Laughing Stock is cashed in

The big news in wine country today is about a small winery. Laughing Stock, on the  Naramata Bench northeast of Penticton, has been acquired by Arterra Wines Canada (formerly Constellation, formerly Vincor, formerly Cartier Wines and Beverages …. formerly Grower’s Wine Company) which is now administered by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.  Of course John Schreiner wrote about the take over but so too did Business in Vancouver among may others. It seems that wineries getting bought and sold is big news these days since Andrew Peller Ltd’s acquisition of Tinhorn, Black Hills, and Gray Monk this past September.

So what is going on here? What is happening to #bcwine?

Consolidation. This has been talked about more often over the past 5 years within the industry as the logical next step. Talking to winery owners, wine makers, and managers, I heard a lot of talk about consolidation being the thing that is probably just going to happen. And now it has started.

It seems like wineries are making money hand over fist but the reality might surprise many consumers. Making wine is an agricultural business and, like all agricultural businesses, the profit margins are not always that amazing. The only difference between an American corn farmer, a Canadian dairy farmer, and a small BC winery is that the first two (particularly the American one) are heavily subsidized by governments while the grape grower is essentially penalized with taxes (particularly in BC). American corn farmers would not be able to survive without the US federal government doling out money to make them profitable. To continue making wine, small wineries are reaching an end point, for various reasons, and to go beyond that they need investment from bigger companies. As former owner David Enns said in the press release, Laughing Stock had “reached the tipping point both in terms of scale and demand”.

BC wine seems to be attractive now to the large commercial wineries, of which there are now only three major players – Arterra Wines Canada,  Andrew Peller Ltd., and Mission Hill. Other than at a select few people in BC’s wine history (Bob Holt and Don Triggs come to mind), commercial wineries were never interested in the small scale of boutique winery operations in any serious way until this year.  It seems that without growing via quantity, the commercial wineries are now trying to follow where the market has been going (for decades now, some might argue) which is towards higher quality wines. No company wants to be the one left holding the portfolio of plonk, cheap and cheerful though it may be. For a while, it was looking like that’s exactly what was going to happen, particularly for Arterra, which inherited brands that are arguably shadows of their former selves after years of neglect at the hands of Constellation.

In that sense, Arterra’s purchase of Laughing Stock is a smart move and probably just the beginning. Laughing Stock is not a huge winery (10,000 cases) and has the respect of the wine cognoscenti but nowhere near the reach of a winery like Black Hills. Sales of Portfolio or Blind Trust could not possibly hope to make anything more than a tiny blip on the revenue charts  of the parent company. I suspect that Arterra is not done shopping in BC just yet and there are certainly more wineries out there for the pickings, especially for boutique wineries with owners who are approaching retirement age. With Laughing Stock’s purchase, half of Grand Crus that I listed in my article from 2014 are now under the ownership of a large wine company.

What does this mean for consumers? In the short term, I suspect nothing although availability and visibility of some products will change and maybe even for the better. Laughing Stock’s wines were not always easy to find so perhaps access to larger distribution channels and more sales staff will make some of these wines more widely available or at least better positioned.

As for wine quality, I suspect that Arterra will try to keep the wines as intact as possible for a number of years. As long as the Enns family is involved in making those decisions, there’s no reason to suspect otherwise. The big unknown is how Arterra will handle itself in the Canadian wine industry. Arterra is owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, an investment management company that also includes various European airports, American toll roads, crematoria, and an Australian desalination plant among other investments in its portfolio. Can Arterra make all of those sales charts go up to please the investors?  We shall see. Ultimately, how successful they are will determine wether Laughing Stock’s future as a Grand Cru of BC wine will continue or not.

Cheers from wine country.

~Luke

Are we too cavalier about alcohol?

Drinking alcohol is everywhere in our media landscape and especially on social media, upon which wine in BC has been latched for a fair number of years. Photos of wine bottles in exotic places with amazing food and lovely people are all over the internet on Facebook and Instagram accounts. Add in the trending craft breweries, distilleries, and cideries, plus the marketing power of the big name brands and it seems like an entire generation of adults are drinking without care and living the life. Only the benefits of booze are promoted by social media but nobody offers anything about the potential for problems, societally and personally, that might have occurred, or will occur, later on. People who are fall-down drunk in the gutter are probably not steady enough to take a selfie and post it. Have our attitudes become too cavalier about alcohol lately?

The irony of writing an article like this on a wine blog is not lost on me in any way. I am a huge fan of irony – got the poster, seen the show, own the DVD – and that is why I am hoping that maybe this might get people thinking a little bit more about it. People in the wine industry are all trained through the Serving It Right program, an irritating but necessary course that every person who wants a job serving alcohol in this province must take. We are trained to know the law and what to do in various circumstances  and now we now must be re-certified every five years to stay current. If it helps keep people informed, I’m all in. It is not a bad thing to be thinking about this beyond the online exam. A recent article in the Globe and Mail by André Picard summarized the way that we “romanticize” alcohol in Canada while scrutinizing opioids, marijuana, and other nebulously legal / illegal drugs. Alcohol, according to Picard, is “too often portrayed as good, harmless fun.”

Lots of people have an amazing ability to drink often and well because alcohol in some form is easy to find. People promote their lifestyle on social media and when visiting wineries. (I do that, of course. You are reading some of it now.) But sometimes they make jokes, which to me seems to trivialize it. I have often heard people say, “We NEVER have any wine left over in our house! Ha-ha!” (Ha-hah, yes. Good one.) They buy t-shirts with funny slogans on them proclaiming their love of wine. (Oh, the doctor says you need “glasses” – so funny.) They mock wine sales professionals such as myself for spitting out wines when we taste, calling it ‘alcohol abuse’, and then laughing with their friends. (Hysterical! Did you just make that up yourself? I’ve never heard that before…)

I think that these cavalier attitudes may be masking something potentially more harmful.

Drinking has always been a part of life everywhere I’ve lived and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it in moderation. Alcoholic beverages are perfectly natural, safe to drink, and preferable in most circumstances, especially when traveling. As we learned from North America’s great ‘college-experimental-phase’ with Prohibition almost a century ago, trying to ban it altogether is like trying to ban precipitation and is clearly futile. Prohibition resulted in the complete opposite effects, namely even more consumption, binge drinking, clandestine alcohol production, and dangerous situations to drink. Furthermore, the only alcohol that was available was potentially more harmful because it was coming from a completely unregulated, illegal industry.

Legal alcohol industry or not, some people have an inability to stop drinking once they start. That’s where we get some of the social problems that come from real alcohol abuse (not the spitting-out-at-a-wine-tasting kind). According to a World Health Organization chart on alcohol abuse rates throughout the world, Canada has a total rate of 7.35% of the population (5.43% men and 1.92% women). If we take the population of BC as 4,683,139 as of July 2015, that means that there are over 344,210 people who potentially have problems with alcohol. Some of those people will get treatment for their dependence and some won’t. Regardless of whether genetics plays a part in it or not, the fact remains that some people are going to have issues no matter who they are or where they live. As a former politician who used to be in charge of liquor laws in the late 1970s once put it to me, generally “80 percent of the people are fine with alcohol, 20 percent are not. But it’s the 20 percent that cause 80 percent of the problems.”

And now those people (7.35 percent to – yes, it is a stretch –  20 percent) have massive new wine displays in select B.C. supermarkets lording over them as they go through the checkout lines. In some stores, they are clearly visible from anywhere outside of the main aisles. It is simply impossible to ignore. Many people mentioned this aspect of it in comments on Minister John Yap’s blog which was ostensibly used to solicit peoples’ opinions on the matter. A surprising number of people cited social concerns – minors that work in the stores, recovering alcoholic family or friends, or simply that B.C. already has too many convenient places to buy alcohol already – as a reason to not allow wine in grocery stores.

These opinions were pretty decisively ignored. Most of the people commenting in favour of wine in grocery stores cited mere convenience, as if it was a “no-brainer” that since they already sell cigarettes, they might as well have wine too. That is some good quality internet argument logic for you that would only sound more natural if it was accompanied by an unruly mob carrying pitch-forks and torches. I guess since a store already sells car tires, they might as well sell puppies too. “I mean really, that’s the no-brainer to me,” they said. Calling the restrictions on selling wine in a grocery store “archaic” does not really make sense either since there really isn’t anything to do with modernizing anything.  Does that mean to be truly modern means that any store should be able to sell alcohol? Does true ‘modernization’ mean that anything goes and that all stores should be free to sell absolutely anything that they want? What about firearms? Puppies, booze, and ammo all together in one stores sounds like a good business idea to me! Offer it as drive through and I’ll be the first in line! (Hi! I’d like a bottle of Southern Comfort, the cute little white poodle, and a Glock G43 please.)

When Vancouver city council recently voted to allow wine in grocery stores (with many restrictions), it prompted a few new complaint articles like this that bemoan the “nanny state” and how the wine drinker is ultimately being repressed somehow because of “anti-liberalization”. The author, David Fine, cites Washington State and Quebec as having fewer alcohol-related health issues than BC and complains again about the government restrictions on alcohol. Of course, he doesn’t mention the fact that the drinking age in Washington is 21 (how’s that for a government “anti-liberal” restriction?) and in Quebec is technically 18 (but, as I know from personal experience, is less an actual restriction and more of a suggestion). These places have vastly different attitudes towards alcohol compared to BC. Washington State is far more policed in general than BC while Quebec’s alcohol culture is historically ingrained.

It’s not that I have anything against selling wine in grocery stores, I don’t. I grew up in Quebec where there is wine in grocery stores, corner stores, and government stores. Quebec holds the record for the shortest Prohibition in North America (less than 1 year – it was both enacted and repealed in 1919). I love going camping in Washington State and I agree that getting wine in the supermarkets is absolutely convenient when picking up supplies. But why should my own convenience put someone else’s health potentially at risk? Convenience is not a “no-brainer” that should be “modernized” and free of the “nanny state”. That’s just being selfish. Plain and simple.

We should also note that in Washington State and Quebec, the wine displays are not as obtusely crowned in the centre of the store as they are in BC grocery stores. Wines are on the shelf next to the crackers somewhere down aisle 6 and have no more attention drawn to it than Cheez Whiz or laundry detergent. My problem is not with the law or the alcohol culture in B.C., it is the way that we are lionizing it. By putting alcohol (so far, only wine and cider but, in reality, that door is now open) in such a prominent display in our grocery stores, we are no longer promoting just a product but a lifestyle. Those are two very different things.

When was alcohol ever really that inconvenient for the under 45 generation anyway? Do we really need more convenient wine purchasing locations above and beyond the hundreds of licensed retail stores, government stores, and private wine stores that we already have? At one point, the Town of Oliver (the Wine Capital of Canada) had more liquor retail stores than traffic lights and that’s not counting the wineries’ own wine shops that are not inconveniently close by. In all of the towns in BC where I’ve lived in 17 years here (five towns so far), finding a liquor store close by has never, ever been a problem. I have always lived within walking distance of some kind of liquor store.

Why do we need to put massive signs around high-profile wine displays in grocery stores? Is it because we feel that BC wine cannot compete unless it has this absolutely dominating marketing presence that completely outsizes other grocery departments like the bakery, deli, or fresh produce? Are we that insecure about our industry’s competitiveness? My point is not so much that it shouldn’t be sold in supermarkets, but why do they have to get the star treatment with huge signs and a central display? I’ve never seen that kind of booze promotion anywhere else.

When I lived in Quebec, there was a distinct difference in quality between the wines in each type of location. On the wine continuum from plonk to grand cru, the government stores carried the top quality on down to the decent, inexpensive wines. The supermarkets carried less expensive wines that are probably imported in bulk and bottled locally to look like imported wines. The corner stores (called dépanneurs in Quebec) like 7-11 carry bottles that are probably barely legally wine, and some of them probably skim that name pretty tightly. Essentially, if you want the good stuff, the government store or winery wine shops are where it’s at. (There is a growing band of brave vignerons in Quebec.)

From my point of view, putting real, VQA-certified, B.C. wines into supermarkets is a step in the wrong direction. It is forcing BC wine down the throats of consumers needlessly and we are starting to see it get stratified naturally through the ultimate expression of economics – market demand. Now that the super markets have to purchase their wines outright, they are being much more careful about the wines that they choose to carry. That means that if it doesn’t sell, it’s not going to re-ordered and the wine selection will get winnowed. The private LRS stores located nearby (sometimes sharing a parking lot with these stores) are hoping for this because they will pick up on the more expensive products or smaller boutique wineries that have limited production for their wines. People will start to understand that grocery stores mean cheap and cheerful and LRS stores mean quality. Since LRS’s can purchase whatever they want, VQA or not, that puts them at the advantage while the supermarkets gets ‘stuck’ with the value-priced VQA brands. BC wine’s image is suddenly less prestigious. (I am not considering the previous Liberal government’s wholesale pricing schemes in this argument – I am only interested in a public perception point of view here.)

Marketing aside, wine is now a lot more visible and maybe there are people who do not really need to see that. It is essentially forcing a lifestyle choice into the faces of a small part of the population that can do a large amount of damage. Suddenly, wine is absolutely unavoidable to anyone with alcohol issues that shops that these grocery stores. They now have to face temptation on their own or find a different place to shop.

I believe that BC wine is strong enough to compete without the excessively domineering marketing that I’ve seen in grocery stores so far. I also believe that it can do it without threatening the social health of our towns and cities. Consider that 7.35 to 20 percent of your Facebook friends potentially have a problem with alcohol in some way. How might huge wine displays right behind the check-out aisles effect them? Just like alcohol is healthy in moderation, asking questions about our community is healthy for a democratic society. Let’s question this kind of thing.

Cheers from wine country.

~Luke

 

 

John Peller at Wine Talks – Preparing for Battle

The BC wine industry will be facing some battles over the coming years. The renegotiations of NAFTA  and the Comeau case, that is set to be heard in the Supreme Court of Canada this December, are just two of the things that the industry will have to fight for. So says John Peller, CEO of Andrew Peller Ltd. at a talk Tuesday evening at the Wine Talks series at Okanagan College*.

Peller’s talk included a lot of family history and thoughts on where the industry is today. The family history aspect of his presentation was quite moving and many in the audience appeared to have not been aware of John’s grandfather’s, Andrew Peller’s, personal involvement in the genesis of BC’s wine industry. (Of course, there will be a book coming out that will include some of that history, and more, next summer. *ahem*) The most poignant information for me was insights about Andrew Peller’s character and personality, something that is not easy to obtain through the text of a book, even his own autobiography. Andrew Peller wanted only to be able to have and support a family. After all of the companies that he had created (some successful, some not) the most important thing was family and, as an immigrant coming from Hungary, his arrival in Canada was what allowed him to do that. The most important day in his life had nothing to do with business success but everything to do with his arrival in Canada. After a tumultuous journey by ship across the Atlantic, the sight of Halifax harbour was the happiest moment in his life.  This remained so throughout his life and in his will, he asked that his ashes be scattered in Halifax harbour.

John Peller’s father, Dr. Joseph Peller, had left his medical practice to take over the company through the late 1960s and into the 1990s. John took over in the early 1990s and has guided the company through to the present. Taking over in the post-Free Trade years was not easy and I believe that John deserves a huge amount of credit for taking the company from André’s Wines / Baby Duck to Andrew Peller Ltd. / Gretzky & Sandhill brands.  His knowledge of the industry is profound, intense, and very personal. The actions of politicians, bureaucrats, and trade negotiators are on John’s mind as the Comeau case and NAFTA are poised to become two battles for the wine industry in the coming years.

For industry people, these events will make their day jobs either more or less difficult depending on the outcome. Some wineries, especially smaller ones, may not even notice while others might be driven out of business because of it. For most casual wine consumers in BC, nothing may appear to change at all. Customers in Ontario may one day be able to order their own case of BC wine directly from the winery’s website without any fear that they would be breaking the law. In BC’s wine country right now, the interprovincial trade issue has been a big part of conversation for many years.

According the Peller, the outcome of the Comeau case will not solve anything but will be the “match that lights the gasoline” poured on the fire of interprovincial trade. With the fuse ready to be lit, there is clearly going to be some turbulence in the Canadian wine industry in the coming years and it is all based around trade with other provinces or countries. This is how far the industry has come in the recent quarter-century. 25 years ago, the industry just wanted to be able to sell their wines to anyone at all!

What I think is the saddest part about the Comeau case is that it uses the Supreme Court to modify laws that should have been updated or rescinded altogether by our elected Members of Parliament. These people are the ones who are elected affect that kind of change, not the courts. In his talk, John Peller said that the government bureaucracy of today is very different than the way it was in the 1980s. He noted that 40 years ago, the federal bureaucracy used to be staffed by people who were not capable of getting jobs anywhere else and who simply did as they were told by the elected MPs. Peller contends that the same bureaucracy is now made up of much more educated, competent individuals. This new bureaucratic culture is much more powerful and almost calls the shots to the elected MPs instead of the other way around. Peller noted that the quality of those elected MPs has declined over the years and that this makes progress difficult. He cited Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s recent troubles with making changes to the tax system as a symptom. Morneau happens to be Liberal but Peller suggested that these changes would have been proposed regardless of the government’s political stripes because the main objectives in the changes originated from the bureaucracy, not Minister Morneau himself. In a recent meeting to discuss NAFTA, a Minister in the government admitted to Peller that he (the Minister) “didn’t really know anything about the wine industry at all”. That is worrying coming from a person ostensibly fighting for the survival of the wine industry in international trade agreements.

On the same evening as Peller’s talk at Okanagan College, a press release arrived in my inbox about a campaign to raise money for the wine industry to present as interveners in the Comeau case. They even have a GoFundMe page and a hashtag #CanadianWineForAll. While the $200k is certainly lofty, I am curious to see how many average consumers will make a donation to this particular cause. I, as a lowly industry grunt, wine writer and single parent, have no extra money at this time to donate. I would guess that donating blood to this campaign is not really necessary at this point.

But I certainly agree that interprovincial trade barriers are silly and need to be removed and I was happy to hear that the Supreme Court will be hearing the Comeau case. The group of BC wineries who will be interveners – Painted Rock, 50th Parallel, Noble Ridge, Liquidity, and Okanagan Crush Pad – are all similarly positioned in the BC wine world. None of them are the “Big 3” commercial wineries – Andrew Peller Ltd., Arterra Wines Canada, or Mark Anthony Wine Brands, all of whom have developed strategies to deal with interprovincial trade. (It was Andrew Peller who noticed that it was not illegal to bring grapes across provincial borders, which is why he set up wineries in places like Truro, Nova Scotia.) Nor are they the very small boutique wineries that plentifully dot the Okanagan Valley and make the Naramata Bench one of the highest density wine regions in the world. Sadly, the fractures between large and small wineries will likely continue.

As someone with a particularly broad vantage point from which to observe the nation’s wine industry, John Peller now has the potential to be highly influential in BC in a way that his company has arguably not been since the late 1970s, when Baby Duck lost top spot to Calona’s Schloss Laderheim in total domestic sales. After seeing the respectful handling of Sandhill (a Calona brand originally) and others, I have nothing but optimism for their recent winery acquisitions. My hope is that the company headquarters in Ontario will spend enough time reading the memos coming from their BC wineries. Perhaps this truly national company with someone who is knowledgeable about all wine-producing regions and wineries of all sizes across the country, will be able to lead by example. I, for one, will be watching intently to see what happens.

Cheers from wine country,

~Luke

 

*Major kudos need to be extended to Ian MacDonald of Liquidity Wines in Okanagan Falls for initiating the Wine Talk series with Okanagan College. I had not yet been able to attend one of these and am thrilled that there is a winery owner that understands how important academics is to the future of an industry. From what I can tell through my research on the history of the wine industry here, this has not always been the case. Higher education has not always been respected in BC compared to other places where I have lived. Perhaps the industry will be considering a more academic approach to solving its problems in the future…

Smoke on the water

Controlled burn on Mt. Kobau in 2015

I noticed lately that there hasn’t been a whole lot of action on social media this summer regarding #bcwine. A quick scan of that hashtag on Twitter reveals that very few people are posting anything that involves scenery in any way, even from accounts that are normally filled with beautiful wine country views. This also includes my own twitter account as well as another for a winery that I manage.

Of course the reason is that we have been largely smoked out for most of the summer. It’s one thing to have clouds clog up the valley (which is something that happens in most winters, making it very dark all day – they don’t put that in the brochures) but it’s another thing when it is smoke from forest fires. Smoke is insidious that way. We can’t get away from it by driving up to higher elevations like we often can with clouds. It turns the sun and moon red. It also smells bad and takes away the natural aromas of the seasons.

For those of us in the industry, there could also be another odd by-product of the smoke: self-censorship.

In 2015 I posted photos of the Mt. Kobau fire near Oliver as it happened because it was interesting, so close at hand, and was part of life in wine country as I saw it. It was a controlled burn that the forestry people were doing because the conditions were perfect for it. It looked like a volcano for a couple of hours and it made some dramatic looking photos so I posted it somewhere.

I was soon sent messages by more than a few people in the industry telling me to stop because I was giving people the ‘wrong impression’ of what it was like and that it not helping to bring tourists to the valley. I was told that the media was blowing things out of proportion and that it was keeping visitors away.

That was all entirely possible. Tourism plummeted that year during the last part of the summer as people cancelled hotel bookings and changed their plans. Business was down for a lot of places and there were noticeably less people driving through the Okanagan at that time of year. The smoke from the fires (most of which was from a much larger fire across the border in the US) literally choked the valley for a few weeks that year.

The same happened this year except that the fires were nowhere near the south Okanagan and fires in the north near Peachland and Kelowna did not start until later in the summer and one is burning right now across the river from Cawston. Arguably, the smoke this year was less worse than it was in 2015 but it seemed to last a whole lot longer. By the end of August, I realized that I hadn’t seen a blue sky in weeks nor had I taken any photos at all. The landscape just wasn’t as pretty as I knew it to be and didn’t think it very interesting to document. The light was flat and diffused making everything bland, flat, and grey.

This is one reason why I chose not to document much of the scenery this summer but maybe I shouldn’t have self-censored so much. The point of documenting something is to be able to recall it properly later. The Okanagan that pretty valley with a big lake in the middle  all year long – there are some really dark days in the middle of the winter that are just depressing, but nobody visits here at that time for the same reasons as they do in the summer.

One of the major reasons that I started this blog in 2009 was to document the Okanagan’s wine industry year round, to go ‘beyond the guided tour’, and show what it was like to live, work, and be in the place that makes the wines that we love. If wine is tied so much to a place, why is it that most people only see the best facets of that place? The beautiful vineyard photos that start off every issue of Decanter show some pretty amazing places but they probably aren’t that amazing every single day of the year? Why do we sell-censor? What do we have to hide? The wines come from this place, warts and all, so why try to put such a squeaky-clean face on it all of the time? Truth is always more interesting and complex than a misleading image and if smoke is going to be part of the Okanagan’s reality in the future, perhaps due to the changing climate, then we can’t deny that. People still flock to Victoria, BC at all times of the year even though people are clearly aware of what they are in for when they go. It’s really not a place where sunshine is a forgone conclusion (although I’ve heard that this past summer was very good for sunshine).

As for me on this website, I will continue to tell it like it is. There is a lot to experience here and to miss out on it because of self-censorship is not constructive nor valuable in the long run.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Andrew Peller Goes Shopping

Well, that was an interesting day in wine country.

Today’s announcement by Andrew Peller Ltd. that the company has inked deals to acquire Black Hills Estate Winery and Gray Monk Estate Winery and has written a “letter of intent” to acquire Tinhorn Creek was indeed a shocking read in my email’s inbox this morning. Not the least of which because I was actually just getting ready to go to work at Black Hills, where I have been working part-time as a wine educator there. It was shocking that all three estate wineries’ purchases would be announced at the same time but in some ways, this should not be all that surprising at all.

This shows that the BC wine industry is consolidating and I believe that it is the way forward for some of the larger estates in BC wine. The biggest gains for these wineries is access to a much larger and potentially more connected sales teams. This will help some of them reach a wider national and potentially international audience beyond what they could have been capable of independently. To me, this is exciting because BC wine may now get to be more available in other markets and may be able to gain a wider recognition because of it.

Mission Hill has already acquired estate winery properties in a similar fashion. In recent years, they have acquired CedarCreek and the former Antelope Ridge / Domaine Combret property on the Golden Mile bench which is now known as Checkmate. If they couldn’t find a property to take over, they created a new one from scratch as with Martin’s Lane. Mission Hill has very much lead the way with the acquisition of smaller, premium properties. Although the jury is still out with how successful this has been, it appears to be relatively positive.

What people like about these estate wineries is their personalities and Mission Hill has wisely allowed these to remain or develop. For Peller’s new acquisitions today, the tasting experience at Gray Monk (with their Germanic-focused portfolio) is very different from the Black Hills Wine Experience Centre which is different still from Tinhorn’s modest tasting room and self-guided tours. Each has its own character and charm. Could these get lost in the future under ownership of a large corporation?

We have seen what could happen to small estate wineries in BC when they get rolled into a larger corporate body. The one that tends to raise the more ire amongst people who have been following the BC wine industry for a long time is the sad case of Sumac Ridge. Once an innovative and cutting-edge flagship estate winery that produced the first traditional method sparkling wine and introduced the first $50 bottle of table wine in BC (the red Pinnacle from 1997) among other things , it was quickly stripped of its prize possessions (Stellar’s Jay and Black Sage Vineyard wines) and reduced to the basement entry-level label under the thumb of Constellation Brands where it remains as the “anywhere, anytime” wines. Perhaps this will change as Arterra Wines Canada begins to initiate changes. We shall see.

Peller, however, is no stranger to purchasing estate wineries. Ontario wineries were acquired in the 1990s and then in 2005, Red Rooster was purchased around the same time as the company acquired Calona Wines. Rather than do what Constellation did in purchasing Vincor, Peller chose to close its historic facility in Port Moody and carefully centralize production in Kelowna, renovating the arguably more historic Calona property instead. They maintained the premium branding of Calona’s labels like Sandhill, and grew Calona beyond where Calona could have taken itself on its own. The same is true arguably for Red Rooster, who with talented winemaker Karen Gillis at the helm, has consistently made the term ‘over-deliver’ apply to many of her wines and has the awards to prove it.

With Peller being a Canadian company (the CBC report says that they are Ontario-based but let’s not forget that the company was actually started in Port Moody, BC) and a company that appears to respect the personality of each estate in question, this seems to be a very positive outcome for three estate wineries. Based on their corporate ‘personality’, it seems unlikely that they would coerce brands into a simple tiered value system the way that Constellation did a decade ago. Nor will they guild the lily in the nuvo-visionary style of Mission Hill. Peller is perhaps the most ‘Canadian’ of the large commercial wineries being that they seem to understand the value of working together for a common goal, slowly, methodically, and with careful insight and forethought.

Yes, Peller did create Baby Duck back in the 1970s. That was a long time ago and it’s time to move on. I, for one, and looking forward to seeing these estates will change and evolve over time. And if they hadn’t had Baby Duck when they did, writing out a $95M cheque would have been a lot more difficult today.

 

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

The 2016 LG Award Winners

It’s that time of year again when I get distracted by stats relating to the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in BC Wine. You can find my “analysis” of the winners from 2014 and 2015. This year’s winners are a very interesting collection of wineries. Here is the complete list:

Bordertown Vineyards & Estate Winery 2013 Living Desert Red

Ex Nihilo Vineyards 2014 Pinot Noir

Gold Hill Winery 2013 Meritage Family Reserve

Hester Creek Estate Winery 2013 Syrah Viognier

Intersection Estate Winery 2013 Cabernet Franc

Kismet Estate Winery 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve

Lunessence Winery & Vineyard 2014 Riesling Icewine

Okanagan Crush Pad Winery 2014 Haywire The Bub

Quails’ Gate 2014 Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay

Red Rooster Winery 2012 Reserve Merlot

Ruby Blues Winery 2015 Commune Viognier

St. Hubertus & Oak Bay Estate Winery 2014 Riesling

It’s an interesting set of wines. The first thing I noticed right away was that this is the Okanagan Valley’s award again. There are no other regions outside of the Okanagan represented in this year’s winners. That is tempered by the fact that many of the wineries are new, small wineries and first time winners. Kismet, Bordertown, Lunessence, and Intersection are first-time winners. Along with Gold Hill, Ex Nihilo, Ruby Blues, and Okanagan Crush Pad, who have all won an LG previously, the solid majority of the winners are from small production wineries.

In terms of the varieties, Kismet’s Cabernet Sauvignon is only the 3rd ever single-variety Cabernet Sauvignon to win, and the first since Painted Rock’s 2007 Cab that won in 2010. The first was way back in 2004 for Inniskillin (for the 2002 vintage!). Syrah continues to add numbers with Hester Creek’s Syrah Viognier blend. Except for Cabernet Sauvignon, all of the other winners come from the main varieties that account for 81% of all previous winners. Nobody snuck one in their with an Ehrenfelser, Pinotage, or anything more obscure. That makes it a little more interesting sometimes. Either this year’s awards is a little more conservative in terms of varieties or else the wine industry is starting to focus a little more on its strengths. Perhaps it’s a little of both.

Some wineries are on a streak while others that have been well established for a long time have won remarkably few awards. Ruby Blues continues to win for their Viognier. This is their 4th award for that variety in the past 5 years. Every vintage from 2011 has won it with the exception of the 12. Hester Creek picks up their 4th award in 5 years for an innovative new Syrah Viognier blend. Red Rooster continues to show us that best of the Okanagan’s diversity. They have won 7 awards in total over the years for 6 different varieties and are starting to creep up on the wineries that have won the most awards in total. By the way, those are:

Sumac Ridge – 10 

Wild Goose and Jackson-Triggs – Tied at 9 each

Red Rooster and Inniskillin – Tied at 7 each

Sandhill – 6

The lead is really up for grabs at this point. Wild Goose continues to be in the company of the major wineries owned by Constellation and Andrew Peller Ltd. and will be likely be battling it out with Peller for top spots shortly. Jackston-Triggs and Sumac Ridge  have slowed their winning ways recently and have only won a single award each since 2008 even though both used to win multiple awards each year. Inniskillin has won two since 2006 and was the last of the Constellation properties to win an LG in 2013. Conversely, the Peller properties have shown a real steady course for wins and diversity among the winning varieties and styles. Noticeably absent from any LG award is any of the Mission Hill properties, who perhaps do not enter this competition. Having all three major wine companies involved in this award over time would have been extremely interesting.

Congratulations to all of the winners for this year’s LG awards! Enjoying selling out your wines earlier than you had planned!

Cheers from wine country.

~Luke

 

 

Slow going

Hey folks, it’s been a while. And there’s reasons for it. Not that I feel that I have to explain or rationalize anything to anyone – I don’t – but sometimes when I follow a blog or a website and nothing happens for a while without any explaination, I like to know what happened.

Many of you know that I am writing a book about the history of wine in B.C. That is taking up a lot of my time at the moment. When I need to be dedicating a lot of my brain’s word output to that, things like this get neglected. That will change when the book gets completed, I promise.

Podcasting? Well, that’s a whole other story. I would love to see a return to that at some point and probably will. But with many of the original crew having babies, getting big wine-makering jobs, or, like my buddy Aaron, moved on to a better world, it will mean assembling a new crew and getting things set up all over again. See the previous paragraph for why this isn’t possible.

I am also studying for my WSET Diploma, which is no small task and I probably would have not done so had I gotten my book contract earlier. I am also performing music more often to help pay the bills (odd that music has always supported my wine career…) That’s how it goes here in wine country – when it rains, it pours, and then it doesn’t rain again for months at a time and everything gets super dry and then it just burns. I also have a part-time job and apparently a family, although they don’t get to see me that often. (They all have their own iThings now though so they don’t even notice when I’m not here. When they need something, they text me…)

Rest assured that I will have plenty more to say about the wines of B.C. Diving deep into the history of it as I have been doing has shown me a lot about what makes our province’s wine tick. I have come to some interesting conclusions about our industry and can’t wait to share those with  you in the book.

For those who are interested in new wineries to look out for this season :

Nighthawk – I finally got to visit it after hearing about it last fall. Very nice people, very beautiful setting, great tasting experience and the wines are each solid and unique with none of that “new winery smell”* that most new wineries have for the first few years . They are just past See Ya Later Ranch in OK Falls so there’s now two reasons to drive up that rediculous hill…

Bordertown Vineyard and Estate Winery – I’ve watched them build their winery (and even tweeted a photo of it way back) but have yet to stop in and visit or try their wines. I’m always interested when I hear good things about a winery and NOTHING but good things so I suspect this place will be busy. They are right on the highway in Osoyoos so as far as locations go, they have it pretty awesome. Don’t pass them by this summer.

Ciao Bella Winery – Very nice people – I stood next to them at a trade tasting for 3 hours. Their wine shop is off the beaten path in West Kelowna and, along with Kalala, is another reason to venture up Glencoe Road.

So there we are, a small update of sorts.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

* New Winery Smell – When a new winery opens, sometimes I find that all of the wines kind of taste similar and everything smells so super-clean that all of the wines squeak. Whatever it is that gives an old, established wineries’ wines personality and style, new wineries don’t often have for whatever reason. Probably just because they are too new…

 

Why the Garagistes are so important in BC

20140919-093206.jpgWhen 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.

If they want to be pirates, they are free to be pirates: Andrew Stone of Anarchist Mountain Vineyards, before drinking his Chardonnay...

If they want to be pirates, they are free to be pirates: Andrew Stone of Anarchist Mountain Vineyards, before drinking his Chardonnay…

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.

Lisa Elgert from Cana Vines

Lisa Elgert from Cana Vines

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.

~Luke

Cool new wine tech in the Okanagan

This just in folks, a very interesting to development in winemaking. It’s been tested on whites and rose so far, but it could be interesting for reds as well. Essentially, it looks like a way to keep a lot of the aromas in fermenting wines from escaping during fermentation. Anyone who has been around wineries at harvest time knows that there are a lot of amazing aromas when the wines are fermenting. Traditionally, the cooler the fermentation temperature, the less aromas are ‘burned off’. However, cooler fermentation temperatures make for slow fermentations and so this device might be able to help solve that problem. Here’s the press release that I got today…

NEWS RELEASE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:   Sunday, February 7, 2016

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

NEW CO₂ SCRUBBING PROCESS IMPROVES THE AROMA AND TASTE OF WINES

NARAMATA, B.C. – A retired professor of medicine and amateur winemaker living in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley has invented a ground-breaking new process that uses a high-tech CO₂-eliminating membrane to help wineries keep more of the natural aromas in wine during fermentation, producing noticeably better-tasting wines.

And it appears the process might be so easy for wineries to incorporate that Dr. Dick Jones’ invention could sweep through the industry and spark a real improvement in the taste of many wines throughout the Okanagan and potentially around the world.

From his home-based lab and winemaking room in Naramata, Jones says he’s pretty sure his process is a winner, yielding more aromatic, fruitier-tasting wines.  “It’s very exciting.  This could really add value to the wines we make here.  I think it will help to bring more awareness of this region to the wine world.”

Dr. Dick Jones explains his wine CO2-scrubbing process during a recent experiment with Pinot Gris at Pentâge Winery.

Dr. Dick Jones explains his wine CO2-scrubbing process during a recent experiment with Pinot Gris at Pentâge Winery.

Jones isn’t fantasizing about a vague theory.  He’s a solid scientist, a University of Alberta professor of pulmonary medicine for 35 years specializing in lung, cardiovascular and exercise physiology, and the inventor of nicotine nasal spray to help people quit smoking – one of the U of A’s top inventions ever.

Not surprisingly, he has gone about the development of his wine CO₂-scrubbing process with scientific rigour.  He has conducted carefully controlled experiments over three years, including blind taste-tests by experts, as well as chemical analyses of the wines by an independent professional researcher.  In addition, Jones also has the owner of a popular South Okanagan winery on-board as a believer and enthusiastic supporter.

The “Aha!” moment that launched the project came in October 2012, when Jones noticed the Pinot Gris he had fermenting at home, from his own small vineyard, smelled exceptionally good.  But he realized the valuable aroma compounds were being carried out of the wine by the bubbling CO₂ and were lost into the atmosphere, reducing the wine’s flavour.

Winemakers have struggled with this aroma-loss issue for centuries.  Some try to reduce the loss by lower-temperature fermentation or even what Jones calls “major tampering with the wine” – removing aroma compounds then adding them back in after fermentation.

“Up to 80 per cent of a wine’s most important aroma compounds can be lost with the CO₂ during fermentation.”  As an expert in the human lung’s diffusion and expulsion of CO₂, Jones knew at once how he could preserve the wine’s aroma: “I needed a membrane that selectively allowed the CO₂ in the tank’s headspace to escape while leaving the aroma compounds behind.”

Searching for a membrane that would work under winery conditions, he found that a Norwegian professor had recently developed a specialized super-thin membrane for scrubbing CO₂ from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants.  “It acts like our lungs to get rid of CO₂, it’s made of food-grade material, and it works at room temperature and pressure.  It is perfect for a winery setting.”

The membrane’s inventor, Dr. May-Britt Hägg of the University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, was enthused about the idea of using it to improve wine aroma and flavour, and she supplied membranes for Jones’ experiments.

When the initial membranes sent for the fall 2013 experiment were damaged in shipping, Jones used CO₂-absorbing soda-lime instead, to test his basic theory.  With 24 litres of Pinot Gris in an experimental tank and the same amount in a control tank, the CO₂ was scrubbed during the first six days of fermentation.  An expert wine-taster compared the resulting wines and scored the experimental wine higher for the important attributes of fruity aroma and taste.

In the fall of 2014 Jones flew to Norway to hand-carry four new 30-by-30-centimetre membranes back to Naramata for a larger, more sophisticated experiment.  This time he had experimental and control tanks of about 25 litres each of Pinot Gris and Gamay Rosé.  After using the membranes to scrub the CO₂ during fermentation and later bottling samples of each, the experimental wines were compared with the control wines in both an extensive taste-test and chemical analysis.

Paul Gardner, left, and Dr. Dick Jones check on small tanks at Pentâge Winery that contain samples of the 2015 Pinot Gris being used to test Jones’ ground-breaking new CO₂ scrubbing process.

Paul Gardner, left, and Dr. Dick Jones check on small tanks at Pentâge Winery that contain samples of the 2015 Pinot Gris being used to test Jones’ ground-breaking new CO₂ scrubbing process.

Paul Gardner and Julie Rennie, owners of Pentâge Winery in Penticton, organized a panel of 10 wine experts who blind-tasted and ranked the wines on seven key aroma and taste attributes.  As Jones reports, “The tasters rated all seven attributes with higher scores for the membrane-treated wines.”  The highest scores were for fruity aroma, complexity, fruity taste, and overall rating.

Samples of the wines were then analysed at the University of B.C.’s Wine Research Centre, comparing their levels of dozens of aroma compounds.  For the Pinot Gris, there was an average increase of 23 per cent in the measured aroma compound concentrations.  This is notable since the membrane was used for only one day during peak CO₂ production.  For the Gamay Rosé, there was an average increase of 66 per cent in aroma compound concentration.

“Overall, the taste-tests and laboratory analyses of the experimental wines proved that using the membranes vs. conventional methods left more aroma compounds, improved mouth feel, and retained fruit flavours in the finished product,” Jones says.

After the testing of the 2014 vintage, Jones knew he had to test his process using commercial winery-quality wine in a real-life winery setting.  Paul Gardner, by now a fan of the process, offered his Pentâge Winery as the location.  This fall the headspace in a 1,000-litre tank containing 700 litres of Pentâge’s 2015 Pinot Gris was treated with the CO₂ scrubbing using an improved version of Dr. Hägg’s membrane, this time made up of thousands of hollow fibres encased in a cylinder.  An identical control tank with 700 litres of the same juice sat next to the experimental tank.  Both were fermented at 15 degrees Celsius.

Jones and Gardner will run samples of this year’s experimental and control wines through another taste-test and chemical analysis sometime between February and April of 2016 – and they can’t wait for the results, since the wine has already scored significantly higher in initial, non-blind taste trials.

Gardner looks forward to the possibilities for Jones’ new process.  “Until now the loss of aroma during fermentation has been accepted because there was no easy way to prevent it,” he says.  “But Dick’s membrane process makes total sense.  The proof is in the pudding – this is definitely a superior wine.  I don’t think it will be long before interest in this is worldwide.”

Both Jones and Gardner say one advantage of the new process is that the equipment for it can be about the size of a suitcase, and the power consumption would be comparable to burning a 100-watt light bulb.

Gardner says he will bottle both the control and experimental wines and sell them as a two-pack special-release Pentâge Pinot Gris, and invite feedback from the customers.

Jones knows if his process is absolutely proven to allow CO₂ out while keeping aromas in the fermenting wine, he’s onto a real winner.  “This is the Holy Grail of white winemaking, and there are likely benefits to using the method on red wine fermentation too.  People have been trying to do this for a long time.”

As the months go by, Jones is gaining confidence that his invention will eventually be used to improve the aroma and taste of many wines.  One more major indication of the uniqueness of his process is the fact that his patent applications have progressed successfully through the initial review stages.  “They assess if the idea is novel, if it represents an inventive step, and if it has commercial potential – and it was given high scores on all three factors.”

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

For information contact:          

Dr. Dick Jones, Naramata, B.C.    250-496-5194     jonesdd@shaw.ca

Paul Gardner, Pentâge Winery – Penticton, B.C.  250-493-4008     paul@pentage.com