When the Garagiste North Small Guys Wine Festival first took place in 2014 at an event hosted by Meyer Family Vineyards in Okanagan Falls, I was thrilled. Super excited. And I didn’t even really know why. I went, I tasted, I interviewed (badly, as it turned out that all of the audio was unusable to a technical error on my part) as many people as I could. I really enjoyed all of the wines and found some that were absolutely stunning and for surprisingly down-to-earth prices. What was it about these producers that intrigued me so much?
In my endless research for my book on B.C. wine, I’ve noticed that many changes to the industry have happened from the ground up rather than from the top down. Innovation in the industry hasn’t come from the high pillars of education or industry research institutions, it has come from below. The small, independent wine producers are the ones who have consistently shown us the way forward in B.C. since the beginning of the modern industry in 1980 and even more in 1988 after Free Trade made innovation essential for survival in the market. Small producers are the innovators, the ones who can afford to explore new terroirs, grow new grapes, try new techniques, and package it in a new way.
This influence actually goes back much further than 1980 but that’s when the momentum really started to build. Compared to the large commercial wineries of the time – T.G. Bright’s, Casabello, Calona, and André’s – the new estate wineries were practically garagistes by comparison. The new estate wineries promoted using vitis vinifera grapes for their wines at a time when almost all of the industry institutions were telling them that they couldn’t do that and still survive. They started using small oak barrels for aging their wines and for fermentations when the large wineries rarely used any kinds of oak at all, other than large, old vats. They started newsletters, wine clubs, and websites first. They branded their wine with labels that were bright, creative images that told a story on them. When they sold their wines, they got valuable feedback from their customers right away and were able to make changes very quickly. The person that grew the grapes, made the wine, and delivered it to the customer may well have been the very same person and so was able to implement their ‘market research’ quickly.
Each time they did things like this, someone was paying close attention: the wine lovers of B.C. Wine writers in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary wrote about them and wine lovers sought them out because they were different, leading edge, and above all – interesting. It wasn’t jug wine and it didn’t have a fake European-looking label on it. It looked like B.C. The labels were cut to have profiles of mountains, printed on glossy reflective paper, had cartoons on them, or were an elegantly simple logo on a large cream-coloured label. These are all examples of things that the small estate wineries did first that the larger commercial wineries then followed.
The estate wineries continue to do this today but as some of them have grown, their speed of innovation has slowed even though some of them remain as creative today as they ever were. Today’s real innovation comes from the bottom – the smallest producers who can barely afford to stay in business but are able to be as creative as they want and react quickly to the feedback. They risk practically everything they have to create their wines that they want to produce because it is their passion.
Originality. Personality. Passion. Innovation. That is what people are looking for when they go to taste a wine made from a small garagiste producer and why the industry needs the small producers to lead the way. That is why the Garagistes are so important to B.C. wine.
Cheers from wine country.