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Picking Grapes with Liam “Li” Johnstone

In this edition, we get the local wine lowdown from the artist, wine-lover, and Bar Programmer/Manager at New West's Moodswing Bar.

Picking Grapes with Liam “Li” Johnstone

Picking Grapes is a Scout series that asks wine professionals to map out their complex relationships with British Columbian wines by citing the ignition point of their interest and some of their favourite wineries.

In this edition, we head out to New West to get the local wine lowdown from Liam “Li” Johnstone – artist, wine-lover, and Bar Programmer/Manager at Moodswing Bar.

What was the BC wine that you first fell in love with? Do you remember where you were? What were the circumstances?

This is a tricky one…but, in my mind I keep coming back to this bottle of the Roussanne Marsanne from Rigour & Whimsy – specifically, their 2018. The wine is doused with delicious and delicate smokiness from the fires that were happening during harvest. A good friend brought a bottle to a park just down the street, where we played chess and drank the whole thing in the sun, like the posh nerds we are. That bottle got me excited about wines in a new way. It happened around the same time we were talking about starting Moodswing, so it found me at the right moment. I have another bottle waiting in my fridge, itching for round two.

Rigour and Whimsy 4112 McLean Creek Rd, Okanagan Falls MAP

Autumn is here! Is there a local winemaker whose upcoming vintage you are most excited about, and why?

I’ll be honest: everyone – I think the BC scene is killin’ it. If I gotta narrow it down though, I’d say Ursa Major. Maybe I’m a lil biased as someone who is also very deep in a project of passion, but I think Rajen is making great wines. Each bottle I’ve been lucky enough to get my hands on feels like a thoughtful work of art with a narrative that opens up as you spend time with it. I also think the curation of a playlist to accompany a wine is thoughtful, and a joyful way of expanding the palette to one of the other senses. I’m excited to dip into the Black Sage Road Sessions.

Ursa Major Winery Keremeos Vineyard MAP

Supporting small BC businesses has become especially important these days. We know it’s challenging to narrow it down, but if you had to choose just three local wineries that you think are especially deserving of our attention, who would you choose?

Neon Eon, Ursa Major, and Thorn & Burrow. I feel like there’s lots I could say about each of these. They all feel a little punk rock in the best way possible, so this could be a really long story…but, to keep it clean and tell you the real “whys”: wine is a big game and all three are doing their own thing, creating some really exciting stuff that stands out in an ocean of great wines made by longstanding wineries and grape owners. My point of view is that the smaller the project, the more room there is to explore and be creative. Neon Eon supports local artists with their labels and makes bangin’ and juicy wines you can drink all night. Ursa Major is a dreamy passion project that makes wines that will transport you. Thorn & Burrow will impress you and make you forget what you were drinking before.

Neon Eon Wine West Kelowna MAP
Ursa Major Winery Keremeos Vineyard MAP
Thorn & Burrow Wines Abbotsford, BC MAP

Have the last few years reshaped your approach to buying, serving, and enjoying wine in any way? If so, how?

Our programming for Moodswing began just as the pandemic hit the West Coast, so in many ways our flow and approach has just changed pace. There was a lot of flexibility for our wine selection originally because it was just an off-sales fridge, so we basically just ordered what we were drinking and the stuff we thought would be kind of wild. Now that we have expanded to in-house service, it’s really been a matter of intentionality with what we know our food menu is looking like and what we think would be exciting to pair it with. We’re a pretty tight project, and running a dedicated cocktail program alongside a natty wine list has its tricky moments, so our approach to buying is pretty fluid. However, that intention really works for us. It allows serving and talking about our wines to be really fun and accessible, too. We’d love to run a page-long wine list one day, but keeping it pared down to things that we’re extremely excited about and know will harmonize with the happenings in the kitchen feels important right now.

Enjoying wine, on the other hand… every bottle is an event now. And it really feels like someone’s opened the blinds to a gorgeous day. Slowness really gifted me with a moment to reflect on the things that I really love about wine, and the things I was missing out on. Now I feel excited about continuing my journey with wine in-hand, and I wanna try all the crazy stuff.

What sort of changes, if any, do you think the local wine industry – from wine lovers and servers to the producers and distributors – might see over the next year or two?

I think sustainability is a core focus of our collective future moving forward, and has already had momentum building over the years when it comes to growing grapes. Biodynamic/natural wine making processes have become common table talk, and I don’t think it’s just trendy – I really think people want to support that. With that in mind, I’m wondering what these hotter and hotter summers are going to yield for producers and the decisions they will have to make as a result. When it comes to the wine lovers and server end of the equation, I think we will begin to see more co-ferments and piquettes. The way people were putting back the canned palomas this summer makes me think a piquette six-pack is on the horizon.

If you could work in just one local winery for just one harvest, which would it be and why?

You’re gonna think I’m just a fan girl, but Ursa Major for sure. Maybe it’s my background as an artist, or maybe I’m just a romantic, but his approach to winemaking feels quite special in how it comes from personal narrative and incorporates elements outside of the juice in the bottle as part of a curated experience. Not to mention, he’s producing with a deeply organic and sustainable ideology. Even the scale of his operation feels important in that way. His wines feel akin to short stories or short films, on top of reflecting a scale that feels like what sustainable practices should be like. These are the kinds of people that make up Moodswing; we’re all artists who just happen to work with food and drink, and want to land on an approachable and sustainable level of excellence and playfulness. When things really speak to us on a different level, we’ve practiced paying attention to that feeling. Maybe it’s just a feeling, but I think working with Rajen would be really, really cool.

Ursa Major Winery Keremeos Vineyard MAP

Can you recommend one local, emblematic-of-BC red wine for someone who didn’t even know that wine was made here? Why did you choose it?

I think what’s really cool about BC wine is the range we have – so many different approaches and ideas that create a wine market that feels like it’s accessible and delicious – it just becomes about which angle you come at it from. Neon Eon did a great Merlot recently; it’s deep and fruity, and tastes like a hike in the forest after a classic Vancouver rainy day.

Neon Eon Wine West Kelowna MAP

What about a white?

Scout does some great stuff, and I’d point my finger in their direction pretty quickly if someone asked for a rec. Fun, easygoing, and sustainable practices – they’re “it”. I even recall 33 Acres doing a co-ferment with them that was yummy. Their riesling is bright and crunchy with a nice minerality to it. Drink it. A great example of what a West Coast white wine can do when it’s truly working alongside the land.

Scout Vineyard Similkameen Valley, B.C MAP

And finally, a rose?

Technically not at all a rose, but Hodgepodge is a cool as hell collab between Keenan & Zoe and Creek & Gully Cider. Bubbz + apples + grapes? Honestly, it feels like a “nuff said” scenario. And I think it’s a great example of what we’re going to see more of from producers in the future!

Sage Hills Estate Winery & Vineyards 18555 Matsu Drive, Summerland MAP
Creek & Gully Cider 1053 Poplar Grove Rd. Penticton, BC MAP

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