Last month I was invited to Kelowna by Peter Lehmann Wines to moderate a panel on wine culture in Canada. The idea was to incite dialogue among wine writers, sommeliers and brand ambassadors on the panel and beyond as to what we can do in Canada to foster a national wine culture -- both as a wine-producing and wine-consuming country.
And while there were no hard and fast answers, it got me thinking about the wine culture in Manitoba and the ways it has changed since I got into the industry in the mid-1990s.
According to Statistics Canada, there was nearly 4.4-million litres of red and white wine sold in Manitoba in 1993. In 2012, that number was nearly 9.6-million litres, equaling around $130 million worth of red and white wine. Growth-wise, wine sales continues to outpace both beer and spirits.
When I started out in the wine industry, private wine stores were pretty much the only places you could get any kind of booze on Sundays. Today you can buy wine virtually any day of the year (save Christmas and New Year's Day), and with Sunday shopping hours recently expanded, so too were store hours at Manitoba Liquor Marts and private wine stores. In fact, Liquor Marts often open extended hours -- until 11 p.m. or midnight -- on the days leading up to statutory holidays.
In the late 1990s, the second wave of private wine stores opened in Manitoba, doubling the count from four to eight. There are now six stand alone private wine stores as well as two food-and-wine stores to go along with the 51 Liquor Marts and four Liquor Mart express stores located in/near grocery stores. This means a bigger, better selection of products throughout the city.
Perhaps in response to more competitors, Manitoba Liquor Marts underwent an extensive set of renovations/expansions. The Grant Park Liquor Mart (which has since been renovated again) added an education centre, and the Madison Square location followed suit.
Wine education in Manitoba is better than it has ever been. Liquor Marts and private wine stores offer classes that ranges from casual and fun to serious scholarship. Both Banville & Jones and La Boutique Del Vino, for example, offer internationally accredited sommelier programs -- the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and International Sommelier Guild (ISG), respectively. That means the people selling you wine in restaurants/shops are better-educated about wine than ever.
Beyond expanded Sunday shopping, laws and regulations around wine have evolved over the years. We're now able to bring our own wine to restaurants (at the eatery's discretion) and have it served to us for a corkage fee. We can order a bottle of wine at a restaurant, and the eatery can re-cork the wine and send it home with us. This encourages diners to try wines above and beyond those sold by the glass, and still exercise moderation.
Manitoba has been at the forefront of changes regarding the interprovincial shipping of wine. When the federal government removed restrictions on such activities (via Bill C-311), turning the responsibility over to the provinces, Manitoba embraced the change, and was among the first to allow direct shipments from Canadian wineries and retailers in other provinces.
Of course, one can't talk about Winnipeg's wine culture without mentioning the Winnipeg Wine Festival. Modelled after the Vancouver International Wine Festival, our fest is now one of the largest in the country, with over 7,000 people attending public tastings and ancillary events throughout the week. Clearly, Winnipeg has a thirst for wine.
Our wine culture is growing at a rate that meets or exceeds that of other provinces. And while our market isn't as developed or "mature" as, say, Quebec, Ontario or B.C., it's certainly an exciting time to be a wine drinker in Manitoba.
Peter Lehmann 2010 Layers Red (Barossa, Australia -- $16.92, Liquor Marts and beyond)
A blend of 55 per cent Shiraz, 18 per cent Tempranillo, 17 Mourvedre and 10 per cent Grenache, the Layers red is bright purple in colour, with black cherry, black pepper, blackberry and earthy notes on the nose. It's a medium-plus bodied red that boasts big dark berry fruit on the palate as well as cherries and raspberries, with a hint of pepper and a splash of acidity that makes it extremely food-friendly. 3.5/5
Penfolds 2009 Bin 2 (South Australia -- around $24, private wine stores)
The bulk of this Aussie red blend is Shiraz (78 per cent), with the rest coming from the Mourvedre grape. Cherry, eucalyptus, herbal, vanilla and blackberry aromas are most prominent here. It's medium-plus bodied, with brambly black fruit as well as mint, cola and spice on the palate. Like the Layers, the acidity is fresh and tannins light, meaning the Bin 2 drinks well both on its own and with food. 3.5/5