Sometimes it takes a witch to make wine more fun.
Part consultancy, part event designers, part mobile party service, part Dionysian coven, Nicole Campbell and Krysta Oben are the Grape Witches, a Toronto-based many-headed hydra of natural wine appreciation and art-party fun. Featured extensively in publications like Vice, Bartender Atlas, and the new Pipette Magazine, Grape Witches' work feels so very of the moment—an incredibly exciting new moment indeed for natural wine lovers in Canada, set to play host to its first-ever RAW Wine Fair later this fall in Montreal.
The Witches' zeitgeist-y buzz Includes events on boats, at bat mitzvah's (no seriously), and yes, an event happening this very evening—Thursday October 11th—where they'll be at Hot Docs, North America's largest documentary film festival. Sprudge co-founder Jordan Michelman caught up with Oben and Campbell during a brief breath from the madness.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Hello Grape Witches! Describe your work in miniature—who are you? What do you do? What don't you do.
We host educational wine events and parties across Canada, championing natural and low intervention wine from around the world. We have both worked in wine forever—Nicole importing and Krysta as a sommelier—and we wanted to share what we most loved about wine (and particularly natural wine) with people outside of our industry.
We tell a lot of stories and jokes. We describe flavors in unconventional ways. We pair wine with music, feelings, and seasons. We celebrate forgotten regions and small producers in places you wouldn't expect like warehouses, bowling alleys, and pizza garages. We don't do sponsored parties. Everything we choose or represent is something we authentically love, stand behind, and pay for. Ultimately we want to host events that we would want to go to.
Talk to us about your recent #gwofthecaribbean event—where did the boat go? How many people came? What wines did you pour?
GW of the Caribbean stands for Grape Witches of the Caribbean and was our 500-person natural wine booze cruise aka the largest natural wine party on a boat ever (we think).
We love using Grape Witches as a vehicle to be creative and make cool things happen for our community. Toronto has a harsh winter and the summer brings an excitement and fire to the city. We wanted to throw a summer rager with the best natural wine and a boat cruise seemed perfect. We were like, “What if we created Breaker High, but with great wine!” [Ed. note: Breaker High was a sort of Degrassi-on-a-boat Canadian teen melodrama from the late 90s.] We immediately fell into an internet hole searching for the perfect boat and a boat that would let us replace the typical booze cruise cheap swill with interesting wines served by our own staff of wine freaks and sommeliers.
WE TALKED TO SO MANY CAPTAINS. They were all like “lol no.” And then we discovered the River Gambler. Not only is the name clearly fantastic, but the owner, Captain John, loves wine. After initial skepticism, we convinced him to rent his 500-person two-floor cruiser to us on a Monday having no idea if we could sell out even half of it. The response was amazing, we sold out, hired all of our friends we admire (we profiled a bunch here), and lined the boat with as many bars and nice people as possible. We poured 10 wines we love by the glass. Our goal, as always, was to highlight some of our favorite natural producers, while also offering accessible prices. Some favorites included our hero Elisabetta Foradori, cute-as-pie Brand Brothers of Weingut Brand, Sicilian dream-pop Lamoresca and Loire-star Domaine Bobinet.
Talk to us about tonight's collaboration with Hot Docs — what's your approach pairing with with film? What can thirsty viewers expect?
Wine can be an insular place. There are lots of regions and shared vocabulary that make it intimidating. That sucks. We love any excuse to show smart people interested in nice things that wine doesn't need to be like that. Hot Docs is an institution in Toronto celebrating documentary films. One of our favorite ways to demystify wine is to describe flavor as an emotion, idea, character, piece of clothing, moment of time. We are taking some of our favorite classic films and picking our favorite clip. We are pairing that iconic clip with its flavor, maker, place. Does the makeover scene in Clueless taste like Claus Preisinger‘s Pusztah Libre, free of the chains of childhood, but destined to be defined by a certain frivolous deliciousness that does not make it less complex? Does Carrie‘s prom reckoning carry the unbridled power of an undisgorged pét-nat with the chance of mouse taint? Our approach, as always, is following our intuition, making ourselves laugh and sharing something we care about.
The natural wine scene in Canada is shit hot right now—especially in Montreal and Toronto—with all these good bars and exciting winemakers. It seems like a magical time to be into wine and living in your part of the world. Does it feel that way to you in the middle of it all?
It is pretty great, Sprudge. We've been in this game a long time, and there has never been a better time to be a wine lover in Canada. We are adding Vancouver, Calgary, and Halifax to the mix—shout out Juice Bar, Juice Imports (lol we like juice here okay?), and Nicole at Little Oak. The natural wine community is this tiny bubble of open-minded people trying to make something they believe in. We have been lucky to travel around Canada eating, drinking, and hosting events, and the enthusiasm across the country is super exciting. We have a ton of laws for each province that make access a challenge, but importers are finding a way. Beyond our community in Canada, the international community is a treasure to be a part of. MORE!
Your website touts a willingness to throw parties at a variety of unconventional settings, including “Bat/Bar Mitzvahs! Weddings! Meditation circles! Sweet 19s! “—what have been some of your most unique and memorable events to date?
We have done so many!
-Belated Bat Mitzvah for Nicole—yes, her mom was there—pairing wine with biblical figures
-Annual party celebrating our favorite wines with animals on the bottle—animal wines have historically been trash and we greatly support the natural wine trend Taking Back the Animal
-Much Music Video Dance Party in a warehouse pairing wine with 90s bangers (lol it was the best)
-Party installation at the Vancouver Art Gallery (we're Artists™!)
-Many a pizza party
-Also so many private events for anything from bachelorettes (but like, for cool creatives!) to education sessions for leaders of financial institutions (we made a lot of financial planning jokes)
-Would do almost anything! As always, we welcome you to slide into our DMs with top wine party ideas.
Your website offers a service: “Yelling at You Till You Stop Drinking McDonalds Wine”—but we don't understand. There is wine at McDonald's in Canada??
Lol basically! We describe the most widely available conventional wines as McDonalds Wines. We don't mean it to offend those wines, sometimes it is 3:00am or you just went through something and you need a McFlurry. We support you, your choices, and budget. We all know that McDonald's always tastes the same, is always cheap, and is not great for you all the time. In the same way high production wines like Yellowtail, Cupcake, and Apothic are extremely consistent, cheap, and loaded with sugar, stabilizers, and additions. The problem is that big wineries co-opt the language of small wineries and it is super hard to know as a consumer what is real wine made from a real farmer and what is a Grape Beverage as there are no label requirements. As labels don't help, and big wineries spend millions acting like small companies, we want to yell about real wines as loud as we can. It isn't that larger production wines are never okay—price and accessibility are huge here—we just want to empower consumers to have the choice.
What role does the LCBO play in the psychosphere of Torontonian wine?
We love Canada very much—come visit!—but we do have some crazy liquor laws, most a vestige of prohibition. Every province is essentially a different country. In Ontario, there are two stores consumers can buy wine. One is the LCBO, the Liquor Control Board of Canada, a crown corporation reporting to the finance minister of Canada. It is one of the world's largest alcohol buyers and as such most producers it features are very big by nature of supply needs, marketing budgets, etc. We often compare only shopping at the LCBO as the equivalent to only buying your groceries at Costco. Like yeah, you can eat strawberries, but you have not had the transformative experience of wild strawberries from a farmer's market. A small selection of interesting wines hit do hit the LCBO shelf—we feature a weekly pick on our IG—but some weeks it is rough. The only other place to buy bottles of wine as a consumer is the Wine Rack, which is owned by Arterra, Canada's largest and most McDonald's of wineries. Again, this isn't to demonize them, but to say these are extremely manipulated wines, lots of residual sugar, very large production.
SOUNDS HORRIBLE RIGHT. I mean, it's pretty bleak. The ray of sunshine in Ontario is the consignment program aka where all good restaurants buy their wines. Basically there is another channel where restaurants can buy nice wine from around the world by the case through importers. Ontario is the only province in Canada where consumers can also buy cases at wholesale prices directly from importers. This is a rare gift! Many people don't know about this third and best way to access nice wine in Ontario and we are always yelling about it and sharing where we bought our party selections. Our dream of course would be to sell individual or mix-cased bottles of these wines, but that is currently illegal.
You once threw a “wine seance rave”—whom did you summon? What “rave music” did you play or was it more of a reinterpretation of the rave as event phenomena?? Did you have glowsticks?
We have included real life witches who have invoked energy, led our guests in intentional-setting spells, and done beautiful and strange performances. We've also featured lots of amazing witchy women, from visual artists to tarot card readers. We love the mystical element of biodynamics and agriculture and wanted to invoke this with our parties. Our first parties were draped in velvet, lace, old branches, and filled with dry ice. No glow sticks, but plenty of neon light, dancing, and letting go of the way you are supposed to act at a wine event. We never want to be kitschy and our parties keep evolving, but what remains is always trying to challenge expectations and make a nice transformative time.
The world is ending and you can go to one more wine bar. Which one is it?
Septime in Paris is pretty hard to beat. We spill onto the streets, take up smoking and buy a last tote bag, for heaven.