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…

This year’s BC book harvest

I originally started this post back in early August because it was the first time that I could actually sit down and do some proper writing here. Jobs and other large projects had occupied my time up until that point. 

And then the fires started and priorities changed pretty quick. Since then of course, more books have appeared including Jennifer Schell’s coastal sequel to her producer-appreciation cook book “The Butcher, The Baker, The Wine and Cheese Maker” called (deep breath) “The Butcher, The Baker, The Wine and Cheese Maker by the Sea“. I have not picked up the new one yet but it is on my “To buy” list. Until then, there are these two fine BC-produced books to check out:

photo 2Two books have been appearing not inconspicuously on wine shop shelves this year and as a lover of B.C. wine for many years, I have developed a reflex to buy them as soon as a new one comes out. I have even bought some books twice or even thrice as gifts or when a new edition are released. The thrill of reading about the people, places, and wines never gets old for me even though at this point in my career I now know many of the people personally. So while I am freely open to admitting that I can go for days without having to take a sip of wine, it is a rare occurrence when I can make it through a day without reading about wine. Wine books are almost more addictive for me than wine itself.

The two new books this year are “Naramata Bench Vineyards and Wineries” by Garth Eichel and Taryn Liv Parker’s “Okanagan“. Both are regionally-focused and both contain stunning visuals with real experience-based descriptions of the profiled wineries. By that I mean that they don’t just simply review the wines and tell the ‘official’ story of the winery. Instead they try to tell you what it would be like for you to go there. This is a crucial difference from most region-specific wine books which offer a spew of generalized information – facts ‘n’ stats – about the history of the region, the terroir, the wines, and the producers of the area. This experience-oriented style makes both of these books approachable and in my opinion a more honest representation of what the reader will experience if they go to visit the same winery. The drawback is that that at times it can lack depth for people who might want to know some of those specifics.

Let’s begin with Eichel’s “Naramata Bench“.

photo 1Producing a book about a visually stunning place like Naramata and having it not be equally visually stunning would have been ridiculous. That is not the case here as the book is loaded with great photos and excellent layouts. The trick with photographing any wine region is to make it look interesting in a new way. Of all of BC’s wine regions, Naramata has probably been photographed more than any other so the onus was entirely on Eichel to show us something new and avoid clichéd shots that any tourist can capture.

He accomplishes this with diversity. Sure there is scenery – that’s unavoidable – but there are close-up details (Therapy’s weather vane), portraits of owners and wine makers, contributed older photos (Bob and Tim from Kettle Valley with their sons as toddlers), and action shots (Jay Drysdale sabering a bottle of bubbly with an axe) that make each layout exciting to look at. There’s a predictable rhythm to it and a lot of repetition (there is always a photo of someone pouring a wine at every tasting bar) but it works and shows the setting for the winery’s experiences accurately. And just like the landscape clichés, there are no “super-serious” photos of squinting winemakers holding a glass up to the light to “examine” it. Eichel thankfully has avoided this with excellent creativity with the camera. My favourite feature however is that each photo is also suitably captioned with details specific to each photo – wonder but often overlooked element in a lot of wine books.

The text rolls along fluidly and is easy to read. Interviews with the owners are the basis for the text and Eichel uses lots of direct quotes in his narrative. The wineries will tell their stories when visiting the shop in person so paraphrasing is probably not the best way to communicate the experience so this technique is refreshing and fits into the experience theme upon which this book seems based.

photo 3If Eichel’s “Naramata Bench” is Sgt. Pepper’s, full of colourful characters and stories, Parker’s “Okanagan” is the White Album, absolutely anchored to its time and place. It’s physically huge and heavy with a hard cover giving it the same imposing effect of strength similar to large pillars on the façades of banks and courthouses to denote security and authority. The blank white cover simply and elegantly adorned with the word “Okanagan” suggests something epic while the small subtitle near the bottom acts as a perfect tease to the book’s contents. Rather than loudly advertising the fact, Parker’s cover is subtle and uncluttered and let’s the colours inside the book explode more vividly when flipping through the pages.

To me, this book looks and feels more Okanagan. The rough texture of the pages, the high-contrast photos, the light sand-coloured text boxes and highlight squares throughout the book all appear more like something produced in the Okanagan to me. If anyone from around the world wants to know what it’s like to be in the Okanagan, this is the book that I would send them. The layouts give me the impression of a high school or university year book (Oh, there’s a photo of Mike! Hey, there’s Virginia!) which I believe is a perfect form for conveying that very sense of time and place. When I want to relive how I felt working in this industry in 2014-2015 (when this book was in production) I will absolutely pull this book out. It is truly a temporal work of art.

Her attempt to look at the region as a whole entity of the Okanagan not just through the obvious physical elements like geography, but also through time – history. To my delight, Parker seems to be aware of the Okanagan’s past and appreciates its influence on the present. No other B.C. wine book that I’ve read has ever included a photo of Velma Sperling, grand-daughter of Giovanni and Rosa Casorzo. Giovanni was hired by Father Charles Pandosy to work at the Oblate mission. Velma is a living link to that era of our history that roots today’s wine industry and continues to help it grow. The same land is still in the hands of the Casorso family and Velma’s daughter Ann Sperling, also photographed in this book, has a highly distinguished career as a winemaker.

Each winery’s entry gives a snapshot of their style. A list of the property’s signature wines, key varieties, and vineyards are an quick guide for anyone interested in specific varieties. The section “The Property Experience” is a point-form listing of events and special offerings. Every winery has a tasting bar, we all know that. Parker tells us more about what makes each winery unique. For those wine lovers looking for that special experience, you will find one for you while thumbing through “Okanagan”.

The biggest question I have of both books is how the wineries were chosen to be included in each one? Eichel’s “Naramata Bench” has a small section on “Other Wineries” while Parker’s “Okanagan” just doesn’t mention some wineries at all, leaving awkward holes in some of the regions. There is section on the North Okanagan but strangely, no wineries listed there. Eichel’s “Naramata” includes a near phone book of listings for places to stay, places to eat, tour companies, and travel information – all helpful items but curious for a printed book considering Google is now the de facto go-to resource for most people. Both books are self-published and must be financed somehow. However I sometimes get the impression that I’ve bought into very large advertisements, especially turning to the bizarre two-page spread on Greyback Construction, a local construction company that happens to have built many wineries. Neither book purports to be objective guidebooks or anything like that however it makes me wonder if or how the financing may have influenced the content.

This media literacy (or paranoia?) comes to me courtesy of my own “question everything” personality (or disorder?) and perhaps isn’t shared by many others, nor perhaps from the Millennial generation who care about it differently than I do. (A short stint at Simon Fraser’s Communications Department probably didn’t discourage that behaviour either…) Both books are extremely well planned and well executed highly recommend you pick up both as soon as you can. Sometimes regional books don’t make it to a second printing so don’t pass on either of these two if you see them.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Regional Marketing in BC

Regional associations of wineries (sometimes blandly referred to as “generic marketing bodies” in the wine industry) are not a new phenomena in B.C. They lurk in the background of tastings and marketing campaigns in the Okanagan, Vancouver, and other key markets. I’m not even sure that many consumers are all that familiar with them specifically and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. They are kind of under-the-radar organizations that represent many (and sometimes, but rarely, all) of the wineries within a given geographical region. They publish maps and buy advertising space on behalf of their wineries. When asked to name one of these organizations, I suspect that most wine tourists wouldn’t be able to name more than one or two if any at all. When I produced the “BC Wine 101” series of podcasts and posts about each region in advance of the 2013 Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Penticton, it was the representatives from each of these organizations that I consulted and interviewed for the podcasts. They are great for learning about each region but their real value is promoting all of the member wineries. They are worth getting to know because many host amazing events (Similkameen BBQ King, Naramata Tailgate Party, etc) and some of their websites have lots of great information for planning  your next wine tour.

So, have you been to all of these?

The Associations

Naramata was the first unofficial subregion to begin promoting itself as a destination through the Naramata Bench Wineries Association. As a result, wine tourists who come to the Okanagan are more familiar with or have heard more about Naramata wineries than any other region. It is ironic today that a region is that essentially on a road to nowhere is the first place that people want to go. That’s a testament to the success of the continued marketing behind the Naramata wine brand. It wasn’t an overnight success but has surely paid off well to the member wineries and non-member wineries alike. The Naramata Tailgate Party in September is always a hit and spring tasting events held in key markets ensures that there is never a dull moment for lovers of Naramata wine. It’s a strategy that has worked with the results clearly on display at any Naramata winery on any day of the week during the summer. As a touring region, Naramata probably draws the most people daily because the wineries are conveniently close together and most are within a very short drive from Penticton.

Across the lake the wineries in Summerland’s Bottleneck Drive have organized themselves with some fantastic events to promote their region. The pre-Christmas Light Up the Vines events are a pre-Christmas wonderland of activity that is a rare off-season event in the Okanagan. Wine tasting on a cold winter evening is quite a different experience and Summerland is a spectacular place to do it, showcasing each winery’s unique landscape and Christmas light display. As a touring region, Summerland is a fascinating diversity of landscapes which makes it completely different from Naramata’s views (Oh look – a vineyard. Oh look – the lake). Giants Head mountain is the may poll around which the wine tourists spin, stopping at wineries that could overlook a deep canyon, a bucolic farming valley, or even (yes) a lake.

The Oliver Osoyoos Winery Association represents the largest geographical region in the Okanagan Valley compared to the others and also currently has the largest number of member wineries (36). Hosting events like the Pig Out, the wildly popular Half-Corked Marathon, and Cactus Jalopies, OOWA’s events take place mostly in the early part of the summer from May through to July. The exception is the Winter in Wine Country which is held in late November. As a wine touring region, the Oliver Osoyoos region is big. You can’t see it in a day so don’t try. You will miss wineries so just note which ones they are and try again next time. This is the best place to spend an entire week because you can tour every day and not hit the same winery again, unless you want to. The vineyards are more impressive here because they are bigger and so are many of the wineries. Like the Westside there are boutiques and commercial productions here but many of the wineries are solidly medium size productions. This is the best region to tour at any time of the year since many wineries remain open all year. Vineyards in the winter are every bit as beautiful as they are in the summer.

toplogo-finalThe Okanagan Falls Wineries Association represents the wineries in the region around the town of Okanagan Falls. It’s a town that many wine tourists (myself included at one point) drive through without stopping while on the way to somewhere else. The valley narrows here and wineries are far less visible than in any other region in B.C. Most tourist brochures feature a stunning view of MacIntyre Bluff with Blue Mountain Vineyards in the foreground which is just south of Okanagan Falls so it’s a shame that some wine tourists just won’t get off the highway. The big event is their Party in the Park held in July and is always a great summer BBQ beach party. As a touring region, Okanagan Falls offers diversity. Looking for rich reds, aromatic whites, top notch bistros, or stunning views? It’s all there nestled among the most narrow and geographically bizarre area of the Okanagan. 

The Similkameen Wineries Association brings the thunder at the historic Grist Mill every July with the Similkameen Barbeque King competition. Representing the majority of wineries in this unique valley just west of Oliver and Osoyoos, the Similkameen wineries often get passed by too quickly by drivers on Route 3 who are eager to get to their Osoyoos or Kootenay vacation destinations. As a touring region the Similkameen suffers from being farther away from the Okanagan (where there are more accommodations) and being on the road to the Okanagan. The more adventurous wine tourist are richly rewarded for venturing here however because the valley is filled with small, family run, boutique-style wineries that are making wines on a whole new level.

wineislandsThe Wine Islands Vintners Association represents wineries on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands making it the only association that spans two VQA Designated Viticultural Areas. There’s lots to do here and in my opinion, if the Okanagan is our Napa, the Islands are our Sonoma. Ok, the size ratio is way off but the agricultural focus is not. The Islands are not only focused on wine. There is a lot of food-related agri-tourism integrated seamlessly with wine along with ciders, mead, and other fine beverages. In an area that seems completely odd (aka not dry) for grape growing, creative wines are made here that are finally starting to develop a wider following. As a touring region, there is no way to get through this place in a day or even a week. There are too many nooks, crannies, and ferry schedules to contend with. It’s a great place to explore by following your nose, letting one thing lead to another.

In the far north of the Okanagan (where it is technically not even the Okanagan anymore) is the Shushwap Wineries, which have developed a website promoting wine tourism in their region. It’s not really a new wine region (Larch Hills has been around for years) nor are grapes completely new to the area (first vineyard was in 1907, before Oliver even existed). The northern latitude means that they must use different grapes than in the Okanagan but to me, this is what makes it interesting. As a wine touring region, the Shushwap is convenient for travellers on the Trans-Canada highway but like the Similkameen, has to work a little harder to get people off the road long enough to try their wines. It’s a different style of wine making and it’s a style that I think is unique to B.C. and worth checking out.

And then there’s Kelowna…

Although the first winery in the Okanagan was in Kelowna, it has unfortunately remained the latecomer to the regional marketing game. Confusingly, it is also the most disparate with at four smaller regions represented by associations. (Maybe they need an association of associations?) Thankfully recent years have seen a concerted effort on the part of wineries here to organize themselves into associations to attract wine tourists as that sector grows more competitive. Starting in Kelowna, the organizations loosely follow the compass.

The largest region near Kelowna actually across the lake in West Kelowna. The Westside Wine Trail represents the biggest diversity of wineries (in terms of production size) within the smallest geographical area. There are all sizes of wines from garages and quonsets to large commercial production facilities, organic producers to, well, not organic producers. Mission Hill tends to top the pyramid here as an attraction and literally sits atop of Mount Boucherie. Other wineries are tucked neatly into their vineyards on the slopes looking east. It’s difficult to imagine an organization that can represent the myriad interests of such a diverse group but the Westside Wine Trail does it and apparently quite successfully. As a touring region, everything is relatively close together just like in Naramata which makes it easy to spend the whole day there. Many wineries are also open year round.

Fab5

Kelowna’s Fab 5 Wineries represents the wineries on the benchland east of Kelowna, historically known as the K.L.O. Benches (named after the Kelowna Land and Orchard Company that subdivided the land in the late 19th century). As the name suggests, there are 5 wineries in this group which is a perfect leisurely wine touring day trip. The wineries are all small, boutique productions and many are quite fun and creative with their marketing image. As a wine touring region, it seems like a completely different world even though Kelowna is so close. The views of the valley and lake are unique and far more expansive than in any other wine region. There is a lot of history here as well since First Nations, fur trappers, pioneers, ranchers, and orchardists all recognized the beauty of this part of the Okanagan.

lakeshoreThe Lakeshore Wine Route encompasses four wineries on the south side of Kelowna. The wineries operate some of the oldest continually producing vineyards in BC. CedarCreek has been operating as a winery the longest while Tantalus’s vineyards are older but has been a winery for less time. The established winery names draw visitors here because, just like Naramata, this is a road to nowhere. People have to want to come here rather than just stop off on their way to somewhere else. They have been flocking there for years which is a testament to the quality of the wines produced there. As a wine touring region, the Lakeshore wine route is geographically small and makes an excellent afternoon tour destination. Eager tourists who head there in the crisp morning will find it even better with less crowds and beautiful views of the lake in the morning.

scenicLast on the scene is the Scenic Sip, an exciting new association that includes wineries north of Kelowna in the area known as Lake Country. Like Summerland, there is a wide diversity of landscapes to see at each stop, making this an aptly named wine trail. There’s a lot of energy here from the younger wineries which pairs well with the long-established wineries like Gray Monk, who have been successfully attracting people to drive up Camp Creek Road for almost 35 years. As a wine touring region, this is the first place that people can see flying into Kelowna. You are literally mere minutes away from your first winery wine tasting coming out of the airport. The higher elevation of wineries like Gray Monk and 50th Parallel mean that there is a much grander view of Okanagan Lake than anywhere else in the valley. The lake itself is more narrow here, more steeply walled, and far more green compared to Osoyoos’s brown. Worth a day trip but it may take you a little longer to get to all of the wineries here in the summer so plan extra time.

“Emerging” regions

kamloopsNewest on the scene is the Kamloops Wine Trail. It’s so new that I haven’t actually visited this region yet. It’s absolutely on my list and I look forward to heading there. With hot summer temperatures, the Kamloops area has a lot of potential for growing grapes. It’s the winters that will make or break this region, not only in terms of viticulture but also for visitors. There has been some great social media promotion and interaction from this region. It’s also exciting to be able to see the early days of a future wine region which makes now the time to see Kamloops.

Other Regions

The wineries in the Kootenays are not yet organized into an association and perhaps it is still too soon in their development. The Fraser Valley used to have a winery association but that quietly disappeared, at least online. Perhaps a new group of winery owners will feel the need to come together and promote their region.

So have fun touring one (or many) of B.C’s wine regions. Let me know about your experiences. Please post a comment if you have any questions. Happy wine trails and cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Wine Shops: Why do some wineries get it so wrong?

Wine shops are weird places. There aren’t a lot of other businesses where you can go, consume some of the product for free (or nearly free), and buy (or not buy) some of said product. Test driving cars or trying on clothes are both perhaps the closest, except that in both cases the pr20140214-125934.jpgoduct doesn’t get consumed by the consumer in the process. Nobody gets offended if they aren’t allowed to eat the car.

But selling cars is similar to selling wine in that the knowledge needed on the part of the sales person to sell the car needs to be reasonably good. If you don’t know very much about cars, you probably won’t be able to sell them very effectively. So why are wine shops still staffing their front-end tasting bar with people who have little knowledge about the wines they are selling or even wine in general?

I once asked a person behind the bar if they knew how many vintages the winery had ever done of a particular sparkling wine.

“Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t say anything about that on the back label.”

Fail.

The correct answer could have been;

“This is the xth vintage of this wine.”

or;

“I’m not sure, let me find out for you.”

or simply;

“I don’t know.”

Any of those answers above are perfectly acceptable. I didn’t think that it was a particularly difficult question to ask. I knew there hadn’t been that many vintages of it made previously. I had started a vertical of this wine at home and I wanted to be sure that I hadn’t already purchased it before. I knew I had 3 bottles from three previous vintages already at home but wanted a confirmation that this was or was not a newly released vintage.

Speaking of the back label on a bottle of wine. The back label can have as little or as much information on it as the wine maker or owner deems appropriate for their house style and branding. It does not contain all of the information that there is to know about a wine, nor does it replace the training needed to pour the wine at the tasting bar.

“This is our Chardonnay. You will taste peaches, melons, vanilla, baking spices, and a hint of mango.”

Will I?? I’m going to taste all of that? Wow, I didn’t know that. Thank you so much for tasting the wine for me. Why should I even bother now?

Here’s the problem with telling customers what they are going to taste before they even taste it. They will either:

A) … not taste any of those aromas and feel stupid about it, thinking that they don’t have a good palate. They will effectively give up on trying to focus their sense of taste because they can’t yet perceive the aromas that you said that they would. This is the equivalent of telling a child in the school choir to just mouth the words because they are singing out of tune. That kid will grow up believing that they can’t sing or are tone-deaf and will never try again for the rest of their lives. This is not an exaggeration, this is proven fact from the realm of musical education.

B) … taste everything that you mention, love it, and then go home with a bottle where they will quickly notice that it “doesn’t really taste like it did at the winery.” Due to travel shock, stemware differences, or environmental differences (odours, etc), the sterility of the wine shop can’t easily be duplicated in a home setting. Where you drink your wine will affect how you perceive it.

Either situation (where the person’s self-image or the winery’s image is adversely affected) is completely avoidable. The solution is to simply STOP READING THE TASTING NOTES. Talk about the vineyards, the region where it was grown, the person who made it, or what food you ate when you tried it for the first time. Stop reading the tasting notes and use your experiences instead. This is where creativity can really raise the bar. “This Chardonnay pairs perfectly with buttered popcorn and a Tina Fey movie.”

You mean you’ve never had a glass of the wine that you’re selling? Perhaps you should choose another kind of job.

Stories of your own experiences with a particular wine are the real gold in the wine shop. Stories are interesting and they are unique to each person behind the bar. They do not lead the customer on with “aromas” and “flavors”. They can be funny or informative. Wine shop customers LOOOVE hearing about wine shop staff parties. They think we live THE LIFE here in wine country (we do, right?), drinking wine all the time (well…), and looking at the beautiful views of the valley from our decks all year in the unbroken sunshine. That’s why people have driven out of their way to buy a bottle of wine that they could actually have purchased at a liquor store or VQA shop instead. But no, they drove all that way to visit you and it is your job to give them a good experience that goes beyond the back label.

It comes down to staff training. Most of the training that I’ve seen wineries do is just sad. Wine knowledge is not an easy thing to convey to people who are insecure with their own understanding of wine. The best thing to do is to simply not hire those kind of people. If you were hiring a car salesman, don’t hire someone that doesn’t know anything about cars. Unfortunately the reality of the labor situation in the Okanagan is that this is not always possible. A lot of wineries that I’ve seen so far this summer are cripplingly understaffed. When you need hands on deck, sometimes wineries have to make do with what they have been offered. Even with a staff that is short on wine knowledge, there are ways to make the most of your team’s skill set.

Even a little team building will go a long way. Take a wine tour to visit other wineries. See what they do right or wrong. Talk about it. Did that wine shop seem welcoming? Was that woman behind the bar dressed professionally for their winery? Why or why not? What can our wine shop do different than what we saw on our wine tour together today?

Simple stuff really.

20111206-164434.jpgThe other obvious (and easy) thing to do with new staff is to taste the wines with the wine maker. Not the winery owner, not the marketing person, not the tasting room manger, the wine maker. Nobody knows the wines better than they do and this is a winery’s best resource for teaching “wine 101” to the people who the winery is trusting to be their face for the season.

Give wine to your staff. Some wineries I’ve worked for are downright parismonious with their own wines when it comes to providing them to staff. There has to be a few perks to working at a winery and this is one of them. But it’s important because it allows the staff member to have their own experiences with the wines at home so that they can use those experiences to sell it in the wine shop. “Oh, I had that Riesling with a pulled-pork sandwich last week. It was so good…” It is selling the experience and not a wine that simply tastes like peaches, melons, or vanilla.

In short, hiring staff and giving them very little training is an obvious quick and easy way out. You might think that you are saving money by not giving them wine, not hiring a consultant to train them, or not sending them out on a day-long wine tour. Ultimately however, you will lose more money in lost sales or opportunities than you will save and you will likely never even know it. Customers will be able to figure out pretty soon that if you’ve taken the quick and easy way out with your staff. Maybe you’ve also taken the quick and easy way with your wines as well?

Customers can will figure that out pretty quickly too.

The 2015 LG’s are in

The results have just been announced for the 2015 Lieutenant Governor’s Awards for Excellence in B.C. Wine. I’ve run the stats again this year and there’s some interesting things happening.

Firstly, congratulations to all of this year’s winners!

50th Parallel Estate – 2013 Chardonnay

BC Wine Studio -2012 Siren’s Call Syrah

Blasted Church Vineyards – 2012 Holy Moly Petit Verdot

Cassini Cellars – 2012 Cabernet Franc Collector’s Series

Church & State Winery – 2012 Quintessential

Enrico Winery & Vineyards – 2014 Tempest Ortega

Ex Nihilo Vineyards – 2013 Pinot Noir

Inniskillin Okanagan Vineyards Winery – 2014 Riesling Icewine

Lake Breeze Vineyards – 2012 Merlot

Noble Ridge Vineyard and Winery – 2010 “The One” Sparkling

Platinum Bench Estate Winery -2013 Gamay Noir Block 28

Red Rooster Winery – 2012 Syrah Reserve

Ruby Blues Winery – 2014 Commune Viognier

Wild Goose Vineyards and Winery – 2014 Mystic River Gewürztraminer

Now if you’ll allow me to get all sports-caster like and let me show you a little of what I’ve found based on the stats that now include this year’s results. I won’t do up charts like I did last year but there were some really interesting things in this year’s competition that included 425 wines from 116 wineries throughout B.C. There have now been 140 LG awards handed out in total over the 13 years that the awards have been held. 14 awards were handed out this year making it the largest pool of winners ever for a single year.

The big news this year for me is that Enrico Winery & Vineyards becomes the very first winery from Vancouver Island to win an LG! To me, this is huge in the same way that Fort Berens’ win last year was huge because it shows that great wine in BC can be grown in places other than the Okanagan. I visited their tasting room in the spring of 2012 and was very impressed by the experience and with the wines. Well done Enrico Winery! The Gulf Islands are now the only DVA to not have an LG award but that may change soon.

Wild Goose picks up another LG for the Mystic River Gewurztraminer, a vineyard that represents 4 of their total of 9 LG awards. Along with their great showing at the All Canadians, this is a nice way for the Kruger family to celebrate their 25th year in the wine business.

Two new varieties receive awards. Enrico’s win with an Ortega marks that varieties debut with a trophy and Blasted Church wins their second with a Petit Verdot. This is Blasted Church’s second LG award with the first coming in 2008 with the 2006 Syrah.

50th Parallel pick up an LG for their beautiful 2013 Chardonnay marking their first ever LG award win. It won’t be there last either. This is also the most northerly winery to win an LG award which I think is also fascinating. In previous years the competition looked like it had completely abandoned all wineries north of Naramata. I think it is great to see wineries from all over the province getting recognition through these awards and particularly from the northern half of the valley. Gray Monk’s win in 2010 for their 2007 Odyssey Brut was the previous northern limit for LG awards.

50th Parallel and Enrico are not the only newbie winners in this competition either. Ex Nihilo, BC Wine Studio, and Platinum Bench are also new the awards and will all be receiving the Honourable Judith Guichon, Lieutenant Governor of B.C. in late July.

As far as the single varieties go, only two changes have taken place in the stats. Viognier has overtaken Pinot Gris in number of wins (6-5) and Gewurztraminer has edges up over Riesling to take 4th place in the top 5 varieties in B.C.

Place Variety LG Wins % Total
1 Syrah / Shiraz 26 24.53
2 Pinot Noir 14 13.21
3 Chardonnay 11 10.38
4 Gewurztraminer 8 7.55
5 Riesling* 7 6.6

 * Table wines only – does not include Icewine 

So what does that tell us about the state of wine in our fair province?

Nothing!

But it’s fun to see what the stats can tell us sometimes. I’m also done studying for my WSET exams at the moment and have time for stuff like this.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

You’ve gotta visit: vinPerdu

A new series for Wine Country BC – “You’ve Gotta Visit…” where I will feature new, exciting, and interesting wineries that you absolutely should not miss on your travels through wine country. I get asked a lot where to go for unique experiences and this series will focus on some of the new ones that I notice on my own travels though the Okanagan the rest of BC’s wine country. 2015 is showing a good crop of new wineries and as you’ll see from this first featured winery, they are really upping their game when it comes to bringing out a great experience. Hopefully I will feature a new winery each week, if not more often, so that  you can plan your trips and stop in. Tell them you heard about their winery from Luke at Winecountrybc.ca. Cheers!

IMG_0935vinPerdu Cellars is located mere minutes south of Oliver right on Highway 97 and is on the left as you drive south. They have a large sign right out front and a parking lot that is easy to get into and out of without turning around.

Why you should go

IMG_7023There’s no reason not to stop here and every reason to stop here. Convenient location? Check. (It’s right on the highway.) Beautiful tasting room? Check. Solidly built and unique wines? Big check. Amazing winery experience? Absolutely.

Assistant wine maker Catherine Coulombe and her family have really done an amazing job of creating an idyllic space geared for a real wine experience. Even though the highway is right there, you won’t even notice it because the commanding view of the vineyards really steals the show. Thanks to some amazingly effective landscaping, you won’t even hear it either! Each part of the wine shop is beautifully designed for form and function and even includes a little play table for wee-ones. It is truly a first rate example of a wine shop design that blends customer experience, functionality, and aesthetics brilliantly. All five of your senses will get a treat in this wine shop. As if the beautiful vineyard view out of the windows wasn’t enough, the wine shop is filled with beautiful artwork by Catherine’s sister, artist Nathalie Denise Coulombe.

IMG_0936The Wines

IMG_7021A focused portfolio of wine is available as of spring 2015 – Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Compass (a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon). “French style, approachable wines” is how Catherine describes the wines at vinPerdu. They were tasting quite young when I tasted them on my visit but the style is precise and very enjoyable. There are no powerful, full-throttle, tannic monsters here nor are there aromatic varieties like gewurz, riesling, or sauvignon blanc. What you will find is selection of tasty wines that will get along splendidly with just about any food you can imagine.

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What to expect

In addition to wine, the Coulombe’s have planned catered food pairings to accompany the wines on weekends and terrines available to purchase while enjoying the deck that overlooks the vineyard.

The tasting bar can accommodate 8-10 people comfortably and there is also a private tasting room for small groups. There are relaxing chairs and a shaded deck overlooking the vineyard. It’s not a small room but it isn’t big either. When so many wineries out there look and feel more like bus stations, it’s great to find a place to stop in where you can feel at home.

Have you been there? Let me know if you visit vinPerdu by leaving a comment below.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

IMG_7022

Mullings Over Wine Pretentiousness in the Digital World

Here is what I hear when I read reviews or listen to someone criticize wine shops, wine shop staff, or even sommeliers as being “pretentious”. I hear this:

“Everything I need to know, I already know. Anything that someone tells me that may differ from that is wrong, must be false, and is therefore completely fabricated just so that they can appear smarter than I am. They are just being pretentious.”

It’s like a delusion of intellectual grandeur, perhaps driven by the internet age’s self-serving gathering of “information” – “facts” that conveniently suit the searchers’ beliefs rather than challenging something that they think that they already know. The digital age doesn’t allow us to experience anything that hasn’t been added to our factual playlist. It’s very easy to say, when hearing something new or that conflicts with your previous knowledge or experience, that someone just made something up. It’s an easy defense against something that may differ from your own intellect or perceptions by belittling it or turning it into a joke and laughing at it. And of course, if it’s easy to do, it must be on the internet (or some news channels). Travel websites with reviews (hint: rhymes with “Mip Advisor”) are loaded with these kinds of reviews and, while I admit it’s kind of entertaining to read in a Jerry Springer-kind of way, it can get downright mean and needlessly offensive when the focus of the criticism is directed to your own work place. I’ve seen more than a few co-workers get angry and stressed over some of those more hurtful and ignorant reviews.

Here’s why I think it’s a little unfair to criticize wine professionals in that way, or to belittle them as “pretentious”. People who have spent years studying, learning about, and working with wine will very likely know more about it than you do. They have spent a good part of their lives and a large amount of money studying wine on a level that goes beyond the average consumer or enthusiast. Not everyone that you meet in a wine shop has that training but some of them do. Shockingly, they are not out to make you look like stupid or knock you off your pedestal in front of your friends even though that’s how some people react to it. They are sharing something with you that they love and find interesting and because you are standing in their wine shop or store, they assume that you want to know about those same things.

Mechanics are not criticized for being pretentious. Neither are medical doctors. Both are prized (and well paid) for their knowledge base and skills and we depend on both of them to get things fixed when things need fixing. They have both gone through lots of training and apprenticeships to get where they are and love what they do and do it because they love it. I want the pilot on my next flight to be the one who had pictures of aeroplanes all over his or her room as a kid, dreamt about being a pilot all day as a teenager, and loves every second of their time in the pilot’s seat. I don’t want the pilot who became a pilot because, it’s a job. Thankfully, becoming a pilot is harder than just playing Flight Simulator for weeks at a time and reading wiki articles. Just because you bought a big Nikon SLR and outboard lighting gear at London Drugs doesn’t mean that you are suddenly now a professional photographer. Those “filters” on Instagroan don’t make your photos look professional either – they stand out like a glass of grape Kool-Aid at a wine tasting. Simply knowing facts about something does not compare to years of dedicated training and experience.

I believe that both of those issues – false intellectual delusions of grandeur and de-professionalism – are internet-age personality disorders and are somehow related. Sometimes I think that my awareness of these disorders is part of what has held me back from writing in-depth articles. I know it taints some of the early podcasts when I consciously held back information because I didn’t want to come across potentially as a wine snob or elitist when really I am neither. Perhaps I was tentative to start blogging at all for the same reason. I never read blogs before and still don’t read them that often as part of my daily media diet. Who is this blogger to be so bloody all-knowing? Why do I think my comments are worth anyone’s time to read? What gives me the right?

Truthfully, I don’t know. I’ve been in the industry now for 10 years and have been lucky to have worked in almost all aspects of wine production – vineyard work, cellar work, u-brew, wine sales, wine shop management, and marketing. Maybe that gives me some experience that’s worth something to somebody? After 6 years of blogging, I’ve really enjoyed the interactions I’ve had online, meeting people IRL, travelling to new places, and learning about new things. I think most wine bloggers are similar in this regard. You would think that getting a lot of wine bloggers together would result in massive arguments and heated discussions about wine and technology as they all try to intellectually one-up each other. But after attending 3 Wine Bloggers’ Conferences over the years, the fact is that you’ll never get that many genuinely knowledge-hungry people that love to express their passion for their trade together in a single place without giving them an Ivy-league degree at the end. If anything those conferences are a respite from having to defend your obsessions with wine and wine knowledge against the spectre of being labelled as “pretentious”. Most attendees of the conferences that I’ve been to are nowhere near the classic wine-snob or the knowledge-insecure customer. They are eager to challenge themselves, to be proven right or wrong, and learn from any new experience being offered.

To be fair, the wine world has changed significantly over the past 4 decades, evolving from a formalized Hugh Johnson “Wine Atlas” terroir-based, European-centred approach on one side to meritorious “democratizing” criticism of Robert Parker Jr. and Wine Spectator on the other. The problem with the former is that is has a high resistance to change and has taken years to respect much of the industry outside of Europe. (The Oxford Companion to Wine, which I long ago nicknamed the “Condescendium”, being a prime example and really, who still publishes huge encyclopaedias anymore?) The latter can change direction on a whim and seem needlessly spastic in its focus on the current trends. Supertuscans may have been all the rage one year but almost invisible on the review pages next.

While we currently seem to believe that all knowledge that is knowable is somewhere online the fact is that the digital world is not the “all knowing”. If all you’ve got is “a thousand songs in your pocket” (from Apple’s early promotions of the first iPod), you’re missing out on all of the other music that isn’t in your playlist. There is nothing on your list that you didn’t put there yourself so there is no way that you ever hear anything that will challenge your listening abilities. Of course there is also the argument that mp3’s are only able to reproduce a very small amount of the frequencies of live sound, leaving all kinds of subtle overtones out. Zooming in on the pixels of a JPEG of Tom Thomson’s April in Algonquin Park online are nothing compared to what it’s like to stand in front of the same painting and see the the brush strokes, dead colouring, or craquelure up close. The digital domain can only really hope to reproduce a small portion of the world as it exists in real life. The digital world is not the real world. Information on the internet is not knowledge. Wine can only be experienced IRL, not on a blog, which is the main reason that I don’t do wine reviews here.

Outside of that digital world, there are people who actually have knowledge that can extend beyond the confines of a search engine. Humans have the ability to think beyond the threshold limits of what our little electronic devices are capable of. Let’s not belittle them by calling them pretentious.

Planning your trip to wine country

50thIt’s that time of year again! The time when Google searches, dog-eared Wine Trails magazines, and copies of John Schreiner’s tour books start occupying all of your reading time in anticipation of your trip to the Okanagan this summer. Where are you going to stay? What are you going to do? Which wineries will you visit this year?

It’s almost as fun to plan a wine country vacation as it is to take a wine country vacation. Some people can plan things down to the minute while others enjoy following their nose to find places. It’s all in hope of finding your next favourite wine, tasting room, or experience. Sometimes it’s fun to revisit places you’ve been before. It all adds up to a lot of fun and based on the number of people that are landing on my Big List of BC Wineries these days, I hope that I can be of some help when it comes to figuring out where you want to go.

So as I work on updating the list to include the most current new and soon-to-be-open wineries in the wonderful wine regions of BC, I will let you in on some locally known tips and advice about wine touring from professional wine groupies like myself to help you get the most out of your excursions. Along with a previous post about Wine Touring Secrets, this should give you a good start if you’ve never been to wine country before or if you’re looking for new ideas. There’s a lot to see, especially in the Okanagan Valley, which leads me to tip #1…

Tip #1 – You aren’t going to see it all in one week, so don’t try.

I’ve lived here almost 8 years and there are still a handful of places that I haven’t been yet. There are too many wineries with too many wines that it would be nearly impossible to get through them all. I’ve been to a lot of wineries for interviews for writing stories, blog posts, and podcasts along with regular wine tastings. I’ve seen some people completely haggled from trying to cram in too many stops on their journey. While it’s nice to cover lots of ground, there’s very little chance that they are able to appreciate all of the experiences at each place. Plus, palate fatigue can really set it making everything taste a little more neutral than it otherwise would and you might miss out on something spectacular. From my own personal experience, I know that on a good day I can hit about 6 wineries before it all starts to taste like mush. 2 wineries in the morning, lunch, 2 wineries, snack, 2 more wineries, dinner. I’ve done days that are longer but it becomes a slog and that’s not what wine touring should feel like.

If you have never planned a day at the wineries, I suggest you plan to visit 3 to 4 wineries on each day that you allocate to wine touring. Start at a winery in the morning, have lunch somewhere (or stop at a winery that has a restaurant), and then two more wineries. Call it a day in the late afternoon and head to the pool or beach before dinner. It takes away the slog factor and you won’t feel burned out after one day.

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Tip #2 – There’s more to taste than just wine.

OMG, did you see what I just wrote up there?? Holy #$%^ I don’t think that’s ever been written on a wine blog before! But I wrote it because there are other fine beverages available for tasting in most regions of BC now. The Okanagan has many other beverage manufacturers including breweries, cideries, and craft distilleries and are as uniquely interesting and worth a stop as any of the wineries out there. Plus it is a great way to refresh your palate mid-tour and get you back in the game for more wineries later on. If you really want to go for a full day and cram in as many wineries as possible, this is probably the best thing to do to keep your palate fresh. I’ve done it a few times and it works great. Check out my list of other fine beverage makers in BC (which I am also in the process of updating). The Vancouver Island and the Okanagan Valley are both starting to see more of these places appearing on the maps. Plan a little detour and check them out.

Tip #3 – Have someone drive you

This should go without saying that driving yourself to multiple wine tastings is a bad idea. Even pros like myself that spit everything can find that wine can have an effect on you and possibly make driving unsafe. From my experience, tasting wine all afternoon makes me hungry. If I forgot to bring snacks or if there is no food stops for a little while, I’m essentially a driver that is distracted by my tummy rumbling when I should be fully alert and concentrating on driving safely. If, like 95% of wine tourists that I have seen, you drink all of the wines that are offered to you, the alcohol can add up quickly. All winery staff are trained through the Serving It Right program to observe customers and we can often tell how “far along” you are before your tasting even begins. Think that winery always pours skimpy amounts of wine? Most tasting bar staff will short-pour for people that are beginning to show signs of the happy-hoopla.

The alternative is to get on with a professional wine tour company that will drive you around. There are tons of options now available for this so check out travel websites to find one that suits what you are looking for.

If you are going to be driving your group around, have someone navigate for you – preferably someone who is actually good at navigating. Valley and island roads are not an obvious urban grid and even the best quality GPS’s give ludicrous route suggestions. Some towns here also have a strange habit of changing their street names every 20 years. Forget the electronic and go with the Wine Route markers along the highway. They are (shockingly) updated quite quickly and often more current than the maps

Tip #4 – Large groups have different experiences

It all depends on what your expectations are but from my own experience as a tourist and as a tasting bar staff member, large groups (more than 6 people) have a wildly different experiences than smaller groups. If having a good time with a lot of friends is what you want to get out of spending the day at wineries, then touring in a large group is going to be fun for you. But if you are really interested in learning about the finer details of the wines, the winery’s story, and maybe more about the region itself, stay on your own in a small group of 2-4 people. You will be able to ask questions a lot easier and wine shop staff will be able to converse with you more directly than having to project the answer to a larger group of people, all of whom (from my experience) will have varying degrees of “give-a-shit” when it comes to actually listening to the answer or adding their own “smart” comments.

While there are some wineries in BC that can handle large groups, many can’t cope as easily. Sometimes it’s a space issue, sometimes staffing, and sometimes it’s a winery that is just too darn popular and gets overrun easily. Wineries that have the extra space will sometimes bring groups into another room away from the main tasting bar area so that they can focus on the group without distracting other people in the wine shop. This is a good thing for both the large group (who are getting special treatment in a way) and the other patrons in the main tasting bar.

Groups get goofier as the day progresses so little can be experienced in that situation. Wine shop staff know this and most inwardly groan at the mere site of a large group because they know that they will have to work very hard but won’t be able to actually sell very much. Many wine shop staff have trouble with groups because it requires a lot of extra energy to keep a group’s attention focused on what they are saying. Using the same sales pitch as a small group on a large group doesn’t work either and so a good staff member will have to tailor their spiel to suite the group.

When I worked in winery tasting rooms, I actually enjoyed presenting to groups because I found it fun, challenging, and was a change of pace from the rest of my day. I was comfortable with improvising so I rarely said the same things twice. I’m sure it also helped that I can be loud when I need to. However I recognized that the experience that the groups were getting was far different from the ones that a twosome would get. At one winery I remember a couple that had been part of a group came back the next day and did another complete tasting. They really enjoyed the wines and wanted to try it but without their friends in the large group. I conducted both tastings and it was completely different because I could answer their questions directly and clearly without the extra distractions.

Tip #5 -You will buy more than you planned

Especially if you hit a series of wineries with especially well-trained tasting bar staff who can really chat up the wine. Wine touring is weird that way because, if you think about it, you are essentially travelling from sales pitch to sales pitch. Imagine cruising down the potato chip aisle at the supermarket with a person representing each potato chip maker there lined up with their portfolio of chips ready for you to taste. It’s a little bit weird if you think about it but wine touring is essentially like that. What other industry relies on product tasting before purchase?

Ok, stop thinking about it.

The point is that you will probably try a wine that you didn’t expect to like, fall in love with it, and buy half a case. You only had two spaces left in the case of wine in your car when you went in but there you are buying more. It happens and it’s not a bad thing at all. (Although you should control your finances – Wine Country BC does not assume any liability for indebtedness incurred by or related to extraneous wine purchases made under the advice of the tips hitherto presented.) It’s what makes wine touring that much more interesting because I guarantee that you will remember your trip each time you open one those bottles.

Tip #6 – Put the phone away

The best way to experience something is not to hold up your phone right in front of it. Contrary to what you would imagine, it’s the older generation that seems to be more distracted by playing with their phones at a wine tasting. Rarely have I seen anyone under 30 not be fully attentive at a tasting bar because they are texting, Faceplanting, or Tweetgramming. Of course if there is something interesting that you like to have a picture of, go for it. There is absolutely no shortage of stunning imagery in wine country. For whatever reason, vineyards are rarely planted in ugly places so capture those memories. But please don’t forget to fully experience standing at the top of the vineyard with no sound except the wind blowing the vine leaves or the woody and fruity smell of a barrel room. These things can’t be stuffed into a phone or camera and I can guarantee that you will be missing out.

Tip #7 – Have fun

Visiting wineries should be fun. If you aren’t having fun at a winery, then leave. It’s as simple as that. There are plenty of wineries out there and you are under no obligation to buy anything. If you aren’t having a good time, then you aren’t going to enjoy their wine and I would even go farther and say that you will never enjoy their wines again. I’ve had bad experiences with a small number of wineries and to be honest, it’s hard for me to enjoy anything produced by those wineries. It’s probably a psychological association but it happens all of the time. That’s why it is so important for wineries to do everything that they can to make sure that their customers enjoy their experience. It’s also up to customers to keep their expectations within the realms of reality and not make silly demands. Unless you already know someone at the winery, demanding a private barrel room tasting with the wine maker for free is not going to get you the status and respect that you are craving.

Customers should enjoy what the winery is offering you and if you don’t enjoy it, move on to one that you do enjoy. Thankfully, not all wineries are the same otherwise it would be a very boring wine tour. Find a winery you enjoy and you will relive that experience every time you open a bottle of their wine or see their label in the store months or even years later.

Wineries should offer more than just a few dribbles, a plate of stale crackers, and tasting bar staff that only offer canned conversation and get their wine information from the back label. Customers don’t travel all the way to your wine shop for that. Time to up your game.

Tip #8 – Plan local

Keep things close to where you are staying. If you are staying in Kelowna, don’t plan a trip to Osoyoos because you will spend more time driving than sipping. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful drive and well worth it, but make it part of the trip and stay in Osoyoos. Penticton, being fairly central in the Okanagan with lots of amenities, is nicely situated with quick access to many different regions – Naramata, Summerland, OK Falls, Oliver/Osoyoos, and the Similkameen.

Another good idea to drive father in the morning and then work your way back to wherever you are staying. That makes for less driving at the end of the day when you might be more tired.

Enjoy yourself on your trip and let me know how it went! Share your touring tips and comments here or on my facebook page.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Restaurants and Wine: A Love Story

I’ve had a few questions about restaurants and the wines that they serve. As this was a study topic for a recent WSET exam, I’ve been doing a lot of research about it lately and have some things to say. That said, I don’t claim to be an expert on anything about the decisions that go into creating a restaurant. I have no interest in doing so but admire those that undertake the complexities of an almost insane amount of decision-making that is required to get a new restaurant off the ground and then to keep it afloat afterwards. I’ve been lucky to have witnessed the start of a number of small and medium sized restaurants over the years. Some of the things that I’ve seen restaurateurs do are nothing short of super-human feats of creativity, mental acuity, and sheer mental strength.

Since this is a wine blog, the most frequent questions I receive about restaurants involve the wine list and those mysterious prices that seem to be marked up to the extreme. So what’s the deal with those exorbitantly marked-up wines on the list?

Le Wine Mark-Up

Here’s a shocking fact that I discovered when I first started studying this topic: Some restaurants don’t actually make any money on their food. To me, this is the most bizarre concept but apparently even for some top Michelin-Starred establishments, this can be the case. How can a restaurant make money serving food when the food doesn’t even pay the bills?

In short – beverages – and wine is a huge part of it.

Let me start this off right away with this; If you think wine mark-ups are high, you should see how much the fountain soda pop is marked up. It makes the wine list seem like a bargain. I would say that if the general public knew how little wine is marked-up relative to other beverages, nobody would complain about wine prices ever again. To stay in business though, restaurants need to be able to make money and if the food isn’t going to doing it, wine and beverages are going to be the most important source of capital.

There are many ways that restaurants can figure out how to price their wines. It’s not rocket science but it can be dangerous for a restaurateur to not pay close attention to it. Putting prices out of what their market can sustain is just bad business and no set of rules will work equally for different markets. The same wine at a high-end restaurant in Penticton won’t be able to go for the same price it could get in Kitsilano. While some of the suggestions for mark-ups border on greed while others are far more practical. If they choose to have even a modest wine list, they need to be able to do it reasonably well and there are extra expenses because of that:

  • Storage – Restaurants need to be sure they have enough wine on hand and that means storing the wine. Food items can be stored in a fridge, freezer, or pantry but wines need something more. Wines require a safe place that is free from vibration, temperature changes, and bright light. It also requires added security to prevent theft. Installing a proper cellar temperature- and humidity-controlled cellar isn’t cheap. Some wines will move more quickly while others will potentially be stored for much longer, sometimes years. All of these needs require investment and that requires money.
  • Staff training – You are now reading a wine blog and so therefore, you are probably knowledgeable and interested about wine to some degree. A lot of service staff are not as knowledgeable or interested, and may even be intimidated by it unless they’ve had the opportunity to work at a restaurant that has encouraged them to learn about wine. Staff training costs money for employee time, opening wines, and possibly food costs if pairings are part of the training. The really lucky staff members get to go on wine tours to wineries. I’ve given tours to many restaurant staff over the years and aside from learning about wine, the team building benefits are also huge.
  • Market demand – If people will pay for it, then why sell it for less? Restaurant are fortunate that they have an extra degree of control over their wine prices that wines stores don’t have.
  • Stemware – This is where a lot of restaurants (and wineries) try to save money. Sometimes they can get away with it if they have a reasonable glass that shows the wines well enough. Buying the cheapest ones at a bulk big-box retailer will not only make the table setting look cheap, but in a worst-case scenario also make the wines taste less than stellar. Quality stemware makes a difference, costs a little extra, and breaks as much as the cheap stuff.
  • Faulty bottles – Faulted wines are annoying for consumers but are expensive for restaurants who have to return the bottle to their sales agent or, more likely, simply write off the bottle and take the loss. Conservative failure rate estimates of wine bottles sealed with a natural cork run at 6% while new studies show 1-2% (for TCA-related faults), screw caps, Nomacorc’s engineered closures, and systems like FreshTAP can be saviours for restaurants who want to know that every ounce of wine will be saleable.

Not all restaurants can afford everything that it takes to sell wine properly and some of them may not even consider wine to be all that important to their bottom line. It depends on the market in their particular location. For some places though, the wine list profits effectively subsidizes the food and sometimes even pays for the staff salaries. Regardless of business plan, the mark-up has to match the restaurant. Toronto Master Sommelier John Szabo, quoted in a great article in the Globe and Mail article, said, “When I do get upset is when I walk into a casual place, the wine is served in a tumbler, it’s the wrong temperature, the server knows nothing about it and it’s still a 300-per-cent markup,” What is that mark-up paying for exactly?

Not staff education, that’s for sure. To me, that is the single biggest variable in making or breaking a profitable wine list and I think it’s also the easiest to fix. No service or sales staff member selling anything anywhere will be able to do it effectively without being confident and knowledgeable about the product that they are selling. I’ve given tours to restaurant staff where most of the staff aren’t familiar with wine tasting and aren’t confident in their own ability to taste. Granted, most of them are younger (early 20’s) and haven’t been truly exposed to wine culture yet. When they learn a little of the basics and experience wine in a fun and casual way, I can see the light bulb go on in their minds. I know that from then on they are going to approach their tables with a new confidence that will make selling wine that much easier. Even a small humble wine list can be made profitable with an educated staff getting behind it.

Le Wine List

The wine list itself is another point of contention with some people. Ok, it’s mostly just me but I think it’s more than just a big deal. Wine lists with wines supplied by only one supplier, such as a corporate winery or importer, are particular irksome, to a point where I simply put the list down on the table and order orange juice. It’s like going to family restaurant and being offered the same menu as a fast-food chain. I call those prefab lists “fast-wine”. I don’t want fast-wine because to me they are boring and the wine quality is never as good. I want wine that suits the uniqueness of the restaurant in which I choose to sit down. I understand why restaurants do this but as a consumer, it puts limits on the choices and very likely won’t match the food properly.

The “fast-wine” lists comes from a common technique that sales agents use to sell their products to the restaurants. I learned about it while taking the Wine Sales course at Okanagan College years ago and winery sales reps I’ve talked to since then have filled in more details since then. The sales agent will offer to build a whole wine list for the restaurant so that restaurateur doesn’t have to. It’s offered as a free ‘value-added’ service that takes that whole process off of the minds of the restaurateur who is probably only too willing to have someone help out with a complex task like that. The sales agent then creates a list (to the best of their abilities) that is suited to the menu (to the best of their knowledge of it) and, voilà – a “fast-wine” list.

Of course when selecting the wines, they will select most if not all from their company’s portfolio of wines that they are selling. The sales agent can offer further volume discounts for being the house wine (the least expensive wines on the list that available by the glass, half-litre, bottle, or litre) which is where the real sales volume is. The sales agent may get added commission for selling a lot of product to one place so the incentive is there to sell as much as possible efficiently. The restaurateur gets a full wine list and a single contact to make all of their wine purchases making re-ordering easy. Win-win right?

I would say that the customer is the one that loses. From my point of view, it’s the easy way out for a restaurant to sublet their wine list to a sales agent. Assuming that the sales agent is good at his or her job, they are probably going to have a lot of restaurants in their portfolio. That means that a Greek restaurant in Salmon Arm is likely to have a similar, if not exactly the same, wine list as the Greek restaurant in Vernon. Worse still is that the Greek restaurant could have the same wines as the Italian restaurant and the American diner in the same town and even on the same street. This wine list homogeneity is particularly visible at big restaurant chains that have multiple locations throughout the province. Obviously the food at chains or franchises is going to be the same no matter where it is, but they are far more likely to have one single wine supplier and have better volume discounts on their wine purchases because of it. Larger wineries that are attached to corporations are going to have the economies of scale and will be able to offer even bigger bulk discounts, incentives, and services than smaller independent wineries.

Occasionally I have found some medium-sized estate wineries as house wines at restaurant lists but it’s fairly rare. Those are the restaurants with the best wine lists and I will always try to buy wine at those places. Sometimes wine lists that seem to be diverse are actually not. Seeing Inniskillin, Woodbridge, Monkey Bay, Hogue Cellars, Ruffino, and Mouton-Cadet on the same list seems like a pretty good selection and there is a lot of choice for sure. Except all of these wineries are owned or distributed by one company and it’s very unlikely that there will also be any independent estate wineries on the list.

That’s really where it’s at. A restaurant that makes their own wine list for itself (nobody knows their food better) has put a lot of effort into it and it will always show. Very likely, they will have also put that much effort into other areas of their business – the head chef and kitchen staff, kitchen appliances, staff training, quality ingredients, tableware, stemware, décor, etc – and that will all be far more visible than the wine list. It may not be the easier way but the result will very likely be a better overall dining experience. When I see an estate winery as the house wine on a list, I will always order a wine at that restaurant because I know that if they made the effort with wine, the food is probably worth it as well. If they haven’t made the effort, then all I can say is, “Yes, I will have fries with that.”

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

BC VQA Golden Mile Bench now a reality

They have done it. The Golden Mile Bench can now be used on wine bottle labels starting pretty well right away. It will be seen as “BC VQA Golden Mile Bench”. The wineries that have vineyards within the boundary are CC Jentsch Cellars, Checkmate Artisanal Winery, Culmina Family Estate Winery, Fairview Cellars, Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery, Hester Creek Estate Winery, Inniskillin Okanagan Vineyards, Road 13, Rustico, Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, and Willow Hill Vineyards. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick made the announcement today at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards.

This is a big deal. It’s a big deal because they succeeded after 6 years of trying to clearly and scientifically delineate a unique area for growing grapes.

Part of the reasons for that was discussed on Monday evening at Okanagan College’s Speaker’s Series when the topic for discussion was “Vineyard Soils of the South Okanagan: Defining the Okanagan Terroir” by Scott Smith and Pat Bowen from the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre . In fact, based on geological models, the Okanagan could be further into other distinct regions along with the Golden Mile Bench: Kelowna, Penticton-Summerland-Naramata (all together), Okanagan Falls, Vaseaux-Oliver, Black Sage Bench-Osoyoos.

20150330-222957.jpg(In my own humble opinion of course, Naramata and the wineries on Skaha Lake should be together and separate from the Summerland wineries, who have completely different geology as well as sunshine. Being on the east side of the valley gives Naramata way more sunlight than Summerland, as anyone who has relaxed in the evening shade on the deck of Local Lounge in the heat of summer can appreciate. Conversely though, Summerland gets the sun first thing in the morning before Naramata which is itself beneficial. Calling the whole region Penticton though is a bit of a stretch since the town site itself contributes nothing in the way of grapes. But I digress. The regions shown on the chart are purposely meant to be general, which is really all we can be at this stage in the evolution of our young wine industry.)

Very interesting to see all of this complex information masterfully distilled into one short seminar by Scott Smith. It brought a good deal of discussion on various topics including marketing. The most moving portion of the presentation however was the projections for climate change where it became clear that the Okanagan will be changing and quite drastically. The audience was a mix of Okanagan College students and interested industry people. Perhaps there will be another announcement from another potential sub-GI in the valley’s future?

As a summary, Scott Smith added what is in effect a definition of our grape growing region.

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