Canada doesn't have any need to sell wines in the US. But it wants to anyway.
And I do mean Canada the nation. At a recent trade dinner to show off British Columbia wines, I sat with an official from the Canadian consulate. On my left was a guy who makes dessert wine by fortifying grape wine with walnut brandy.
That's the image of Canadian wine if there even is an image: A little nutty, but not mainstream. Canada is the 31st largest wine producer in the world, just below Algeria. Japan makes 50% more wine. The US makes as much wine in a week as Canada makes in a year.
And Canadians actually drink about 10% more wine, per capita, than Americans. Canada is 14th in the world in wine consumption, drinking nearly 10 times as much wine as its wineries make.
That thirsty domestic market leads many Canadian wineries into complacency, and why not? Why go through all the trouble of finding an importer, riding along on visits to retail stores and restaurants, and learning to pronounce "out and about" like we do in the lower 48?
The answer is that by selling a few bottles in San Francisco, Canadian wineries hope to make their job of selling more wine to Canadians even easier. If they can say, "This wine is on the list at San Francisco restaurants like State Bird Provisions and Bar Tartine," they gain the aura of reflected glory, even if the restaurant sells only a few bottles a year.
Hence, a fancy wine dinner at the Four Seasons in San Francisco, with a Top Chef from Canadian TV, Trevor Bird, flown down from his restaurant Fable in Vancouver. And plenty of Canadian ingredients like spot prawns, chanterelles, sable fish, cherry preserves and smoked salmon -- not a drop of maple syrup in sight.
And of course the main attraction, 16 Canadian wines, which increased the number of Canadian wines I have had in my lifetime by nearly 300 percent.
Think about it: I've had more wines from Turkey, where wineries sign an agreement with farmers that promises the grapes won't be used to make alcohol, an agreement that goes the way of all fibs. I've had more wines from several towns in France not big enough to have a stoplight. I've had more wines from so many places than from this gigantic country just to the north that I could drive to in less than 15 hours, far less time than it takes to fly to Mendoza or Margaret River. We have a free trade agreement with Canada, but what that usually means is we take Neil Young and Neil Peart and we give them Apothic Red.
The only wine Canada is really known for worldwide is ice wine, which is probably why there wasn't any at the dinner.
Climatologist Greg Jones says that in the very near future, global warming will make Canada one of the world's best countries for Riesling. Last year I had a Riesling from Cave Spring Cellars in Ontario that vibrated my teeth with its ripping acidity and knocked my hair back with its deliciousness. That wine was like having a tryst in an airplane restroom with a beautiful bodybuilder: Leaving me bruised with love.
Nothing we tasted last month was that sensuous, but there were some delicious wines. The standout performer was Quails' Gate Winery, which brought four excellent wines, two Chardonnays, a Chenin Blanc and a Pinot Noir. The 2010 Quails' Gate Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay fulfilled the rare mission of being rich without being heavy: earthy and interesting, with plenty of Meyer lemon fruit and well-integrated oak. The 2011 Quails' Gate Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir would sit nicely on the table beside the better Pinots from cool regions of California: driven by raspberry fruit, balanced and pretty. I tweeted something about enjoying these wines, and my friend Jack, the wine geeks' wine geek, with a disheveled cellar of thousands of wines bought at auction, said, "Of course, that's easily the best winery in British Columbia." Of course.
It's not shocking to think Canada can make good white wines, considering how cold it gets in white-wine meccas like Germany and Austria and Chablis. The reds were more of a mixed bag.
The proprietor of Painted Rock Estate planned to bring Merlot, but his distributor delivered the Syrah instead. This went well as 2010 Painted Rock Estate Syrah turned out to be the best red wine of the night, with spicy, dark fruit Northern Rhone-like flavors and nice mouthfeel.
The Cabernet-based blends were all a bit odd: very ripe fruit, yet more than a little herbaceous. My guess is that growers take extra steps to ensure fast ripeness so the sugars get ahead of the flavors. Maybe this will get better as global warming gradually turns Vancouver into Los Angeles, but who knows, maybe the Cubs will win the World Series. Predicting the oenological future is challenging.
I don't know how effective this PR dinner was at reaching its objective. Held on a Tuesday night, it attracted a few curious writers like myself, but the high-end restaurant sommeliers who might put these wines on a list aren't available on Tuesday nights. But maybe it's just the beginning of a Canadian wine charm offensive, an invasion from the north. They give us Justin Bieber, and we just sit here and take it, as long as there's the promise of good Riesling and Chardonnay. We'll even take the walnut brandy wine from Vista D'oro Farms in the deal; it was pretty good.