If you really want to get to know wine, you've got to go where it's made. That's why three separate groups of Atlantic wine- lovers headed off to Tuscany in May, all on treks to wine country under the guidance of sommelier Mark DeWolf and his team.
In July, DeWolf has a trip to Burgundy filled with thirsty Pinotphiles, with trained-in-Burgundy winemaker Thomas Bachelder from Le Clos Jordanne (Niagara, Ontario,) as guest host, then another trip to Piedmont, Italy, in October.
It's all in a year's work for DeWolf, whose life pretty much revolves around wine and food. Best known for his local By the Glass Food and Wine Club events and tours, as well as for editing Occasions, a promotional magazine for the liquor boards, DeWolf did his time in the restaurant industry in Toronto and Halifax, with stints from The Apple Barrel and Rogue's Roost to The Left Bank and Maple. He's now a sommelier instructor for the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers and a small-business owner.
DeWolf employs three people, including lead tour guide Jeff Ferguson, Italian expert Alanna McIntyre and Joel Williams, who is developing business in New Brunswick.
"The title I use is sommelier/owner," explains DeWolf. "But really it could be sommelier/owner/tour guide/event planner/dishwasher/accountant (a bad one), et cetera. You get the idea. I'm sure it's the same for many small businesses."
DeWolf's tour company arose out of Valley Wine Tours, a business he opened in 2004 with fellow sommelier Sean Buckland, now at Ambassatours. They also founded a wine club. "In the early stages it was completely event-based," says DeWolf, "but, as membership grew, I realized there was an opportunity to share my love of travel to wine regions outside of Canada with my clientele. Our first organized trip [to Europe] was in 2007."
His club now has more than 1,500 members, and the trips are coming fast and furious, with visits to Chile, Argentina and Tuscany last spring, Provence and Tuscany in the fall and five trips scheduled in 2010. Wine touring is an established business with many players, but DeWolf feels they offer something unique.
"We are not on large tour buses," he says, "There is no one with a paddle or umbrella herding you around like sheep." The tours are restricted to 14 people with a maximum of seven per guide. Perhaps this leads to a slightly less comfy ride, but it also allows you to go places the big buses can't, and it's a trade off for intimacy.
"The other advantage we have over big tour companies and travel businesses is lack of overheads," he adds. "I don't have big administration costs, so the value can be placed in the tour, not in the rent of an office." DeWolf claims his tours are significantly cheaper than those from large companies, once you factor in meals and add-ons.
"We place a little more emphasis on the food experience as well," he says. "We don't try to hit 25 wineries in a week."
The real appeal of the trips, which has led to glowing reviews, is the social aspect that comes with small groups of people travelling with people who are wine smart.
"I love wine more than just about anyone," he says, "but once you see a fermenter more than a few times it all becomes a little boring. I want my customers to have a rounded experience. We do cooking classes and focus on communal time---we will often stay in villas so that the tour experience includes lots of time to enjoy with the group in a relaxed environment."
Sounds like a perfect, personal way to learn about wine---at the source. For more information, go to bytheglass.ca.
Craig Pinhey is a sommelier and writer. Find him at frogspad.ca.