Executive Director | Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival | Vancouver
What are the most challenging elements of organizing a wine festival?
For this Festival, it’s making the following happen: 30,000+ bottles of 1700+ selected wines by 197 wineries from 14 countries in 61 events at 36 venues over 7 days for 25,000 attendees. Oh, but we couldn’t do it without securing the support of 400+ volunteers, 70+ sponsors/partners, 54 wine agencies, 13 consulates. Good thing I have a great staff working with such a dynamic industry. In short, it feels like organizing 61 weddings.
How does the festival decide on which countries are going to be the Focus countries (Theme Regions) during a Wine Festival?
I work on four festivals at a time: evaluating the last one; organizing the current one; planning the next one; and imagining the one after that. Given that, it’s a combination of anticipating market trends, receiving signals from the industry, getting feedback from my Planning Committee, and ultimately, which theme region sends us an acceptable proposal that our Board of Directors approves. After all that, it’s often the country that hasn’t been the Theme the longest.
How does the festival select the wineries from within the theme regions to attend the festival?
It’s the same for all regions and countries, regardless of theme. All wineries must submit an application. Over 270 wineries applied for the 2010 Festival, but only 197 were selected because that’s all the room we have. Most wine shows in the world sell booths whereby the agency, distributor or winery can bring in any wines they like. All the wineries and wines at the Playhouse Wine Festival are selected on a competitive basis, based on stated criteria. The wineries and Tasting Room wines are approved by the Winery Selection Committee. Special event wines are selected by a combination of appointed Event Chairs and the Winery Selection Committee. This annual process is mind-numbingly time-consuming.
What are the wine highlights of the 2010 edition of the festival?
New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs. Argentine Malbecs and Torrontés. California Zinfandels (ZAP is hosting a Zin station in the Tasting Room). And…Rosés!
How does the festival select the restaurants to partner with in the events in your festival?
All events in restaurants are submitted as an application by a wine agency or wine region association. So, it’s important for restaurants to collaborate with the wine agency representatives that serve them. We are also very appreciative of the local and regional restaurants that participate generously in our popular Sunday brunches: Vintners Brunch and Flavours of the Festival.
What do you look for on a Wine List when you dine out in a Restaurant?
I love variety, so for me, it’s usually about wines-by-the-glass. I like to engage the server or sommelier by describing to them what I feel like, and see what they suggest.
I imagine over the years you have had many good and bad experiences in your job, Tell us about two or three of the most interesting experiences.
Most satisfying: watching people dance to the South African band on stage in the Tasting Room when South Africa was the Theme in 2005. South Africa was celebrating 10 years of democracy and they used the Festival to engage people with the excitement of that anniversary and their diverse, quality wines. The year before the Festival, dust seemed to collect on South African wine bottles in wine shops. After the Festival, there was a major boost to the awareness and sales of South African wines.
Fortunately, I seem to have erased how frustrating it can be to work excruciatingly long hours on such a massive annual event.
What are the top 3 wines (your favourites) would we find in your home Wine collection?
I tend to run out of my favourites, so I feel I never have enough Rieslings, Pinot Noirs and Gewürztraminers. I mention Gewürzes last because I like their pungency after dinner, even after big reds.
Take us on a tour of Vancouver’s wine bars and restaurants with good wine lists. What are your favorites?
As a wine reviewer for Northwest Palate and Tidings magazines, I spend so much time sampling and writing reviews, that I don’t get to visit wine bars and restaurants as much as I’d like. But when I do, I like to go to 3 or 4 in one evening, with one glass of wine and a small plate at each location. When it comes to engaging the server or sommelier, I currently like to drop by: Uva, Chambar, Boneta, Salt Tasting Room.
Why do you think the Vancouver International Wine Festival has been such a success in recent years?
You could probably better answer that question than me! I seem to live in a perpetual state of fear of failure. Actually, I’m getting better after 8 years, but I never take anything for granted, ever, so attention to detail is crucial. But on the big picture, we live in an emerging culinary capital, so the Festival engages a vibrant food and wine industry, and more essentially—a community—that wants this Festival and our city to thrive.
What are your favourite wine festivals outside of Vancouver?
I attend the Society of Wine Educators conference and Cornucopia nearly every year. Working for the Festival has been so administratively heavy, I don’t get to travel much, but this year is different. I’m going to several major wine events: Pinot Noir 2010 in New Zealand; London Wine Fair; Aspen Food & Wine Classic; Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle; International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon. Ask me that question again in a year.
If you could offer any advice to people wanting to become winemakers. What advice would you give them?
Not being a winemaker, I don’t have any advice to give. But I will say this…just as music engages the sense of hearing and theatre engages the sense of both sight and sound, I believe wine engages the sense of smell and taste, so it is a sensory experience and must give pleasure, regardless of the winemaker’s business model.
After the success of the 2009 festival with British Columbia as the host region, do you feel wines from British Columbia are more or less sought after than they were before your festival?
I think the combination of BC as theme region with Pinot(s) as the global focus showed how well BC Pinot Blancs, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noirs compare to the rest of the world, especially their food-friendliness.
Is their anything you would like to accomplish while director of the Vancouver Int Wine Festival that you haven’t already accomplished?
Sell out 100% of tickets, not just 98%. But more importantly, as Canada’s premier wine show, I’d like to have more of the wine industry from across the country attend our Trade Days Conference. I’d like for the Canadian wine industry to better understand what “wine brand Canada” means globally, beyond Icewine.
How has the festival incorporated “Social Media” into their marketing mix for this 2010 Festival?
We have a Facebook page and are becoming very active on Twitter. Personally, I would prefer to keep Facebook as a friend/family medium, and let Twitter and websites be the main business forum. For people who want to track sell-outs and the status of events, they can search @PlayhouseWine on the www.twitter.com homepage, even if they don’t have a Twitter account.
By: Richard Wolak