Barbara and I attended a wedding out at Flathead Lake, Montana and decided after it was over to come home via the southern tier of British Columbia, mostly to check out BC’s wine country around Kelowna and Penticton.
What we found was a place as lovely as California’s Alexander Valley, Sonoma or the Willamette Valley in Oregon. We found the wines mostly good or very good and the small scale of the place very much to our liking. We found the wine prices modest and the food good. And we decided that a spring or late fall return trip would work just right next year.
The Okanagan wine country is a suite of several stories. One is the story of a provincial government with a vision of economic development in its eastern farm country and a steady pursuit of the vision over time using powerful regulatory tools and financial incentives. A second story has to do with pushing the limits of where grapes are grown and how global warming is creating a new set of limits. A third is the mishmash of regulation between the Canadian provinces that keeps too much good British Columbian wine bottled up in British Columbia.
Let’s start with the second because it requires a look at the valley’s geology, my favorite science. In Canada, the Okanagan Valley runs about 100 miles north and south and reaches another seventy miles into the US after crossing the border. The valley was formed in three phases. First, a massive volcanic complex grew in the valley about 60 million years ago. The volcanoes are now mostly gone, distributed across the valley by other massive events, though Mount Boucherie, near Kelowna, remains.
Following the volcanism, there was a period of folding as the valley was pinched on one side by the rising Rockies and on the other by the rising Cascades. Finally, the glaciers came, completely covering everything, grinding south, until they started melting about 15,000 years ago, pushing out their debris as they retreated, forming future wine country benches and mineral soils along the valley.
Left in the valley were three large lakes – Okanagan, the headwaters of the Okanagan River, Lake Skaha, bordering Penticton, and Lake Osooyos, spilling over the border at Oroville, where the Okanogan River continues on, with its new, American spelling, meandering south until it joins the Columbia River at Brewster.
The Okanagan Valley is a continuation of the American Sonoran desert and is the only official desert in Canada. The valley is in the Cascade rain shadow, meaning warmer, drier weather while the lakes in the valley moderate both the high and low temperatures. When the sun goes down, the fruit enjoys cool nights. All this fire and ice, the bending and twisting of the earth, conspire to create many different climates throughout the valley.
Early on, the valley was apple country and still is. Grapes are a growing niche market. Conventional wisdom had it that the hardy labrusca grapes, like Concord and Catawba, were the only grapes that would survive the winter lows and summer highs. These grapes and local hybrids were sometimes mixed with grapes purchased in California, producing low cost, high alcohol content jug wines -- in BC called "Plonk" wines, or as a base of fortified wines.
In 1978, the government counted 3000 acres of grapes in the area, just 2% or them vinifera, from which high quality wines are produced.
Government had long been a player in Okanagan agriculture. It took over private water systems and helped develop irrigation projects to serve the apple, tree fruit and nascent wine grapes. It required certain percentages of Okanagan grape content in wines. Most significantly, it provided protection through its Liquor Board, a hangover from the prohibition era, that purchased and sold all liquor and wine sold in the Province. There are now options for purchasing wine at other places, but the Liquor Board still runs the show except at the farm level. In the past, the provincial board marked up imported wine significantly higher to protect its low cost wines, and now does the same for its premium brands. The current mark up on foreign wines is 135%.
A couple of early Hungarian settlers had planted vinifera grapes in the thirties and kept them alive, so in 1974, the federal government wanted to see how well a larger planting would do. Penticton is right on the edge of the 50 degree northern latitude that conventional wisdom places as the boundary of wine grape growing and so the federal government also brought in German experts, whose wines grow in colder temperatures.
The government was observing what was happening in rural California and Washington state where wine provided a platform for tourism. By 1978, the provincial government decided that tourism hinged on the quality of the wines and began a program to incentivize replacement of labrusca grapes with vinifera. In 1979 it offered incentives that replaced 20% of the valley’s old stock with higher quality vines. A few years later, it offered the deal again and had more takers than before. The government also created additional content and quality requirements and exempted local wineries from the Liquor Board mark up as long as wine was sold at a 20 acre vineyard. Soon it reduced the farm sales exemption to 5 acres.
In 1984, there were a thousand acres of vinifera grapes and 13 wineries in the Okanagan.
|W. A. C. Bennett|
It did not hurt that the Premier of British Columbia was a Kelowna resident named Bennett from 1952 to 1986 save for 3 years. Though he didn’t drink, W.A.C. Bennett, the first Premier Bennett, actually helped start a winery, Calona, in the 1930s, trying to sell applejack made from depression-era surpluses of apples. Bill Bennett, W.A.C.’s son, was Premier during the major changes that would start the transformation of the valley.
The fact that Canada was negotiating a new trade agreement with the United States and Mexico was another reason why the federal and provincial governments were pushing quality. The Vintner’s Quality Alliance legislation passed the BC parliament in 1990 assuring BC grower content, quality production standards and sensory testing of product. The British Columbia Wine Institute enters the picture about the same time to market, coordinate with government and supervise production standards. The University of British Columbia creates the Wine Research Center to bring climate, soil and production chemistry academicians into play.
In 2004, there were 90 wineries in southern British Columbia and production was at 10,000,000 liters. As the industry grew, the wine regions began sorting themselves out. Reds become the grape of choice in the south with more whites in the northern, cooler part of the valley. Today, there are more than 9,000 acres in wine grape production, 98% are vinifera, and they are producing 13,000,000 liters. There are 200 wineries in British Columbia, most in the Okanagan, though the Similkameen Valley immediately to the west is growing rapidly.
VQA wines now now make up nearly all the wine produced in British Columbia and have captured 20% of the overall BC wine market, double where they stood six years ago. However, wines carrying the label “cellared in British Columbia” hold greater market share. These products, 25% of the BC sales, are juice from other countries around the world that are then made into wine by British Columbia wineries. This is fallout from the government’s program to change out the labrusca vines. As they waited for the new vines to grow, producers were allowed to import juice. This temporary measure soon grew permanent, as the lower costs of the juice allowed producers to get into the under ten dollar market, a significant advantage over VQA wine’s average price of $17. It is a controversial practice and not universally supported. Other major participants in the British Columbia market are Australian wines, 12% of the market and US wines at 11%.
Nearly all of the wine produced in British Columbia is consumed in British Columbia. Most of the rest is consumed by people like us who physically carry it home to the US or other Canadian provinces. There are three reasons why. First, British Columbia doesn’t produce enough grapes to get into an export market. Second, provincial liquor laws make it against the law to ship wine across provincial lines from the producer to an individual – wine can be taken across provincial lines only if it is in the physical possession of its purchaser. And third, the BC Liquor Board mark up on imported wines more than doubles the price of foreign wine for Canadian consumers.
Enough of this. Let’s go drink some wine! And we're going right to the Naramata Bench!
Enough of this. Let’s go drink some wine! And we're going right to the Naramata Bench!
This is a magical place. It is a compact geography stretching for nine miles along Lake Okanagan and a creature of glaciers. Rising 350 feet from the valley floor, abutted by broken and weathered granite and connected by little country lanes, this place overlooks a contented Penticton on the edge of the lake.
They farm on steeper slopes than I've seen before, a piece of climate management, it turns out. The altitude of the west facing sunny slopes keeps the vines above the cold air masses that settle on the valley floor in winter and closer to the heat-holding rocks surrounding the valley. The scene reminds us of how needy these vines are -- dependent on volcanoes to produce the basics of their soil, glaciers to mix and distribute it, farmers to offer up their lives, government ministers to fret, cold air masses to slide safely by.
All the accomplishments of the past several years hinge on surviving a winter like 1968-69, when an arctic mass settled
in at 30 degrees below zero. Vinifera grapes die at 0-10 degrees F. The Great Warming may be on farmer's side, but there is always a chance of some climate happenstance. Some growers bury a cutting by each vine every winter as insurance.
We are on the patio at Poplar Grove, a clean wooden building overlooking the Bench. “This will have a good, clean white,” I thought, and it sure did, a Pinot Gris. Like many early vintners on the Bench, this was a garage winery with a few acres of vines. After 14 years, it was purchased by growers who were land rich and now can leverage the brand with 110 acres of vineyards in the valley. Proper land is at a premium on the Bench, easily north of $150,000 an acre.
For me, the wine experience is mostly about the people who work in the industry. The chatty tasting room attendant carries on three conversations at the same time – smiling, explaining, selling. The principals of the enterprise, escorting a visiting journalist to a back room to a table with bottles and glasses on it, a woman shaking her head, never really considering that her life would include a busload of people from Finland in her tasting room, young Hispanic men balancing lunch boxes on a tire attached to a piece of farm equipment.
We talked about those images during lunch at the Lake Breeze Winery and found ourselves on a patio with the winemaker’s dog and a pretty big lunch crowd for 2:30 in the afternoon. I ordered the Croque Monsieur and thought about a knowledgable friend who knew his wine and admonished me once to “buy on nuts, sell on cheese.” In other words, buy for the subtleties, but if you are the seller of wine, remember most wines taste pretty good accompanied by cheese, especially cheese that has been melted. It seemed quite true for the $25 dollar a bottle Pinot Noir I was drinking. It was remarkable. I had another glass, this time without the sandwich, and it was still remarkable. The dog came over and we chatted. I tried, unsuccessfully, to make the case for a third glass, knowing we had places to get to and a couple of other stops to make down valley.
We liked Poplar Grove, Lake Breeze, Therapy – where they had two small guest villas right in the mix of the winery – and bought a nice little Tawney Port at La Frenz. A friend told us we made a big mistake by not going to Kelowna’s Mission Hills Winery with its very good restaurant. We’ll fix that next year.
We brought back two cases of wine to sample over the winter. If you are bringing Canadian wine into the United States, you have a personal exemption of one liter that is duty free. The rest is subject to duty but it is less than 60 cents a bottle. There is also a Washington sales tax fee of about a dollar. It is apparently common to waive the duty and its paperwork at the border, which is exactly what happened to us and we drove home duty free and happy.