BIG FISH? LITTLE FISH?
The Oliver sub-region
Let’s return once more to the issue of the size of the Okanagan Valley and, to a point, its associated costs. As a small, niche wine region it is unsurprising that few outside of North America or the most well-informed trade are aware of its existence. Indeed, the bulk of British Columbian wine is drunk within the province and the majority of that is consumed in Vancouver alone.
Jane Hatch, general operations and sales at Tantalus, explains: “BC drinkers are extremely loyal to BC but there’s only so much they can drink.”
Meyer for one is fully convinced that export needs to be pushed further. Currently he exports around 5% of his production, which amounts to 100 cases outside Canada and another 100 to other provinces. “In the longrun you need to get out of BC,” he argues, declaring: “It’s shortsighted to think you’ll get a better price here.
I don’t want to be the last guy trying to export, I want to be the first.” Others are more wary. Cipes mentioned before that it is very difficult for most wineries to produce enough wine at a low enough price to be really competitive in an export market.
High labour and taxes mean that some wineries are having to charge $40 for a wine that should really be $20. It’s not that the wine isn’t good enough, it’s just that there are others which offer better value for money.
Ian Mavety of Blue Mountain Vineyard, cautions: “I think it would be foolish to have a $50 BC wine on the shelves when there’s comparable quality from elsewhere. It’ll be a hard second sell.”
So might it be necessary to plant more vines? “This region is not going to grow substantially,” thinks Grady.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t. McWatters is adamant, although also realistic, about what needs to be done, arguing that growth is necessary to get more Okanagan wine to a wider audience. “It’s necessary for us to grow as we’ve had acclaim from writers but not consumers.
Summerhill Pyramid Winery
“There’s still room for growth though we couldn’t double in size.” Crucially he adds that any future planting would “have to be site specific”. One final strength of the valley and a factor that may be instrumental in finally growing the vineyard area is tourism. With its relatively manageable size, wineries equipped with renowned restaurants and also a thriving industry in Kelowna and Penticton for water sports and other outdoor pursuits, the Okanagan is an increasingly popular place to visit.
Grady reports that Mission Hill sees around 80,000 visitors a year, and Quails’ Gate receives 120,000 according to Galts. “There’s been a real change in the last 10 years,” says Christie Mavety of Blue Mountain. “There’s always been a real draw to come to the Okanagan but there’s more now with the wine. Tour companies have been set up and there are better restaurants that add to the area.”
An indication that the region is growing, fuelled perhaps by tourism, is the fact that since 1992 the number of wineries has grown from around 6 to 200. So where does that leave the valley? There are some teething issues which are only natural for a region that is emerging and finding its place. The wines are expensive and any export market will have to be extremely selective. As Galts points out, “We have to aim at the ‘real’ wine consumers.”
On the other hand, there are many positives. The overall quality of the wines is very high, there are winemakers who are becoming old hands at their craft and there are newer producers who are doing exciting work. The vines too are getting older, planted in the right place and there are tentative signs of sub-regionality.
It is true, some wines are over-priced but there are others which perfectly justify their price tag. If a sommelier or independent merchant picks carefully and has clients that enjoy good wine and are prepared to spend money on it, there’s no reason to doubt that the Okanagan can take its place on the tables and in the cellars of wine enthusiasts beyond BC.