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Feature

Known Commodities

 

Wines by celebrities like Dan Aykroyd, wines that are celebrities - Canadians want both. And while restaurants aren't necessarily crazy about celeb wines, more and better Canadian wine is making it on to the lists. 

 

Published in Foodservice & Hospitality magazine, June 2009

What do Barbra Streisand, the Rolling Stones, Maria Carey, Olivia Newton-John and 80s hair band Motley Crue’s Vince Neil have in common? They are among the chorus of superannuated celebrities who’ve put their names on wine labels. Few of the wines are taken seriously, but some celebs have carved out a niche. Francis Ford Coppola is among the most successful, with his Napa winery turning out thousands of cases ranging from $10 a bottle to the high-end Rubicon, which gets the nod from top critics and goes for $150. In Canada, Mike Weir, Wayne Gretzky and Dan Aykroyd are the leaders. And, following a chance meeting in a Toronto restaurant with the big French producer Jean-Charles Boisset, Aykroyd has now launched in the US, producing wines with Sonoma County partner De Loach Vineyards, which is owned by Boisset. 

In February, Mike Weir wines signed an agreement for national distribution with UK-based drinks giant Diageo. Over at Dan Aykroyd’s, on-premise sales manager Peter Toms says around 20 percent of sales are to licensees. There’s a bit of “is it a fit?” going on with celeb wines: “Mike Weir is very popular at golf clubs, but we’re listed at the comedy club Second City,” he says. “We’re also listed at high end places like Harbour 60 steak house as well as a lot of casual family dining and we do well in tourist areas too.” Toms acknowledged that restaurants in Toronto are more resistant and “often choose to buy wines that are not listed at the LCBO.”
 
Filipe Gomes opened Aroma restaurant in London, Ontario in 2005, in a converted cheese factory. He has two “walls of wine” split into Old World and New World, with wines from 47 countries plus 175 different Ports. Another category is “Celebrity Wines,” including Gretzy, Weir and Aykroyd, as well as Coppola and others. Even with these more successful efforts, Gomes says buyers “are not so much responding to the value of the product, but to the recognition of the name. It’s very entertaining.” He adds that “one of the challenges we have in this part of Ontario is I cannot sell Canadian wines above $60. In Toronto, people have an understanding of Canadian wines more than in London.” So none of Niagara’s pricier product makes his list.
 
It’s a different story at the Granite Club in north Toronto. It looks like a cross between a suburban college and a small airport terminal and has around 10,000 members, and sommelier Corey Ladouceur manages three wine lists for the restaurant and banquet operations as well as a wine club for the Granite’s more enthusiastic oenophiles. He doesn’t offer celebrity wines, but does promote another type of signature wine – the top brands.
 
Ladouceur joined about two years ago and is big on Canadian: in May he was one of the judges in the All Canadian Wine Championships. When he started at the Granite Club, Canadian content was six whites and eight reds. Now there are 23 whites and 26 reds, including Le Clos Jordanne and Tawse from Ontario, Osoyoos Larose and Mission Hill’s Oculus from BC.
 
Accptance is growing, says Ladouceur, though a hand sell is sometimes required – “I get members to taste blind and it’s an eye-opener for them.” He says it’s a little harder to sell the highest priced Canadian wines because at $80 and above, people want something familiar, but he’s found ways around that. “What I’ve been doing is putting a couple of Canadian wines into our 6-course tasting menu. Sort of forcing people to try. I’ve had people say ‘I wouldn’t have ordered this but it’s blowing me away.’”
 
Ingo Grady is on-premise sales manager for Mission Hill’s finest wines and the focus is on the “top table” restaurants in the bigger cities. Canoe in Toronto is a longstanding supporter, as is the River Café in Calgary. Recent sign-ups include Daniel Boulud’s Lumière restaurant and DB Bistro in Vancouver, Hastings House on Salt Spring Island, and Metropolitain Brasserie in Ottawa. Oculus – a meritage blend and Mission Hill’s flagship – has been joined by another red blend called Quatrain and a single-vineyard chardonnay, Perpetua, which is doing “even better than expected,” says Grady. “We keep some for retail release in BC, Ontario and Alberta, but our target is 80% of sales to top restaurants.” Grady also noted that the poor economy is taking its toll on sales at the high end, though “Oculus is steady as she goes.”
 
AGO's Frank Restaurant and its wine wall.
 
 
Toronto’s Billy Munnelly, who writes the “Billy’s Best Bottles” column, website and book series, was tapped to design the wine list for Frank, the restaurant at the Gehry-designed addition to the Art Gallery of Ontario. Munnelly suggested going “all Ontario” with the wine list for the restaurant, which opened in November 2008. “The acceptance of local wine over the last few years has experienced a complete 180 in high end restaurants,” says Munnelly. “Now it’s sort of cool, and premium local wine is the insider’s drink. That gave me the confidence to propose an all-Ontario list.”
 
The chef and sommelier were all for it. The board of directors for the gallery blanched, but eventually agreed. The list of around 60 wines is no longer all-Ontario: sommelier Courtney Henderson, previously of Epic at the Fairmont Royal York, has branched out: “We’ve brought in BC’s Osoyoos Larose Petales (the “second wine” of Osoyoos Larose) and we’re selling that at $17 a glass and that’s going very well.” Frank’s priciest red is Le Grand Clos from Le Clos Jordanne at $150. Other high end reds by the glass include Tawse Meritage 2006. “It’s going gangbusters. People are paying $18 for a 5oz pour of Ontario wine, which is pretty spectacular,” says Henderson. “We still have challenges with the more conservative clientele, but that gives us sommeliers the chance to do our job.” Henderson added that wine sales at Frank are “absolutely fabulous. It’s a great time to be showcasing VQA. You get customers who want to know more and then you get the ones who know the wine, or they’ve been to the winery. For any restaurateur out there who’s not carrying VQA, it’s an opportunity missed. Definitely.”
 
George Piper, who manages the wine program at Vancouver-based Earls and launched a new wine program for the upscale casual dining chain last year, reported on how sales of BC wines are doing: “We’ve got some of the world’s top wineries on our list, and yet BC represents 30% of sales of reds and 50% of whites on our ‘one price’ list.” Local is also playing well at the chain’s high end choices, “Osoyoos Larose was our second highest in sales, falling just short of Stags Leap from California,” says Piper.
 
In the nation’s capital, Steven Beckta runs two restaurants – Beckta and Play. Known for his dedication to and passion for wine, Beckta has “40 to 50” Canadian wines on his list at any given time. “There’s an enormous pride in Ottawa about Canadian wine,” says Beckta, who has Niagara’s Stratus Red on the list at $92. When Beckta opened six years ago, “there was a reluctance on the part of some to try Canadian wines, but that’s evaporated.”

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