The True Local Experience

I’ve done something (twice now) in the last 5 months that is completely different from what I used to do. It’s not something I planned, it was on a whim. It was an idea that I found on twitter. And, I’m pretty sure, if I had not become interested in wine, I might not have ever ordered any. Twice.

Getting into the wine industry and learning about it has really opened my eyes to buying locally, supporting the independent producer, and not just buying things purely for convenience or price. I now tend to prefer the taste of wines that are unique in some way and I don’t mind if they aren’t exactly the same year to year. I’m almost drawn to buying wines that I know are only available in the wine shop. I like knowing that the fruit that I eat doesn’t have to travel half way around the world just to get to a huge supermarket. Pears aren’t in season in February, that’s why I eat the ones that my wife canned last August.

This past Christmas, I wanted to see if I could get all my shopping done without visiting a mall or a big box. Except for a trip to get things for someone else, I succeeded in avoiding the mall and never went near a big box store at all. The best special treat though was an online order that I placed for an upstart BC business that was the talk of my family’s holidays.

Enter Samantha’s Chocopops. Samantha Richard from Victoria, BC has been creating chocolate treats as a home-based business since last fall. I saw her on Twitter and was immediately taken by her avatar. It’s a photo of her holding up a plate full of her chocolates on lollipop sticks (chocopops – get it?) beautifully wrapped in cello with ribbons. It was the best business avatar I’d ever seen on twitter. So of course, I tweeted her about it.

It was only a matter of time before I placed my order for some Christmas themed chocopops and a tin of candy cane chocolate bark. I’m not a big candy cane fan but my wife and kids love them. I placed the order and stealthily picked up the box when it arrived a week later, hiding it in my office until Christmas morning when I would bring them out as a surprise after our Christmas dinner. The family loved them because they were tasty and unique. It was a hit! They’d never had anything like it before and I enjoyed telling them the story of how I found them.

I ordered again for Easter, figuring that perhaps the Easter Bunny should probably support local producers as well. The result was the same – sheer awe over the incredible look and taste of chocolate bark with mini-eggs and sprinkles. It wasn’t only the kids’ eyes that popped out of their heads, it was the adults as well.

I’ve started to seek out other local businesses whenever I can. When I need a quick lunch in Penticton, instead of going to a big fast-food place, I’ll head to Burger 55, where I can get burgers with cilantro, roasted garlic, sprouts, or any of the other 50 or so options on the ordering clipboards. When we don’t have wine for dinner, my wife likes cider, which we get from Orchard Hill in Oliver or Wards in Kelowna. And it’s not just food. I bought a pair of riding gloves for my motorcycle at a local leather shop, Harleywood Leather in Okanagan Falls.

Is it cheaper to buy local? Not always. Is the quality better? I like to think so but it’s hard to generalize about that. I tend to think that small producers of whatever product out there will want to sell things that will stand out somehow. If they can’t beat the big boxes with lower prices, they can certainly beat them on quality and customer service so a successful local business will likely focus on those aspects.

The biggest thing about buying local is that it adds another level to the whole experience. If I’d bought a couple big chocolate Easter bunnies for $3 each from some big retailer instead of ordering from Samantha’s Chocopops, would the experience have been the same? Hardly. I would never have had a twitter conversation or email exchange with London Drugs the way I did with Samantha’s Chocopops. I wouldn’t have much of a story to tell about where the chocolates came from, or who made them, or any of the story about how I first heard about them.

It’s those experiences that I think people are drawn to when they tour wine country and that’s what I think I’ve transferred over to my non-wine-buying life. Everyday, I meet people traveling through wine country buying wines here and there. They could certainly get most of the same bottles in the aisles of a liquor store, but this time they are here, in wine country. Why? I think that it’s for the experience of bringing home a bottle, opening it up at dinner, and telling their dinner companions about what a great time they have at “Local Winery A.” Maybe they did a tour and this was a special wine that was only available in the wine shop? Maybe they saw the tanks where this wine was made? Maybe they saw the actual vines where the grapes were grown? That’s a far more memorable and interesting experience than wandering around a liquor store looking for a wine.

Isn’t that what makes life that much more interesting?