Recently, Noble Estates and Constantine Restaurant hosted a celebration dinner to honour wine journalist and overall wine champion Tony Aspler. It was a fun night in Toronto with select friends in the industry, so you know that the wine was flowing and that so many great stories were shared – including the odd roasting here and there… which Tony loved.
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For those of you who don’t know Tony, he is a humble and soft-spoken man with a perpetual smile. Over the course of several decades, he has authored 20 books, mostly about wine. He also is one of the founders of the Canadian non-profit charity ‘Grapes for Humanity’ which raises thousands of dollars for organizations such as VinEquity. He has helped shape and influence the Canadian wine industry and has been a role model and mentor for many who have followed in his footsteps.
“I have known Tony Aspler since the 1970s, the start of Ontario’s modern wine industry,” says Magdalena Kaiser, who has been in the Ontario wine industry since birth. “He has supported and nudged our industry forward, always believing in our terroir and our winemakers.”
I had a chance to sit with Tony and have a really great chat with him about his remarkable career in wine, the direction of Canadian wine, and some advice for aspiring wine writers. Read on to learn what Tony had to share:
Jennifer: Why wine? What made you decide to get into this business?
Tony Aspler: I was living in London, working for the BBC in the 1960s. I needed a hobby. I enjoyed cooking so I thought I should learn about wine. So I enrolled in the Grant’s of St. James’ Wine School. The lecturer was the late Gordon Bucklitsch who became the model for my wine writer-detective, Eza Brant. Gordon took a group of his students to Champagne in 1976. I wrote an article about it which appeared in Saturday Night magazine, my first published article on wine.
Jennifer: What advice would you give to anyone who wants to get into wine as a career?
Tony Aspler: I would say, take a formal course in winemaking in order to understand the process and, if possible, volunteer as a ‘cellar rat’ to get hands-on experience. Short of that, immerse yourself in the published works of British wine writers – Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, Andrew Jefford. Take out subscriptions to wine magazines – like Decanter.
Jennifer: You have watched the Canadian wine industry grow from infancy – any hard lessons for Canadian wines? Anything the industry should be focusing on for the future?
Tony Aspler: The Canadian wine industry has come a remarkably long way since the Free Trade Agreement in 1988. NAFTA forced the wineries to plant (vinifera) varieties rather than depending on hybrids and North American labrusca varieties like Concord. In that year, the Vintners Quality Alliance was introduced in Ontario as the province’s appellation system. Two years later it was introduced in British Columbia. To be able to put the VQA symbol of a bottle, wineries had to use 100 percent locally-grown grapes. Unfortunately, the regulators grand-fathered the use of off-shore wine to be blended into local product – to be designated as ‘Cellared in Canada.’ This practice still persists in the big commercial companies.
The other major development in 1988 was the passage of the Wine Content Act that forbade the use of Labrusca and other North American grapes in winemaking.
The craft wineries (once known as boutique wineries) were the engine for the improvement of Canadian wines. The next evolution of the industry has to be in the vineyard – recognizing the importance of terroir and site selection. What the wine industry in Ontario and BC needs is a Grand Cru system in which the best vineyard sites are recognized (as they are in Burgundy and in Germany).
Jennifer: Any advice you would give younger people getting into wine writing and reviewing now?
Tony: With social media, anyone can create a blog and write about wine. But if you want to be taken seriously, you have to do your homework. Taste, taste, taste. More importantly, taste comparatively – that is, taste a series of wines of the same vintage made by different winemakers. Develop your own vocabulary, your own style. Tell stories rather than writing lists of recommendations. And remember, a winemaker has laboured for a year to put that wine in a bottle. Respect the work but be honest in your appraisal. As a writer, it’s much easier to damn a wine than to praise it. I have always said, I am not a wine critic; I’m a wine evangelist – because I want to turn people on to this miraculous beverage rather than turn them away.
Start with a blog and if you get lots of followers, then think of publishing a newsletter or writing a book.
Jennifer: Favourite all time wine?
Tony: This is easy: Comte de Vogűé Musigny Vielles Vignes 1964, which I drank on February 13th, 1975, the night my son was born. It taught me it’s not so much about the wine (itself) but the occasion, your mood and the company. Imagine you’re invited to dinner by your bank manager and he opens a bottle of 1961 Château Mouton-Rothchild. Just as you are about to lift the glass to your lips, he says the reason he’s invited you is to tell you he is foreclosing on your mortgage. That wine is going to taste like ashes in your mouth. On the other hand, if you’re on a picnic with someone you love, the sun is shining and you have a baguette and a brie and some pâté and a bottle of simple Beaujolais chilling in a stream – that wine is going to taste like the nectar of the gods.
My sincere thanks to Tony, who has paved the road for so many. His books can be found on Amazon – if you go to https://tonyaspler.com/about/ you can see a list after his bio.
– Jennifer Huether, MS is a VineRoutes special contributor