The Vancouver International Wine Festival: Is It Still The Best?

On Sunday, the Vancouver International Wine Festival drained the last drop from another successful, sold-out year. Is the 10-day bacchanalia still the premier wine festival in North America – or simply “an excuse for every busboy in town to get fucked up for free”? Vv Magazine’s Vancouver Editor Alex Gill gets to the bottom of it…

It’s Friday afternoon at the Vancouver International Wine Festival (VIWF) and the Trade Tasting is in full swing. On the floor of the Vancouver Convention Centre, restaurant sommeliers and wine industry geeks air kiss, laugh, and gossip between swirls, sips, and spits.

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“The Croatian wines are delicious – but $199.00 a bottle?”

“Have you tried the 1999 Hunter Valley semillon?”

“That wine’s just getting started. It could age for another 20 years.”

“The Croatian wines are delicious – but $199.00 a bottle?”

“They’re totally misunderstood.”

“The natural wine table is the most exciting thing here.”

“Sure, but only half of them are any good.”

Beyond the friendly bitching and superficial pleasantries, a deeper controversy starts spilling from loosening lips. Yes, the festival is a fun time for local winos. But has it lost its mojo by focusing too heavily on public relations and punters?

Now in its 37th edition, the Vancouver festival undoubtedly remains one of the largest in North America. This year, the 10-day bacchanalia boasts more than 1,750 wines, 14 countries, 170 wineries, and 53 events. The theme region is Australia, which spent $500,000 for the privilege of proving that Down Under is more than just the land of cheap and cheerful critter labels.

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Neil McGuigan, chief winemaker of South Australia’s McGuigan Wines, pours me a taste of his super-premium, cabernet-shiraz “Philosophy” and points to all the wooden slats used to decorate the room’s sprawling Aussie section.

“They’re pallets,” he says, winking. “They represent sales. That’s what it’s all about. Yeah, baby.” (Only Australia could produce such a prestigious winemaker — one of the planet’s most awarded — who talks like Austin Powers.)

“They need to get their money back,” explains Tap & Barrel sommelier David Stansfield. “It’s not just about brand awareness. You actually need to move units.”

VIWF is big business for participating wineries, which pay a $1,100 entry fee — but more realistically spend $10,000 to $15,000 when travel, accommodations, and entertainment costs are factored in.

“They need to get their money back,” explains Tap & Barrel sommelier David Stansfield. “It’s not just about brand awareness. You actually need to move units.”

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Although expensive, the investment has the potential to pay off. France, last year’s host country, saw a 13 percent sales jump in the first quarter of 2014, according the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch (BCLDB). Australia, whose BC wine sales have been steadily declining since it last hosted the festival in 2007 (down 40 per cent in sales and 39 per cent in volume), is desperate for a similar bump. Wine Australia is also keen to make consumers – and sommeliers – realize that there’s more to their country than big, blowsy shiraz and candy-oaked chardonnay.

Most people agree that Oz has done a stand-up job of showcasing their unsung heroes this week. “You’ve got to try the nebbiolo from Longview,” says Robert Stelmachuk, guiding me through the crowd. “It’s so true to the Italian style.”

Cibo Trattoria’s general manager and wine director has spent many years cultivating off-the-beaten-track lists for some of the Vancouver’s most noteworthy restaurants, including Le Crocodile, Market by Jean-George, and Chambar. He’s glad to see more unusual Australian varietals (Grenache! Fiano!) and modern styles (elegant, graceful, cool-climate syrah from the Yarra Valley) on the festival floor.

“As far as everything else goes? There’s an okay BC section,” he shrugs.

“Ten years ago, I would have politely said ‘Sorry, I’m working. This is my office. I’m here to taste.’ Now? I’m here to network.”

The festival has simply become too expensive for the trendier type of small-production, terroir-driven, handcrafted wineries that local wine nerds love to lap up. “I’ve noticed that in the last three or four years there are a lot more consumer-driven wines than wine-geeky wines,” Stansfield notes.

“The very fact that we’re talking right now speaks to the festival’s shifting relevance,” explains Neil Ingram, a decorated sommelier and former Boneta co-owner. “Ten years ago, I would have politely said ‘Sorry, I’m working. This is my office. I’m here to taste.’ Now? I’m here to network.”

Others don’t even bother showing up for the meet-and-greet anymore. “The wine fest is just a PR exercise for the LDB,” John Clerides, the owner of Marquis Wine Cellars, a private Vancouver wine store, posted to friends on Facebook last week. “Thankfully, I will be in France.”

“The trade tasting was just an excuse for every busboy in town to get fucked up for free. It always started off civil, but by mid-afternoon it was a disgrace.”

“I got sick and tired of the shit show,” says another now-retired sommelier. “The trade tasting was just an excuse for every busboy in town to get fucked up for free. It always started off civil, but by mid-afternoon it was a disgrace.”

Fans of the festival, on other hand, say the insolence flows both ways. “The VIWF is a master class for those that actually do put in the time and energy,” says Kristof Gillese, head of The Chef and The Grape Consulting Firm.

He points to David Lemire, the global sales and marketing manager for Shaw + Smith Winery and Vineyards. “That’s a master of wine. He brought a small-lot Tasmanian pinot noir solely for the trade to taste. It’s not for sale here, nor will it be. He brought that so the people in the industry could actually taste the exciting work that’s happening in Tasmania. Yet there are sommeliers that don’t have the time to come? That’s disrespectful.”

Yeah, baby. It’s a mystery.

What were your thoughts on the 2015 Vancouver International Wine Festival? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below or tweet us @ViewTheVibe.

Alexandra Gill

Alexandra Gill

Alexandra Gill is the Vancouver Editor at Vv Magazine. The West Coast restaurant critic for the Globe and Mail, she has covered every imaginable topic – from fashion and gossip to arts and business – in her long, illustrious career. She is currently writing a motion picture screenplay and developing a reality television show. Follow her on Twitter @lexxgill.
Alexandra Gill