The Myth of the Hicks

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

By Matt Kramer
From Wine Spectator magazine, May 15, 2008 issue

CALGARY, Alberta—It was during a panel discussion at a charity wine event on the western edge of the Canadian prairie that I felt like a time traveler caught in some sci-fi spatial distortion, torn between what once was and what now is. Satchel Paige's immortal advice—“Don't look back, something might be gaining on you”—was never more true.

Here we were, publicly chatting about Italian wines—not an everyday activity in places like Calgary until fairly recently, for reasons I'll explain in a moment—and the wine under discussion was a Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2006 from Planeta, a much-acclaimed winery in Sicily.

This occurred, mind you, not at some deep-geek wine conference but at a mainstream charity event for "normal" people for whom wine gets only a passing thought, if that. As it happens, this particular event was a women-only lunch with an all-women panel (present company obviously excepted), but that's neither here nor there.

Who could have imagined 20 years ago—or even as recently as 10 years ago—a wine like Planeta's Cerasuolo di Vittoria as a star attraction cheek by substantial jowl with such wines as Brunello di Montalcino 2001 from Fattoria dei Barbi and Barolo Riserva 1999 from Marchesi di Barolo?

Hearing about—let alone finding—any of these wines here 20 years ago would have been unusual. The reason is that Canada's provinces are, like a number of American states, wine-restrictive to varying degrees. Alberta, uniquely, is wide-open. After the province privatized wine buying and retailing in 1993, both access and, especially, selection, soared.

Cerasuolo di Vittoria, by the way, is a light red wine composed of two indigenous Sicilian red grapes, Nero d'Avola and Frappato. Packing what can only be called a punch of cherry and strawberry flavors, it's the wine equivalent of John Updike writing a romance novel: frivolous yet somehow substantial.

Now, if I reported an event with such wines occurring in, say, San Francisco or New York, you'd shrug and say, "Big deal." One expects a measure of wine sophistication in such cities, and they deliver. But the real wine revolution—the one that counts for the long term—is now occurring far beyond high-profile places.

In talking with Calgarians, nobody gave me the impression that this city of 1 million people was, well, cutting edge. Residents display what we Americans might call a Midwestern modesty.

Don't be fooled. We're not talking about some dusty prairie town on the flats below the (Canadian) Rocky Mountain highs of Banff and Lake Louise. Calgary is a boomtown, with a downtown plumped with wealth and office towers from Alberta's vast petroleum reserves. As elsewhere in North America, there's a blossoming of high-rise urban condominiums.

What's all this got to do with wine? Every-thing. Do you think these urban and urbane Calgarians will be satisfied to sit in their sleek, new high-rise condos sipping only soft drinks? I don't think so. In fact, I know they're not. You need only dine at River Café, designed to look like a fishing lodge, on an island in the middle of the Bow River on the outskirts of Calgary's downtown. The food is determinedly local, supplied by the restaurant's own garden, and the wine list won a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence last year.

The old image—not entirely unjustified—of smaller cities as backwaters of wine culture is being swept away by the new reality of 21st-century wine: Fine wines are widely available; they're actually bought and enjoyed; and not least, the people who buy them don't flinch when they come across a wine they haven't heard of before.

Time was when you had to be in the cosmopolitan cities to enjoy the refinements of wine well chosen and well served. That's, happily, well behind us now. Riedel glasses and their big-bowled brethren are everywhere. French wines have long since ceased to be the sole semaphore of "sophistication."

Shelves are chockablock with offerings from California, Italy, Australia and New Zealand—if, as in Alberta, the government allows. Of course in Canada you also get an armada of wines from British Columbia and Ontario, so much so that there's not much left for those of us huddled below the 49th Parallel.

If you had predicted this 20 years ago, you would have been laughed at as a dreamer or worse. The myth of the hicks turned out to be just that. The movie was right: "If you build it, they will come."

Matt Kramer has contributed regularly to Wine Spectator since 1985.
Originally printed in Wine Spectator magazine, May 15, 2008 issue

©2008 by Wine Spectator

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