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This year’s wine festival features 175 wineries from 15 countires. The event started in 1979.David Niddrie

The first-ever Vancouver International Wine Festival wasn't exactly a blockbuster affair.

The year was 1979, and the list of wineries was limited to one: California's Robert Mondavi.

Now heading into its 35th year, the fest has 175 wineries from 15 countries at dozens of events, including galas, seminars, brunches, gourmet dinners and international tastings – and it's returning to its California roots, with 62 wineries from the Golden State alone.

"One of the things that makes California so fascinating is how the wines reflect the geography – the ocean breezes, the warm sunshine," executive director Harry Hertscheg says. "So the wines tend to be quite ripe and fruit-driven, softly textured, and some of the higher-end wines, like cabernet sauvignon, have some structure and can age for 10, 15, 20 years. So there's a lot of diversity."

But not a lot of tickets. Most festival events, which t are raising funds for Bard on the Beach, sell out months in advance; but passes are available for the grand International Festival Tastings, where dozens of vintners ply wine lovers with their latest offerings. (A tip: Even if those nights sell out, you can show up an hour before and get in.)

But with nearly 1,000 wines at the international tastings, where to start? Mr. Hertscheg recommends beginning with California, then tasting one wine from each country; and always go for the least-crowded tables, so you can chat with the passionate people behind them.

"It's like a trip around the world," Mr. Hertscheg says.

The Vancouver International Wine Festival is at the Vancouver Convention Centre through March 3


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