By Paloma Pacheco
On a sunny evening in early September, Commercial Drive’s Livia cafe is buzzing with energy—but not from the usual dinner crowd. The small space is packed with a group of people rapt with attention, all here to learn about Australian wine.
Kelcie Jones, wine director for Vancouver’s Michelin-starred Burdock & Co, is leading a conversation with two winemakers from Adelaide. When she cracks a joke about the pronunciation of an Italian grape variety, the room erupts in laughter. The vibe is warm and casual—not exactly what you’d associate with a typical wine class.
This is Wine School was launched in January by three of Vancouver’s most prominent sommeliers: Jones, Maude Renaud-Brisson (founder of wine consultancy and pop-up Apéro Mode), and Jenna Briscoe (general manager at Medina Cafe). The trio saw a gap in an industry that can often feel inaccessible; they wanted to provide a way for the average wine consumer to learn about wine in a friendly, unpretentious manner.
“Wine, in all its iterations, has a deep propensity for people to know a lot and then feel superior. It’s this superiority complex that we’d like to dispel,” Jones explains. “Our aim is to make people feel comfortable talking about wine, not to make them feel stupid.”
BC has been at the forefront of a new wave of Canadian wine culture for several years now. Whether it’s Okanagan winemakers experimenting with low-intervention practices and organic farming or Vancouver’s slew of natural wine bars and collaborative pop-up events, the verdict’s in: wine is in a renaissance. At the same time, there are still barriers to entry for many.
“I always say that when it comes to food and beer, people are fine asking lots of questions and having preferences, but with wine, they shut down. We’re trying to open up that conversation,” says Renaud-Brisson. She notes that even in the natural wine movement, there can be a tendency towards exclusion and prescription: “We don’t want to just tell people, ‘Drink this thing, it’s good’; we want to give them the tools to make informed decisions about wine and to form their own tastes.”
This is Wine School currently offers several educational experiences, including formal WSET (the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, a UK-based wine education body) courses, informal classes on topics ranging from natural wine to food pairings, and headliner events with visiting winemakers. Jones and Renaud-Brisson underscore that no prior knowledge is required to attend a This is Wine School event.
“We use the wines to guide our conversation, rather than running through an A to Z of tasting,” says Renaud-Brisson. “It’s not technical. We always assume that someone in the class might be starting with zero knowledge.”
Tadia Rosen and Shanique Kelly are of the same philosophy. The two friends, event producers, and oenophiles observed some of the same issues in wine as This is Wine School’s founders. So in the spring they launched Fruit Forward: a queer wine social with the aim of making wine culture more inclusive for Vancouver’s LGBTQ2S+ community.
After being involved in the city’s queer nightlife scene for years, Rosen and Kelly wanted a way to socialize that was more low-key than the party circuit.
“I was craving a way to connect with people where maybe the music wasn’t as loud and we could be together without going to a dance party or show,” says Kelly. “And I liked the idea of doing that over a glass of wine.”
The pair wanted to offer events that didn’t feel intimidating or stuffy—where people could just have fun with wine.
“Wine is such a broad and exciting world,” Rosen says. “There’s so much to learn. We thought [the event series] seemed like a great way to learn something and also connect as a community.”
Since their first event at the now-closed Juice Bar back in April, the two have hosted wine evenings at locations around town. They also have a roster of future events in mind, including a wine-and-knitting night and collaborations with local winemakers.
“From working in the food and beverage industry, I know that the world of wine can be hard to crack. It’s not always the most welcoming or inclusive. It’s also a very white, male-dominated industry,” says Rosen. “Having spaces where you can feel safe asking questions and chatting about wine with people who might have similar questions is so important.”
Over the summer, Fruit Forward hosted an introduction to natural wine event in partnership with This is Wine School. Rosen says it was particularly wonderful to witness how comfortable people felt: “It was the best wine class I’ve been to because everyone was so engaged—and felt so safe asking their questions.”