Anthony Gismondi: A wine festival for cohorts


Anthony Gismondi looks back at 42 years of the Vancouver International Wine Festival.

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This year, there will be no Vancouver International Wine Festival, bringing to an end a 42-year run that changed the course of wine in B.C.

It’s almost surreal to think that we were packed into Canada Place, clinking glasses, tasting wine and expectorating into cups for more than a week at this time last year.

And we did that in a room full of globe-trotting travellers, coming out of Europe, Asia and the Americas moments before the pandemic went global, changing our way of life overnight.

It wasn’t the first bullet the festival has dodged in its long history of spreading the story of wine while supporting the arts. From the beginning, organizers have been challenged by outdated liquor regulations, punishing taxes and bureaucratic layers of obstruction that seem to rise every spring in time to lose wines or delay shipments.

It should have spelled the demise of the event decades ago, yet each challenge was met by even more passionate wine folks on both sides of the regulations and well, the rest is history.


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Thinking back about last year’s youthful crowd, I would guess the majority weren’t even born when the first Playhouse Festival took place in 1979.

Famed Napa Valley winery Robert Mondavi was the only producer featured at the first, two-day, two event tasting held at Hycroft, The University Women’s Club on the edge of Shaughnessy. A single winery event, it was more of a tasting than a festival.

Michael Mondavi led the audience through the “components” of wine. We sipped acid, tannin and fruit solutions in plastic cups before getting to taste a finished Mondavi wine or two.

Boy, were we keen.

As the festival blossomed, the number of attending wineries began to expand, as did the venues to accommodate the crowds. We moved from the Hycroft to the Hyatt Regency, to dual sites: the Hyatt Regency and the Hotel Vancouver.

You should have seen us crossing the busiest intersection in the city at Burrard and Georgia streets with our tasting glasses. By 1988, the festival had moved under the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre’s sails, sharing the smoky air with the neighbouring VIVA, a local food and drink show.

In 1989, John Levine, the flamboyant founding chairman of the festival, handed over the reins to ex-B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch general manager Robert Wallace, who invited 94 wineries from 10 countries to attend. Levine should ever be remembered for developing the key to the festival’s enduring success, namely demanding that attending wineries send a key principal to pour the wine. That intimate connection all but sealed the deal with consumers who flocked to the annual event like birds migrating home in spring.


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I would add that the vast majority of the winery principals who came to Vancouver fell in love with the city, hotels and restaurants, and its burgeoning wine culture. It had a lot to do with many continuing to support the market in the face of goofball regulations, inconsistent listing policies and those crushing taxes, at least until now.

By Year 20, in 1998, 153 wineries from a record 18 countries attended, and citywide dinners on Monday night kicked off the festival.

Last year, the 42nd annual festival showcased 163 wineries from 15 countries, including 42 wineries from France, the festival’s featured country. Events spread across nearly two weeks, and for the most part, like every year, it was a sellout.

All things being equal, South America, scheduled to headline the 2021 festival, will fulfil that role in 2022, and we are sure it will be a roaring success the minute it’s cleared for takeoff.


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