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Urban Cowboy: Cheers to this spring fling with Ontario Riesling wines

In this week's Urban Cowboy, Owen Roberts takes on a charitable reason to try some great Riesling.

For the past decade in Guelph, a sure sign that spring’s approaching is when Orest PoIuch and his team announce the date of the Ontario Consumers' Choice Riesling Challenge.

Admittedly, not everyone in the city sets their clocks by it. But to some wine aficionados -- especially those committed to superior Vinters’ Quality Alliance (VQA) Ontario wines – this event, a charitable taste-off among 15 or so Ontario Riesling producers, has come to be associated with the warming month of May.

Orest and Brenda LCBO Feb 2016Speedvale Ave. LCBO assistant manager Orest Poluch and the store's World of Wines - Ontario leader Brenda Graham-Davis.

Or as Poluch puts it, a Riesling “spring fling.”

No matter how much snow, ice and crappy weather we’ve endured, this event gives Ontario white wine fans and seasonally affected disorder sufferers alike hope that winter will finally wane. 

And at the same time, it supports a good cause. Most years, that’s been the Bracelet of Hope charity, the Canadian grassroots charity started by Guelph physician Dr. Anne-Marie Zajdlik, committed to ending the AIDS pandemic in Lesotho.

The Riesling Challenge has traditionally been held at the Scottsdale LCBO, where Poluch’s long been a successful product consultant (he was named VQA Promoter of the Year in 2011). He started the Riesling Challenge there when his manager urged him to find more uses for the then-new store’s under utilized tasting room. There was nothing else quite like it in the city, and the manager thought Guelphites needed a nudge to discover it.

Poluch considered VQA Rieslings – one of his favourite wines, one that Ontario is renowned for -- the perfect vehicle for open the room’s doors. So, he combined his commitment to the facility, his passion for Ontario Rieslings, and his support of good causes in Guelph, and the Ontario Consumers' Choice Riesling Challenge was born.

Here’s the drill. Patrons, who can be any LCBO customers, pay a $10 participation fee, which goes wholly towards the charity. For their donation, they are given tokens that they exchange for samples at various sampling stations featuring Ontario Rieslings -- such as Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery. Staff, a University of Guelph alumnus, says she’ll be on hand with her Loved By Lu and Fancy Farm Girl Frivolous White Rieslings.

Sue-Ann Staff and dogOntario Riesling winemaker and University of Guelph alumnus Sue-Ann Staff.

In the end, the dry and off-dry wines with the most tickets votes are crowned winners of the Ontario Consumers' Choice Riesling Challenge.

It’s pretty simple. But it’s also pretty important, all around.

Over the years, the LCBO has been roundly criticized by many people, including me, for offering more support to wines from abroad rather than from Ontario. The LCBO has responded by dedicating what it considers significant shelf space to smaller Ontario wineries. The province is also opening up new venues (such as farmers’ markets) for wine, and even making efforts to allow wine to appear on grocery store shelves. Just last week, it announced it would increase the choice and convenience for consumers, and support fruit wine and cider producers, by making fruit wine and cider, along with wine, available on the shelves of up to 300 independent and large grocery stores.

That’s not enough for some small Ontario wineries, who want their products to appear even more prominently in LCBO stores, and to be offered in corner stores. But it’s a long ways from the archaic, conservative situation we’ve faced forever in Ontario.

Poluch is truly an innovator with his Ontario Consumers' Choice Riesling Challenge. But this year’s 10th anniversary event, which will take place Saturday, May 28, from 1-4 p.m., might be his last hurrah. Poluch is no longer a product consultant, having been promoted to assistant manager. The LCBO tends to move people around when they get promotions. So this year the venue has been moved from the Scottsdale LCBO to the Speedvale LCBO, where Poluch now hangs his hat, and is pondering whether he’ll be able to continue fronting the Riesling event in his new role. 

 So when May rolls around, drop by the store at 378 Speedvale Ave. W. and say hello to Poluch. Get to know the store (you can certainly do that before May), see how it’s evolving, and participate in a uniquely Guelph experience. The Ontario Consumers' Choice Riesling Challenge is his legacy, this 10th anniversary event is a milestone, and overall it’s another opportunity to celebrate spring’s arrival.