Saturday, November 7, 2020

A Case of Questions with Chuck Byers, Canadian Wine Journalist & Television Producer

From the land that gifted us Alanis Morissette, Ryan Reynolds, Wayne Gretzky and the indomitable maple syrup comes the blog's latest interviewee.

Chuck Byers, who ended up in Canada by way of Malta, has had a passion for wine since 1972 when a friend introduced him to a vintage bottle that is still in his possession, albeit empty. Following some preliminary studies in wine, Chuck jumped head in, penning a popular newspaper column on our favorite beverage and working on a series of local television shows titled Wine Companions, Wine Talk and Wine Dining. It's been a steady climb up since then, both as a wine writer and television producer, authoring books left and right and setting up many series covering far-flung wine regions in Canada, Europe and beyond. Chuck is a proud member of Canada's Wine Writer's Circle and the Circle of Wine Writers in the UK, and has been fortunate enough to visit us here on The Rock as part of his adventures in wine.

What does our first Canadian guest have to say about Cypriot wine? Find out below!

Why wine?

I got into wine for all the wrong reasons. I was working in an office and felt that I needed some form of raison d'être to impress my fellow workers. Keep in mind this was the early 70's and the “James Bond Era” was in full swing. I wanted to have a “shaken not stirred” persona. So, what better way to get “noticed” than to become known as a knowledgeable wine person? I purchased a book by New York wine columnist Terry Robards and read and reread it! I began purchasing wine from the Rare Wine Store and studying each bottle. My attempt to become “impressive” backfired in a way since I found out that wine was more than just a beverage. Wine was history, geography, science and culture and, most of all, wine was indicative to humanity. I became intrigued with the many aspects of wine in history and each bottle developed a whole profile in that what I was holding in my hands had living, historical and geographical significance. I was “hooked.”

When I open a bottle of wine, I realize the labour that went into making it: the dreams of the winemaker and the people and region it comes from. I also think of the time aspect of when it was made! What was going on in its world at the time and also what was going on in my world. So much to ponder and reflect. A good example is Cyprus. When I taste a Commandaria, visions of Richard the Lion Heart spring to mind such as the events leading up to his wedding on the island. I also think of the massive history of Cyprus and its people. Aphrodite, ancient history and Achilles. There is so much involved with wine that one can never know it all and that is what I love most about wine. Always a discovery!

First wine that really captured your attention? How old were you?

My first foray into wine and one that certainly captured my attention was when I was seven years old. I had been a fan of pirate movies and always saw them gulping down copious amounts of wine. My mom had a bottle of red wine on the table getting ready for some celebration and I snuck a huge gulp. I ran to the washroom and spat the harsh, mouth-puckering beverage out into the sink and wondered what all the fuss was about. I never tried wine again (albeit a bit of sacramental wine, which was quite sweet) for a few years.

All-time favorite bottle of wine?

In much of my writing I have always contended that atmosphere was about 75 percent of the contributor when it comes to enjoying wine. The “all-time” favourite and memorable wine was a simple bottle of Yago, wrapped in a burlap bag, some 40 years plus ago. I remember coming home from work on the afternoon of a beautiful sunny day. Upon entering my home, I was greeted with the smell of a beef stew that my wife was making at the time. On the television was a movie called King's Pirate. I opened the bottle and cut up some crusty bread and helped myself to the stew. It was divine.

The wine was not even close to being expensive but, to truly be memorable, all the parts have to come together. I have tasted some of the world's best, and make no mistake about it, they are superb wines. However, while the quality does impress in an esoteric way, true memorable experiences have a combination of factors that make them so!

A postscript to this is a time that I was visiting my in-laws in Malta. My brother-in-law took us to a seaside restaurant. The evening was perfect and my meal was a mushroom smothered filet mignon. We laughed and enjoyed each other's company and the bottle of La Valette red wine was absolutely perfect with the meal. Again, the wine was not one of great price or reputation but it was so perfect for that evening. Enough said!

Favorite wine-producing region? Why?

Very difficult to say which is my favourite since each region has its specialties. I loved Umbria's Montefalco region for its superb Sagrantino grape and the super cuisine, as well as the beauty of the countryside. Malta is my home country and of course I have a liking for its wine. Cyprus comes close to being one of my most favourite areas. Anyone who has experienced the Troodos Mountains knows what I mean and of course the ancient grape varieties are amazing. So many regions and so many wines!

I guess if I had to pick my favourite I would have to pick a tie between the Similkameen Valley of British Columbia and Prince Edward County in Ontario. The Similkameen Valley is unique as it is part of the northern extension of the Sonoran Desert and Canada's only desert area. It has many superb wineries that produce concentrated red wines and delicious white wines. Canada's answer to Burgundy is Prince Edward County, which relishes its Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc varieties.

However, truly, I say every region I have been to around the world has its own uniqueness that cannot be emulated elsewhere. Anyone who has tried a Cypriot red Maratheftiko or white Xynisteri from Cyprus knows what I mean. Then there are the superb wines from Nova Scotia where French hybrids show that they can make some of the best wine anywhere. The Marechal Foch from wineries such as Jost Vineyards has to be tasted to truly understand their potential. Up and coming are the wines of Prince Edward Island and anyone who has visited the Eastern townships of Canada's Quebec Province knows of the breathtaking scenery and fine wine. Then of course is Portugal with its historic regions and wines. Every wine region in every country has its special places.

Visiting Hadjiantonas Winery in Limassol

Your favorite food-and-wine pairing?

Nothing beats a large fillet mignon and a bold Syrah or Malbec. I have enjoyed it with many wines but I love that combination. My meat is medium cooked and the wine with at least five years of age! The delicious blending of wine and meat is heavenly. As a runner-up, I love salmon fillet with Pinot Noir either from Prince Edward County or Niagara.

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

The only thing that is missing is probably a price point to make it marketable around the globe. I fully support the trend of wineries moving toward their “indigenous” grape varieties. These ancient grapes are worthy of saving. I have also been impressed with the use of cosmopolitan varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In fact, when I was last in Cyprus, I went to a winery called Tsiakkas and tasted a super Merlot that was so concentrated that it had me fooled. However, globally, there is a flood of Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay in the market. It would be nice if more of the indigenous wines were able to make it to market. The beginning would be or could be if the wines were in demand locally. Visitors to the island need to know that these wines exist and thus can develop a taste for them. Education here is the key. Personally, I love Cypriot wines and food!

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry?

This pandemic tragedy has not been kind to any country with wine. So the road up will be even more difficult. The financial situation in Cyprus also is a factor. At this point Cyprus must reach out and educate those wine writers about its wine and cuisine. When the pandemic is lessened and people start traveling more, writers must be encouraged to write about the great wines and cuisine of Cyprus. I would be more than willing to encourage those to come down. To save the country money, I would suggest that a cost sharing model be encouraged with writers such that they pay for their air travel expenses while Cyprus covers the land portion. Fair. Unless a massive form of education takes place, I fear that not only Cypriot vineyards will suffer, but also all vineyards around the globe will suffer with the small wineries being affected first.

What Cypriot wine would you match with grilled halloumi, The Rock’s greatest contribution to mankind?

Fikardos’ blend of Mataro and Cabernet rosé would be a nice match. For more of an indigenous taste, I would have rosés from Tsiakkis, Zambartas and Ezousa. While a Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc or Xynisteri would go well, I would think that a rosé would fill my bill! Light, refreshing and a nice acidity to cut through the cheese’s creaminess. 
I smell Maratheftiko
What do you enjoy most about your work in the food & wine world?

Of course, I love the travel and meeting new and interesting people, as well as making lifelong friends with those I meet. It is the endless or seemingly endless types of wine and varieties of grapes that has kept my interest in wine going. No one can call him or herself an expert since that entails knowing everything about the subject but there is so much and, after some 40 years, I find that I have merely scratched the surface on the subject. Food is also in that genre since never have I visited a place or country and been bored with the same old. It is this endless variety that keeps my mind moving forward. I would care to say that I do not believe I will ever reach the summit of completeness even if I lived for five lifetimes.

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why?

You do ask very open questions since I have met so many that I like. My mentor was the late great Alex Eberspaecher who was a great writer/consultant in travel, food and wine. He inspired me to move forward and took me under his wing. Alex will always be the one who made me “jump” from merely writing about wine to living it.

One of my favourites has always been Canadian author and columnist Tony Aspler. I have followed his exploits and his writings. The author who I began studying wine “with” was one I never met or spoke to. Terry Robards was the columnist for the New York Times and wrote a book aptly called “New York Times Book of Wine.” This was and will always be the book that I “cut” my teeth on. I read and reread his book until I could almost quote it from memory. I can say without a doubt that, other than Alex, he is my favourite personality. I have had the pleasure of meeting so many wine personalities but the above two or three were the ones who influenced me the most.

Any embarrassing episodes involving spilled wine, corkscrews, sommeliers or drunken behavior?

Ah! Yes many! My most embarrassing was many years ago when I was starting out and “feeling my oats”! I was new to the wine field and had a bit of knowledge, which can be very dangerous! I went to a wine tasting at one of Toronto's famous residences called Casa Loma. It was built in castle form at the turn of the 20th century and now was a historic place to visit, as well as hold special events. I arrived somewhat early but found my way to a room that was all prepared with wine buckets and wine bottles out on tables. There was staff preparing tables with bread and butter, etc. So, I wandered around and felt that I could grab a glass and begin tasting; after all, I was invited and was a wine aficionado! I poured a small bit of wine in the glass, smelled, swirled, smelled, sipped, slurped and then spat the wine into one of the buckets. I saw a number of people looking at me funny and one of them who looked very official came over and asked me what I was doing.

“I am here for the tasting,” I said rather indignantly.

“Sir,” came the response, “You are in the wrong room! This is a wedding party. You are tasting the bride's wine and spitting into the flower bucket!” Red-faced, I slid away quickly like the snake I felt like!

On another occasion, I was supposed to give a seminar to a group of restaurateurs. Just prior to going, I accidentally fell and injured my ribs to the point of being in great pain. I did not want to cancel my seminar so I obtained some muscle relaxants from my wife and went. By the time I got there I was feeling no pain but unfortunately my whole bodily functions were compromised. I was demonstrating the proper way to uncork a bottle using a two-pronged wine steward called Ah-So, which one would slide between bottle and cork. I ended up splitting the bottle and causing a mess. Obviously, I never charged the owner for the seminar! Things happen but we use these as learning situations.

Of course, your all-time favorite Cypriot (or other island) wine?

I love Maratheftiko. The wine has an interesting history and has a very interesting way of propagation. Unlike most vines, it cannot fertilize itself when kept with its own species or variety of vines. Thus, it needs to be grown with other species in order to fulfill its destiny. I find the wine flavourful and concentrated but with a great elegance. I have tasted some older wines made from this grape and found them to be capable of some maturation. The colour can be ruby to purple with cherry and violet on the bouquet. Depending on the winemaker, the wine can have other attributes such as vanilla, oak spice, etc.

You can reach Chuck via his blog and on Facebook or Twitter.