Food & Drink » Anthony Gismondi on Wine

California here we come, right back where we started from

An expert's guide to the Vancouver International Wine Fest

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The Vancouver International Wine Festival (née Playhouse) returns next week to the Vancouver Convention Centre for the 35th straight year. There is little doubt it's the best wine show in the country and with more than 60 events to choose from, consumers are likely to be as happy with Year 35 as they were with Year One.

For those of you who missed the first one — likely most of you reading this — the quick version is famed Napa Valley winery, Robert Mondavi, was the only producer at the original two-day, two-event show held at Hycroft, home to The University Women's Club on the edge of Shaughnessy. The event was a "component tasting" designed to introduced newbies (and there were lots of us in 1979) to acid, tannin and fruit — the main components of wine. It wasn't nearly as boring as it sounds, but it was hardly what you can expect in 2013.

In many ways the festival is an amazing event for local wine drinkers who live under some of the most oppressive liquor taxes and regulations in the world. But somehow British Columbians have managed to rise above the taxes and the mishmash of quasi-privatised wine shops to make this wine market one of the most vibrant in North America. Festival week seems to set one free, at least when you are inside the tasting room where not only is the selection vast but the chance to meet the people who make the wine happens at every booth. It's what makes the week-long grapefest so vital.

For one week, consumers and producers have a chance to interact directly and, hopefully, put a bit of pressure on our antiquated listing system to get some new wines into the province. Certainly, without the previous 34 years of missionary work at the Vancouver International Wine Festival (as the previous Playhouse fundraiser), this province would be little more than a wine backwater.

Today, we prepare you for your trip to the International Tasting Room inside the magnificent, new convention centre (the beautiful new building to the west of Canada Place).

Getting to meet big name producers at consumer wine shows rarely occurs in the modern wine world so don't miss the opportunity get all those persnickety questions answered. And if you're planning a trip to wine country later this year, use your precious one-on-one time to find out where to stay or eat, and/or organize a visit to the winery.

For those of you wondering how it all works inside the room the answer is one word: volunteers. All those wines and water jugs and spit buckets do not just appear, nor do they get dumped and replenished by themselves. The festival has an army of volunteers who are so efficient you seldom notice the constant swapping that leaves the tables in perfect condition all night long for each of the 3,000 tasters.

This year's theme region features the return of California and the global focus is on chardonnay — you can expect scores of the favourite varietal from around the world to be poured throughout the tasting room. In all, organizers expect 175 wineries from 15 countries to pour more than 1,800 wines and 30,000 bottles to some 25,000 participants.

To get you headed in the right direction, I thought I would share a list of 12 "don't miss" California wines at this year's event that you can find in government stores. Just in case you can't make it to the big show. After that, you're on your own.

1. Benziger Family Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County, California $30

2. Bonterra Vineyards 2011 Organic Chardonnay, Mendocino, California $19

3. Bonterra Vineyards 2010 Organic Zinfandel, Mendocino, California $20

4. Cameron Hughes Lot 313 Field Blend, California $20

5. Chateau St Jean 2010 Chardonnay, Sonoma County, California $20

6. Fess Parker 2011 Parker Station Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County, California $20

7. Fetzer Vineyards 2011 Zinfandel, Mendocino County, California $15

8. Gloria Ferrer N/V Brut Sparkling Wine, Sonoma County, California $28

9. Kendall-Jackson 2010 Avant Chardonnay, Sonoma County, California $20

10. Louis M Martini 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California $30

11. Michael David Winery 2010 7 Deadly Zins, California $25

12. Sterling Vineyards 2009 Merlot, Napa Valley, California $29

Finally, if you are attending the festival here are some classic dos and don'ts from a 35-year veteran.

If you can't decide what to wear inside the tasting room, fear not. This is Vancouver, so everything under the sun goes, which can make people watching as much a part of the evening as tasting. With so much wine being swirled about, dark colours could be a smart choice, especially if you are heading out to eat after the show. Wear comfortable shoes or not, as is seemingly the case in recent years, but be forewarned: traversing the huge new convention centre is akin to an Olympic event. 

DON'T forget your smartphone or a pen or pencils, if you remember how they work, to make notes and keep track of favourites and pricing.

DO feel free to use the spit buckets located at either end of the tasting booth, it's a sure sign you are a pro and the only way you can make it through the evening. If you feel a bit self-conscious about spitting in public, practice in the shower. It's very empowering.

DON'T stand within splash range of the spit buckets, it's a sure sign you are an amateur. 

DO take your recharged glass back to the center of the aisle and let the people lined up behind you get through to the front of the booth to a get some wine and ask their question, too. Scan your environment.

DON'T wear any perfume or after shave lotion, hair products or, generally, anything that smells into the tasting room. We are there to smell the wine not you. 

DO take advantage of the on-site liquor store and have your purchases shipped free of charge to your neighbourhood liquor store for pick-up the following week. 

DON'T even think about driving home. Take advantage of the BC Liquor Stores' Get Home Safe booth, located outside the Festival Wine Shop, and pick up a complimentary single zone transit ticket Consider taking a taxi or transit, or walk. Just don't drink and drive.

Anthony Gismondi is a West Vancouver-based freelance wine writer who travels the globe in search of terroir-based wine.

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