The Best Fest in the West

The Best Fest in the West

I spent last weekend at the annual wine inundation known as Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival—an event that locals and winery visitors argue is the best of its kind in Canada. It’s actually not even arguable, in my opinion (even if some easterners feel bruised by this admission). One would think that Toronto should be able to mount a show of this calibre, yet it never has. Hogtown’s big shows are for-profit, commercial ventures that tend to cheapen the content and keep the LCBO at a distance. The government cannot be promoting any commercial interest other than its own, and the reason that other wine shows work across Canada, including Playhouse, is that they have the full support of provincial liquor boards. One might ask why the government is in the wine retail business at all, but that’s a topic for another day.

For 30 years, Playhouse (as it’s known) has been organized on a shoestring budget by a small army of volunteers who are dedicated to raising money for theatre arts. This seems to mobilize an incredible spirit of generosity while keeping costs down. Every winery sends its best people and best wines—not to make a few bucks but to recognize that, like a major film festival, this event has become a place to launch products, be seen and size up the competition.

And the customers love it. For tens of thousands, this event has become a fabulous opportunity to explore what’s new in the wine universe. Some people even take a week’s vacation to fly to Vancouver and immerse themselves in wine culture: 175 wineries and nearly 1,000 wines (often poured by the winery principals or export staff). There are 15 hours of tasting time in the main hall over three days, plus dozens of breakout seminars, tastings, lunches and dinners across the city.

I won’t even attempt to review the dozens of wines I tasted in three days, but I will mention one event in particular that demonstrates the depth of Playhouse. This year’s theme country was Italy, so I spent a fair bit of time in the Italian aisles, including one two-hour period on Friday afternoon when I encountered three grape varieties I had never heard of in all my 25 years of tasting. Wine continues to surprise and fascinate! From Sardinia there was a lovely, fragrant white made from a grape called nurgagus, and a red called monica that was less then thrilling. From Calabria there was an unusual, very peppery red from a local variety called tintilia. And at the same time, in the same space, some of Italy’s great icon reds were being freely poured; wines like Tuscany’s Luce 2004, Frescobaldi’s 2004 Giramonte, Antinori’s 2004 Guado al Tasso (Piero Antinori, Italy’s most famous winemaker, was actually at his booth for awhile) and Masi’s 2001 Mazzano Amarone.

And then it was off to the Legends of Australia seminar…