2020 Here I Come

When I was growing up, I thought that we’d all be driving flying cars by the time the year 2020 arrived. Other than the occasional Tesla, it’s still grounded petrol-powered vehicles everywhere.

I also never would have thought that by 2020 I’d have published a book about wine – “Valleys of Wine”. Somehow, it happened. And as of next April, I will have my name on another book, the 6th edition of John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide.

At the moment, I am procrastinating from completing my comments on the final edits. Because I own 3 previous editions of this very book (as well as at least 10 other books by John), I catch myself reading it with the same wine fanboy reverie that I’ve had for the past two decades instead of doing what I’m supposed to be doing, which is a search-and-destroy mission for typos, grammatical no-no’s, errant punctuation, or other literary faux-pas of which anyone is capable when writing about wine. This is the last chance to make changes and if anything gets through at this stage, we have to live with it just like I have to live with the couple of goofs that I’ve caught recently in “Valleys of Wine”.

So why bother typing this out instead of focusing on the task at hand?

Because books like this always seem to get me excited about the wine industry that we have here in BC. Though this one focuses on the Okanagan Valley, there are other regions lumped in as well. It should really be thought of as a book about wineries in the interior rather than just the Okanagan because it does include wineries in other places, like Kamloops, Creston, and Nakusp (spoiler alert) among others. After spending the past 5 years of my creative life looking backwards at the history of BC’s wine industry, it’s exciting to me to be looking forward for once.

There is a lot to look forward too. It seems that there is a book renaissance happening now with the publication of many amazing books about wine and culinary topics. If one of your resolutions is to read more, 2020 is not going to disappoint you with a bad selection of available books. Though I’m still going through my stack of books that I’ve had to hold off on reading while I’ve been writing over the past couple of years, I am finding myself distracted with all kids of amazing volumes. Shane M. Chartrand and Jennifer Cockrall-King’s book “Tawâw” is a stunning cookbook. (It’s cool to just read a cookbook, right?) And I can’t wait for the upcoming release of Jennifer Schell’s new book, “The BC Wine Lovers Cookbook” which, based on her previous books (like “The Butcher, The Baker, the Wine and Cheese Maker”), means this is going to be on a whole other level of amazing.

Kevin Begos’s “Tasting the Past” is probably the most important wine book I’ve read in a long time and I highly recommend that every wine lover read it cover to cover. The reason? It will totally reset your point of view regarding why we assume that particular grape varieties (i.e. the “Vitis Vinifera Greatest Hits” varieties like Merlot, Chardonnay, et al) as being the de facto kings and queens of the wine world. Suddenly after reading it, the hegemony of the European grapes in the world of wine as we know it today doesn’t seem so secure anymore. Maybe there are other grape varieties that are perhaps less “noble” (a very European aristocratic term) but can still produce quality wines if grown in the right place. Perhaps growing these “noble” European grapes in every corner of the world capable of growing grapes is never going to make great wine in any of them and that we are missing the point by trying? Maybe we should be looking for what grows there naturally and accept it rather than trying to shoehorn a grape variety into a terroir where it clearly doesn’t belong and has no chance? These are the questions that Begos poses throughout his book and it is zeitgeist-altering to say the least.

Suffice to say that the literary landscape for wine lovers is looking pretty good for 2020. With recent releases proffering some amazing new thoughts on our industry in light of things like climate change, technology (new and old), and the increasing focus on buying local first, it’s great to see that Google hasn’t totally been able to quantify our thoughts into its algorithms. Even blogs (*gasp*) don’t hold the keys to unlimited casual insider knowledge that they once (may) have had. It is comforting that books like this are still being released and hopefully, they will be taken a lot more seriously than a page of search results or social media memes.

Of course, when it finally does happen, I will first in line to hover-convert my Subaru and I will read a book while I wait for the mechanics to finish.

Valleys of Wine

With my book “Valleys of Wine” at a book signing at River Stone Estate Winery.

Hello BC wine lovers in BC Wine-Lover Land!

This is my first post in over a year and a half. Writing this seems a little bit weird given all of the changes that have happened to me over the past few years. Aside from some significant personal changes, my book, “Valleys of Wine” has now been published and is available for sale at many fine retailers in the Okanagan and online! While we’re on that topic, let’s start with it.

Valleys of Wine

The day that it arrived – October 24, 2019.

This is the first published comprehensive history of the wine industry in BC since Alex Nichol’s book “Wines and Vines of British Columbia” in 1983. It took 5 years from start to finish and represents a lot of primary research with interviews and snooping around public archives across BC. When I was in the thick of writing it, I described the process of writing a non-fiction book as “studying a full grown tree from the roots to the branches with a microscope and then writing about a single leaf”.  There were so many interesting tangents that I started to follow that could have been included but in the end, were not entirey relevant to the topic. As it is, the first draft of the manuscript was 174,000 words. My editor Charlene Dobmeieir  gracefully paired it back to 140,000 and fine-tuned that focus a little more. Robin Mitchell Crendfield’s book design made it look beautiful, professional, and something that would look great among other wine books on the shelf.

Aaron at work back in the day.

The book arrived at my house on October 24th, which is not an insignificant day for me as it was the 4th anniversary of the passing of a dear friend of mine, Aaron Olfert, who started Wine Country BC with me.  The book is also dedicated to him and for it to arrive on the anniversary of his passing was not lost on me. I am always thankful for the hours of podcasts that I have on this blog that contain his voice. I listened to them now and then whenever I would get stuck on writing a particular part because he was one of those people that could take something complicated like wine and explain it simply. Aaron knew that I was writing this book and we talked about it when I saw him the day before he passed.

I presented a copy to Steven Spurrier, who was speaking at Okanagan College.

I’ve been very lucky to have some great people write articles about the book’s release and some of the events that I’ve done around promoting it;

Wine rep extrordinaire Noelle Starzynski reads through it…

Gonzo Okanagan (by Roslyne Buchanan)

InWine (by Jennifer Schell)

Summerland Review (by John Arendt)

Kelowna Now (by Laura Milnes)

I have done a few casual talks about it through the past couple of months and even a tasting seminar at the BC Wine Information Centre (which featured some historically important wines).

Amber Pratt, frequent star presenter from Wine Country BC’s podcasting days, with a mystery magnum of sparkling wine.

Unfortunately, the book arrived just a couple of weeks after I had finished my short course on BC wine history at Okanagan College, where it would have made a perfect textbook. That course is something that I look forward to teaching every year and features a more involved historical tasting which clearly shows just how far the industry has come.

A common question that comes to me is, “What is the next book going to be about?” To which I reply, “We shall see.”

Misty Rose Prisma DJ’d the official book launch party at Mile Zero Wine Bar in Penticton (aka My Happy Place).

This Site

Former podcast guest Valerie Stride (aka The Demystified Vine) with V.o.W.

While I had planned (and started) to update this site by changing its format slightly, I have retained my original WordPress site. I really missed writing about the wines, wineries, and people that I have been meeting lately and that outlet (in the new format) becamse to cumbersome to maintain. This format makes it easier to use and, after just over a decade of using it, it is still the most familiar to me at this point.

What will I be writing about? More of the same, with a little more of the new – new wineries, new wines, new experiences, new discoveries. In July of 2018, I returned to work at the BC Wine Information Centre in Penticton, which is where I was when I first started Wine Country BC in 2009. I am lucky that I was able to return to that same perspective on the industry that I missed when I was working at wineries. Working at a winery meant that I had to focus only on that winery’s products. While this was good to do, and challenging in a different way, it wasn’t always interesting for me. I liked being in touch with the biger picture, the context of wine in the whole province. I wanted to know what was happening everywhere in the world of BC wine and working at a store like the BC Wine Info Centre gave me that perspective again.

I should be clear everything I write or say here is completely my own opinion and perspective and does not represent anything from any of the places that I work or have worked. This is and has always been a personal blog filled with my own opinions. I sell wine at work, not here. Back in the podcasting days, I always tried to make sure that we didn’t say anything about any of the places where we worked. All of the people that appeared on the podcast worked for a winery or were in the industry in some way, but we were not selling anything and I (as the only one left from those days) are not selling any particular wine or brand. (Although I am now selling a book, so there is that slight change…)

Which leads me to another topic that I get asked about…

Podcasts

Next to Wine Folly at the awesome Mosaic Books in Kelowna.

When I started Wine Country BC, it was meant to be a podcast. I didn’t give a boo about writing anything but found it necessary to write something down in order to have a platform to post the podcasts. The posts at the beginning reflected that, such as this great example that contains a total of exactly one sentence. How times have changed.

I am sometimes asked if I am going to start podcasting again and the answer is always, “I would really like to.” Now that podcasts are not foreign concepts anymore like they were in 2009 and people can play them in their cars, this seems like a great time to come back with a wine podcast. Though I was not the first (David Bond’s BC Winecast was the first in 2007), I thought that we were able to contribute something to the conversation about BC wine at a time when it was not being adequately served in online media. Traditional print and radio were still dominant and the online world hadn’t quite figured itself out yet. That is not the case today and listening to a podcast or sharing an online article is far easier than it was back in the days of early social media.

What is still the case today is that it takes a lot of time to produce a resonable sounding podcast. I estimated that every 10 minutes of podcast time that you heard took about an hour of production time to complete. Since Wine Country BC was a long-form podcast with the average episode lasting 30-45 minutes, it was a lot of work and a lot of time. That became time that I just didn’t have anymore beginning in 2014 when I started research for Valleys of Wine (see above if you skipped that part).

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery always has a great selection of books on display.

Along with it being time-consuming, I was also frustrated that there wasn’t a really good way to tell if anyone was hearing it. When I asked some of the people who regularly appeared on it if they had ever listened to it, most of them said no. In addition, after spending about a half-hour  interviewing a winery at an event, I turned off my audio recorder and thanked them for taking the time to talk to me. They replied with “Hey, thanks for the free publicity!” That put a sour taste in my mouth from then on about what I was doing and how much work I was willing to do for “free publicity” for a winery. Something needed to change and stopping production on the podcasts was the first thing to go.

Will I do them again? Maybe. I love the podcast medium and would take it on again if I could. I know that there are better podcasting platforms out there that are easier and that return more stats to me. I have considered some of them seriously. For me at this point, considering the balance of time investments, this WordPress site will suffice for my blogging needs.

So what will this site be about if there are not going to be any podcasts?

Reviews

So glad to see V.o.W at Sandhill in Kelowna, which has a long of history as a winery.

Well, not exactly like you’re probably used to seeing them. I’ve written about what I think of wine reviews before here and other places. I don’t like wine scores but undestand why they are useful. I know what a good wine is but also know that my own preferences might creep their way into any evaluation of them, no matter how much I may try to keep that from happening.

In addition, there is also the fact that I live and work here in wine country. Some of the people who make these wines are dear friends of mine. Can I possibly give a proper critical tasting note of a wine that way? What if the wine is awful? Would I want to call them out on making a crap bottle wine? No, I wouldn’t. What would be the point in doing that anyway? The weird thing with wine reviews is that they really don’t matter. Critics, wine writers and bloggers can pan a wine all they want, yet to somebody out there, it could be their favourite wine in the world. What is the point of knocking them down or making them feel lesser about it? Some of those wines are made by very good people whose lives depend on selling those same wines. Why would I want to belittle their efforts? I don’t.

Plus, who cares what I think about a wine?

What I would like to offer is part of my experiences with visiting wineries, enjoying BC wines, and meeting some of the amazing people that make them. I figure that over the years, I have personally visited about 90% of the wineries in this province so far. There are some really cool wineries out there. There is the winery that  has rescue goats named after the cast of Friends. There is the first winery to open in the Arrow Lakes region that I visited last summer. There is a winery that is making wine from untrellised grape vines. How exciting are these places to visit and meet the people behind them? VERY! Those are the things that I want to tell you about here and what I hope will become the focus of this site going foward.

Until then, I hope that you will all pick up your copy of Valleys of Wine so that you can learn about the sometimes crazy, often weird, and certainly fun history of our province’s wine industry. There are some great wines out there to discover and I will be sharing some of the ones that I’ve enjoyed soon.

Happy sipping!

~Luke

 

Changes at Wine Country!

Hello BC wine lovers and readers of this blog!

First of all, let me say how much I miss you all and miss contributing to this blog that I started 9 and half years ago now! I have been going a little slower on producing posts and have stopped with podcasting altogether when I started writing my book on BC wine’s history. I am happy to report that the book is now in its editing phase and will hopefully be released this coming fall.

Thank you for listening and reading over the years! Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

 

Noble Ridge’s Threepeat Perfect for Holiday Adventures

I love seeing people take chances. I’ve always loved watching drummers in bands try to do crazy stuff. (Is he going to drop the sticks? Is that fill going to finish on time? Will anything break??) Things can go off the rails quickly but watching and hearing music that is so close to that tipping point is pretty exciting. It’s the same in any art when the artist pushes boundaries or demonstrates such a high degree of control, with either going well beyond what everyone else does.

When wineries take chances with things, there is also a possibility that things can go sideways, perhaps more so. The fun part is taking the risk because one never knows what will happen until they try. If, over the history of humanity, nobody tried anything, we would all still be living in caves and swinging clubs at each other.  Unfortunately, there are so few wineries that take these kinds of risks. Even though there are more wineries in BC each year, it seems that a declining percentage of them are willing to experiment a little. Of course simply starting a winery is already fraught with enough of a financial risk that most owners understandably want to mitigate against disaster as much as possible.

Noble Ridge has taken chances with their sparking program and the results have been really cool to watch.  It is pretty clear that they can produce wines of profundity, nuance, and complexity across their whole portfolio. But is there consistency across these vintages of their sparkling wines? I recently had a chance to taste 3 consecutive vintages of “The One” sparkling wine (technically the 2013 was The Wild One” – more on that later) and the experience was truly memorable.

The One 2012

This is the big One. The One that won all of those awards. After popping the cork and taking the first sips, it was pretty clear as to why this wine stood out. It had a beautiful light golden colour and I found that the nose was full of bready-yeasty aromas, baked pear, caramel, delicate floral notes (daisies), and green apple skin. The wine appeared relatively dry, crisp acidity, light alcohol, and I noticed flavours of bright pears, brioche, and ripe lemon rind. The finish was medium in length and completely pleasant to the last.

This wine was a cogent, complete statement and set the bar rather high for the two wines that were going to follow it. The One 2012 had everything – complexity, nuance, appealing flavours, balance, texture, and beautiful bubbles throughout. This is one instance where the judges at the various competitions (The Lieutenant Governor’s Awards, All Canadians, Wine Align, etc…) were all on the same page and got it right by giving this wine top marks.

Did it set the bar too high for the following wines? It certainly made the task a little more difficult…

The Wild One 2013

This wine intrigued me from the start and, of the three wines, this was the one that I was the most eager to taste. They took a big risk with producing this wine in this way and for me, as a semi-professional wine nerd, I was looking forward to it.

How exactly does one do a second fermentation using wild yeasts?

Wild yeast fermentations are done using the yeasts that are present on the grape skins. The fermentation started spontaneously in barrels or in tanks. The whole process is maddeningly slow and can go off the rails in many different ways. For this reason, most wineries prefer to use cultured yeasts which can perform more consistently and predictably.

Sparkling wine made with the traditional method goes through two fermentations – one (the primary fermentation) happens normally in a large vessel (tank, vat,  or barrel) and the secondary fermentation happens in the bottle. The secondary fermentation is what gives the wine its bubbles because the carbon dioxide that the yeast produces is trapped in the bottle so it dissolves into the wine. A wild yeast fermentation is easy enough to accomplish for the primary fermentation because the skins are there and it an easy environment for yeast to survive. But how can it happen once the wine is securely locked away in a bottle and surrounded by alcohol that make it hard for the yeast to survive?

This is where the real risk comes in. Noble Ridge’s winemaker Benoit Gauthier informed me that the wines were bottled with the regular dosage that included sugar and yeast nutrients, but no yeast at all! Instead, he relied on the yeasts present in the air of the winery and that may have survived through the primary fermentation. It was incredibly risky to do this because there was a real possibility that no fermentation would occur at all (something that did happen with more than a few bottles).

So what’s in the glass? Well, it was pale yellow in colour and had very tiny bubbles. I found the wine to be extremely aromatic with a strong yeast / autolytic character, concrete dust, lemon rind, dried bitter herbs, dried flowers, and wet straw.

The next part was what I was waiting for – how much sugar was there going to be in this one? The spec sheet for this wine states that there will be significant bottle variations in residual sugar because of the unpredictability of the wild yeasts present in each bottle. The range that they stated went from 5 to 15g/l, which is a not a small variation. Even people with casual tasting abilities would be able to tell the difference between a wine with 5g or 15g of sugar. My particular wine sample appeared to be dry. Very dry, in fact. Desert-like is another way of putting it. It made me think of the Okanagan in the summer kind of dry. I like that but some people might not. I left a small glass of it out to get flat and tasted it again the following day which confirmed to me that my wine was absolutely on the drier end of the spec sheet’s range. While it gives the wine a cool, adventurous, and unpredictable attitude (dare I say, “wild”), food pairings could be a bit difficult with this wide a spectrum to play with. Some chefs or sommeliers might think twice before listing this on their menu for that reason however it is unlikely that this wine will appear in any restaurant as I am told that Noble Ridge is only selling it to the wine club and in the wine shop.

Beyond that, the wine was medium in acidity and body and had a delicate, creamy mousse. I found flavours of this wine to be slightly bitter with lemons, bitter herbs, and lemon cough drops / medicinal flavours, which was followed by a very long and pleasant finish.

The Wild One 2013 seemed to raise more questions than anything else. The bitterness on the palate was a bit off-putting at first and I wonder if that might have been lessened with a sweeter version of the wine. Giving it the “Wild” name is certainly an appropriate moniker. This wine will appeal to those who look for unpredictable styles from their wines. I am one of those people and for me, a good part of this wine’s enjoyment was the anticipation of the experience in tasting it. Unfortunately, the only preconceived notion that I’d had about it was that it had to compete against the 2012 from the previous evening. That is a position that would be difficult for any wine to live up. Given the choice between the three of these to purchase again, The Wild One would make my list every time just because of the anticipated adventure with every bottle.

The One 2014

The third wine in the flight was a return to The One, but without the Wild things from the previous vintage. This wine was again in the unfortunate situation of having to live up to the 2012 with inevitable comparisons. Could this wine cruise at the same level?

This wine was a pale gold colour with a light tinge of salmon colour and was almost like one would expect from a Pinot Gris. There was a persistent mousse with tiny bubbles. I found the nose to have aromas of fresh-baked French bread, lemons, green apple skins, thyme, mandarin peel, Orange Julius, pears, and minerals.

On the palate, this wine was the sweetest of the trio although, at a stated 7.6g/l residual sugar, it isn’t going to be winning any sweetness competitions. There was some good acidity to balance it and a soft mousse. I found flavours of ripe tangerines, tropical fruits / mango, flowers, soft wet minerals, and some medicinal flavours. There was no bitterness on this wine at all like there had been on the Wild One 2013. The wine had a medium-length finish but I found that the bubbles subsided rather quickly. Over the course of the meal that accompanied it, the wine kind of lost it’s mojo the longer it sat in the glass. Bubbles got fewer and farther between.

The contrast between The One 2014 and The Wild One 2013 was huge, almost like they were from two different wineries. I see the 2014 as a crowd-pleasing sparkler that will appeal to many different palates without offending anyone whereas the 2013 will be more polarizing and have definite friends and enemies.

Conclusions

For people looking for absolute consistency in style or flavour from year to year, Noble Ridge’s sparkling wines may not be for you. For adventurous, small-batch, boutique, sparkling wine lovers who look for new taste sensations with every bottle, you should really add Noble Ridge to your list. They are clearly capable of making some top-drawer wines like the 2012 and are able to handle adventures and experiments like the 2013.

One thing that did stick out for me is purely visual – the packaging. I have a friend (and Wine Country BC podcast co-host) who collects sparkling wine caps. Some of them are beautifully designed and branded. For a $40 sparkling wine, I expected to see some additional visual elements to these wines beyond a plain silver cap under the wire cage. Yes, it does match the silver colour scheme, but for a wine in this price point, a simple, branded top would make the presentation a little more elegant.

In sum, if you are an adventure-seeking sparkling wine enthusiast, Noble Ridge’s sparkling wine program is waiting for you to discover.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Cider Takes Off

When exactly did cider get so popular? Why does cider occupy three whole fridge spaces at the small government liquor store in Oliver? Who saw this coming? Clearly, nobody did. The small cider producers in the Okanagan have got to be happy about it.

Cider historically has always been a part of our beverage production history in BC. The Okanagan has been known for growing apples for over 140 years. The name of the first commercial winery in BC survives today on bottles of cider. Cider has even rescued the finances of large commercial wineries like Calona and Mission Hill at various points in their histories. Cider, it seems, has always just been there in BC.

Perhaps it is somewhat bizarre then that cider has traditionally been at the bottom end of the sales statistics in the BC Liquor store statistics on sales. Cider was first indicated as a separate category in 1967 in the Liquor Control Board’s (as it was then known) 46th Annual Report. In that year, cider sales measured 0.14% of the nearly $156 million in total sales. By 1990, cider had crept up to account for just over 2% of total sales. By 2004, cider was holding steady at 5%. The category was renamed “Refreshments” in the following year which likely means that other little bottles of fizzy boozes (Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice, etc) had probably been lumped into the cider category for some time before that.  In the most recent report for 2016-2017, “Refreshments” is holding steady at 6% of total sales where it had been since the previous year. (Interestingly, this same report shows that wine had overtaken beer to represent the largest percentage in  total sales for the first time ever at 35%!)

Growers‘ line of ciders is the most ubiquitous brand across the country. Developed in the 1950’s by Dr. John Bowen and F.A. Atkinson at the Summerland Research Station, the Growers’ Wine Company in Victoria purchased the recipe in 1962 and took over production. Fast-forward through the corporate ownership history to today and Growers’ remains in production at Arterra Wines Canada, where it is distributed nationally. The product line now includes a wide variety of fruit flavours and are all off-dry in style. In the late 1990s, the Growers’ cider brand was a common site in my university dorms’ recycling bins on any given Monday morning. Though I don’t recall trying it at the time, I had many friends who experienced some very rough mornings because of it, and other newer, but similarly sweet, bottled beverages. Even now, the Growers’ ciders are far to sweet for my palate but I can see how they would be appealing and approachable to a lot of people. The late 1990s was also the era when products like Mike’s Hard Lemonade made its debut and gave people alternatives to beer. This is the product category that is now called “refreshments”.

Smaller cider producers started popping up in the past decade and cider has really started to take off. Occasionally good bars would have Strongbow from the UK but there were not usually a lot of choices. Merridale Cider in Cobble Hill on Vancouver Island has been slowly making its way since 1990. The Okanagan has a growing scene too (ha – get it?) and has even caught the attention of cider-focused websites like this one.  BC Tree Fruits, the apple-packing co-op, has even gotten into the act with a line of ciders called Broken Ladder. They even have a tasting room and retail space just down the road from the Sandhill wine shop in Kelowna. Cider is in every LRS and government liquor store. In the Oliver government store, there are three full fridges dedicated to cider! So, who’s fault is it that cider has now become so popular in BC?

For me personally, I put the blame squarely on Wards from Kelowna. If their cider wasn’t so damn aromatic, perfectly balanced, and so utterly refreshing, then I probably would never have bothered with cider in the first place! Wards has a wine connection of course through The View Winery and Vineyard, a winery that has been featured many times on this site (notably here, herehere, and here). Ward’s cider is distinctly drier and more aromatic than the basic level cider and, to my tastes, is a beautiful, complex beverage that keeps me interested with ever sip.

So is cider just the latest hipster beverage that will fade away as soon as something else comes along? To answer that, you’d probably have to ask an actual hipster. (My beard is just not long enough.) I think that as long as there are producers who are interested and capable of producing a quality cider, there really is no reason why cider can’t have a long shelf life in BC.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

 

Laughing Stock is cashed in

The big news in wine country today is about a small winery. Laughing Stock, on the  Naramata Bench northeast of Penticton, has been acquired by Arterra Wines Canada (formerly Constellation, formerly Vincor, formerly Cartier Wines and Beverages …. formerly Grower’s Wine Company) which is now administered by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.  Of course John Schreiner wrote about the take over but so too did Business in Vancouver among may others. It seems that wineries getting bought and sold is big news these days since Andrew Peller Ltd’s acquisition of Tinhorn, Black Hills, and Gray Monk this past September.

So what is going on here? What is happening to #bcwine?

Consolidation. This has been talked about more often over the past 5 years within the industry as the logical next step. Talking to winery owners, wine makers, and managers, I heard a lot of talk about consolidation being the thing that is probably just going to happen. And now it has started.

It seems like wineries are making money hand over fist but the reality might surprise many consumers. Making wine is an agricultural business and, like all agricultural businesses, the profit margins are not always that amazing. The only difference between an American corn farmer, a Canadian dairy farmer, and a small BC winery is that the first two (particularly the American one) are heavily subsidized by governments while the grape grower is essentially penalized with taxes (particularly in BC). American corn farmers would not be able to survive without the US federal government doling out money to make them profitable. To continue making wine, small wineries are reaching an end point, for various reasons, and to go beyond that they need investment from bigger companies. As former owner David Enns said in the press release, Laughing Stock had “reached the tipping point both in terms of scale and demand”.

BC wine seems to be attractive now to the large commercial wineries, of which there are now only three major players – Arterra Wines Canada,  Andrew Peller Ltd., and Mission Hill. Other than at a select few people in BC’s wine history (Bob Holt and Don Triggs come to mind), commercial wineries were never interested in the small scale of boutique winery operations in any serious way until this year.  It seems that without growing via quantity, the commercial wineries are now trying to follow where the market has been going (for decades now, some might argue) which is towards higher quality wines. No company wants to be the one left holding the portfolio of plonk, cheap and cheerful though it may be. For a while, it was looking like that’s exactly what was going to happen, particularly for Arterra, which inherited brands that are arguably shadows of their former selves after years of neglect at the hands of Constellation.

In that sense, Arterra’s purchase of Laughing Stock is a smart move and probably just the beginning. Laughing Stock is not a huge winery (10,000 cases) and has the respect of the wine cognoscenti but nowhere near the reach of a winery like Black Hills. Sales of Portfolio or Blind Trust could not possibly hope to make anything more than a tiny blip on the revenue charts  of the parent company. I suspect that Arterra is not done shopping in BC just yet and there are certainly more wineries out there for the pickings, especially for boutique wineries with owners who are approaching retirement age. With Laughing Stock’s purchase, half of Grand Crus that I listed in my article from 2014 are now under the ownership of a large wine company.

What does this mean for consumers? In the short term, I suspect nothing although availability and visibility of some products will change and maybe even for the better. Laughing Stock’s wines were not always easy to find so perhaps access to larger distribution channels and more sales staff will make some of these wines more widely available or at least better positioned.

As for wine quality, I suspect that Arterra will try to keep the wines as intact as possible for a number of years. As long as the Enns family is involved in making those decisions, there’s no reason to suspect otherwise. The big unknown is how Arterra will handle itself in the Canadian wine industry. Arterra is owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, an investment management company that also includes various European airports, American toll roads, crematoria, and an Australian desalination plant among other investments in its portfolio. Can Arterra make all of those sales charts go up to please the investors?  We shall see. Ultimately, how successful they are will determine wether Laughing Stock’s future as a Grand Cru of BC wine will continue or not.

Cheers from wine country.

~Luke

Are we too cavalier about alcohol?

Drinking alcohol is everywhere in our media landscape and especially on social media, upon which wine in BC has been latched for a fair number of years. Photos of wine bottles in exotic places with amazing food and lovely people are all over the internet on Facebook and Instagram accounts. Add in the trending craft breweries, distilleries, and cideries, plus the marketing power of the big name brands and it seems like an entire generation of adults are drinking without care and living the life. Only the benefits of booze are promoted by social media but nobody offers anything about the potential for problems, societally and personally, that might have occurred, or will occur, later on. People who are fall-down drunk in the gutter are probably not steady enough to take a selfie and post it. Have our attitudes become too cavalier about alcohol lately?

The irony of writing an article like this on a wine blog is not lost on me in any way. I am a huge fan of irony – got the poster, seen the show, own the DVD – and that is why I am hoping that maybe this might get people thinking a little bit more about it. People in the wine industry are all trained through the Serving It Right program, an irritating but necessary course that every person who wants a job serving alcohol in this province must take. We are trained to know the law and what to do in various circumstances  and now we now must be re-certified every five years to stay current. If it helps keep people informed, I’m all in. It is not a bad thing to be thinking about this beyond the online exam. A recent article in the Globe and Mail by André Picard summarized the way that we “romanticize” alcohol in Canada while scrutinizing opioids, marijuana, and other nebulously legal / illegal drugs. Alcohol, according to Picard, is “too often portrayed as good, harmless fun.”

Lots of people have an amazing ability to drink often and well because alcohol in some form is easy to find. People promote their lifestyle on social media and when visiting wineries. (I do that, of course. You are reading some of it now.) But sometimes they make jokes, which to me seems to trivialize it. I have often heard people say, “We NEVER have any wine left over in our house! Ha-ha!” (Ha-hah, yes. Good one.) They buy t-shirts with funny slogans on them proclaiming their love of wine. (Oh, the doctor says you need “glasses” – so funny.) They mock wine sales professionals such as myself for spitting out wines when we taste, calling it ‘alcohol abuse’, and then laughing with their friends. (Hysterical! Did you just make that up yourself? I’ve never heard that before…)

I think that these cavalier attitudes may be masking something potentially more harmful.

Drinking has always been a part of life everywhere I’ve lived and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it in moderation. Alcoholic beverages are perfectly natural, safe to drink, and preferable in most circumstances, especially when traveling. As we learned from North America’s great ‘college-experimental-phase’ with Prohibition almost a century ago, trying to ban it altogether is like trying to ban precipitation and is clearly futile. Prohibition resulted in the complete opposite effects, namely even more consumption, binge drinking, clandestine alcohol production, and dangerous situations to drink. Furthermore, the only alcohol that was available was potentially more harmful because it was coming from a completely unregulated, illegal industry.

Legal alcohol industry or not, some people have an inability to stop drinking once they start. That’s where we get some of the social problems that come from real alcohol abuse (not the spitting-out-at-a-wine-tasting kind). According to a World Health Organization chart on alcohol abuse rates throughout the world, Canada has a total rate of 7.35% of the population (5.43% men and 1.92% women). If we take the population of BC as 4,683,139 as of July 2015, that means that there are over 344,210 people who potentially have problems with alcohol. Some of those people will get treatment for their dependence and some won’t. Regardless of whether genetics plays a part in it or not, the fact remains that some people are going to have issues no matter who they are or where they live. As a former politician who used to be in charge of liquor laws in the late 1970s once put it to me, generally “80 percent of the people are fine with alcohol, 20 percent are not. But it’s the 20 percent that cause 80 percent of the problems.”

And now those people (7.35 percent to – yes, it is a stretch –  20 percent) have massive new wine displays in select B.C. supermarkets lording over them as they go through the checkout lines. In some stores, they are clearly visible from anywhere outside of the main aisles. It is simply impossible to ignore. Many people mentioned this aspect of it in comments on Minister John Yap’s blog which was ostensibly used to solicit peoples’ opinions on the matter. A surprising number of people cited social concerns – minors that work in the stores, recovering alcoholic family or friends, or simply that B.C. already has too many convenient places to buy alcohol already – as a reason to not allow wine in grocery stores.

These opinions were pretty decisively ignored. Most of the people commenting in favour of wine in grocery stores cited mere convenience, as if it was a “no-brainer” that since they already sell cigarettes, they might as well have wine too. That is some good quality internet argument logic for you that would only sound more natural if it was accompanied by an unruly mob carrying pitch-forks and torches. I guess since a store already sells car tires, they might as well sell puppies too. “I mean really, that’s the no-brainer to me,” they said. Calling the restrictions on selling wine in a grocery store “archaic” does not really make sense either since there really isn’t anything to do with modernizing anything.  Does that mean to be truly modern means that any store should be able to sell alcohol? Does true ‘modernization’ mean that anything goes and that all stores should be free to sell absolutely anything that they want? What about firearms? Puppies, booze, and ammo all together in one stores sounds like a good business idea to me! Offer it as drive through and I’ll be the first in line! (Hi! I’d like a bottle of Southern Comfort, the cute little white poodle, and a Glock G43 please.)

When Vancouver city council recently voted to allow wine in grocery stores (with many restrictions), it prompted a few new complaint articles like this that bemoan the “nanny state” and how the wine drinker is ultimately being repressed somehow because of “anti-liberalization”. The author, David Fine, cites Washington State and Quebec as having fewer alcohol-related health issues than BC and complains again about the government restrictions on alcohol. Of course, he doesn’t mention the fact that the drinking age in Washington is 21 (how’s that for a government “anti-liberal” restriction?) and in Quebec is technically 18 (but, as I know from personal experience, is less an actual restriction and more of a suggestion). These places have vastly different attitudes towards alcohol compared to BC. Washington State is far more policed in general than BC while Quebec’s alcohol culture is historically ingrained.

It’s not that I have anything against selling wine in grocery stores, I don’t. I grew up in Quebec where there is wine in grocery stores, corner stores, and government stores. Quebec holds the record for the shortest Prohibition in North America (less than 1 year – it was both enacted and repealed in 1919). I love going camping in Washington State and I agree that getting wine in the supermarkets is absolutely convenient when picking up supplies. But why should my own convenience put someone else’s health potentially at risk? Convenience is not a “no-brainer” that should be “modernized” and free of the “nanny state”. That’s just being selfish. Plain and simple.

We should also note that in Washington State and Quebec, the wine displays are not as obtusely crowned in the centre of the store as they are in BC grocery stores. Wines are on the shelf next to the crackers somewhere down aisle 6 and have no more attention drawn to it than Cheez Whiz or laundry detergent. My problem is not with the law or the alcohol culture in B.C., it is the way that we are lionizing it. By putting alcohol (so far, only wine and cider but, in reality, that door is now open) in such a prominent display in our grocery stores, we are no longer promoting just a product but a lifestyle. Those are two very different things.

When was alcohol ever really that inconvenient for the under 45 generation anyway? Do we really need more convenient wine purchasing locations above and beyond the hundreds of licensed retail stores, government stores, and private wine stores that we already have? At one point, the Town of Oliver (the Wine Capital of Canada) had more liquor retail stores than traffic lights and that’s not counting the wineries’ own wine shops that are not inconveniently close by. In all of the towns in BC where I’ve lived in 17 years here (five towns so far), finding a liquor store close by has never, ever been a problem. I have always lived within walking distance of some kind of liquor store.

Why do we need to put massive signs around high-profile wine displays in grocery stores? Is it because we feel that BC wine cannot compete unless it has this absolutely dominating marketing presence that completely outsizes other grocery departments like the bakery, deli, or fresh produce? Are we that insecure about our industry’s competitiveness? My point is not so much that it shouldn’t be sold in supermarkets, but why do they have to get the star treatment with huge signs and a central display? I’ve never seen that kind of booze promotion anywhere else.

When I lived in Quebec, there was a distinct difference in quality between the wines in each type of location. On the wine continuum from plonk to grand cru, the government stores carried the top quality on down to the decent, inexpensive wines. The supermarkets carried less expensive wines that are probably imported in bulk and bottled locally to look like imported wines. The corner stores (called dépanneurs in Quebec) like 7-11 carry bottles that are probably barely legally wine, and some of them probably skim that name pretty tightly. Essentially, if you want the good stuff, the government store or winery wine shops are where it’s at. (There is a growing band of brave vignerons in Quebec.)

From my point of view, putting real, VQA-certified, B.C. wines into supermarkets is a step in the wrong direction. It is forcing BC wine down the throats of consumers needlessly and we are starting to see it get stratified naturally through the ultimate expression of economics – market demand. Now that the super markets have to purchase their wines outright, they are being much more careful about the wines that they choose to carry. That means that if it doesn’t sell, it’s not going to re-ordered and the wine selection will get winnowed. The private LRS stores located nearby (sometimes sharing a parking lot with these stores) are hoping for this because they will pick up on the more expensive products or smaller boutique wineries that have limited production for their wines. People will start to understand that grocery stores mean cheap and cheerful and LRS stores mean quality. Since LRS’s can purchase whatever they want, VQA or not, that puts them at the advantage while the supermarkets gets ‘stuck’ with the value-priced VQA brands. BC wine’s image is suddenly less prestigious. (I am not considering the previous Liberal government’s wholesale pricing schemes in this argument – I am only interested in a public perception point of view here.)

Marketing aside, wine is now a lot more visible and maybe there are people who do not really need to see that. It is essentially forcing a lifestyle choice into the faces of a small part of the population that can do a large amount of damage. Suddenly, wine is absolutely unavoidable to anyone with alcohol issues that shops that these grocery stores. They now have to face temptation on their own or find a different place to shop.

I believe that BC wine is strong enough to compete without the excessively domineering marketing that I’ve seen in grocery stores so far. I also believe that it can do it without threatening the social health of our towns and cities. Consider that 7.35 to 20 percent of your Facebook friends potentially have a problem with alcohol in some way. How might huge wine displays right behind the check-out aisles effect them? Just like alcohol is healthy in moderation, asking questions about our community is healthy for a democratic society. Let’s question this kind of thing.

Cheers from wine country.

~Luke

 

 

John Peller at Wine Talks – Preparing for Battle

The BC wine industry will be facing some battles over the coming years. The renegotiations of NAFTA  and the Comeau case, that is set to be heard in the Supreme Court of Canada this December, are just two of the things that the industry will have to fight for. So says John Peller, CEO of Andrew Peller Ltd. at a talk Tuesday evening at the Wine Talks series at Okanagan College*.

Peller’s talk included a lot of family history and thoughts on where the industry is today. The family history aspect of his presentation was quite moving and many in the audience appeared to have not been aware of John’s grandfather’s, Andrew Peller’s, personal involvement in the genesis of BC’s wine industry. (Of course, there will be a book coming out that will include some of that history, and more, next summer. *ahem*) The most poignant information for me was insights about Andrew Peller’s character and personality, something that is not easy to obtain through the text of a book, even his own autobiography. Andrew Peller wanted only to be able to have and support a family. After all of the companies that he had created (some successful, some not) the most important thing was family and, as an immigrant coming from Hungary, his arrival in Canada was what allowed him to do that. The most important day in his life had nothing to do with business success but everything to do with his arrival in Canada. After a tumultuous journey by ship across the Atlantic, the sight of Halifax harbour was the happiest moment in his life.  This remained so throughout his life and in his will, he asked that his ashes be scattered in Halifax harbour.

John Peller’s father, Dr. Joseph Peller, had left his medical practice to take over the company through the late 1960s and into the 1990s. John took over in the early 1990s and has guided the company through to the present. Taking over in the post-Free Trade years was not easy and I believe that John deserves a huge amount of credit for taking the company from André’s Wines / Baby Duck to Andrew Peller Ltd. / Gretzky & Sandhill brands.  His knowledge of the industry is profound, intense, and very personal. The actions of politicians, bureaucrats, and trade negotiators are on John’s mind as the Comeau case and NAFTA are poised to become two battles for the wine industry in the coming years.

For industry people, these events will make their day jobs either more or less difficult depending on the outcome. Some wineries, especially smaller ones, may not even notice while others might be driven out of business because of it. For most casual wine consumers in BC, nothing may appear to change at all. Customers in Ontario may one day be able to order their own case of BC wine directly from the winery’s website without any fear that they would be breaking the law. In BC’s wine country right now, the interprovincial trade issue has been a big part of conversation for many years.

According the Peller, the outcome of the Comeau case will not solve anything but will be the “match that lights the gasoline” poured on the fire of interprovincial trade. With the fuse ready to be lit, there is clearly going to be some turbulence in the Canadian wine industry in the coming years and it is all based around trade with other provinces or countries. This is how far the industry has come in the recent quarter-century. 25 years ago, the industry just wanted to be able to sell their wines to anyone at all!

What I think is the saddest part about the Comeau case is that it uses the Supreme Court to modify laws that should have been updated or rescinded altogether by our elected Members of Parliament. These people are the ones who are elected affect that kind of change, not the courts. In his talk, John Peller said that the government bureaucracy of today is very different than the way it was in the 1980s. He noted that 40 years ago, the federal bureaucracy used to be staffed by people who were not capable of getting jobs anywhere else and who simply did as they were told by the elected MPs. Peller contends that the same bureaucracy is now made up of much more educated, competent individuals. This new bureaucratic culture is much more powerful and almost calls the shots to the elected MPs instead of the other way around. Peller noted that the quality of those elected MPs has declined over the years and that this makes progress difficult. He cited Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s recent troubles with making changes to the tax system as a symptom. Morneau happens to be Liberal but Peller suggested that these changes would have been proposed regardless of the government’s political stripes because the main objectives in the changes originated from the bureaucracy, not Minister Morneau himself. In a recent meeting to discuss NAFTA, a Minister in the government admitted to Peller that he (the Minister) “didn’t really know anything about the wine industry at all”. That is worrying coming from a person ostensibly fighting for the survival of the wine industry in international trade agreements.

On the same evening as Peller’s talk at Okanagan College, a press release arrived in my inbox about a campaign to raise money for the wine industry to present as interveners in the Comeau case. They even have a GoFundMe page and a hashtag #CanadianWineForAll. While the $200k is certainly lofty, I am curious to see how many average consumers will make a donation to this particular cause. I, as a lowly industry grunt, wine writer and single parent, have no extra money at this time to donate. I would guess that donating blood to this campaign is not really necessary at this point.

But I certainly agree that interprovincial trade barriers are silly and need to be removed and I was happy to hear that the Supreme Court will be hearing the Comeau case. The group of BC wineries who will be interveners – Painted Rock, 50th Parallel, Noble Ridge, Liquidity, and Okanagan Crush Pad – are all similarly positioned in the BC wine world. None of them are the “Big 3” commercial wineries – Andrew Peller Ltd., Arterra Wines Canada, or Mark Anthony Wine Brands, all of whom have developed strategies to deal with interprovincial trade. (It was Andrew Peller who noticed that it was not illegal to bring grapes across provincial borders, which is why he set up wineries in places like Truro, Nova Scotia.) Nor are they the very small boutique wineries that plentifully dot the Okanagan Valley and make the Naramata Bench one of the highest density wine regions in the world. Sadly, the fractures between large and small wineries will likely continue.

As someone with a particularly broad vantage point from which to observe the nation’s wine industry, John Peller now has the potential to be highly influential in BC in a way that his company has arguably not been since the late 1970s, when Baby Duck lost top spot to Calona’s Schloss Laderheim in total domestic sales. After seeing the respectful handling of Sandhill (a Calona brand originally) and others, I have nothing but optimism for their recent winery acquisitions. My hope is that the company headquarters in Ontario will spend enough time reading the memos coming from their BC wineries. Perhaps this truly national company with someone who is knowledgeable about all wine-producing regions and wineries of all sizes across the country, will be able to lead by example. I, for one, will be watching intently to see what happens.

Cheers from wine country,

~Luke

 

*Major kudos need to be extended to Ian MacDonald of Liquidity Wines in Okanagan Falls for initiating the Wine Talk series with Okanagan College. I had not yet been able to attend one of these and am thrilled that there is a winery owner that understands how important academics is to the future of an industry. From what I can tell through my research on the history of the wine industry here, this has not always been the case. Higher education has not always been respected in BC compared to other places where I have lived. Perhaps the industry will be considering a more academic approach to solving its problems in the future…

History in the making

So here it is folks, a working cover of THE BOOK that has occupied my life since 2014. I am in the editing stages of it now and this cover is really only a mockup for an upcoming catalogue but I thought I’d share it with you anyway.

The book will cover a lot of BC’s historical terroir, from the geological history, the earliest days of the provinces European history, a ‘college-experiment’ with prohibition, and the beginnings of the industry itself right through to recent events. The previous concise history of BC’s wine industry was Alex Nichol’s book  “Wine and Vines of British Columbia” in 1983. (Yes, the same Alex Nichol that later  started Nichol Vineyard in Naramata.) Clearly, there have been some changes to the industry since that time, including Free Trade, Farmgate wineries, the BCWI, and the first $50 bottle of table wine in BC (know which one that was?).

The timeline for publication is late summer / fall of 2018. I’ll be posting about its progress here of course so check back often for updates. There’s a lot of interesting people and events in our province’s wine history. This book will talk about as many of them as possible.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Smoke on the water

Controlled burn on Mt. Kobau in 2015

I noticed lately that there hasn’t been a whole lot of action on social media this summer regarding #bcwine. A quick scan of that hashtag on Twitter reveals that very few people are posting anything that involves scenery in any way, even from accounts that are normally filled with beautiful wine country views. This also includes my own twitter account as well as another for a winery that I manage.

Of course the reason is that we have been largely smoked out for most of the summer. It’s one thing to have clouds clog up the valley (which is something that happens in most winters, making it very dark all day – they don’t put that in the brochures) but it’s another thing when it is smoke from forest fires. Smoke is insidious that way. We can’t get away from it by driving up to higher elevations like we often can with clouds. It turns the sun and moon red. It also smells bad and takes away the natural aromas of the seasons.

For those of us in the industry, there could also be another odd by-product of the smoke: self-censorship.

In 2015 I posted photos of the Mt. Kobau fire near Oliver as it happened because it was interesting, so close at hand, and was part of life in wine country as I saw it. It was a controlled burn that the forestry people were doing because the conditions were perfect for it. It looked like a volcano for a couple of hours and it made some dramatic looking photos so I posted it somewhere.

I was soon sent messages by more than a few people in the industry telling me to stop because I was giving people the ‘wrong impression’ of what it was like and that it not helping to bring tourists to the valley. I was told that the media was blowing things out of proportion and that it was keeping visitors away.

That was all entirely possible. Tourism plummeted that year during the last part of the summer as people cancelled hotel bookings and changed their plans. Business was down for a lot of places and there were noticeably less people driving through the Okanagan at that time of year. The smoke from the fires (most of which was from a much larger fire across the border in the US) literally choked the valley for a few weeks that year.

The same happened this year except that the fires were nowhere near the south Okanagan and fires in the north near Peachland and Kelowna did not start until later in the summer and one is burning right now across the river from Cawston. Arguably, the smoke this year was less worse than it was in 2015 but it seemed to last a whole lot longer. By the end of August, I realized that I hadn’t seen a blue sky in weeks nor had I taken any photos at all. The landscape just wasn’t as pretty as I knew it to be and didn’t think it very interesting to document. The light was flat and diffused making everything bland, flat, and grey.

This is one reason why I chose not to document much of the scenery this summer but maybe I shouldn’t have self-censored so much. The point of documenting something is to be able to recall it properly later. The Okanagan that pretty valley with a big lake in the middle  all year long – there are some really dark days in the middle of the winter that are just depressing, but nobody visits here at that time for the same reasons as they do in the summer.

One of the major reasons that I started this blog in 2009 was to document the Okanagan’s wine industry year round, to go ‘beyond the guided tour’, and show what it was like to live, work, and be in the place that makes the wines that we love. If wine is tied so much to a place, why is it that most people only see the best facets of that place? The beautiful vineyard photos that start off every issue of Decanter show some pretty amazing places but they probably aren’t that amazing every single day of the year? Why do we sell-censor? What do we have to hide? The wines come from this place, warts and all, so why try to put such a squeaky-clean face on it all of the time? Truth is always more interesting and complex than a misleading image and if smoke is going to be part of the Okanagan’s reality in the future, perhaps due to the changing climate, then we can’t deny that. People still flock to Victoria, BC at all times of the year even though people are clearly aware of what they are in for when they go. It’s really not a place where sunshine is a forgone conclusion (although I’ve heard that this past summer was very good for sunshine).

As for me on this website, I will continue to tell it like it is. There is a lot to experience here and to miss out on it because of self-censorship is not constructive nor valuable in the long run.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke