I hope you had some good sips in 2011. Maybe you had a few bad ones. Look on the bright side: I had to endure more dreck and dumb industry practices than you did. It's an occupational hazard. So, permit me to utter some jeers as we close out the year. And because this is a drinks column, there will be cheers. Let's start on a positive note.
Cheers: to the House of Commons for moving a step closer to legalizing the free flow of wine across provincial lines. Ridiculous as it may seem, a Prohibition-era statute prevents people in, say, Halifax, Winnipeg or Edmonton from buying or "importing" wine directly from a B.C. or Niagara vineyard without consent of their local liquor boards. Bill C-311, an Act to Amend the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, passed second reading this year. If enacted after third reading, we could have a national exemption to permit direct-to-consumer interprovincial shipping of small quantities of wine for personal use. The Cabernet Confederation is nigh.
Jeers: to the continuing parade of heavily oaked chardonnays. Many producers, notably in California, can't seem to shake their penchant for lumberyard whites, imbued with overbearing vanilla and butterscotch flavours, the product of extended oak-barrel aging. It can be pleasant with enough fruit and acidity to support the wood, but often the balance is sorely lopsided. Most consumers have graduated from that cloyingly retro style; I wish most winemakers would, too.
Cheers: to more wineries moving to screw caps, the most reliable bottle closure for both red and white wines.
Jeers: to illegible wine-alcohol information on labels. Bottles in Canada need only display alcoholic strength in type that's 1.6 millimetres high (print fine enough to make a lawyer blush). The reading also must be located on the "principal display panel" in bilingual form. Many bottles that cross my threshold violate those last two requirements, listing alcohol only on the back panel and often just in English, using the words "by volume" in place of the French-acceptable abbreviation "X% alc./vol." or the additional "X% d'alcool par volume." American wineries seem the worst culprits in the hide-and-seek game, often running minuscule type vertically up the side of the label, forcing shoppers to tip the bottle sideways before placing it under the requisite microscope.
Cheers: to Robert M. Parker Jr., the famous U.S. wine critic, for doing the honourable thing in trying to get to the bottom of a scintillating payola scandal involving one of his employees. Mr. Parker voluntarily hired law firm Cozen O'Connor earlier this month to conduct an independent investigation of possible ethical breaches by critic Jay Miller at Mr. Parker's highly influential Wine Advocate newsletter. Mr. Miller, who writes many of the reviews, recently resigned after allegations surfaced that his representative in Spain demanded that wineries cough up tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for visits by Miller. (A favourable review in the Wine Advocate can have a big impact on the bottom line.) For the record, Mr. Parker, a former lawyer, has dismissed the allegations.
Jeers: to "skinny" drinks. Promoted by public relations firms working mainly for spirits brands, the fad plays up the low-calorie advantage of such ingredients as vodka and gin compared to wine and beer, at least when unencumbered by sugar-laden additives such as cranberry cocktail. My inbox bulged this year with promos, including one for a product called Zilch ("the first zero-calorie, zero-sugar & zero-carb cocktail mix"). If you want to lose weight, try the gym. Besides, if the occasional cosmo or glass of pinot grigio causes obesity, how do you explain Sarah Jessica Parker?
Cheers: to the Honourable David Onley, Ontario's Lieutenant-Governor, for inaugurating the first annual Lieutenant Governor's Awards for Excellence in Ontario Wines. Modelled after the successful eight-year-old initiative in British Columbia, the program stands apart from all those for-profit medal mills that dole out far too many laurels to wineries that expect at least a bronze in return for their submission fees. Just 12 wines received the Ontario excellence nod, including two from the Malivoire Wine Co., out of 277 entries.
Jeers: to kitschy wine names. Sledgehammer, Hob Nob, Arrogant Frog, Frisky Zebras, Bitch and Rossobastardo (okay, so it's a tribute to the historic "Hut of the Bastard" near Rome, but still) are all available somewhere in Canada. Add to the list such U.S.-distributed gems as Fourplay, Naked on Roller Skates, Mad Housewife and Big Pecker (parrots on the label, I'm afraid). I sense the trend is just ramping up, as producers chase millennials who presumably like a bit of cheese with their wine. Funny thing is, some offerings are tasty despite the branding.