Is Edmonton’s Wine Industry Lazy & Entitled? (Northern Lands Fest)

I knew it would piss off a lot of people.

My most recent cover story in Vue was about the Northern Lands Canadian Wine Festival, which is a super exciting event happening this weekend and I’m really looking forward to it. (I’ll definitely be posting some coverage of the event afterwards, both in Vue and on this blog.)

I interviewed the primary organizer of the event, Gurvinder Bhatia, who is the owner of a wine shop in town (Vinomania) as well as the wine columnist for the Edmonton Journal. He writes for other publications too and is a regular wine judge at various international events.

He had some extremely pointed and not-so-flattering (to put it lightly) things to say about Edmonton’s local wine industry. I printed several of these quotes in the story, knowing full well that a lot of people were going to be very unhappy about it.

First and foremost, if anyone has some specific feedback to give me on the story, please get in touch with me. (melpriestley[at]gmail[dot]com) I’d really like to hear your side: I’m planning a follow-up story with the participants of Northern Lands, as I’ve heard through the grapevine that several of them were really disappointed and frustrated with their experience with the festival, and certainly with Bhatia’s comments in my article.

Second, I can see both sides of the issue. Bhatia calls out Edmonton’s wine industry for being lazy and entitled. I agree with him partially, because I have seen firsthand evidence of this in the form of generic, uninspired wine lists, servers and wine store workers with poor wine knowledge (please don’t tell me “this wine is super popular” when I ask for a specific recommendation for a food pairing – that’s not what I asked), and a general “meh whatever” attitude when it comes to wine. Food is being championed in Edmonton in a big way right now, and that’s great – but wine, not so much.

However, obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone: not all restaurants and wine stores are like this. Bhatia’s comments were quite sweeping generalizations and do make it seem like everyone is guilty, but there are absolutely several exceptions. There are indeed a great number of things happening and while it’s frustrating that the evolution of Edmonton’s wine culture has been slower than some of us would like, we also have successes to celebrate.

If you were upset by these comments, I think it’s important that you examine why – and be very honest with yourself. Are you guilty of sometimes taking the easy way out? Do you keep mass-produced Malbec and Pinot Grigio on your wine list, even though there are many great alternatives, purely because it’ll sell without any effort? Do you change your wine list regularly, do you sample all types of wine all the time, do you read widely, and do you attend tastings as often as you can? Have you ever kept staff on your payroll even though they made no effort to learn about wine other than memorizing two bottles to recommend to everyone?

Of course we can’t all be 100% on top of the game at all times, but from the few conversations I’ve had about the article as well as some other feedback that I’ve been provided second-hand, it seems as though part of the reason for the strong reaction was due to a grain of truth underneath the brash exterior.

Ultimately, I hope people use this as a wake-up call – that was my intention, though I understand the tone may have made it seem like more of a wake-up slap. If it truly doesn’t apply to you: awesome, thanks for doing what you’re doing and keep at it. If you admit (even just to yourself in bed alone at night) that you have been a bit of a slacker in the wine department: then okay, the first step is admitting it – then fix it.

Above all, let’s continue to have open, constructive conversations about these things. We won’t truly progress unless we identify our strengths – and especially our weaknesses.

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