The Highway Stars of BC Wine

20140806-000807-487912.jpgOn my first visit to the Okanagan’s wine country in 2003, it was rare to see an actual winery while driving south from Kelowna to Osoyoos on Highway 97. Most of the wineries in business at the time were set back from the highway closer to wherever their vineyards were located. The industry has grown much since then and wineries have started popping up in convenient locations on the biggest (and only, in some spots) traffic corridor in the valley. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the signs along the highway between Oliver and Osoyoos.

Visibility is an important aspect to any business and as the wine industry in BC moves from a hinterland-supply backwater to an argi-tourism destination, frontage is going to become a valuable part of the business plan. The dustup last winter concerning overly large and potentially distracting highway signs along the 97 in Oliver is a signal that visibility is becoming an issue here. Wineries closer to the highway are going to be at an advantage when it comes to visibility. Do you think Harry McWatters and Lloyd Schmidt purchased the golf course in Summerland in 1979 because it had a great view? Not likely. It was right on the highway and every traveler and commuter in the Okanagan was going to drive right by their sign for Sumac Ridge Estate Winery. I did in the fall of 2000 on my first ever visit to the valley while travelling for work. 3 years later I remembered exactly where it was and made sure that I stopped.

I should probably qualify what it is that I mean when I say that a winery is ‘on the highway’ because some of the wineries that I’ll be mentioning here are not directly right on Route 97. For me to consider a winery to be located ‘on the highway’, it must be visible and quickly accessible from the 97 and traffic noise must be omnipresent. So while Kismet, Hidden Chapel, and La Stella are all on side streets off the highway, La Stella and Hidden Chapel are farther and are not overwhelmed with traffic noise while Kismet is still quite close to the highway. For me, traffic noise is the biggest issue that wineries on highway locations have to deal with.

The first to appear on the highway in the south was what is now Constellation Brands’ Jackson-Triggs / Inniskillin production facility, which originally opened as T.G. Bright’s in 1981. The building itself is off the northernmost end of Black Sage Road but looks directly onto the highway and may have had a driveway directly from the 97 at one point. The first modern boutique winery with highway frontage was Gersighel Wineberg in 1995. “Who is that?” I hear your ask. Modern wine tourists would know the property better as Castoro de Oro or its previous monicker “Golden Beaver”. It’s a brilliant location that is easily accessible from the highway and clearly visible heading south (although less visible heading north). Two new wineries have recently opened a stone’s throw away from Castoro – Kismet and Maverick – making this a convenient trio of wineries to visit easily on a trip.

CC Jensch is a short drive north and Cassini – who was probably the first to construct a purpose-built winery facility with deliberately large highway frontage in 2008 – and Intersection Winery just beyond that and VinPerdu, a new winery yet to open, just after the highway turns to Oliver. Heading north out of Oliver, Cana Vines is on the right just before Vasseaux Lake and Lixiere is just after the gas station in Kaledon. Heading south towards the border, Young and Wyse is right off the highway as you approach the border.

So what’s the value of this? Are the best wines going to be there? Is it a real wine country experience to stop into one of these places?

The wine is going to be what it is. There are certainly good and bad wines made in any location so you’ll surely be able to find something that you like. These wineries are going to be able to profit from the visibility more than anything else. With visibility comes recognition. Wine tourists who may not even stop at the winery on their travels will at least recall it when they see those names on bottles in the liquor stores which itself may be enough to generate a purchase. That makes little difference to the consumer in Vancouver who has never been to the Okanagan but if they do, that recognition with easy access may just pull the novice tourist off the highway more easily than having to venture down a small side road that isn’t on a GPS.

Will we see a day when highway wineries overtake those who are off the main road in terms of sheer numbers of visitors? Perhaps this will make it easier to get things started. I have no doubt that other regions like Okanagan Falls have been slowed in their development because of lack of visibility. In all of my wine jobs at wineries and wine stores, I have frequently met customers who have driven through OK Falls completely unaware that they were passing some of the most interesting wineries in the province. The first winery to open in a convenient location on the highway in OK Falls is going to have a huge advantage because of that.

But is it a real wine country experience?

I think it depends largely on what you are looking for. Ambient noise level is irrelevant to some people. Certainly people who live in cities are likely more used to it although they may not enjoy it. I personally find it irritating and won’t hide my preference for the quiet acres of vineyards offered by wineries located off the beaten path. Highway noise is louder and more persistent than city street noise, which can ebb and flow with traffic patterns. Highway noise is hard to defeat. I expect traffic noise in a city or town but not in a vineyard. I spent many days working in a vineyard in Keremeos that was right near Route 3 and I remember finding the traffic noise irritating at times. Other vineyards that I worked in were absolutely quiet and I loved it.

Overall, I think that it will be your own threshold for sound will influence your experience at these highway BC wine venues. From what I’ve seen so far, there are some truly amazing wines to try and wineries close to the main road will have an undeniable marketing advantage. Just like any winery anywhere, the experience is ultimately yours alone so enjoy it while you’re here.

Cheers from wine country!

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