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Harry Hertscheg wants visitors of the Vancouver International Wine Festival (VIWF) to simply close their eyes and revel in the aroma and flavour of good quality wines. “Give sight and sound a break. Just smell it and taste it – let it be an emotional thing,” said Hertscheg, executive director of the VIWF Society, which produces the popular annual event. “Shut your brain off and just be a part of the action.”

Hertscheg first attended the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, the precursor to VIWF, in 1987.

Back in 1979. the festival began as a fundraiser for Vancouver’s Playhouse Theatre Company. The first event was a single supplier tasting of Robert Mondavi wines, growing to feature multiple wineries from California in 1982. The first multi-national event was in 1987.

“This could be your only chance to taste some of these wines.”

Harry Hertscheg, Vancouver International Wine Festival Society

Fast forward to the pre-COVID-19 years, when the festival regularly attracted 25,000 attendees and stretched over eight days with 55 separate events. Hertscheg says the show is gradually building back to those numbers. He projected that the 45th annual show, being held Feb. 24 to March 3, 2024, at the Vancouver Convention Centre and other venues, will hit about 85 per cent of 2020 attendance numbers; the 2020 event concluded prior to Vancouver’s COVID-19 lockdown.

This year, VIWF will feature 149 wineries from 12 countries, including 71 vintners from the featured country, Italy. In total, the program includes 42 events at 23 different venues over eight days. Thirty-two events are open to the public, while the remainder are trade-only, catering to industry professionals. The kick-off Bacchanalia Gala Dinner + Auction is a fundraising event for Bard on the Beach, the festival’s chosen performing arts charity.

The format has been so successful that VIWF made it onto the Wine International Association’s list of top wine trade shows for 2024.

Under Hertscheg’s leadership, the VIWF Society has three mandates: provide an informative, educational and entertaining wine experience for public and trade; be a premier marketing opportunity for the wine industry and festival partners; and raise funds for the city’s performing arts community. Its staff grows from two full-time and three part-time members year-round to a team of 25 leading up to the event.

“There is such an appetite to grow this show,” Hertscheg said. “It started with one winery, and we have built relationships over the years. One thing that really developed the festival is that Vancouver is close to California. It became the first international market for California wines. Vancouver is also a port town. If you look at Toronto and Montreal, those markets are dominated by France and Italy. But Vancouver being an outlier, we were the go-to place for Chile, Australia and New Zealand. We built a market where countries can compete on a level playing field.”

As the festival has grown, its program has expanded to include a week of consumer wine-related events, including winery dinners, lunches, mingles and the International Festival Tastings, which will feature nearly 800 wines from around the world. Festival-goers can purchase wines they like at the onsite BC Liquor Store. Of all the wines offered on the tasting floor, three-quarters are not usually in the marketplace, so the festival provides an excellent opportunity for wine connoisseurs to stock their cellars.

“This could be your only chance to taste some of these wines,” said Hertscheg. “These wineries bring their good stuff. The number one reason people attend our show is to discover new wines.”

He says this year’s featured country, Italy, will be well represented. “People don’t know much about Italy – each region has its own grapes and its own history of making wine,” Hertscheg said. As well, he says 29 local wineries will be on hand to showcase B.C.’s best wines.

Spotlight on the wine trade

VIWF is also well-known for its Trade Days, which bring global wine industry professionals together for networking, learning, an awards ceremony and two trade tastings. In 2024, the Trade Days will run from Feb. 28 to March 1.

“Those days are all about the industry, including master classes, seminars and a Principals Welcome Lunch which every rep of every winery must attend, plus participating agencies, sommeliers and other trade members – it’s a very important lunch,” said Hertscheg. “The tasting room opens after that lunch. Trade buyers get an hour’s head start, then the rest come in at 2:30 p.m.”

While there’s no doubt VIWF is an important off-season economic driver for the City of Vancouver with the tasting rooms generating $400,000 to $500,000 on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday alone, Hertscheg says the show’s true value is found in the connections it fosters.

“Festivals are an amazing way to build community and connect people,” he said. “And a trade show is a great way for people in the industry and the business to connect. You are building your brand and making important social connections with people. Wine is one of the great civilizing things that connects people over a meal together.”

After each festival, he asks himself if the show was better than the previous year’s in some way. “I’ve always been able to say yes,” he said. “We have tried new and different things to keep it fresh. Last year, our theme was South America. We’d never done a continent before. We had four participating countries in a continental theme.”

Looking ahead, Hertscheg says he is focused on how to engage the next generation. “We need to make it fun for young people. We rely on volunteers,” he said.

Three people clinking wine glasses

Since it was founded, VIWF has grown organically, one connection at a time.

“The festival has grown together with the community; it embraces consumers and the trade,” said Hertscheg. “We combined the two and have done it well – we have the excitement of community-building alongside a trade festival. What ties it all together is the sensory experience: wine is the number one thing for the art of smell and taste.”

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