall, blonde, and just turned 40, Laura Milnes calls herself a prairie girl and retains a no-nonsense sensibility despite her glamorous looks. Born in Manitoba she moved west, first to university in Calgary, then into B.C. and the Okanagan wine scene. She worked all facets of the industry from the vineyards to the cellar, retail, and hospitality. And she promoted it from within, blogging and evangelizing along the way.

About five years ago, Milnes and her husband relocated from the west to Toronto, where he’s from, and where he pursued a job opportunity. As she adjusted herself to Toronto city life, she began to figure out a way to stay connected with the wine world she had left behind in B.C. and to get connected to the new one around her in Ontario. She was surprised to find this harder than she thought.

I met Milnes at a winemaker’s lunch wine at around this time. I recall her explaining that she intended to create a kind of wine club and that it would have a focus on Canadian wine. I also recall puzzlement that wine people in Toronto, whether trade or consumer, didn’t seem to know or care that much about the local wines from Niagara, or Canadian wines in general.

Five years later I found myself sitting around a dining table in a small candle-lit room carved out of a nook, up a flight of stairs in a warehouse building in a west-end neighbourhood that’s taking a little longer than most to gentrify. There, Milnes poured us each a glass of the 2022 Lighting Rock Viognier, from Summerland, B.C.

“This is a wine from a vineyard that no longer exists,” said Milnes, explaining that the winery had to pull up their Viognier vines after the disastrous Okanagan deep freeze of this winter. It’s too bad, because the wine, which I’d never heard of, was delicious: fleshier than most Viognier, almost closer to Chenin Blanc. This wine, while it lasts is emblematic of the wines Milnes serves at CRUSHABLE.

Milnes found the CRUSHABLE clubhouse site after an angry letter from her condo board stopped her from inviting members into her home. Before taking it over, she was briefly at a second venue on top of a pot shop on Spadina. That ended when her landlords got into some legal trouble unrelated to her. She is glad to be settled and uses the space to hold regularly scheduled evening tastings.

The tastings are two hours long, you can spit or swallow as you like, and she provides snacks while she leads a session, pouring rare B.C., Ontario, or Nova Scotia wines to groups of between two and eight people.

Sometimes the people all know each other. Sometimes they are strangers. The sessions are, by design, convivial and the focus is to enjoy the wine, as it’s meant to be. Sometimes the conversation is about the wine, sometimes the wine becomes a launching pad for other, more profound topics.

“It can be like therapy,” explained Milnes, as we moved onto a stunningly elegant, cool climate 2022 Birch Block Pinot Noir from Kaleden in the South Okanagan. “Sometimes we get tears, but mostly we just have fun.” However it goes, Milnes believes the secret to learning about wine, and how to enjoy it, is conversation: “We need people to talk to each other.”

Years in, Milnes is still amazed at how intimidated most of her members are by the wine world. She believes most wine consumers are poorly served by the way wine is sold in this country. Many come to her tastings surprised to learn that Canada makes some very fine wines. She thinks the hospitality industry could do a better job of showing consumers what we can make in this country.

“We need to pull our heads out of our [behinds], and start looking around at what we have,” she said with some exasperation. Halfway through the Birch Block Pinot, it was hard to disagree.

For all her passion and missionary zeal, Milnes is not a fundamentalist. CRUSHABLE club members can subscribe to delivered mixed cases of wine, which might come from anywhere. Where they won’t come from is the provincial liquor retail monopoly, something which, after years of living in Alberta, she is not impressed by.

Milnes also shows her sense of humour and entrepreneurial spirit with a line of wino apparel, playing on some of the world’s cooler wine regions and grapes. Assuming the title of “wine consultant,” Milnes is building a business around the idea of letting people into wine culture.

In the end, the CRUSHABLE concept is dead simple: educating consumers by bringing fine wine to its natural habitat—the table. There Milnes’ members can investigate the wines while enjoying them and talking about them. How many times do consumers order a $100 bottle of wine at a restaurant, listen politely to a quick explanation of what they ordered, and then more or less forget about it? Now we know there is a better way.

William Thorsell: Grow up, America. It’s time to share the world stage

President Joe Biden speaks during the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, Saturday, May 20, 2023. Susan Walsh/AP Photo.

Let me take a moment to respond to Conrad Black’s remarks about my views in these pages last week.

When communism disintegrated in China and Russia in the 1990s, replaced by the embrace of market economics, triumphalism swept through the Western world. The West had “won the Cold War!” There was to be a New World Order, a la President H. W. Bush. Even the end of history postulated by Francis Fukuyama. The whole world would now mimic Western societies, not only economically, but socially and politically as well. How long would it take, after joining the World Trade Organization, for China to become a liberal democracy? Sure, it’s been 5,000 years, but maybe a decade or two. Capitalism does that.

Events in Europe might have checked this hubris off the bat as the former Yugoslavia quickly descended into tribal warfare of vicious proportions, culminating in the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, war in Kosovo, and the American bombing of Belgrade. Surely this was evidence that cultural identities remained potent indeed, right in the heart of Europe, far out-weighing love of democratic capitalism in the balance. Check Serbia, Bosnia, Hungary, and Slovakia today.

It should have been clear that the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of capitalist China with borders opening to the world signified two things, not just one: classic communism was dead, and classic nationalism was reborn. The West revelled in the death of communism and, despite tragedy in the Balkans, pooh-poohed the significance of Chinese and Russian nationalism in particular. In each case, that nationalism expressed centuries of culture, indeed of distinct civilizations. And it presaged a return to the classic dynamics of international relations—cooperation and competition among multiple poles expressing different interests and values.

The end of the Cold War was the beginning of a global renaissance of cultural diversity, freed from the shackles of European communist ideology that had oppressed a whole half of the world in the 20th Century. China and Russia were the leading examples, but India, many parts of Africa, and the Islamic countries similarly revived their histories and insisted on their differences. Having thrown off European Marxist ideology, they were not about to embrace American values in exchange.

Intellectuals in the West largely missed this historic shift, proceeding with the liberal democratic “rules-based order” that assumed all major countries would come into the tent, implicitly accepting American dominance in a proudly “uni-polar world.” If Russia was just “a gas station with nuclear weapons,” China was a nation of worker bees enriching the capitalist world order within the rules of the game.

Imagine then the consternation of triumphant, proud Western leaders when deep, repressed world civilizations re-emerged and began to act like America itself—like great powers with distinct interests, values, and views of life. Conrad Black expresses this wounded pique with typical colour, force, and erudition, all the while denying its validity, or even fact.

America, he says, is “the greatest country in the history of the world, the most benign leading power in the history of the world…All the United States has ever sought in foreign relations is not to be threatened…America’s activities and alliances are entirely defensive…The United States is not a hegemon.”

Was America under threat or attack when it provoked the Russian invasion of Ukraine through its support of the 2014 coup that overthrew the elected president of Ukraine from the Donbas and then established NATO training bases within Ukraine to support its chronic military conflict in the east?

Is America under threat or attack as it overtly provokes China on the issue of Taiwan, effectively abandoning “strategic ambivalence” in its recognition of “One China” to define Taiwan instead as a strategic American asset surrounded by an iron-red line (dressed in Nancy Pelosi’s pink suit)?

Is America under threat or attack as the only global power fuelling Israel’s horrific war in Gaza and the West Bank?

America has set out to upset a workable status quo in Ukraine and Taiwan in which the strategic interests of Russia and China were respected. Overtly claiming Ukraine and Taiwan as prime American interests and assets, backed by direct military support right on foreign borders, tips the odds toward war in both cases, war provoked by the United States.

The issue is not the quality of American culture, it is the quality of its management in a multi-polar world. In part because America sees itself as a primary force for moral good, it bridles at the existence of competing value systems based in ancient cultures, and insists on its civilizing mission around the world—a new form of the “white man’s burden.” It is understandable that America would lack the intellectual context and practical skill sets to manage effectively in a world that is so new to it. And it is essential to global peace and security that it gains them.

Yes, this means co-existence with major countries that do not share Western concepts of human rights and democracy. It means appreciation for the legitimate security interests of other great powers as seen from their capitals. The big job for America now is competent management in a dynamic, unpredictable, lively, and competitive human landscape in which America is a leading player, one among many. It is not missionary liberalism.

President Xi said to President Biden at their recent meeting in San Francisco that the world was “big enough for the two of us.” Mr. Biden’s national security summary had just stated: “We will not leave our future vulnerable to the whims of those who do not share our vision.” The “whims” of Chinese civilization? It is telling that this needed to be said and sums up the problem well indeed: Mr. Black’s good-hearted bully needs to grow up.