Drinking with stars 

It's the 'principal' of the thing

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Back in 1979, the cash-strapped Vancouver Playhouse turned to its Board of Directors for a unique fundraising idea. It was that night the Playhouse International Wine Festival was born. More than three decades later it remains Canada's most important ode to the grape and the best consumer wine fair on the continent.

So what is it about this low-budget festival, essentially run by volunteers, that attracts so much attention? In a nutshell, it's the principals who pour their wine. From "Day One" the festival has insisted that attending wineries be represented behind the booth by the owner, winemaker or, at the very least, the international export director.

It's a strategy that has paid off and one that has drawn the likes of Robert Mondavi, Bruce Tyrrell, Piero Antinori, Miguel Torres, the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild and many other international wine luminaries.

Experience suggests that the higher up the ladder the principal, the better the wine he or she pours at the festival. Some wince about the time and expense of sending key personnel, especially today when they have a local distributor in place, but given the rush to commercialism of the global wine business the festival "principal" rule is the reason Vancouver has the best wine bash in North America.

With some 10,000 people each paying $100 to cruise the International Tasting Room on Thursday, Friday or Saturday night of the festival, it's the principals they want to meet. And when you think about it, well, it makes a lot of sense. How often do you get to speak to the person who is directly involved in the making of a product you choose to buy and enjoy?

Each year my travels take me to the corners of the wine world where I meet just about anybody who's somebody in the wine business. This month most of them will be in Vancouver ready to answer your questions.

What follows is only a short list of "don't miss" principals that make the Vancouver Playhouse festival one of the best wine shows in North America. Should you be unable to attend the big show, I'm adding a wine pick you can explore at home.

Perhaps the most entertaining story teller in the wine business is Australian Jane Ferrari. She will be happy to tell you the story of Barossa Valley's Yalumba wines. Ferrari is a world traveller and a passionate defender of Aussie shiraz. You will love the latest Yalumba Y Series Viognier 2010 ($18) with its fresh, ginger, orange/nectarine skin aromas and bright, lush fruit mixed with mango, spicy marmalade and orange tropical flavours. Chicken anyone?

Daniel Castaño runs the family winery in Yecla and while the winery is relatively young the vines are 40+ years old. Castaño is a big proponent of the monastrell grape, otherwise known as the mourvèdre variety in France. He is an insightful Spaniard well worth chatting to about all things monastrell and travelling in Spain. You can enjoy several wines from Castaño, including the Castaño C Monastrell 2009 ($11.40), a savoury, peppery, smoky, black cherry red that can lift a mid-week hamburger to new levels.


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