Saturday, April 23, 2011

Virtual or Absentee?

Mimico Cruising Club on the Bay?
Every bottle of VQA  wine in Ontario, for that matter in Canada, gets a badge saying it's successfully passed the hoops and hurdles of a regulation called the  Vintners Quality Alliance Act, 1999 .  Pick from the approved grape varieties, declare the blend, pH, sugar and yeast, specify the appellation or sub-app, the vineyard or not, meet the label type size, font and nomenclature and submit the paperwork and tasting samples - and a million other things I can't even guess. It’s an arduous task but if successful the Winery can then use the term VQA, a designation of Quality certified by an Alliance of Vintners. The Act has been increasingly effective in maintaining high standards for Ontario wines since it was established just a short while ago on June 29, 2000.

There is another side to the VQA Regulation - it results in conformity. Every brand with the symbol goes through a predictable path ending with the prescribed information in a similar format. It’s this side of VQA that is open to abuse...

Follow the regulations, bottle the ferment from local grapes, juices or wines. Add an imaginative label styled to standout on an LCBO shelf but still complying with regulations and your product earns the VQA badge. However, there may be no dedication to viticulture, no investment in vineology, no participation in the Wine Route or the winemaking community. Instead of quality VQA becomes a symbol promoting commercialism, a deception more insidious than CIC. How can this happen?

An Investor can operate under the guise of a 'Virtual' winery although to distinguish this type of operation I prefer the term 'Absentee' winery, similar to an absentee landlord - collect the monthly and contract out the other stuff - not quite the same but close enough. Some differences: the 'Virtual' winery is driven by a winemaker that maintains and harvests vineyards he selects albeit they’re owned by others. He also oversees the grape selection and maceration process from start to finish. An 'Absentee' winery is driven by a business entity contracting grapes and using the overcapacity of cooperative wineries without the watchful and responsible care of a dedicated winemaker. The labels of the ‘Virtual' winery often designate specific grape varieties and VQA geographical or viticulture areas. The labels of the 'Absentee' winery use a catch phrase targeting a chosen market and can rest comfortably with 'VQA Niagara Peninsula' or the broader 'VQA Ontario'. Under VQA there is no delineating one Winery from the other. In fact, a traditional winery can operate in the same manner as an 'Absentee' winery by spinning off rebranded bottles of VQA Ontario blends - or as a `Virtual` winery with small lots of premium wines from select vineyards. Whether investing in wine for immediate consumption or for cellaring, consumers are on the hook to tell the difference, to know the principals, to discover which is 'Virtual' and which is 'Absentee'.

How to close this loophole is the difficult question. Perhaps an online list of certified winemakers associated with each label? Perhaps some additional verbage that identifies a level, and thereby the integrity of a winery's viticultural husbandry? Terms such as ‘Biodynamic’, ‘Natural’, and ‘Additive-free’ come to mind. But how to do anything and not burden all wineries with more paperwork? 

Generally the wine industry will continue to be a ‘Buyer Beware’ state in which a consumer and the winery must co-operatively discover each other. Taste and learn. Follow changes in winery ownership and their winemakers. Note changes in successive vintages as they can vary considerably depending on factors other than the weather. True Virtual wineries tend to produce low volumes their wines not likely on LCBO shelves - but hopefully this will change. Some may have websites and some may use the site of their sponsoring winery. Check out signs along Wine Routes. On your travels you’ll be rewarded by meeting some very motivated winemakers producing some very interesting wines. 

My standard practice when I come across a winery advertising itself as 'Virtual' is to look for a sub-appellation, a grape type(s) and vineyard on the label...  anything else can stay on the shelf.

My opinion, Ww


The following principals were present at a tasting by the
Wine Writers of Canada Circle  on April 15, 2011.  It’s not my intention here to vouch for any of the following as 'virtual’ wineries. Sommelier Sarah Goddard has described many Virtuals at Sommelier Scribler - A Wine Blog.

Lists of Ontario Wineries:
I hope this has been useful in some way, Ww

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