According to Ernest Hemingway, “A bottle of wine was good company.” But for those craving a tad more company than that, a wine or cocktail club is worth considering. Take note: these aren’t the sleepy swirl-and-sip events of yore. There are disco records spinning on the turntables. And toddlers keeping tipplers on their toes. (Not all at the same event, thankfully.) And there isn’t a droning sommelier or stuffed-shirt in sight. Just a lot of fun and socializing while sipping wine and spirits. Read on for a few of our favourites. —Jill Von Sprecken
Joanna Owen and Stephanie Walker are bringing wine-tasting events to Vancouver in more ways than one—and each is more refreshingly charming than the last. “I come from London, U.K., where the pop-up scene is very prevalent,” says Owen. “It’s a part of Vancouver that doesn’t really exist.” Her own love for pop-ups and wine came together to create Stomping Grapes, a wine bar that pops up monthly in the Ellis Building on Main Street.
“It is essentially a wine-and-disco night,” Owen explains. “It’s very casual. People can mingle, and then later on in the evening people dance as well.” The wine list rotates, so each event has a fresh roundup of local, low-intervention (otherwise known as natural) wines. “We focus on smaller family-run wineries that have a good story behind them.”
For more structured, less disco-y, evenings, the pair also hosts long-table dinners that include wine pairings. And, finally, the Vin Van itself cannot be overlooked. The cheerfully revamped Boler camper van, named Vivian, has wine and will travel—to your private event or tasting.
“It’s a bit of a ‘yes’ space,” explains Stacey McLachlan, the mom and creative mind behind Witching Hour, a happy hour pop-up that caters to the under-five set—and their parents.
The idea sprung from McLachlan’s own desire to maintain a social life, with less of the stress that comes from toting toddlers. “My philosophy has always been to just bring Coco, my daughter, along for the ride,” she says. But sometimes that’s easier said than done. “You’re out for dinner with a friend, and you find yourself chasing your two-year-old across the bar to make sure they don’t put their finger in an electrical socket or ruin somebody’s first date.”
That got McLachlan thinking, and joking with friends, about a toddler-friendly bar. Then the aha moment: bring willing parents and tots, and a few supplies like baby gates and toys, to an existing bar. “Let us take over the space and bring our chaos with us,” she says.
The perfect, willing, candidate is Please! Beverage Co. in Vancouver, now host to the kid-friendly pop-up on a monthly basis. Tickets for the first event sold out quickly—as have the events following. “People are longing for the opportunity to feel like an adult,” says McLachlan. “Whether that’s a nice meal or a drink, alcoholic or otherwise, and not just have to watch Cocomelon and go to the Gymboree.”
Just like a fine wine, Toronto Vintners is steeped in history. The club was founded in 1975 by Ted Turner, a part-time actor and amateur winemaker, following a visit to a wine club in San Francisco. He decided to bring the concept to Toronto, so he put an ad in the paper—because that was what you did back then—attracting 150 wine enthusiasts. Et voilà! The rest is history.
“We’re the first in Toronto,” says Shauna Sexsmith, the club’s current president. “The longest continuing operating wine club in Toronto.” That history lends to the more traditional format: blind tastings featuring a particular region or varietal. But don’t be intimidated. “There’s absolutely no criteria for joining … you don’t have to be a wine geek. It’s no pressure. I wouldn’t say laid-back because we’re pretty excited; we’re an energetic bunch.”
Perhaps the biggest perk, aside from the obvious (sipping wine among friends and friendly strangers) is the buying, and cellaring, power. “We have a wine-buying committee,” Sexsmith explains. “We’ll sit on wines for a very long time, and then we’ll bring them out when we think they’re at, or near, their peak drinking window. I think it’s fantastic that somebody can sit down and taste a Bordeaux that’s 15 years old.” We’ll raise a glass to that.
It’s all about community, explains Martina Maude, creator of Maude Sips and a Vancouver transplant. “When you move anywhere, the big things that you do are drink and try to meet people, and this was a way to do that.” What started with a few people at her apartment quickly grew, as friends started bringing friends. “It’s just all evolved from there into this really fun little party. And it’s around the grapevine.”
The evenings are built around a theme, and tastings are done blind. Once everyone has wine in their glass, Maude facilitates a conversation that ranges from tasting notes to details about the winery. “Often a big thing that gets missed is who is making this wine,” she says. “Really basic tasting notes, I’m not necessarily going to remember that. But I’m probably going to remember that it’s from this woman who became the breadwinner for her family at age 19 when her father died, and she took over the vineyard. So I really dive into those stories.”
Rinse and repeat with five to six bottles, and add dinner. “After all the tastings happen we have a fuller pour, and it turns into a bit of a party.” In short: a great way to meet people and drink nice wine. As Maude says, “Seems like the only way I want to drink wine, to be honest.”