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CanadaWINE150: My four decades of Canadian wine and what I’ve learned

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Nova Scotia born wine/beer writer and consultant Craig Pinhey takes us through four decades of learning and writing about Canadian wine from coast to coast. You can see all columns on our #CanadaWINE150 series here.

By Craig Pinhey

The 80s — from ignorance to bliss

My first experience with “good” Canadian wine wasn’t in Nova Scotia, even though I grew up there. Although I picked up on the first Atlantic microbrewery — The Granite Brewery — when it first opened in 1984 in Ginger’s Tavern in Halifax, I didn’t catch on to the early wave of Nova Scotia wine, meaning Grand Pré, Roger Dial’s pioneering Annapolis Valley. Later on, Roger and his son Adam became good friends of mine.

No, I had my first good Canadian wine made from Canadian grapes in 1984, while working on a work term in St. Catharine’s, Ont. (I learned quickly that everyone calls it St. Kitts). I was on a co-op work term at the GM Foundry, as part of my Metallurgical Engineering studies, and my roommate and I took in the annual Grape & Wine Festival (I won’t call it what everyone we knew called it in those days, as it is not politically correct, or acceptable at all, really).

Did we drink GREAT wine? Not really, but I remember having white and red wine from locally grown grapes that was fine, as far as I could tell at the time. Maybe they were Vidal and Foch. I don’t remember. It was really just a party, and we had a terrific time. I wasn’t much of a wine drinker at the time, just beer and the occasional single malt or rum & Coke.

I didn’t grow up in a wine drinking family, really. My parents had the odd bottle of Black Tower or Baby Duck, but they were far from ‘into’ wine. None of my university friends drank much wine, except perhaps one, but that was only because he had lived in France while his father was on sabbatical there.

Three years later, in 1987, after getting more experience with good drink by living in Holland on a work term and travelling to Europe several times with that same wine (and beer) loving friend, I moved to Ontario to work in Hamilton, and that is when I started to get serious about beer and wine.

My eventual wife Christine and I got into the Niagara wine scene very quickly. Hamilton is right on the edge of the terroir, so we were immediately drawn to the local wineries and the food and wine events often held at them. Inniskillin and Hillebrand were still small and independent then, but they felt pretty big to us.

In fact, one of her big Brock University business projects was a case study for Chateau Des Charmes, which was planning to build a new estate. Yep, that one.

The 90s — When an obsession
becomes a career, Part I

Canada wine

We drank more and more wine as time went on, and were drawn more to the smaller wineries, and as the decade turned and rolled into the mid 90s we were buying cases of new releases from Stoney Ridge, Vineland Estates, Chateau Des Charmes, Marynissen, Lakeview Cellars, Konzelmann, and Cave Spring, among others. I particularly recall a mixed case of 1990 Stoney Ridge Chardonnays made from different single vineyards. That was my first encounter tasting true terroir differences, and I was sold. I also recall incredible 1995 and 1998 reds from Lakeview and Marynissen.

Our wine love grew and our palates became more informed. My wife took a wine course, and I learned by drinking. Our best friend started dating a winemaker, we got some behind the scenes experience, and loved it.

We continued pursuing our wine hobby (and, for me, a beer hobby, becoming a BJCP certified beer judge and award-winning homebrewer, and eventually columnist for Great Lakes Brewing News) to the point where a lot of our free time was spent attending wine events.

We stayed on top of all the new winery openings. We went to Cuvée, and Vineland Estates’ amazing events. As wineries opened restaurants, we supported them. I subscribed to several wine magazines, got hooked on Billy’s Best Bottles newsletter and developed my knowledge of the rest of the world’s wines, in addition to our locals, by purchasing his picks from our local LCBO. We travelled more in Europe, as well as California, and wine really became an important part of our lives at the dinner table.

Not surprisingly, Christine ended up getting into the business taking a job as a Marketing Director for Kittling Ridge, and this took us to a new level. I would help her out by attending events with her and pouring and talking about their products. We also started drinking more cocktails and premium spirits, as they were evolving into a serious spirits producer (40 Creek Whisky, etc.).

The 00s — when an obsession
becomes a career, Part II

Nova Scotia wine

My life changed when Christine took a job with Moosehead as Marketing Director in 1998. I quit my job as an Environmental/Metallurgical Engineer and started from scratch in Rothesay, New Brunswick (just outside Saint John, a gritty city not unlike Hamilton). I took the ISG program and graduated with the top marks in Canada in 2000, got a tattoo of a grapevine on my wrist and was ready to go.

That program taught me a lot about local wine, particularly Nova Scotia wine, and it’s where I met my mentor, instructor Adam Dial, the son of Roger Dial — well known as the founder of the Nova Scotia wine industry. Adam made me a lover of L’Acadie Blanc, as well as world wines like Burgundy and Mosel Riesling, and Muscat of all kinds.

I spent the rest of the decade educating myself by going on trips to wine regions, teaching the sommelier program, working wine, beer and food events, and growing my business as a writer and wine consultant. I started my Beer, Booze & Bars column in an alt weekly publication called  [here] and then my wine column in the Saint John Times Globe with the help of a friend who wrote the food column, and that evolved into my weekly Good Drink column, which I still write today, for all the main Brunswick News papers in the major NB cities. Throughout that time I remained loyal to Canadian wine, particularly Niagara Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cab Franc and Gamay.

I added wine judging to my job, starting with the All Canadian Wine Championships, which I started judging in 2000 or 2001 and have only missed one since. I joined Wine Access magazine as a regular columnist and reviewer thanks to another mentor, David Lawrason, and that led to judging the Canadian Wine Awards, which I have done for 10+ years now (although it became the National Wine Awards of Canada a few years ago when Wine Access shut down.)

These competitions, and the visits to local wineries while in BC and Ontario, really opened my eyes to great B.C. wine, and other regions like LENS and PEC in Ontario.

I should add that I never stopped writing about beer, and still write for national magazines and occasionally judge the Canadian Brewing Awards. In fact I am the only person who has judged both of Canada’s national wine and beer competitions. I also judge spirits, ciders and meads.

The 10s — to infinity and beyond!

By the time the new decade rolled in I was happily continuing along, visiting more of the wine world, while always reconnecting to Canadian wine through visits and competitions. I recently judged the Portugal Wine Challenge in Portugal, which was a great honour.

I just returned from judging the 2017 All Canadians (in PEC) and the National Wine Awards of Canada (held in Wolfville for the first time) in June, and I’m happy to report that our wines are still great. In judging these competitions over the years I’ve often noted how the quality was steadily improving, but at one point maybe 2 or 3 years ago I realized that it had levelled off — at a very high level, for the most part — and it was a more a case of different varieties (Syrah, Gamay, for example) and styles (Traditional Method bubbly and dry rosé) becoming more prominent and higher quality.

The other big event for me in this decade was the 2016 publication of The Wine Lover’s Guide to Atlantic Canada, which I was brought on to help with lead author Moira Peters (photo above). It was a true pleasure working on the book, and we are very proud of it.

What will happen next? It is difficult to say, but the best thing that could happen would be a complete opening of our interprovincial borders, leading to everyone in Canada regularly buying wine from our various regions. This could happen as a key New Brunswick case goes to the Supreme Court. I will be watching that closely, with a glass of great Canadian wine in my hand.


About Craig Pinhey

Craig Pinhey is a Nova Scotia born wine writer and consultant. An Engineer by education, Craig worked in Ontario, where he gained his appreciation for local wine in Niagara in the 90s. Returning to the Maritimes in late 1998, Craig became a certified Sommelier and started his new career as a beverage writer. He has been running wine events and judging national wine competitions since 2000, and recently co-authored The Wine Lover’s Guide to Atlantic Canada with Moira Peters. You can find me here