How a Trip to California Opened My Eyes – Part 2

California, for those who have not been, is a different beast when it comes to wine culture, much more different than my beloved Ontario. First, Californians are fiercely proud of what they make and it shows everywhere you go.  Second, California wines appear prominently on wine lists: in restaurants you get discounts on wines that are “local” (one restaurant offered 25% off a bottle from their extensive wine list, 90% of which was Californian and 80% was already under $30). Finally,  wine paraphernalia seem to be in every store window – even if they’re not selling wine. In fact, at any one time you are probably no more than 2 miles form a tasting room or a place that sells wine.

The concept of the tasting room is very different from what we have here in Ontario.  In California many wineries have their property, where you can buy wine right at the cellar door (just like we do here in Ontario), but they also have an off-site location in a nearby village or shopping mall. Some places even have off-site locations hundreds of miles away but usually within their AVA (American Viticultural Area) where they make the wine (this is where we differ).  Imagine if Flat Rock, Fielding or Featherstone could have a store dedicated to showcasing their wines in Jordan or on the main drag in Beamsville, or even in a St. Catharines shopping mall.  As it stands today, in Ontario only a handful of wineries are allowed to do such a thing. Ontario laws prohibit such stores and our lawmakers are constantly citing our Free Trade agreements for their lack of movement on the issue.  The Californians have no such restrictions. And of course wine is also available at every grocery and corner store.  One of my personal big “oh wow” moments was walking into a place called The Cheese Shop, located in an open-air mall in Carmel-by-the-Sea, and finding a long narrow store stocked with some 200+ cheeses from around the world at the front and the same amount of different wine labels being sold in the back.  A one-stop wine and cheese shop ~ I could have easily spent the day there!

When in California, I happened upon a place called “A Taste of Monterey” at a mall on Cannery Row in Monterey.  The store was specifically dedicated to showcasing Monterey wines, not just from wineries located within the Monterey AVA, but also from wineries outside the AVA that source fruit from Monterey.  Imagine: Huff (a Prince Edward County winery) buys fruit from Kevin Watson (a grower in Niagara-on-the-Lake) and makes a wine from those grapes; the resulting Huff Estates wine could be featured in a retail space devoted to Niagara-on-the-Lake wines, located in NOTL, along with the wines from other area wineries using locally sourced fruit.  The same concept could be used in Beamsville at a store called “Taste of The Bench”, where one could find other Prince Edward County winery’s wines on display who source Beamsville Riesling or Pinot Noir.  This kind of concept would ensure cross promotion as well as promoting the grapes from a particular region. We could have a store called “Taste the Lake Erie” in downtown Windsor that shelved wines from all the Lake Erie North Shore wineries and the surrounding area, as well as those wineries making wines using Lake Erie fruit.

The store in Monterey was owned by three winery owners from the Monterey area whose passion is to promote their area’s wines. I was told it was not just their wines on display however, in fact they shy away from promoting their own wines. Instead they have some 80-90 wineries represented on the shelves and 18 different wines (changed weekly) on for tasting.

These are not complicated concepts.  A shop devoted to wine and cheese, an off-site tasting room (meaning a second place to showcase your wines), pride in your area wines on store shelves, in shop windows and on restaurant wine lists.  A tasting room dedicated to regional wine promotion and tasting and a one-stop overview shop for areas like Prince Edward County, Lake Erie North Shore, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Beamsville, can only help to promote more tourism and incite more interest in our wines and wine regions across the province.  This might even lead to VQA-stores in such places as Sudbury, Elliot Lake and Thunder Bay ~ places that are just too far for a day trip to a wine region. Perhaps such an initiative might even develop into a better understanding and enjoyment of our local wines.

Given the fact that such ideas seem great, why is it that these concepts haven’t come to Ontario?   What are our politicians afraid of?  Do we really need protection from the evils of alcohol, especially wine?  Why is it easier to buy an imported wine than it is to get your hands on a good domestic bottle? Ontario could be so much more in terms of their wine production. We could lead Canada in a new era of wine loving and the food and culture that goes along with it.  In truth we need look no further than just south of the border in New York State for inspiration with their Wine and Culinary center in Canandaigua.

I have heard Ontario referred to as Napa North, but with our stagnant attitude and out-dated laws we’re far from earning that moniker because nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that our wines are on par, but there is just so much of the equation we’re missing.  One winery owner posted this comment on Facebook when I mentioned visiting the Taste of Monterey store:  “Perhaps one day there will be a Taste of Niagara-on-the-Lake store. Perhaps one day we will have a provincial gov’t that can see the obvious f***ing benefits of such a store.”  Our industry and owners have the passion and the will, but it seems that those who make the wine have their hands tied.

Visiting California really opens one’s eyes to the possibilities of a ‘proud-of-our-wines’ wine industry. It’s a shame that the powers that can make it a reality, namely our government, both here in Ontario and federally don’t have the same vision – or any vision for that matter; a real shame.