A Sip of History: Where Credit is Due

Over the course of researching for Valleys of Wine, I was extremely lucky to meet so many amazing people. Two of those people left me in amazement. This wasn’t because of their characters or personalities (both of which were huge) but that their contributions to the wine industry in B.C. have gone largely ignored. Even the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society’s Harry McWatters Founds Award has never acknowledge either of their contributions to the industry.

What did these two contribute to the BC wine industry? How about creating estate wineries? Maybe you’ve visited one or bought wine from one recently? Without estate wineries, the wine industry here would be unrecognizable today. Estate winery history in B.C. leads back straight to Rafe and Tex in 1977.

Rafe Mair, who had become an environmental and political activist, had a solid online presence and was easy to find. I sent him an email, which he  answered almost immediately. I wrote it late on December 30, 2015 and he received it the next day which also happened to be Rafe’s 84th birthday. Even before meeting him, I could sense that he was happy that I had contacted him about this topic. As I later learned, he was not in good health having suffered a bad fall in his home some months earlier. His life was confined largely to the ground floor of his townhouse in Lion’s Bay and anywhere his mobility scooter could take him. With a huge collection of books built onto one wall and patio doors with a stunning view of Howe Sound to the west, Rafe’s world may have been limited by his mobility but his mind certainly was not. He had opinions and a sharpness of wit that was never dulled during any of our conversations or emails.

The first meeting in January 2016 also included Tex Enemark, Rafe’s deputy during his time in cabinet and a person that he credits with doing a lot of the heavy lifting at the Ministry. In an email to me shortly before the meeting, Rafe said, “It’s difficult, even in retrospect, to believe [Tex] accomplished what he did, with forces he had to deal with, in the time he took.” In further email exchanges, Rafe was clearly thankful of his special relationship with his deputy. Another quote from an email sent to both Tex and I illustrates this deep connection when he said, “Tex …we did so much together and to me this was our # 1 legacy if only because it was gloriously unusual and at no step did we let orthodoxy get involved. A partnership and lifetime friendship was scarcely the least of our accomplishments. Very few politicians/bureaucrats can say they were out to make major reforms and did so.”

Here is how they did it…

Excerpt from “Valleys of Wine” (Whitecap Books, 2019)

Rafe Mair was born in BC and was immeasurably proud of that fact. He graduated in law from the University of British Columbia in 1956 and practised in Vancouver and Kamloops until he was elected to the Legislature in 1975. After six years in Cabinet, discouraged by the experience, he resigned to become a radio talk show host where he became famous, polarizing, and, at times, even more influential for his controversial talk radio shows on Vancouver radio stations. This is how most people in BC recognize him from the past thirty-five years. Critically, Mair had travelled to Europe and other parts of Canada and was aware of the different attitudes toward drinking in these places. To come back to the beer parlours and government liquor stores of BC was to step back in time. As far as he was concerned, beer parlours were absolutely “the wrong way to drink.” Mair had no problems about consuming alcohol but he recognized immediately that assuming responsibility for alcohol policies was not a job to be taken lightly.

Every cabinet minister has a deputy minister in charge of the day-to-day functioning of the ministry who acts as an advisor to the minister. The minister’s tasks are the big picture policies (in line with the premier and the party’s policies) while the deputy’s job is to get the practical things done. In November of 1976, Mair asked Tex Enemark to join him as deputy minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs, which brought a seriously intelligent, thorough, and effective task- master to the team.

Tex Enemark was from Prince George, which is geographically the centre of the province but views itself as a northern community. Prince George, according to Enemark, was a “hard living, hard drink- ing town” when he grew up there in the 1950s. When he joined the ministry, he had very liberal views on liquor laws. “Why do we have any liquor laws at all?” he recalled thinking. He soon learned why. “The first meeting we had with Vic Woodland, he said, ‘Gentleman, you have to understand we’re not dealing with soda pop here.’ I began to more consciously reconsider my attitudes toward drinking. If you’re in charge of liquor regulations, you become aware pretty quickly that people die. There’s a lot of sickness. There are accidents. There are deaths. As the person in charge of liquor regulations, you have to live with the mistakes you make. I became much more cautious.”

Sadly, Mair himself knew that part of it all too well. In the fall of 1976, his seventeen-year-old daughter Shawn was killed in a drunk-driving accident in Kamloops. However, Shawn was not killed by a drunk driver who had lost control of his or her car. She was the drunk driver. Mair was deeply affected by this immense personal tragedy for the rest of his life.

Enemark became the author of the policies to emerge. Deputy Minister Enemark, Minster Mair, and LDB’s general manager, Vic Woodland, started to build a modern, comprehensive liquor policy almost from scratch. Mair and Enemark were given the unique opportunity to change BC’s drinking culture. “Over the spring,” recalled Enemark in 2016, “we had concluded that what we should try to do would be to change the attitudes in British Columbia toward alcohol consumption and bring in a policy of trying to move toward alcohol moderation. So the idea of doing what we could to encourage the consumption of wine was part of that.”

Wine became the answer to many of their problems. Beer and hard liquor were festooned with image problems from the past. Beer was associated with the old beer parlours and [in the 1970s] the constant labour disputes with the unions. Hard liquor harkened back even further, to the days of tough drinking in a saloon.

Mair, Enemark, and particularly Woodland saw wine as the way forward. It was a healthier drink than beer or hard liquor with the added bonus of economic potential in the boss’s home region since Premier Bill Bennett represented the same riding as his father: Kelowna in the Okanagan Valley.

Mair and Enemark drafted a cabinet document over the winter of 1977 and presented it on 25 March 1977. The twenty-eight-page document had moderation as its theme and aimed to balance the social costs of alcohol with the economic returns it provided for the economy and the government, judiciously taking both into account. The report noted that $160 million would come from profits from liquor sales in addition to the tax revenue accompanying economic activities from the hospitality and tourism sectors. All of this had to be balanced with the social problems caused by alcohol and the increasing rate of alcohol consumption in the province at that time.

The policy proposal, which focused on wine policy, not just BC wines, offered the BC industry an assortment of new benefits to improve profitability and thus encourage the creation of better wines. Wineries could now open up tasting rooms and sell their wines directly to consumers on site. They could also use pamphlets to promote their wines in liquor stores. The government lowered the markup on domestic wines from 66 per cent to 46 per cent so that they could compete with the cheaper international wines, whose markups were lowered from 110 per cent to 100 per cent. They limited the number of imported wines that were allowed into the province and created minimum prices for the imports as a way to counteract the policies of the previous NDP government, which had opened the door to all kinds of imported wines but had not restricted quality, price, or bottle size. “We produce enough plonk here ourselves,” recalled Enemark. “We don’t need any imported plonk.”

Upper management at BC’s major wineries had said repeatedly that quality grapes could not be grown in the province. “One of the reasons I got so interested in this,” recalled Mair in 2016, “is that every time somebody lies to me, I assume that the contrary must be the truth.” The more lies he heard, the more he believed that the industry could produce quality wines to an international standard. The problem was the industry had no incentive to do so and the protections in place kept companies from even trying.

Obviously, they needed a new business model. Enemark and Mair had a series of home wine makers, most notably Tom Robinson, approach them saying, “If they’re telling you that you can’t grow decent grapes in British Columbia, they’re lying. Here, this was from Penticton. This one is from Kelowna … ” The Becker Project also attracted attention since a recognized international grape expert had seen great potential in the Okanagan as a grape growing region.

Woodland had seen first-hand in California that there were two styles of wineries: massive commercial wineries that produced huge volumes of ordinary wine and smaller wineries that produced low volume but high-quality wine. “If you were allowed to produce unlimited volumes,” recalled Enemark, “then nothing was going to change. We had to turn policy completely upside down.” Instead of the current licensing requirement stipulating minimum volumes of wines, they postulated that cottage wineries should have maximum volumes, arguing that the less wine a winery produces, the more it is going to have to charge for each bottle of wine to make ends meet. It follows that if the price has to be higher, the quality had better be good otherwise the winery would not survive. To make the quality better required better grapes and to make better grapes meant the winery was going to have to grow grapes in its own vineyards rather than trust a grape grower, who was only looking to grow the highest tonnage of grapes possible with no regard for quality. Initially, the minimum was set at eight hectares of grapes.

The question was, would people buy it? When the average price of a domestic commercial winery’s products were $2.50, and $6.50 and could get you a reasonably good quality Bordeaux, would anyone want to pay $5.50 for a small domestic wine? Mair and Enemark had their doubts and a free market, right-of-centre Social Credit party did not want to start doling out subsidies to make it happen. Woodland crunched the numbers with various production volumes, capital investments, cost of land, borrowing costs, and other factors to come up with a workable business model. According to him, none of the models worked. Several meetings with the minister, Deputy Enemark, and the general managers of the LDB and LCLB yielded no further solutions and an impasse resulted. Enemark suggested the problem was the LDB’s 46 per cent markup. He suggested that the emerging policy could work if the LDB charged the new cottage wineries for the cost of stocking, without taking any profit.

The bureaucrats were horrified. Why allow liquor to be sold in BC if there was no profit in it? “To see if BC can, in fact, produce decent grapes. Once the industry gets going, then increase the markup,” Enemark recalls saying. “There’s never going to be more than four or five of these wineries. The amount of money this is going to cost is a couple hundred thousand dollars a year. If we took this money as a subsidy and tried to work it the other way … it would cost us more than that. So, what we did is just let the market work. If the market works, it works. And if it doesn’t work, then we’ll try again.’”

Woodland ran the revised numbers and they allowed for a sustainable business model for a small, cottage winery. “I never saw two hundred wineries coming down the track!” recalled Enemark.

Post-script

Both Rafe and Tex passed on before Valleys of Wine was published. As it was one of the first chapters to be completed, I am glad to have sent them early drafts the chapter and awaited their critiques. Both were extraordinarily helpful, extremely giving of their time, and happy to know that this aspect of their lives was not going to be forgotten.

Videos

To see Rafe Mair at his best as a politician and inspiring orator, check out these two videos on Youtube;

Rafe Mair speech to save the rivers in BC (2008)

Rafe Mair as a guest on the Jack Webster show (1978)

If you are interested in exploring more about the history of wine in B.C., you might be interested in a new online course from Okanagan College;

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