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Drinking with stars

It's the 'principal' of the thing

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.

Consulting winemaker Alvaro Espinoza, a world-renowned bio-dynamic expert, will be fronting his Colchagua project, Emiliana. Espinoza is a Chilean pioneer in organic and bio-dynamic wine growing and whether he is bottling his own estate wine, Antiyal, or the various wines of Emiliana Vineyards, his passion and knowledge flows into each bottle. You can check out several Emiliana labels in B.C. including the latest Emiliana Adobe Syrah Reserva Orgánico 2008 ($13) with its smoky blue and black fruit, slippery palate and lush, dense weight. Great value here in a wine made from organically grown grapes.

Kendall Jackson winemaster Randy Ullom returns to Vancouver this year. Ullom has to be considered one of the foremost authorities on California chardonnay and is a great ambassador for California wine in general. Be sure to stop by the KJ booth and speak to Randy about the latest in cool, coastal hillside sites from Santa Barbara in the south to Mendocino in the north. Don't miss the Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay Vintner's Reserve ($24); it's a delicious, cool yet ripe style with enticing honey, baked apple, mango orange floral flavours. Halibut is a good choice here.

One of the biggest names in Chilean wine, owner Eduardo Chadwick will be in Vancouver to headline the Chilean contingent, the 2012 festival theme country, and to pour his signature Errazuriz wines. Chadwick pioneered many stages of Chile's rise to international respectability. In his spare time he has earned his Master of Wine accreditation and climbed Mount Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the southern Hemisphere. One his best labels is the Errazuriz Single Vineyard Max Reserva Estates Carmenère 2009 ($23). Look for sweet spice and milk chocolate along with plenty of peppery black fruit and a wonderful, long smooth palate.

Jean-Claude Mas, owner and general manager of Domaine Paul Mas and the creator of the amusing Arrogant Frog series of wines, is one interesting Frenchman. Mas is focused on the south of France, particularly the Languedoc, and he is intensely proud of his wines and suitably irreverent when need be. I love the consistent quality of Paul Mas Estate Single Vineyard Collection Malbec Gardemiel Vineyard 2010 ($16). Expect a fragrant peppery, floral nose that previews a warm savoury rich entry of black fruits, liquorice and pepper. A delicious, big time value of modern Euro malbec. Perfect for grilled T-bone steaks.

You can expect an excellent lineup of B.C. producers at the festival, but for the first time ever Niagara-based winemaker Paul Pender of Tawse Vineyards will be at the show. Pender is the force behind the barrels at Tawse the Wine Access Canadian Winery of the Year in 2010 and 2011. Tawse bottles are scarce in British Columbia so be sure to stop at the booth and taste the bio-dynamic Tawse Winery 2009 Robyn's Block Chardonnay ($44).

In all, 175 principals will be ready to meet you when the doors to the International Tasting Room open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, March 1, 2 and 3, at the Vancouver Convention Centre West. For more information log onto

Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto