Say what you will about Nordstrom opening a store in Canada. (Cornichon wonders how come the Seattle Times gave a routine business story such fawning coverage?) Here's one better: Whole Foods is going to start selling wines from British Columbia.
KELOWNA, BC--If Canada is known internationally as a wine-producing country, it's probably for the superb ice wines grown on Ontario's Niagara peninsula, brands like Inniskillin and Jackson-Triggs. That's about to change. Whole Foods is going to start importing premium Canadian table wines, specifically eight wines from BC's spectacular Okanagan Valley in a month-long promotion co-sponsored by the BC Wine Institute.
"It's ironic that we can buy wines from Croatia, Turkey and South Africa more readily than bottles from just across the border," says Seattle-based Erez Klein, the regional wine buyer for Whole Foods in the Northwest.
Now, before you turn up your nose at Canadian wine, consider this: not long ago Californians were pooh-poohing wine from Washington and Oregon. So let's do a quick review of British Columbia's wine industry.
You might be surprised to learn that the Okanagan has the potential to produce some of the best wine on the continent. Why? During the growing season, the Okanagan gets the most daylight in North America. It needs to be said, from time to time: It isn't heat that ripens grapes, it's light. The engine that powers plants isn't hot air, but photosynthesis.
Long hours of the most intense sunlight in North America provide ripening power for classic grape varieties, not just on the Naramata Bench (photo) but the length of the entire region. At 50 degrees N, it's at the same latitude as the heart of Germany's Rheingau, and even further north than Champagne -- a freakish accident in the crumpled geology of the Cascades that created a unique string of protected valleys from Vernon (at the northern end of Lake Okanagan) 100 miles south to Osoyoos on the US border.
When I first traveled to the Okanagan 30 years ago, there were barely a dozen wineries, and they were making wine from cultivars and hybrids. Stone fruit (orchards of apricots and peaches) was the crop of choice. The warm lakefront properties, surrounded by craggy mountains, had made the Okanagan into BC's preferred inland resort. "Switzerland on steroids" is how one newcomer described it. Then along came NAFTA, and the local vineyards, planted with inferior grapes, lost their protected status. Out they came, to be replaced with noble European vinifera varieties like riesling and pinot noir. Not unlike Oregon and Washington's wine makers in the 1980s, there was great enthusiasm and pride in the potential of a growing industry. What's more, the Okanagan already had a tourism infrastructure; if anything, vineyards had to compete with vacation homes for the most desirable bench lands.
The word Okanagan means "meeting place" in the local Salish dialect. Halfway along the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake sits the region's biggest city Kelowna (pop. 100,000) with a spiffy international airport that's midway between Calgary and Vancouver. What used to be a sleepy valley dotted with motor courts that happened to grow juicy peaches has been transformed by lakefront condos and glitzy resorts, vying with several hundred vineyards and dozens of "destination" wineries featuring gourmet dining.
It's a transformation that has taken place virtually overnight. The provincial tourism ministry has pounced on the phenomenal growth of wine tourism, pouring money into promotion of the Okanagan. The wineries themselves have mounted the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society, which now involves over 100 wineries in four seasonal promotions. Examples include "Pop Goes the Cork," "Battle of the Benches," and "All You Need is Cheese (and Wine)," in addition to Iron Man races and mixology contests in partnership with local hotels, restaurants, banks, and transportation companies.
Still, if not for NAFTA, Okanagan would still be a minor player in the world of wine. After the trade act was passed in 1988, Canada could no longer put up barriers to protect its domestic products -- including wine. The modest-to-inferior wines produced from hybrid grapes were no match for California's chardonnays and merlots, to say nothing of the Washington's coming cabernets and syrahs. Canadian winemakers needed to change. But how fast could the Okanagan come up with vinifera grapes and how good would the wines be? Pretty quickly, it turned out, and pretty good, too. Today there are 10,000 acres of vineyards, and 250 wineries (most of them family-owned) producing over a million cases of wine a year. (Quick reference points: Burgundy's Côte d'Or and Oregon both come in at just under 15,000 acres, the Napa Valley twice that, Washington State 50,000.)
The most influential figure in British Columbia's ascendance is Harry McWatters who, some 30 years ago, founded Sumac Ridge in Summerland, on an east-facing bluff overlooking Lake Okanagan. He'd been director of marketing for Casabello, an outfit known in Canada as a "Commercial Winery," and when the Province created a new category -- "Estate Winery" -- McWatters and his business partner Lloyd Schmidt snagged the first license. The principal requirements: At least 20 acres of vineyards and wine made from your own grapes. McWatters wasn't the wine maker, he was the business man who led Sumac Ridge through a number of firsts -- among them the first bottle-fermented sparkling wine in Canada (Stellar's Jay Brut, in 1987).
Still, McWatters is even better known as the instigator of the Vintners Quality Alliance. Simultaneously an industry group and a standard of quality, the VQA began as a voluntary declaration of quality. Now it's an official designation on a bottle of wine certifying that the grapes are from British Columbia and that the wine has passed a blind taste test, like the AOC wines of France.
Rhys Pender, an Australian Master of Wine with a consulting business among the Okanagan's wineries, advises his clients, "Don't aim for the middle. Aim high." And for the most part, they do.
Comparing Okanagan wines today to Washington makes the same (misguided) assumptions that governed the Washington-to-California comparisons two decades ago, or California-to-France two decades before that. The vineyards are still young, the vines immature, the growers and winemakers inexperienced.
Yet if there's one thing we've learned, it's that vineyards, vines, and winemakers continue to grow and mature. "Wine quality in the Okanagan will continue to improve with increased knowledge, clone selection, and age of vines," says Allen Shoup, who led Chateau Ste. Michelle through its period of adolescence to maturity, and who sits on the board of BC's Mission Hill winery. "What they have in the Okanagan is unique. The region has a charmed future."
The current promotion is also a first for Vinum Imports, a local firm that got its start with a single Oregon wine ten years ago and currently represents hundreds of wineries and spirits distilleries around the world. The least expensive of the BC wines is a $20 pinot blanc from St. Hubertus; the priciest an $85 Bordeaux-style blend from Black Hills Vineyard. In between are a bracing $25 riesling from Tantalus and a lovely cabernet franc from Burrowing Owl at $40. There's not a clinker in the bunch; they hold their own against international wines at several times the price.
"We love to tell stories about local wines," says Joe Rogoff, the regional president for Whole Foods, "This is long overdue."
For an excellent discussion of the individual wines, there's this piece by Eric Degerman for Great Northwest Wine.