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Friday, November 9, 2007

Diary of a Mad Wine Writer

A WINE WRITER'S DIARY: a B-Team report.


Woke up this morning with a shattering headache, one I had not experienced
my college days.What was it? Why was it? Seemed like a hangover to me,
I seldom overindulge these days with alcohol. And then it hit me.A group of
were watching the DVD of "Sideways" and we all went for a bunch of garbage
bowls. It was a massive chugalug of the spittoons after a raucous evening of
taste and spit. I seem to recall that I took no notes of the aromas and
of the spittoon, but a card in my pocket said that I had won both the speed
the quantity contest. Thank god we didn't sample any merlots last time or
I'd be

The afternoon was spent prioritizing my wine and food activities for the
As a B-team wine writer, I don't get to do all the things that the A-team
(these are the writers for the dailies and the consumer magazines).
Let me see: this week there are a couple of trade shows (including one from
a B-team wine region, in desperate need of any kind of exposure), a lunch
with a
producer; a lunch with a trade commission wine guy; a dinner theatre which
some publicity (we usually call it "ptomaine theatre"), plus the
consultations/advisements on wine lists, wine clubs, etc. etc. Alas, my
spot was cancelled last week when somebody asked which wine went with pussy,
-- without missing a beat -- I gave him a choice of sparkling apricot or
riesling. The station was not amused; the next wine writer will get a five
second delay.It is a jungle out there.


Up at 5 AM to begin writing on the inside of my eyelids...I've got a few
ideas that are best processed in bed. By 7 AM I have it all laid out, and I
begin the day. I have a rowing machine, which I use when the inclement
looks too forbidding for my 10K run. Usually when I row I watch a DVD of a
silent or a foreign film: no noise, no interruptions, and plenty of reading.
Sometimes, for an English language film, I'll turn on the subtitles, still
keeping the sound off. This works wonders for many BritComs where I can't
catch the accent in time to process it before the next joke occurs. Today I
feast on the food scene in "Tom Jones"...Makes me hungry just writing about
I get a phone call from the ICE (Italy) reminding me of today's technical
seminar, and would I please be on time? Of course, I lie.These things never
start on time.

I'm off this morning to the Italian wine trade show, which usually happens
the Carlu. After we are searched at the door, we go to pick up the
catalogue. The
show is supposed to be in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto. Consequently,
are many wines NOT available for tasting in Toronto: I'd have to go to
or Vancouver for those.But they are all still listed in the catalogue for
sake of economy. The Italians go out of their way to list all the companies,
agents, addresses galore, maps, vintage notes, technical notes, names and
vintages of all the wines, grape varieties employed and their percentages.
are starred and footnoted to indicate whether they are in Vancouver,
Montreal or
Toronto. Clay-based paper is used, and unfortunately, with all this data,
catalogue weighs 6 kilos.

I spend some time crossing off those wines not in Toronto (only to find out
later that some of them actually are here!). The technical tasting involves
range of presentations from producers in both Italian and English, sometimes
both; it is called for 10:30AM but actually starts at 11. I get there at
for a good seat, talk to B-team colleagues, start marking up my catalogue.

Lunch is a buffet, the usual standup buffet. I always wear comfortable shoes
(but see my notes for Friday). The banquet table fits my seafood diet: I see
food, I eat it. I walk around trying to taste some 220 wines, realizing that
cannot do it. The ones I do taste don't seem to be currently available, the
agent doesn't know when they will be available, nor does he know their
prices or
terms. Occasionally there will be a Principal who does not speak English, or
wine director who only knows the FOB price in Euros. Typical of most trade
shows, no matter how much the catalogue weighs or how it is laid out.I move
through the jungle.


This morning I get down to writing. Then there is a "lunch" meeting with a
producer at the LCBO's Scrivener Square Private Tasting Room. The wine press
here is a mixture of A- and B-team players. Occasionally, a Product
or staffer from the LCBO will there with us. Today we have a winemaker
about his ten wines. Three of the wines are in the General List, another two
in the Vintages system, one is here on consignment, another is being
for the General List (this one seems to have the most publicity material in
front of it), one more is coming to Vintages, one is a definite Private
(but could we please say something about it, to encourage sales?), and the
one is a new vintage (or it could be a barrel sample). This is the typical
lineup. The producer rep is accompanied by four agent reps, sometimes five.
sometimes the reps outnumber the writers. I've also been to several tastings
and dinners where I was the only writer who turned up! I hate it when "they"
outnumber me.Usually the European (or some other non-US country) producer
rep is
either an Export Director or the Winemaker. Some of the larger non-US
have Export Directors who live in California or New York City, and they come
to Toronto. It is extremely rare for a producer to come with two or more
people, since most matters can be handled by the local agent. My strategy
always been to directly engage the visitor by asking relevant but off-topic
questions. The Export Director is always talking about marketing facts and
figures; I always ask about percentages of grape varieties, winemaking
techniques, the latest vintage conditions. Sometimes they know this stuff.
Winemaker is always talking about viniculture and viticulture, the
expression of
the grapes/wine through his vision, and the like; I always ask about export
figures, where Ontario stands in the world markets, pricing policy, bottle
shapes. Keeps 'em all on their toes, especially the local agent.

The "lunch" is cheese, bread, grapes. It is sustaining. I remember being at
wine tasting at 6 PM in the Four Seasons. The agent provided nothing: no
no bread, not even water. I had to take a wine glass to the hotel john to
tap water.

This afternoon I visit a few restaurants to set up wine lists and talk about
Bring Your Own Wine program. Ptomaine theatre is also on the list. Most
restaurateurs know little about wine's selling potential: they rely on
consultants and sommeliers. I swing on a few vines through the jungle.


I'm meeting with a trade commission person responsible for wine in Ontario
his country: he is going to outline a trip for me. But I don't want to go
far, too long). He tries to convince me of the deep background, the
familiarization tour (famtour). I agree, but it is not my style. Instead, I
to persuade him to let me sample some of his country's wines. Could he not
me some cases of wine for my assessment with my own paid-for meals? He pulls
a spreadsheet which he says clearly shows that it is actually CHEAPER (for
trade commission as sponsor) to send me via air (top filling a plane), put
me up in a
hotel (top fill), ferry me about in a bus (cost spread over participants),
the winetastings and meals paid by the wineries involved. Sending me wine
can be
very expensive, with cartage and taxes. It looks convincing, but it is still

And speaking of sending me wine, the usual dribble of General List wine
arrive on my doorstep, and I store it for a neighbourhood tasting and party
Saturday) at the usual jungle location.


There is a really terrific wine trade show this afternoon, overflowing with
delicious wines and comestibles that meet my seafood diet. One problem: the
catalogue is dreadful. There are no page numbers, there is no order to the
producers, there is no listing of table numbers, there are no agents listed,
half of the wines are not here, and of the wines that are here some are not
the catalogue. The direct opposite of the ICE catalogues. One agent tells me
that he is four pages from the centre, to the left side. Okay, I can do
that.After awhile, I throw away the catalogue and just use a blank book for
tasting notes. Trade shows are not the best places to taste wines
professionally: they are actually the worse. They are crowded, there are
smells, the producers are too busy talking to one person to pour wine to a
second person, nobody seems to know much about prices or availability, there
a definite pecking order both for the A- and B-team wine writers and for
wineries, there are a lot of "unknowledgeable people" floating about, many
gatecrashers, much body odour and many perfume scents, people hang around
after they get a sample when they should be moving away, irrelevant chatter
the tasting tables, too much of a "party" feel, spittoons are always in
supply and not cleared often enough, water is missing, etc. A jungle, and
not my
favourite activity. Wines can range from 50 samples up through 600, with
three hours to sample all of them. Of course, I don't/can't try them all. So
sift through the program as far ahead as possible. At one show, the
catalogue went awry. The wines on the table were in the same order as listed
the catalogue. This was okay, if you tasted everything and shuffled along at
same speed with the guy ahead and the guy behind. It also helped if nobody
talked to the producer, thus making the line move along. But nobody wanted
try everything, and spittoons were far and few between. The catalogue soon
became useless.

I've now rented myself out as a wine trade show consultant for the jungle
it has been added to my resume.


Fridays are one of my favourite days: we get to go to the LCBO tasting lab
sample many wines and spirits, usually about 100 at a time. For two Fridays,
do the Vintages release. A third Friday is devoted to General List and (at
time until the LCBO stopped offering Classics previews) to Classics
usually about 50 wines, beers, spirits, coolers in total. Plus the Christmas
Gift Selection. The fourth Friday is also at the LCBO, but at Scrivener
for the monthly Wine Writers Circle of Canada business meeting, which is
followed by a tasting of some 50 submitted wines of all stripes and colours.
Today, though, we needed to suit up for our annual fitting.

Each year at this time the LCBO supplies us with running shoes, in order to
taste all of the wines put out that week. We'll be measured for foot length
width, and then our new shoes will be given to us next week. It is really
amazing how quickly these shoes wear out (they're made in
China, just like all the other shoes are). We really need to be light on our
toes and swift of eyeballs, for the LCBO catalogue is full of errors. It
used to
be that we had a proof copy of the Vintages magazine; now, we get a
photocopy of
the final version. So there is no opportunity for corrections to be made to
magazine as sent out to customers. Some errors are egregious, other errors
ones of judgment. Tasting panel notes can be a year old. The wrong vintage
shipped. Spelling errors and omissions happen. Unlike trade shows, the lab
is a
quiet place, well-lit, with about a dozen A- and B-team wine writers, a
place to
write notes, and a sort of casualness. Unfortunately, it is incumbent on us
actually taste EVERY wine for our readers, to have that one voice. So this
that I absorb alcohol through my gums and cheeks. I don't have a car, and I
certainly take the TTC down and back from the lab. Again, it is a jungle
we are constantly being vigilant about.


This afternoon I am to host my monthly street party: I gather up all the
General List products and other assorted wines, select a few for a private
tasting, and then put out the rest for my neighbours' opinions. They drift
whenever, casual, and sip on a few wines. They may - or may not - make
notes. I
make notes, I gather comments. By the end, I've got enough data, and I've
managed to send off a few half-empty bottles with those who wanted them.

And then it is off to the "Sideways" champion garbage bowl contest. Oh.I
think I
already did that LAST week.Back to the jungle of "Mondovino"; I highly
the DVD for its extras.

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