Walking into local wine store Vinomania on Jasper Ave., you’re greeted by a room stocked floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall with bottles of wine. The selection boasts bottles of all shapes and sizes, from countries you’ve never heard of and with names you’d struggle to pronounce. It’s enough to make any vino blush and send wine newbies running for higher ground.
But local wine expert and Vinomania store owner Gurvinder Bhatia explains there’s nothing to be scared of when it comes to entering the world of wine — you just have to be open to accepting a bit of guidance.
“When people walk in and they see so many different names from so many different grape varietals, it can be daunting at first. But it’s the same as buying a car or buying a stereo system — you have to tap into people first,” Bhatia says.
Still, Bhatia admits there’s an intimidation factor that keeps people from exploring wine culture, and “tapping into people” can be difficult when a paradigm of snobbery is embedded in the industry. Things like not tasting what a critic tastes or not wanting to spend your savings on a bottle are valid boundaries to getting into wine, but they’re easy to get around.
“It’s important to understand that there’s no rights and wrongs in terms of a wine reviewer saying this tastes like blackberries and plums and cherries, for example. If you don’t get that, it doesn’t mean that something’s wrong with you, because everyone has different levels of perception in terms of flavours and aromas,” Bhatia explains.
Despite these barriers, Bhatia has found that the younger generation is often still open to trying different kinds of wine, as they lack a stiff loyalty to certain brands. After graduating with his BSc from the U of A in 1987 and later obtaining his law degree from St. Louis, he decided to translate his love for wine into a business that offers great selection for customers of all ages — whether they’re buying their first or thousandth bottle of wine.
Bhatia has butted heads with restaurant owners and critics in the city who’ve adopted the attitude of not providing good-quality products for people who “don’t know the difference” between a mediocre wine and a premium wine, explaining that people will never know quality unless they try it.
“I think the people that create those types of barriers for people are really doing a disservice to the whole industry, because what you really want to do is make people feel included and give people the opportunity to be involved with it,” he says.
Quality, as Bhatia sees it, is a reflection of where the grapes that made the wine came from. Wine producers often take the easier route by trending towards producing wines that fit a certain “profile” or taste instead of reflecting its origin, leading to a trend of homogenous, generic-tasting products — no matter where in the world they’re from.
“People tend to forget that wine is an agricultural product,” Bhatia says. “Wine should have a sense of place; it should have a sense of where it’s from. A Cabernet grown in Napa should be different from a Cabernet grown in Tuscany or France, because so much has to do with the soil conditions and the microclimates where the grapes are grown.”
Buying a good-quality wine doesn’t necessarily mean springing for a $30 or $40 bottle. Unfortunately, with the Edmonton-area running one of the highest warehousing costs in North America for importers, it’s difficult to find a truly “good” bottle for less than $10 without running the risk of purchasing one that’s generic and mediocre.
Smaller brands that spend more time crafting a quality product instead of spending on huge advertising budgets, such as Fabiano, Navarro Lopez, Ken Forrester and Tyrrell’s, are some of the best wines on the market according to Bhatia, and most of them run at $15 or less per bottle.
In the end, Bhatia believes tasting with the guidance of an experienced vino is the best way to get into wine. Stores like Vinomania are a great place to start, as they feature an Enomatic wine dispenser where you can fill a tasting card and sample 16 bottles of wine for a small price. He says the love of wine starts here, by challenging your palate to new flavours and indulging in the simple pleasure of opening your mind to a new cultural experience.
“The key is not to be intimidated. Don’t let people intimidate you, and just be open to tasting and listening. It’s food and wine — it’s not brain surgery,” he laughs.
“It’s a pretty pleasant thing to do, to just put yourself in situations where you have the opportunity.”