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While Old World wines capitalize on history, many B.C. winemakers, such as Black Hills Estate, are embracing a cheekier approach. (Daniel Hayduk/Daniel Hayduk for The Globe and Mail)
While Old World wines capitalize on history, many B.C. winemakers, such as Black Hills Estate, are embracing a cheekier approach. (Daniel Hayduk/Daniel Hayduk for The Globe and Mail)

Putting brand B.C. on a wine bottle Add to ...

Greetings, Olympian tourists. Your first time to British Columbia? I'm sure you're having a raging good time. A tip for your pleasure: We make wine here. From actual grapes, not birch syrup.

Permit me to assist with your overpriced-hotel suite's wine list. In fact, you won't need much help from me. Pinpointing a B.C. wine to suit your mood is simple.

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Feeling vivacious? Try a glass of Vivacious, a premium white from Van Westen Vineyards, located in the Okanagan Valley, the province's main wine-growing region. If you're hankering for a more delicate and demure dining partner, consider Belle, a pinot noir from Le Vieux Pin.

Perhaps it's a discreet, carefree encounter you seek. Then let me point you toward a choice that's always shown me a good time, Bordello from Dirty Laundry Vineyard. With a name like that, and $39 price tag at retail, you know it's gonna be fine. If you're nervous about going straight to Bordello, you might want to set the stage with a cool glass of Alibi, a compelling sauvignon blanc-semillon blend from Black Hills Estate.

Getting a picture here? Enjoying Okanagan wine these days takes more than your nose and lips; you have to plant your tongue in your cheek as well.

Fanciful branded blends have become the big marketing hook for high-end B.C. wine. So much so that the British Columbia section of ritzy Vancouver and Whistler restaurant wine lists is starting to read like a Harlequin romance cover blurb.

Or the lineup in an SUV showroom. There's Quatrain from Mission Hill Family Estate, The Legacy from Poplar Grove, Mirage from La Frenz, and Pentâge, a flagship red from an eponymous winery, which I can't help but think of as the five-wheel-drive version of a Sportage.

While branded names may perplex (and provide bawdy amusement to) tourists browsing the local selections, they represent a coming of age for the province's 20-year-old quality-wine industry.

"In the early years of the Okanagan, wineries without a track record borrowed mystique from the Old World," says Bernie Hadley-Beauregard, principal of Brandever, a design firm in Vancouver. "There were 'châteaux' or 'domaines.' A little bit of deceit was in order."

Actually, a whole lot of deceit. Some fake-château brands, such as Schloss Weinberg and Chauvignon Blanc, actually depicted castles on the label. "It really was just borrowing on the laurels of others," Mr. Hadley-Beauregard adds. "The Okanagan no longer needs to borrow."

Mr. Hadley-Beauregard can't claim complete objectivity. He makes his living revamping winery brands around the world. His B.C. client list includes Dirty Laundry, which grew out of Scherzinger Vineyards, a struggling property that became an overnight darling of Vancouver sommeliers when its identity morphed. The name in an allusion to an early 1900s laundry in Summerland run by a Chinese immigrant, who covertly ran a brothel behind the same door when he wasn't pressing blue collars for the railway workforce.

So-called proprietary labelling, in which a wine blend is christened with a copyright-protected name, is not new. Branded cuvées have been around since the dawn of commercial bottling. Many of the biggest sellers in history have been proprietary blends with catchy, and now in some cases infamous, monikers, including Blue Nun, Black Tower, Mouton-Cadet, Hochtaler and Baby Duck.

For a long time, branded names were confined almost entirely to the bargain basement, where consumers tend to have little interest in the details of how or specifically where a wine was made.

At the pretentious high end, wine marketing has tended to dwell on tangible physical qualities. You either told consumers what grapes they were getting (chardonnay, say, or merlot) or what village or vineyard they were grown in (Pommard or Montrachet), or both. For connoisseurs, land is brand.

Yet without the benefit of centuries-old reputations for village and vineyard quality, New World winemakers have in recent years come to realize that brands make sense even at the high end, especially when the wine is blended from too many grape varieties to cite on a front label.

"The European names arose from detailed place names that had hundreds of years of meaning," says Barbara Insel, president and chief executive of Stonebridge Research Group, a wine consultancy in Napa, Calif. "Being from a particular microclimate in northern Burgundy had meanings for people. But what they're finding is that it means nothing in North America. … And it's almost counterproductive. You want to find a name that says something to people, but if you make it too location-based, you might just go over their heads."

Because branded wine blends are conceived by the proprietor or winemaker, they suggest stylistic confidence and a pride of craftsmanship. They also imply a certain consistency from year to year. Branded wines are almost always blended from several grapes into a reliable house style. If the autumn weather was lousy for late-ripening cabernet sauvignon, the winemaker has the latitude to add more merlot or cabernet franc to the mix.

If some of the new B.C. brand names can sound frivolous or sensational, they still represent a departure from the truly cheesy "Baby Ducks" and ersatz-Teutonic brands of the past. The new names are almost always rooted in the place or people who make it, says Christine Coletta, a partner with the Vancouver marketing and communications firm Coletta & Associates who was executive director of the British Columbia wine institute, a trade group, from 1990 to 1999. The Legacy, a $50 red blend, for example, is a nod to the long-term vision of Poplar Grove majority owner Tony Holler, whose family has more than 100 acres of prime vineyard land in the south Okanagan. Laughing Stock Vineyards and flagship Portfolio red blend, about $40 in British Columbia, are an allusion to the former finance-industry careers of owners Cynthia and David Enns.

"The story needs to be about us, the land, the viticulturist," Ms. Coletta says. "And we've been afraid to do that. We're growing up a little bit. We're not in high school any more."

Follow on Twitter: @Beppi_Crosariol

 

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