WWC 49 – Rachel von Sturmer


The last of this week's wine writing competition entries comes from Canada, thanks to Rachel von Sturmer.

I’m a wine writer based in Vancouver, Canada. My virtual home is at www.rachelvonsturmer.com, and I’m the author of Winetripping, a guidebook to the wineries of BC’s Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys. My husband and I have recently purchased a small organic vineyard in the Similkameen.


When a friend sent word of Jancis’s wine writing contest, I knew I needed to go to the top for some advice. I called Dionysus, or rather, his office. As you may imagine, there was some trouble getting him on the phone.

'Olympus Enterprises. How may I direct your call?'

'Dionysus, please.'

'May I ask who’s calling?'

'It’s Rachel, about the wine writing advice.'

A sigh echoed through the receiver. 'Again?' Then, more firmly, 'Dionysus is not available right now. He’s been made aware of your calls, but is an extremely busy deity. Might I suggest you try Aphrodite, I hear she moonlights in wine.'

'Please, if he could just spare a moment to share his wisdom, I’d be eternally grateful. This is for Jancis’s contest.'

'Eternally? For Jancis’s contest, you say? I’ll pass on your message. Good day.'

'Thank yo ...' – click.

Some time later, I arrived home, shopping bags in hand, when I saw a scroll on my doorstep. Unfurling the parchment, slightly sticky with the scent of port, I found my efforts had been answered.

From the desk of Dionysus

Dear Ms von Sturmer,

You have been extremely persistent in your efforts, which, while wholeheartedly annoying, I admire. So without further preamble, here are my thoughts on the state of wine writing today.

You are living through an interesting age for the subject of wine. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the hot topic in the agora was how little water your neighbour added to his krater, then it was all about monks (some were more fun than others), before I knew it the height of fashion was sweet champagne (ice-free, of course, how I miss those days). Now it’s much ado about poetry and bottle shots. Natural wine? Ha, you mortals!

If you want to be a success, you must have a signature descriptor. All the best words are already taken: embryonic, moreish, hedonistic, so you’ll need to get creative.

Even gods don’t have the drachmas for burgundy these days, I suggest you specialise elsewhere. I’ve heard Canada has potential.

You are (of course) required to enjoy drinking in this line of work, but not too much, although on this subject I demur to Methe.

Thou shalt not reference the back of the label. Don’t even look at it! If it’s German, good luck with that, love the wines but it’d be of no use anyways.

Rating with points, Hades on fire, that’s controversial lately. Apparently 101 is the new 100, or is it 21 is the new 20? It used to be 'does this wine produce frenzies of ecstasy or not?' I read online that Millennials are more into storytelling anyways. Homer would have done well with it, although he was always a little long-winded.

You’ll need to take a stance on minerality. Is it a myth? Bacchus only knows.

I’ve been told ladies are now welcome to write on wine. In my heyday they made better maenads, you should give it some thought – it might be more fun.

Now, please go have a cup of wine, and stop contacting me.



PS Bacchus says to tell you minerality is a real thing.

PPS Send my best regards to Jancis.



Is there a more pernicious creature in the vineyard at harvest time than a hungry bird? In Canada’s wine country, starlings have been a particular problem. I’d really never given them much thought until my husband and I bought a small organic vineyard in British Columbia’s sunny Similkameen Valley (pictured above) this past summer.

It’s a theme central to many pests of the vineyard: the introduced species gone awry. These voracious interlopers were introduced by a wealthy romantic, eager to populate New York with every bird mentioned in Shakespeare. This story at least has poetry, if just one line from Henry IV: I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak.

Having already tried sparrows and nightingales with varying success, in 1890 Eugene Schieffelin released 80 European starlings brought over from England into Central Park. Estimates say the current North American population is now close to 200 million.

Driving through the Similkameen, you can see flocks expand and contract in the sky like schools of fish as they swoop and then resettle on telephone wires, grape trellises, and hay fields. The districts of the Okanagan/Similkameen have found success with a programme to cull the starlings, which on an autumn day roam the sky in numbers large enough to traumatise Tippi Hedren. Not just connoisseurs of grapes, they also munch on apples, cherries and peaches.

My neighbours down the valley told me I’m lucky our vines are surrounded by orchards, as these birds are most attracted to large swathes of vineyard and congregate near them; I luckily avoid the hassle and expense of setting air cannons (which go off like clockwork from the higher benches at this time of year). Starlings pass by, but not in the numbers I see in the heart of wine country.

Birds have a sweet tooth, so a major perk of growing Chardonnay for sparkling wine is that we don’t need to attend to the hassle of the thousands of clips that attach bird netting. It’s just too sour to be appealing to them. There’s also a trap crop on the land that all the birds love: the early-ripening Summerland Rose table grapes.

The starling cull programme in our area involves capturing and then gassing the birds, a sad fate for these birds and their speckled oil-slick beauty. Critics say the cull’s a shame, as other species are caught along with the starlings, like the warbling yellow finches that visit the area, and our local robins. Despite the misgivings, the pilot project’s just been renewed for a further three years.

If a cull’s too extreme for some, what are the alternatives? How about a bird for a bird. Hawks terrify starlings: their work at the Vancouver International airport, to prevent aeroplane bird strikes, has captured the imaginations of local vintners. A hawk’s presence warns off the smaller birds, although it won’t put a measurable dent in their population. The Okanagan already has a good presence of raptors, like the red-tailed hawk and bald eagle, but for vineyards generally specialist firms are brought in with trained falcons and handlers.

Another alternative, perhaps not so worthy of reference to the Bard, is inspired by bird mitigation at waste sites (read: garbage dumps). Like vineyards, these areas are highly attractive to pest birds. Recordings of bird of prey calls, and of starling brethren in distress, have proven effective. Perhaps so, but definitely unpleasant to the ear; not something you’d want to measure your time with while working in the vines.

Every time I drive to the vineyard, I look forward to passing a telephone pole with a substantial hawk’s nest on top. As we continue to renovate our vineyard, I know what we’ll be installing before next spring: custom-made wooden bird boxes and platforms to attract more permanent residents.

Walking the vines, I come across piles of feathers where some visiting raptor has made a meal. The boxes, when placed in a high, clear area, should make a comfortable home for one of his local hawk friends. Time to pull out the hammer and saw, just in case some starlings see how perfect our neighbour’s cherries are. Didn’t Shakespeare say something about hawks and hand saws?