In the latest Walrus, Don Gillmor writes about how Canadian winemakers in the Niagara region are betting heavily on the Pinot Noir grape to carry their business a few more rungs up the ladder of global wine success. According to the article, the Canadian wine industry’s domestic sales represent only 44 percent of the total wine market in Canada, a figure familiar to anyone working in a domestic “culture” industry. Canadian magazines, for instance, currently represent only about 45 percent of what you will find on the (above) average Canadian magazine rack.
But what exactly is “Canadian” wine? A Canadian magazine, like The Walrus, or THIS, need not concern itself solely with Canada, but it tends to be located here, employs Canadians, sells itself primarily to Canadians and tills Canadian soil for much if not all of its product.
Much has been written in the food and drink press about the years of winter kill to the grape harvest in Niagara, resulting in “Canadian” wines with increasingly large amounts of non-Canadian grape in the bottle. Gillmor writes about “Mexican and Jamaican field workers tend[ing] to the vines” in Niagara, and about how Vincor, Canada’s wine giant was recently bought by an American… well, global… supergiant, Constellation brands, “the largest wine conglomerate in the world.”
I also recently published an article about Canadian wine. In the July/August issue of Cottage Life magazine I go on a bit of a Quixotic quest through southern Ontario cottage country, tasting all manner of “interesting” alcohol calling itself wine — pumpkin wine!… I know, I know; it sounds dreadful, but it does the job. I met with many small grape growers and winemakers all over the lower part of the province; tiny operators whose annual output is the smallest fraction of what some monster like Constellation will flood the market with. The difference, of course, is that what my subjects produce is unquestionably 100 percent Canadian wine.
My story was a fun piece for a fun magazine, but my interview notes and quotations (the ones I didn’t use) contain a remarkable amount of anger and disgust at the juggernaut process of wine globalization. If I were to sum up what I heard from Ontario’s struggling micro-producers, it is this: small craftspeople dedicated to creating a unique product with unique character are mere prey to giant global corporations interested primarily in creating as homogenized and uniform a product as possible.
The large corporate goal is to sell more “very good” wine at prices more people can afford. This globalizing democratic impulse is not bad in itself (as a friend of mine says, “I don’t care about my wine’s heritage, or what it will be like after years in my cellar — who has a cellar? I care that it tastes good today.”), but it seems to only be possible by destroying the marketability of potentially “great” interesting local wines being produced through different economic models.
Gillmor’s article references the 2004 wine documentary Mondovino, which charts this same tension, only between France and California. While I have always been mildly and amusedly suspicious of wine-expert claims that one can taste the region in the glass, I can’t help feeling something uniquely Canadian, a real domestic cultural industry, is being crushed out in its infancy.
The wine producers of Prince Edward County, a small almost-island in Lake Ontario (just south of Belleville) are for the most part all under a decade old, yet they are producing wines of distinction. By Chadsey’s Cairns, a county winery is run by a couple of benevolent crazy people who sincerely want to express their locale in their product. Try finding their product at your LCBO. You won’t. Between their fields, and the shelves at the local outlet closest to them, global forces are at work ensuring it is far easier to find an Australian and a Californian wine (that taste almost identical), than it is to find the unique wine made down the road.
Does it matter? I mean, I know where to go to get By Chadsey Cairns wine, and their business survives. If the bulk of Canadian wine consumers just want something deliciously alcoholic with which to wash down their Alberta steak and their PEI potatoes, why not provide a cheap, tasty product, marketed to make them feel they’ve travelled the world and seen kangaroos?