Two years ago we would be finishing the Vancouver International Wine Festival just before Dr. Henry closed down the province for COVID. Not knowing how COVID was spreading, we were lucky that COVID did not affect anyone at the Festival. We missed the Festival last year, and now we have the opportunity to experience the Festival. I am very excited about it, so I asked Harry Hertscheg the Executive Director to sit down via Zoom and talk to me about this, the 43rd annual VanWineFest, and what we can expect.
My Interview with Harry Hertscheg
Karl: How does it feel to be hosting the VanWineFest after 2 years on May 16-22?
Harry: Because I work on it year-round the Festival is a day-to-day experience of tackling the couple hundred deadlines. I take nothing for granted. Until this festival is over it hasn’t happened. People ask me on the Friday or Saturday of the Festival week, well you are almost there, you must be relieved that it is almost over. If we have 57 events, each one counts. You don’t give up the battle until every event is successful. The average person goes to 2 events. If that event is #54 or #56, you can’t go I’m 2/3 way there I can go on cruise control and daydream about my trip out of town. Until logistics work smoothly, everyone is happy, principals and agents and wines are there, and everyone gets home safely, it is not much of a relief until it is over. Interestingly one of the last large wine festivals in the world in 2020 was in Vancouver, which closed on March 1st. I thought what a relief that we dodged the bullet that COVID is over, but then I realized it is not over until 14 days after the Festival (due to COVID incubation period). I could have been phoned and asked why did I let 5 volunteers get COVID? (NOTE, nobody caught COVID at the Festival). I am so grateful (that nobody became sick). I will live in a state of focused anxiety until we get this Festival over in mid-May. I am excited for everyone except for me. You are only as good as your last show. I know we skipped a year, I am looking forward to it.
What were the main obstacles to arranging this year’s Festival, and how soon was it before you knew the Festival would go ahead?
The Festival is a process, so I wouldn’t describe it as a case of planning options a, b, c, and d. Anyone who has been projecting what is going to happen to COVID 6 months out is going to be wrong. Our approach has been to make sure that your garden is well looked after, your car is well-tuned, the roads are clear, you are driving safely, you are looking after your children and family, you are looking after your staff, and making sure that everything is ready to go. You go down a path and you make the right decision when you hit certain forks in the road. There was no one key point in time. It is all about how long can you have staff laid off? When you have an application process, cash flow, what do sponsors want?
We knew that the Festival wasn’t going to happen at the end of February. And the main point wasn’t just the respiratory season, it is because of the supply chain issues. Once I heard that the supply chain issues were so bad that the Festival may have to draw on Christmas stock, that is a path to being a very unpopular person having to say to agents and wineries, “You know all that stuff you wanted to sell for Christmas, could you hold some of that back for Feb?“. Supply chain issues are one of the biggest issues. In one of the changes this year, principles are not required to be in attendance. They are welcome, we encourage them, and they will get more profile.
This year is a stepping stone year to the future. Just make sure that we can get through it. South America was supposed to be our theme region this year. We don’t have a theme region or global focus this year. We are going to do it old school, keep it simple, one step in front of the other. Hopefully, South America can be a theme region in 2023. It takes a long time to get all the wines, the personalities, and principals together.
There wasn’t one point in time (we knew the Festival was really going ahead). One key point that makes the Festival real is March 2nd. We put tickets on sale for the Tasting Room and sales went very well. Second point, on March 9 we hope to announce the list of participating wineries. To me, that is, “we are selling tickets and there is a list of real wineries”, which will spell relief.
I only see the Super Pass and International Festival Tastings tickets listed online. April 6 is when public event tickets go on sale. When will events be shown online?
While the industry is being faced with supply chain issues, we are being affected by timeline change issues. Probably close to April 6. We tend to announce them together as we budget and organize them together. We don’t announce a few events at a time. It would be great if we could get it online by April 1. If I’m right, great. If I’m wrong, April Fools. Hopefully, in the last week of March, we might be able to squeeze the schedule out, but our timelines are so crunched. We did this annual thing with the Festival, so we could predict exactly what would happen on Nov 15. We would have it all mapped out. This year cross our fingers and hope like heck that we will get there.
Is there a winery or region you are excited to show this year?
We are welcoming our first winery from Georgia this year. It used to be a Republic of the Soviet Union.
Is there anything you can tell me about things like highlight wineries about the Festival, I know that you may not yet be able to.
The reason I can’t speak about specific wineries is that we are still talking with them and confirming that they are signed up. There are a lot of things I can tell you that are different. I mentioned that South America is not the theme region and there is no global focus. We are putting a spotlight on Vancouver’s vibrant food and wine culture. Really putting a focus on that this is the “Vancouver International Wine Festival”! Those are four words we want to focus on. It is what makes us special. We are not just about BC wines. We are about international wines. We usually have 14-16 countries. I believe will have 13 countries this year, including for the first time, Georgia. We are an international wine festival.
During COVID, downtown Vancouver has been really quiet. The restaurants have been suffering and many closed. Hotels have been quiet. So we are renewing our promotion with StayVancouverHotels.com. You can get a free International Festival ticket when you book a hotel in downtown Vancouver. It is also the May long weekend. I know lots of people head out of town. This though is a great opportunity for people on Vancouver Island, Victoria, Okanagan, the north, to come to downtown Vancouver. Great views, Stanley Park, and get a free ticket.
There will be an onsite BC Liquor Store. A reminder that one of the great things about having an onsite liquor store is you can buy any of the wines you tasted in the Tasting Room and wherever you live in BC, they will deliver it to your closest BC Liquor Store. That is a great service. Because of the pandemic and supply chain issues, we cut the requirements of wines that we need from wineries in half so the tasting room capacity is based on the capacity of wines we have. The tasting room will be at 50% capacity. There will never be so much elbow room at this year’s Festival tasting. For those like you and me that want that extra interaction time with the wineries, and people-watching part, that will be fantastic. There will be fewer wineries, about 100. We usually have 140-160 wineries. This means we will have more space between the tables, and more elbow room. We are still having the Bacchanalian dinner and auction; 11 wines, 5 courses, raising funds for Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, except it will be on a Tuesday night, May 17.
I think there is a lot to look forward to. We have never been in May before. It will be beautiful outside. What a great time to taste a lot of wines. What I really miss from the pandemic is interacting with knowledgeable people about wine, and tasting dozens of wines. We will also be doing seminars and dinners. There will be fewer events, around 25-30. The Festival is still a week long. People can taste just as much wine. Spend as much time tasting wine as they did at any other Festival; rather than have a choice between 3-4 events, there may only be 1 or 2, but the events are still there. You can still taste wine. The average attendee only goes to about two events. There is plenty to choose from.
Is there anything else you would like to tell my readers?
I do get asked about the safety measures. We will adopt whatever the Vancouver Convention Centre and the health officer require us to do. One of the things that I am looking forward to, even though only half as many people can go, is that people come with a positive attitude and are ready to go. If someone has been locked in their home for the past two years and isn’t ready to go to a restaurant, they are probably not ready to go to the Wine Festival. At the Festival Tasting Room, you will be there with 1500 wine tasters. If that scares you, you should stay home. Leave a ticket to someone who is excited to attend and comfortable with that situation. We will all be as safe as we can. We will not have space bubbles in the Tasting Room. If people are comfortable going to restaurants, we will have winery dinners. If they are comfortable in a room tasting wine with some separation (e.g. a seminar), then maybe that is for them. In the Tasting Room, we will try to be as normal as possible. I don’t want a tasting room with chairs and everything being 6 ft apart but we will do that if required. I would like it to be as normal as possible. That is what people want. I hope that the people that come to the Tasting Room come with an open mind and an open palate. There won’t be an Eiffel Tower and 160 wineries, but it is an important stepping stone to getting to where we need to be. I appreciate everyone’s support and positive attitude coming to the Festival this year.
Thanks for your time to talk with me, Harry.