BC Wine Culture 2017 – THANKS MILLENNIALS!

I was pouring wine samples at a liquor store recently and perusing the shelves during the lulls between customers when something occurred to me. Wine and craft beer cultures have both made a serious change to liquor stores in under a decade.

The store I was in was the average run of the mill private liquor store in a relatively average part of town. 15 years ago, it was decided not an average part of town and looked quite run down. Even still, the term ‘gentrification’ didn’t really apply to the changes that have happened in the area but it had definitely been cleaned up and was more economically active than it had been before. It occurred to me that though there were people coming in and heading straight for the Bud section and then heading to the checkouts, there were also people who were carefully looking for particular wines. On the shelf next to where I was conducting my tasting were $90 bottles of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, $120 bottles of Sauternes, and wine royalty from New Zealand and South Africa. As I stared at the $45 bottle of NZ Sauvignon Blanc (really??) I started thinking.

Then, when I realized that there was no way I could possibly afford to get all of the wines that I was thinking about, I quickly realized something else… A store like this would not have even considered bringing in those types of wines (or, more cynically perhaps, those private stores’ managers would not have even known about those types of wines) even just ten years ago. This wasn’t just a small shelf in the corner either. It was two multi-tiered shelf sections (the standard wire shelving – 3 bottles high, easy to pick from) that represented a sizeable investment in inventory on their part. The craft beer section was even bigger and filled with all kinds of bizarre and creative labels from small producers throughout the western provinces.

What has happened in the past decade?

Indeed, there has been a big shift in many ways and not just within the wine industry. Being a wine-person however, I can’t help but put most of the blame on the wine industry for leading this charge in foodie / locavore / craft-quality culture that we find ourselves now ensconced. Small boutique wineries (first called ‘cottage’ wineries before changing the name to the more erudite ‘estate’ wineries) predated what we used to called micro-breweries (now called ‘craft brewers’) in BC by almost 4 vintages. 1977 was the first vintage of the first official ‘cottage’ winery – Peachland’s Chateau John de Trepanier – and John Mitchell’s application for a small brewery at the Toller Pub in Horseshoe Bay in May of 1981. According to John Wiebe, author of the most-excellent book “Craft Beer Revolution”, BC’s craft beer “revolution owes its start to the dogged determination” of Mitchell, who inspired many more to try similar small-production brewing in their own pubs.

From a historical perspective, that is really not a lot of time but the close coincidence of craft breweries and estate wineries is hard to ignore. Estate wineries grew to include just under a dozen by the end of the 1980s and really only took off as the 1990s reached cruising altitude. Wineries were aided by the fallout from the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement which saw the creation of the BC Wine Institute and the Vintner’s Quality Alliance. Brewers never saw this same kind of government-sponsored push but regardless they managed to persevere through to the present boom where every modestly-sized city can support a small community of small independent craft brews and brew pubs.

So what has brought us to where we are? Are the small farm gate wineries suddenly producing wines that are that much better than they were in the early 1990s? Or are there simply more people paying attention? How is it that these businesses (wineries, breweries, LRSs, etc) have survived by selling high-priced bottles like this?

This is where we get to put the blame at least partially on the Millennial generation. According to a recent article in Forbes, they want ‘quality everything’. Suddenly, mass-market big-volume wines are not going to cut it at a dinner party. THANKS MILLENNIALS! Now even smaller LRS’s have to stock a bewildering array of small breweries and wineries in addition to the big brewery brands like Bud, Miller, and Coors so now we have a lot of choice. THANKS MILLENNIALS! In the words of Oscar Leroy from TV’s Corner Gas, “We’ve been bumped up into a new wine bracket!” THANKS MILLENNIALS!

Of course, once you taste the good stuff, it is really hard to go back. There are a lot of wineries, like Wild Goose for example, who have been producing wine on that level for a very long time and are now quickly getting onto the radar of those who are looking for that level quality.  Other estate wineries have also figured out about this quality quotient, sometimes taking it to an extreme and with prices to match. Is this sustainable?

As long as wine is still on the forefront of foodie fashion (arguably as much as it ever could be) and paired with favourable economics, wine will probably continue to occupy the tables of Millennials throughout their lifetime. This will no doubt be a good thing for the stability of BC’s estate wineries for the next generation of wineries and wine makers. Even though I’m technically Gen-X (“Who are they?” asked the wine industry throughout the world) and not a Millennial, I will still drink to that. Cheers from wine country!

~Luke