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It's a stunner of a move and the fires are to blame.
The wine industry isn’t much for breaking news. At its heart, past all the glamour and all the ooh-ing and ahh-ing, making wine is farming and farming doesn’t offer up the clicky headlines we’ve all become so accustomed to these days—which makes the stunner of an announcement that Blue Mountain won’t be releasing any wines from their 2021 vintage a bonafide blockbuster in Canadian wine news.
The culprit, as you may have guessed is smoke taint due to the wildfires in the summer of 2021. Well that’s not entirely true—the culprit is what happens when smoke taint happens to a winery that, for five decades, has governed themselves with a single-minded goal of producing the best wine possible from their estate. Every winery says their goal is to make the best wine possible, and most of them mean it, but there are only a handful (and arguably none) who are willing to go to such financially disastrous extremes as Blue Mountain in pursuit of excellence. I know that sounds like hyperbole, but I simply don’t know how else to put a decision of this magnitude into its proper context.
I don’t know of a winery in Canada of any size that’s ever cancelled an entire vintage (John Schreiner can fill me in if I’m wrong). In 2020, Washington’s Betz Family Winery, one of the state’s marquis wineries, made the same decision due to smoke taint, and while not wanting to take anything from Betz—which I love—they’re owned by an insanely wealthy real estate executive. Ditto the times in the past when Napa wineries have done the same.
I would say it’s like working for an entire year and not getting paid, but it’s actually much worse, because you still have to pay all the bills for the heavy costs of farming and winemaking—you just don’t see any money coming in. Given this economic peril, you can forgive wineries for doing what they can when smoke taint hits—and make no mistake, Blue Mountain was not the only winery to suffer it in 2021. Sometimes wineries don’t release their flagship wines or some are experimenting with the invasive but potentially useful technology for “stripping” the smoke from the wine that UBC Okanagan is doing pioneering work on. All completely understandable course of actions given the circumstances.
The funny thing is I really don’t know the Mavety family of Blue Mountain very well. When I was first starting out writing about wine I was always told that the father and founder Ian, was an iconoclastic, which I took to mean don’t ask him dumb questions like I was prone to doing. I’ve spoken to the son and current winemaker Matt a few times, but he’s a reserved person. Daughter Christie heads up in Marketing but even she eschews the hard sell technique. I reached out to her for a comment and she wrote back:
“Obviously, we’re very disappointed, and it was a tough decision, but we’re not willing to compromise the reputation we’ve worked hard to establish over the past 30 years. We’re focusing on the fact that while the grapes had smoke taint, the vines were unaffected — so the future is bright. Although Blue Mountain won’t produce a 2021 vintage, we’re in the process of releasing wines from the 2020 vintage, which was excellent, so there will be a slight interruption for consumers. Ultimately the most important thing is that people can count on us to deliver top-quality wines.“
But in some ways, I feel I do know them through the wine they create. Sticking with Pinot Blanc when everyone else was subbing it out for Pinot Gris. The refusal to use any grapes that they haven’t grown themselves. The criminal underpricing of their wines, be it a $27 for a bottle Brut that everyone in the Valley making sparkling owes a monumental debt to, or for years charging $17.90 for the aforementioned best in the region Pinot Blanc.
And now this. Now I know that they’d rather endure serious financial hardship than release wine that they weren’t 100% proud of. It’s a stand that we should all raise a glass to this week.