After a cool summer, the wine harvest in the Okanagan is running late.
Along with that nail-biting scenario, wine makers in the region are up against rising costs, regulatory headaches and a contentious study that concludes B.C.’s wine sector is at risk of saturation.
But at the Black Hills winery on an overcast October afternoon, Glenn Fawcett looks anything but worried, saying opportunities outweigh the risks.
Walking through a Black Hills vineyard, he notes it was planted in 1996 and so is only in its 15th ‘leaf’ – relatively young in a business where vines can survive 100 years and typically peak somewhere between 20 and 50 years of age.
“We haven’t even hit our stride in the valley yet,” Mr. Fawcett says.
A Calgary entrepreneur who put together a group of investors to buy the highly regarded Black Hills winery in 2007, Mr. Fawcett is part of a growing and mercurial wine community that features players ranging from industry heavyweight Vincor Canada to boutique wineries that produce a few hundred cases of wine a year.
A draft August report – The Wine Industry in British Columbia: Issues and Potential – cited a lack of co-ordination among the various players in the industry as one of several “vulnerabilities” facing the sector. The report, by Andy Hira and Alexis Blenge of Simon Fraser University’s political science department, also cited rising land costs, market saturation and dependence on tourism as risks for the sector.
Mr. Fawcett, however, is counting on tourism to boost traffic and profits not only at his winery but for the region as a whole. He’s banking on the same kind of wine-loving clientele that helped him raise more than $10-million from investors willing to pay to own a piece of Black Hills.
“I kept hearing, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to own a vineyard and not have to do the work?’ ” he recalls.
Black Hills offers food-and-wine events for small groups and ‘sneak peek’ barrel tastings – with the idea that the same customers who will pay for that type of experience are more likely to purchase wine when they leave.
On the regulatory front, some are pushing for changes that would make it legal to transport wine out of B.C. to other provinces.
This month, Okanagan-Coquihalla Conservative MP Dan Albas introduced a private member’s bill to amend the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act.
The amendment to the 1928 law would create a personal exemption that would allow people to take wine across provincial borders, or to have it shipped, as long as it was for personal consumption.
As that reform percolates, more infrastructure and new wrinkles on old models continue to pop up.
“It’s a bit like California 20 or 25 years ago, it’s the place where everyone wants to be,” says Eric Fourthon, a master cooper, or barrel maker, who moved to the Okanagan from France in 2007 to join Okanagan Barrel Works.
B.C.’s reputation for quality wine, rather than plonk, dates to the 1989 Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the United States. It spelled an end to subsidies for B.C. wine and the beginning of regulatory changes designed to nurture a domestic wine industry.
Now, some suggest it’s time for some of those regulations to change again.
Christine Coletta is the co-owner of the Okanagan Crush Pad, a Summerland facility that opened this fall and provides services including wine making and marketing.
The facility has ruffled feathers of some in the industry who have argued the Okanagan Crush Pad amounts to an end run around B.C. regulations that require land-based wineries to own their own land and processing facilities – requirements than can push startup costs past $1-million for even a small operation.
Ms. Coletta envisions her facility as an incubator.
And she argues that B.C. should consider regulatory models in other jurisdictions, including Washington State, that allow wine processing to occur off-site and could open the door to wineries in towns such as Oliver.
“Why take up land that could be used for growing things for a manufacturing plant?”
According to the B.C. Wine Institute, the province's first commercial winery opened in the Okanagan in 1931. There are now more than 175 wineries in the province, up from 13 in the mid-1980s.