Cider Takes Off

When exactly did cider get so popular? Why does cider occupy three whole fridge spaces at the small government liquor store in Oliver? Who saw this coming? Clearly, nobody did. The small cider producers in the Okanagan have got to be happy about it.

Cider historically has always been a part of our beverage production history in BC. The Okanagan has been known for growing apples for over 140 years. The name of the first commercial winery in BC survives today on bottles of cider. Cider has even rescued the finances of large commercial wineries like Calona and Mission Hill at various points in their histories. Cider, it seems, has always just been there in BC.

Perhaps it is somewhat bizarre then that cider has traditionally been at the bottom end of the sales statistics in the BC Liquor store statistics on sales. Cider was first indicated as a separate category in 1967 in the Liquor Control Board’s (as it was then known) 46th Annual Report. In that year, cider sales measured 0.14% of the nearly $156 million in total sales. By 1990, cider had crept up to account for just over 2% of total sales. By 2004, cider was holding steady at 5%. The category was renamed “Refreshments” in the following year which likely means that other little bottles of fizzy boozes (Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice, etc) had probably been lumped into the cider category for some time before that.  In the most recent report for 2016-2017, “Refreshments” is holding steady at 6% of total sales where it had been since the previous year. (Interestingly, this same report shows that wine had overtaken beer to represent the largest percentage in  total sales for the first time ever at 35%!)

Growers‘ line of ciders is the most ubiquitous brand across the country. Developed in the 1950’s by Dr. John Bowen and F.A. Atkinson at the Summerland Research Station, the Growers’ Wine Company in Victoria purchased the recipe in 1962 and took over production. Fast-forward through the corporate ownership history to today and Growers’ remains in production at Arterra Wines Canada, where it is distributed nationally. The product line now includes a wide variety of fruit flavours and are all off-dry in style. In the late 1990s, the Growers’ cider brand was a common site in my university dorms’ recycling bins on any given Monday morning. Though I don’t recall trying it at the time, I had many friends who experienced some very rough mornings because of it, and other newer, but similarly sweet, bottled beverages. Even now, the Growers’ ciders are far to sweet for my palate but I can see how they would be appealing and approachable to a lot of people. The late 1990s was also the era when products like Mike’s Hard Lemonade made its debut and gave people alternatives to beer. This is the product category that is now called “refreshments”.

Smaller cider producers started popping up in the past decade and cider has really started to take off. Occasionally good bars would have Strongbow from the UK but there were not usually a lot of choices. Merridale Cider in Cobble Hill on Vancouver Island has been slowly making its way since 1990. The Okanagan has a growing scene too (ha – get it?) and has even caught the attention of cider-focused websites like this one.  BC Tree Fruits, the apple-packing co-op, has even gotten into the act with a line of ciders called Broken Ladder. They even have a tasting room and retail space just down the road from the Sandhill wine shop in Kelowna. Cider is in every LRS and government liquor store. In the Oliver government store, there are three full fridges dedicated to cider! So, who’s fault is it that cider has now become so popular in BC?

For me personally, I put the blame squarely on Wards from Kelowna. If their cider wasn’t so damn aromatic, perfectly balanced, and so utterly refreshing, then I probably would never have bothered with cider in the first place! Wards has a wine connection of course through The View Winery and Vineyard, a winery that has been featured many times on this site (notably here, herehere, and here). Ward’s cider is distinctly drier and more aromatic than the basic level cider and, to my tastes, is a beautiful, complex beverage that keeps me interested with ever sip.

So is cider just the latest hipster beverage that will fade away as soon as something else comes along? To answer that, you’d probably have to ask an actual hipster. (My beard is just not long enough.) I think that as long as there are producers who are interested and capable of producing a quality cider, there really is no reason why cider can’t have a long shelf life in BC.

Cheers from wine country!



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.




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!


Standing Up for What is Right and Left

What has been happening lately in America has been shocking me. The events of Charlottesville, VA simply didn’t make sense to me. Seeing clips of interviews with ‘white supremacists’ being shared on social media seems like one massive case of looky-loos. It’s one thing to spread that kind of message deliberately but it’s a whole other thing to spread by looking down upon on it, which is what social media seems to be really, really good at. Satire is all over social media and a lot of it is hilarious, but it also often belittles it, which then makes it seem like it isn’t really that big a deal.

Except that it is a big deal. Plus, the subjects of that satire don’t think it’s all that funny and are driven even more to continue what they are doing. I believe the current US president was elected because he wasn’t taken seriously during the election. If we are still laughing about that now, we shouldn’t be. His base of support, the people who voted for him, may have done so out of spite for having been mocked so heavily about their own political beliefs. They didn’t find the jokes from John Oliver all that funny and may have resented the constant barrage of sketches from Saturday Night Live making fun of the leaders of their party. I can see how they would have felt bullied by pop culture. Nobody likes that, no matter what side you are on.

That does not in any way condone the nationalist attitudes now emboldened because of a lack of strong leadership at the top. Even talking about / retweeting / reposting articles about those hateful ideas is spreading those same messages further into society. That is something that we need to be very aware of and careful of doing, even with the intention of showing it up for the ‘evil’ that it is. In this post, I will talk about these things, but there will be no links to any of their messages anywhere in here. That is not an accident. I am writing this only to offer my opinions on it and not promote it further by sending readers to see it again. These messages should be consigned to the loony bin, which is exactly where they would have been placed before social media, which has really given an unrestricted voice to these misguided people.

I am fully aware that this is a wine blog, not a political blog. I have always tried not to make any political statements here because I’ve never felt that it was worth it. Politics and wine are not always fun together. Nothing ruins a dinner party more efficiently than a political rant. The reality of it though is that these awful messages that have been coming out of the American states run counter to everything a wine blog should be. NOT to say something or NOT to speak out about it is now DANGEROUS. I believe that we have reached a point in time where ambivalence or indecision is equally or even more lethal to our society than the hate-mongering that was on display in Virginia.

Clearly these people are not wine people. Wine is about bringing people together. Wine is about sharing. At the end of the day, we all need to eat, sleep, and love our children. Wine is and has long been a part of life that way. I cannot think of a single reason why I would not offer to share a bottle of wine or personally pour a glass of wine for anyone else in the world, including any of these people that spread this kind of hatred. They do not see what they say as being evil, they see it as being socially active and there are a whole lot of reasons for that happening that involves far larger problems such as failures in the education and justice systems among others.

It is far quicker and easier to destroy a bridge than it is to build one. I come from Quebec, where divisions of all kinds have existed within the culture far more than in any other Canadian province in which I’ve lived. It’s taken a long time over many generations to bridge some of them at least to some degree. The obvious division is between English and French but there are others that go back further and are less visible now. Protestant / Catholic and Jewish / Christian devisions have traditionally been big separators but since my generation came of age in school, are not as prevalent as they used to be in my parents’ time. Recently, Quebec has been confronted with the racial issues involving religious clothing such as the hijab and this is going to strain religious divisions again – or at least continue what may have already been there. Quebecois culture has always seemed mysteriously defensive to me and I never really understood that until I moved away. In North America, French culture is, and has been for a long time, a minority, entirely surrounded by English provinces and states. This defensive posture, which from my point of view was often totally xenophobic, has caused many problems for this province which included a draining of the small anglophone population from it (none of my good grade-school friends have stayed in Quebec). I was born in and lived for 21 years Quebec, but I would never, ever say that I was a Quebecois. There were some violent episodes in Quebec’s history that showed just how different we dealt with problems divisions like this in the past.

Other provinces in Canada have similar divisions but they are not, to me anyways, as visible. To be somewhat flippant, Canada can be essentially divided into two – Toronto and Non-Toronto. (Everyone from outside of Toronto will understand this.) Culturally in BC, Vancouver has divisions between people of Asian and non-Asian ancestry, which is something that I noticed when I first moved to Vancouver. I soon learned that there are also regional divisions between “the coast” (aka the lower mainland) and non-coastal regions (aka just about everywhere else, including the Okanagan Valley). And it seems that just about every place has divisions based on sexual orientation, which is just as unfortunate and needlessly divisive, particularly on the micro-level between members of families.

It seemed like we, in North America, were doing so well culturally and artistically, if not civilly. President Obama showed the world that a non-white person could be elected president and govern intelligently and with dignity effectively for two terms without a major scandal. Personally, I wasn’t in favour of everything that happened when he was president such as the use of military drone strikes. The cost of filing a tax return went up a lot for citizens living abroad, and police brutality seemed only to increase, strangely, in the Obama years.

I can’t help but notice that these social divisions really started to grow as the internet and social media started to grow. Some of it has been positive, particularly for social activism, but is this really all good? From the point of view of a white supremacist for instance, what happened in Virginia was, to them, social activism. Social media has allowed voices from Greenpeace to the KKK to unite, gain strength, and spread their messages of whatever. With no check on content, messages of all kinds have been able to ferment and grow beyond their own small world, good or bad. It’s not just environmentalism or social justice anymore, it’s community groups, hobbyists, and industry professionals (such as me with this blog) contributing to the noise.

“Take advantage of the town on its feet
and the frustration when the home town’s beat
Mask and sprays and gas and rags
In backpacks with designer tags.
The rush that pushes you into the crowd
to burn the cars and scream out loud
will be turned against you at the end of the season
There’s a new power now that doesn’t answer to reason.”

I wrote this verse for a song called “Survival of the Mob” which was recorded on The Gala Vanters CD that I did in 2012. This verse is about the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver that happened that year but the rest of the song was written well before that. The power of social media to link us together (and now more often than not it seems, to sell us things) comes with a new power to incite us into action, but like a mob rather than as a civilized democratic citizenry. “Freedom of speech” may need some limits. True, absolute freedom is not really possible because that will always mean that someone else will potentially suffer because some people will take advantage of their ‘freedom’ to dominate or hurt others.

What we really need is compassion, which is something that all religions, at their core, teach and hold sacred. Compassion is something that I find strangely absent from social media in most ways. Other than the occasional feel-good video about how similar we all are, there really aren’t that many instances of exchanges on social media that I have had that could be considered ‘compassionate’. The medium is not really meant for that. For all of its communicative power, the truly human experience of compassion is pretty much impossible through social media. Facebook is perhaps the closest with recent augmentation of the far less binary “Like” button to include other ’emotions’ and some emojis might help, but in reality, true compassion requires being in the same real physical place. Maybe our world is not getting smaller after all? Maybe it’s been getting bigger, perhaps too big. When it gets too big and we get so far away from each other, the possibility of removing compassion grows more and more probable. We then start to allow cancerous ideas to take hold, resulting in mismanaged elections, needless suffering, and potentially fatal societal consequences.

For now, we have to work with what we have, and that means social media. If you have a blog, a website, a social media account of some kind (which most people now do), NOW is the time to speak up. These people’s minds cannot be changed, but they can be drowned out. If social media really is a new type of mob, then we all have to band together to do this. They are well-organized and have bonded together effectively and we need to do the same. They think they have the numbers, but they don’t, and we can clearly out-mob them. They are the minority. We can do this by shouting them down.

But we can’t drown them out if we are just standing there, making no noise at all. It’s time to make some noise.

Why aged wines are awesome

Sometimes, opening an aged wine has its hazards. This is the carnage after removing a cork that had disintegrated.

Aged wines take courage. Aged wines take patience. Aged wines take discipline.

All three of those things take a little work and some effort on the part of the wine collector, which may be why most wines are generally consumed young. In practical purposes, it is also expensive to keep wines in a cellar for extended periods of time and most people (or restaurants) just don’t have the space to keep a worthwhile collection. With little or no exposure to the taste of aged wines, most wine lovers will rarely be able to experience the amazing aromas and flavours of an aged wine. Without any appreciation of it, aged wines have little chance to become a part of our BC wine culture.

Unless of course you have lucky enough to have a friend or coworker who can expose you to the amazing world of aged wines. For me, the first seriously aged bottle of wine that I had the pleasure of tasting happened to be from a coworker at a winery in 2008 who had brought in a bottle to share. It was an Ontario riesling from the early 1990s and was a little over 15 years old at the time when I got to taste it. I’d never tasted anything like it. It smelled and tasted like apple pie and a full bouquet of flowers that had been gently doused in kerosene. It was weird at first but became entrancing and I loved every sip.

I have tasted other aged wines since then. I have tasted verticals of BC wines from Clos du Soleil, Black Hills, Painted Rock, Osoyoos Larose, and others, some of which went back a full decade to the oldest wine in the set. I have tasted 14 year-old Pinot Noir from Burrowing Owl that tasted nearly as fresh as the day it was bottled and Icewine from Lang that was just over 17 years old at the time. All were truly memorable and utterly amazing tasting experiences.

Why do we not age our wines in BC? Master of Wine Rhys Pender has often stated that BC wine, with its higher levels of natural acidity that is the envy of other wine regions around the word, is a perfect candidate for creating long-term, ageable wines. Washington State wineries like White Heron have figured this out and have made some amazing examples like the 2003 Malbec that I had purchased while on a trip to Wenatchee in 2011. I have worked hard to save some wines for at least a little while and this is how I did it.

The trick to aging wine is to either have some good distractions or be able to hide wines on  yourself. By distractions, I mean having other wines to serve instead of the ones that you are intending to age. If you want to keep that bottle of Nota Bene or Oculus securely stowed away for an appropriate amount of time, it is best to have other wines readily available. Ideally, though not always financially practical, it is best to have multiple bottles of the same wine to try out. In my own experience, I was able to purchase a case of 2006 Nota Bene and it became our special occasion wine that we opened only on our anniversary or some other special dinner. Choosing our anniversary was a great way to do it because that meant that we only really opened one bottle each year. That made the wines last a long time until the last one was approaching 9 years of age (from the vintage date) by the time is was consumed.

The other option is somehow to hide the wines on yourself. For me, I put them in my wine rack where I have carefully labeled some of the wines with neck tags on them. For the wine that I really want to disappear, I actually put them lower down in the collection and I simply do not label them. It’s as easy as that. The labeled wines stand out more and I will naturally head for those wines first. It’s not failsafe, but it is surprising how much longer a wine will last if it doesn’t have any attention drawn to it.

If you are looking for something that will really go the extra mile, consider a larger format bottle such as a magnum or a double-magnum. These are not as uncommon as they used to be although you might have to go to the winery’s own wineshop to purchase these. Larger format bottles age more slowly than standard 750ml bottles because the ratio of wine volume to surface area of the cork is much greater. Therefore, the flow of oxygen into the bottle (the rate of “oxygen ingress”, according to those in the cork trade) is is about the same but the volume of liquid inside the bottle is much greater so the wine ages slower. The ratio of the ullage (the air space between the wine and cork) is also correspondingly smaller compared to the volume of the wine. Anecdotally, a magnum will add 30-50% on to the total age of the wine. If your 750 ml bottle of 2003 Oculus peaked at 10 years in 2013, the same wine in a magnum will probably be at a similar state of development right around now in 2017 or 2018. That percentage likely increases as the bottle size gets larger with double-mags, Jeroboams, Imperials, and other larger sizes but, since I’ve never owned any of those formats myself, cannot personally attest to the ageability of those sizes.

What I can attest to is that aged wines are a completely different, amazing, and engaging wine experience unlike anything else that you ever get from an old bottle of cola. There is something about wine as it ages that makes it change into something truly amazing. That does not mean that every wine gets better with age. Some of them clearly are not meant for that and some people do not like the taste of aged wines. That is purely a matter of taste. You should not ever feel guilty for opening a bottle of wine ‘before its time’ if that is the way that you prefer it. Wines don’t get better with age, they simply change. If you don’t like what they change into, then it isn’t better for you, is it?

For me, I love aged wines and I believe that there are others out there who would love them too, if only they could try them. If you have aged wines in your cellar, share them with friends and help spread the word! Aged wines are a beautiful experience.

Cheers from wine country!


8th Generation 2011 Riesling Selection

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!


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!


* 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.


Whose history is this anyway?

History is a funny enough thing without wine. Then when you add wine, it just gets better but a bit ridiculous. Especially in a relatively new wine region like we have here in BC. Just reading through various sources makes me wonder if what I’m writing for my upcoming book on BC wine history is going to look as good (or as silly) twenty years from now.

Some of the same events in our province’s wine history have been written about in multiple, and completely different, ways. So which one am I to take as the ONE that REALLY happened? Or did either of them happen? How much of one of them is actually more right than the other? It’s a bit frustrating for sure but not as much as finding something that is just blatantly inaccurate right after finding something that was really amazing. I have a source that has something profoundly interesting in it that I’ve never seen before in any other source. That’s the exciting part! New information! And then two pages later they’ve written something that is so utterly wrong that it’s hard to take the cool new information seriously, even though I want to.

Therapy Vineyards - never a bad experience

Therapy Vineyards – never a bad experience

It’s like going to a wine shop (which I did a lot of last year as a tour guide) and hearing something so amazingly wrong like, “Our winery was the first to plant vinifera grapes in the Okanagan in 1987.” … Hmm, no, sorry. You weren’t the first. Or the tenth for that matter. But that kind of misinformation, even if it seems trivial (they’re just tourists, who cares?) is not trivial. At some point, the proverbial fish becomes too big and it simply becomes a lie. That winery is lying to their customers. What else could they be lying about then? Hmm… when they say the wine was “oaked”, was it really 12 months in barrels or oak tea-bags in a tank for 3 months? Is that Cabernet Sauvignon really grown in Naramata like it says on the label??

That’s where proper staff training comes into play. I can tell within 30 seconds of coming into a wine shop if the staff there have been trained properly or not. They don’t even have to open their mouths, although sometimes when they do it just confirms their level of training. It’s something that I’ve written about before and drawn the ire of many an over-worked, under-staffed wine shop manager for doing so.  But if a winery can’t afford to pay all of their wine shop staff for two full days of training and team building (four days for a winery over 30,000 cases) at the beginning of the season, then they will rarely get the kind of cohesive and consistent presentation in the wine shop that will be able to sell their wine by telling their story.

Tamsin's amazing tours at Burrowing Owl

Amazing tour at Burrowing Owl

It seems silly. “What does it matter what my story is? They’re just going to taste my wine and be dazzled by it. It’s the best wine out there – they will love it! That will make them buy it.” It’s the same old “If you built it, they will come” rationale from Field of Dreams that small wineries think will happen when they start out. That’s why they don’t allocate a lot of money to proper marketing or branding either. Patrons in a wine shop (especially Canadian patrons) will rarely tell the winery outright if they’ve had a bad experience or didn’t like the wine or the service. They just won’t buy anything and leave politely without buying anything. But there is someone who they will tell with all honesty and without any reservations.

They will tell their tour guide.

I’ve heard it all about all of the wineries that I’ve visited on tours (some at which I’ve previously worked). Tour groups tell their drivers the best information about their experience and I’m glad they do. I knew that going into the job because I’ve previously told the drivers that drove me around before on tours what I thought of certain wineries and experiences. I also have friends who are tour guides. The good tour guides’ goal is to make sure that you have a great experience. That’s their job and they are always on the lookout for great experiences as well as avoiding bad ones. Want to go to a winery that has a great experience? Find one that has tour buses parked outside of it most of the afternoons (and then go back and visit them in the morning when they aren’t as busy…).

You might think that people aren’t going to like all of the wines out there and that may be a part of it. Tour guides can easily get a sense of their groups and take all comments with a grain of salt. Unlike ten years ago, there aren’t very many seriously flawed wines out there anymore. Better consultants, mature grapevines, and more technology has meant an increased level of quality in the aggregate. But I also know that if customers can’t relate to the story of the winery, through the people who tell it, they are far less likely to buy into anything that’s being sold, regardless of how good it is. I’ve taken people to wineries that I absolutely love – my favourite wineries sometimes – and if they can’t relate to the story or the people telling it, they will walk with nothing or a polite “pity-purchase”.

Kon talks about his vines at Mocojo

Kon shows us the vines at Mocojo

I’m here to tell you that the winery’s story does matter and that it matters a lot. The good thing is that nobody knows it better than the winery does so they are their own experts in a way. And when I say, “Tell your story” I mean the story of the winery, not the whole region. That’s where wine shops get derailed. I’ve heard one wine shop person talk about the amazing geology of their region and how it makes their wine awesome. Then the next shop did the same thing but the geology was completely different! That group was confused by the second shop and (surprise surprise) didn’t buy anything. Neither wine shop had gotten their story straight. The correctness of the geology aside, they should have been focusing on what their own story was rather than try to expound on the story of the region, which is largely dependant on who their consultants were and what, if any, books they’d read on the subject. Often, it’s far more of the former than the latter in which case the fish just got two sizes bigger instead of one.

Historical memory is as foggy as the morning after having too much wine the night before: You know something happened but the exact sequence of events might not be exactly what happened. So, whose history is it anyway?

It’s the winery’s. Tell your story. You know it better than anyone else. That’s what people want to hear and why they’ve bothered to come visit you. Otherwise they’d have just gone to get your wines at Save-On for 10% off.

VQA Store Model is Changing

On Tuesday, November 17th, the BC Wine Institute (BCWI) issued a press release that took many in the wine industry by surprise. But it really shouldn’t have been a surprise. The real surprise might be coming later.

The new rules on alcohol in BC that were implemented in April 2015 allow wine to be sold in supermarkets. As someone who grew up in Quebec, where wine and beer can be sold in supermarkets and 7-11 corner stores, this seemed like a logical move. But B.C. has always had a bizarre way of dealing with alcohol throughout the province’s history and, true to form, this recent change was no different. In Quebec (or Washington State for that matter), it is certainly convenient to be able to purchase wine with groceries but from my experience in both of those places, the wines sold there are never considered “top quality” wines. To have VQA-only wines in supermarkets here seemed at odds with what I’ve previously experienced.

Ok, so what’s the harm in trying? There’s only one way to find out if this will work and that’s to just do it. From what I’ve heard, the four Surrey locations are blasting through amazing amounts of wine and that the whole Save-On-BC-Wine thing is going to be very profitable. That means that the VQA licenses in outlying areas might be better used in more profitable locations and that is always going to be the Lower Mainland.

What shocks me about the closing of the VQA stores is how little coverage it is getting in the media. Tracy Gray of Discover Wines was on Kelowna’s CBC this morning being interviewed about the closure and was very diplomatic about the whole thing. Too diplomatic for host Chris Walker’s taste at times which seemed to inform his seemingly off-the-cuff question about whether or not Gray had been coached by the BCWI in advance of the interview. Gray, always a professional and an excellent and elloquent speaker, responded to all of the questions calmly but with an air of detachment that seemed at odds with the facts. Discover Wines, her twelve and a half year-old business and the number one VQA store for sales every year, was going to be shut down Arthur Dent-style early in the new year to make way for a hyper-profitable retail chain. Even if Gray didn’t show it outwardly, Walker understood what it is that we stand to lose: Our wine culture. The interior will lose out on those great stores filled with passionate, knowledgeable, and helpful staff members who know the wines better than anyone except the winery staff themselves. They are front-line contributors to local wine culture.

And of course this comes with a disclaimer – I used to work at a VQA store and understand how it functions differently than a regular wine store. I also currently work for a winery that sells wines to those VQA stores. Since 3/4 of them in my territory are closing, I stand to lose out on a little chunk of commission. Yes, it will be a owee. But there are bigger things at risk in the longer term.

The light media coverage so far shows me what I already knew beforehand from my own recent experience. People (the general B.C. public that buys wine) have forgotten what VQA means in the first place. It didn’t dawn on me until I worked this past summer as a wine tour guide. I was amazed at how many times that I had to explain to people from B.C. what VQA stood for and what it meant. I’ve had to explain that to people in wine shops and wine stores more and more over the years since I started in the industry. It’s like the industry just assumed that people knew what it was all about.

Here’s a bit of the backstory:

When the wine industry as we know it today was in its infancy in the 1980’s, estate wineries had an uphill battle to prove to consumers that it was fit for human consumption. Canadian wine had a bad reputation. The Vintner’s Quality Alliance was an industry-lead quality assurance DSC_5124program that acted as a “seal of approval” from the industry. The VQA logo on a bottle of wine meant that this wine was considered to be a quality product.  By 1996, the BC Wine Information Centre opened in Penticton (with wines from over 24 wineries!) and was the first stand-alone VQA store. Other stores followed effectively with a mandate to sell B.C. wine and be the defacto community resource for people to learn about their locally produced wines.

It worked. VQA wine sales shot up. Wineries opened throughout the 1990’s at a furious pace. Predictions in the early 90’s that by the end of the century, that B.C. could have at least 100 wineries! Imagine that! Of course at the time, there were only a quarter of that so it seemed like a lofty goal. The optimism in the industry then was a result of VQA and was a complete 180 from only a few years prior when Free Trade was supposed to wipe the industry out  completely.

But something happened in the intervening years. The wine industry continued to grow but not everyone was on board with VQA. Jeff Martin was noticeably absent from VQA when he started La Frenz. (For a great interview with Martin and his thoughts about VQA, check out Calli’s podcast on the subject from 2014.) Other producers followed as the need decreased for VQA to convince consumers that quality wines could be produced in B.C. Consumers knew that B.C. wines could be good already and smaller producers didn’t feel the need to pay the added cost to be a part of the program.

I can see both sides of that argument but that isn’t the point of this article. My point is that over the almost 25 years that we’ve had VQA in B.C., the vast majority of casual wine buyers still do not know what it is and likely have never set foot in a VQA store. Thus, the quietest of media uproars over the recent VQA store closures in the Okanagan.

The issue here is profits. Wineries are businesses and have to make money to survive. The Vancouver is where the customers are and most wineries’ allocations are sent to the Lower Mainland anyways. Having them in a Save-On is far more profitable there than having a nice stand-alone store in the Okanagan where people who do enjoy local wines can (and sometimes do) go right to the winery to buy them. Only time will tell if the new Save-On-BC-Wine model will work in the long run (and who it is that will actually profit the most from it) but I think it’s safe to say that wine will follow where the money is. This BCWI list of VQA stores will have few, if any, locations on it outside of the Lower Mainland in the not-so-distant future. How will that effect the wine culture in the interior of the province where most of the wine comes from and where tourists expect to find it? I guess we’ll all find out in 2016.

Cheers from wine country.