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Sardines and Icewine (December 9, 2002)

There is an old joke about sardines. A guy purchases a container-load of sardines for 5 cents a can. He sells them for 10 cents a can to a broker who passes them on to a jobber for 15 cents. The jobber turns a quick profit by flogging them to a wholesaler for 20 cents a can. The wholesaler offers them at 30 cents to a retailer, who puts them on his shelf at 98 cents a can.

A customer buys two cans and returns them both, complaining that the sardines are off. The shopkeeper goes back to the wholesaler and demands his money back. The wholesaler is indignant. "You didn't open them, did you! Those sardines were not for eating. They were for selling."

The same phenomenon appears to be happening to Canadian Icewine. Consumers are buying Icewine but they're not actually opening the bottles they've purchased. They're hanging on to them in order to say they have Icewine in their cellar. They may well be waiting for the perfect moment to open them (which, as we all know, will never come.) Or they are giving Icewine as gifts and the recipients are passing these presents on to others in the same spirit of giving. So you have this endless chain of Icewine circulating among the consuming public that will never get drunk.

Daniel Lenko tells me that his Ontario winery is seriously thinking about getting out of the Icewine business and concentrating on Late Harvest dessert wines instead. The reason: late harvest is less stressful and risky to make and, at less than half the price of Icewine, it's easier to sell.

Price in a different context is becoming a factor in Canadian wines. Seeing Canadian Chardonnays, Cabernets and Meritages with price tags over $40 a bottle is routine these days. Wine lovers who have previously supported the local industry out of patriotism rather than palate preference are beginning to suffer sticker shock. Old habits die hard: the idea that wines made in your own backyard must be cheaper than those that come from a different hemisphere is difficult to change and it's a concept that the industry has to address.

If wineries want to put up their prices because they are dropping half the fruit to get more concentration of flavour and are buying expensive French oak barrels, they will have to ensure the quality is there in the bottle. And they'll have to explain to the consumer that what they are doing in the vineyard and the cellar that justifies the expense of their products.

For many years our wineries have told us, "Don't compare our wines with California or Australia because we don't get the ripeness of fruit those regions do." But when we see California prices for an Ontario or BC Chardonnay, the expectation is that we will be buying a wine that will taste as good as, if not better than, a similarly priced California Chard. (One that stands the test , incidentally, is Malivoire Chardonnay Moira Vineyard 1999.)

And then there is the vintage factor. Not all years are equal in quality, and if you establish a price for a wine in a great vintage (like Ontario's 1998 red Bordeaux varietals, for example), you should not charge the same price for the wine in lesser vintages.

What impressed me recently is Inniskillin's pricing policy for its 1999 Chardonnays – five single-vineyard wines all ticketed at $16.95 a bottle. Perhaps it's the influence from head office at Vincor, where Jackson-Triggs is currently offering its very creditable Chardonnay Grand Reserve 2000 for that very same price.

Pricing, too, should play a factor in those wines from the 2001 vintage in Niagara – particularly Riesling – which were affected by the infestation of the multi-coloured Asian ladybug in the vineyard. When these insects get crushed with grape bunches, they impart a bitter peanut flavour to the wine which is discernible to the experienced palate. But as with Retsina, there may be consumers who actually enjoy that taste.

Oh, and as to the title of this article, please don't try that particular combination – unless, of course, you're partial to anchovies in your ice cream.




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