Stand and Deliver

February 6, 2015

I t's 1 p.m. in an unremarkable boardroom on the ninth floor of Bentall One, and one of the world's 312 Masters of Wine and one of the world's 140 Master Sommeliers are both seriously unimpressed.

"It tastes like Kool-Aid with alcohol," says Rhys Pender, MW, with a laugh.

"It's soda-pop rock," one-ups John Szabo, MS.

The object of their disdain? An overly confected sub-$20 Argentine malbec trying to elbow its way onto the wine list for the Joey restaurant chain.

In a biannual scene that's part NHL draft and part The Apprentice, Geoff Boyd, Joey's long-time director of wine, assembles a crack panel to blind-taste every bottle on the restaurant's Vancouver International Wine Festival Platinum Award-winning but relatively compact (under 50) wine list. Every bottle, be it a small-production pinot from Oregon or a bold-name New Zealand sauvignon blanc, has to earn its keep by running a gauntlet of tasters that includes Boyd, the two hired guns, and a handful of non-oenophiles with more plebian palates. The glass walls of the boardroom are covered in felt-marker hieroglyphs: reds on one side, whites on another, and areas where the team thinks the list could use some bolstering highlighted with squiggles.

These amassed judges will taste over 600 contenders in a given year in search of vino perfection. "First, we're looking for vintage variation," notes Boyd, making sure they're not sticking with an incumbent just for past glory. "We're constantly looking for wines that overdeliver," he says.

This afternoon, it's Viña Cobos, an acclaimed Argentine malbec made by Californian Paul Hobbs, that's in danger. There's nothing wrong with the wine — Hobbs is a well-respected winemaker, and no one on the panel dislikes it. But for some reason it's not selling well — despite the fact that the $45 wine is only $80 on the list, a bona fide steal by Vancouver markup standards. The brain trust wants to see if there's a slightly lower-priced alternative that might still have some of the wow effect of the Cobos but attract more consumers.

After a few overly sweet, excessively oaked misfires, they settle on two potentials, anonymous in plain brown wrappers.Candidate No. 1 is a lighter, more refined take on the grape, while No. 2 is more brutish, a deep garnet in the glass, with less subtlety. Both are priced such that they will probably be $20 less than the Cobos — hopefully enough to entice customers to try something new. Boyd could easily add both, but he's committed to the discipline of keeping his numbers manageable: "Huge lists put the work of finding great bottles back on the consumer, and I'm not a big fan of that." The team is deadlocked, so the wrappers are removed: it turns out both are well-respected wines, with the lighter coming from a big name in Argentina and No. 2 carrying slightly less name recognition.

Ultimately, the decision is pushed to the next day, when Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, a star since it was first imported into B.C., will face challenges from a series of upstarts. After that, cabernets will defend their turf, then pinots. But for today, the work is done. "Anyone up for a beer?" Pender asks.

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