Canada's most prolific wine author, John Schreiner, has published 16 books on the subject (and that's not factoring in heavily revised second and third editions of several titles). The journey began in 1974 as a sideline to what became a 40-year career as a business journalist. Although long retired from his day job, the Saskatchewan-born Vancouverite continues to churn out reviews and profiles at an impressive rate, as both an author and blogger. He spoke with Beppi Crosariol about his latest hardcover, Icon: Flagship Wines from British Columbia's Best Wineries (Touchwood Editions, $39.95).
The title sounds like something more apropos of Bordeaux or Napa Valley. By defining certain wines as 'iconic,' are you trying to say the B.C. industry has arrived in the fullest sense?
I think so. British Columbia has gone from zero to 60 in a fairly short time. But the wines we're producing now stand up to some of the top wines in California or Europe, and there's a lot more upside to what we're doing here. If we lack, it's because the longevity is not yet there. There's no British Columbian wine I would put away in the cellar as you would a big Bordeaux for, say, 40 years.
Where is British Columbia at, longevity-wise?
Somewhere between seven and 15 years, depending on the wine. You can get wines in California, where the vines might be older, or in Bordeaux, where the vines certainly are older, that will go 20 or 25 years. That's an area in which we still have to catch up.
There are wines from 100 estates in the book. What kind of prices are we talking about?
I think the majority would be between $40 and $60 a bottle. There are some that are more, some less. And I put in some that are around $25, top wines from wineries that by no stretch of the imagination would anybody consider an icon. But my subplot was to convince people, consumers, to start buying one or two or three a year and lay them down and let them mature a bit.
Many luxury wines are expensive in part because they've got a long track record of improving in the cellar. Is it possible the B.C. industry's gotten ahead of itself?
I don't hear too many wineries talking about their icons. I think the industry still recognizes that there are only a small handful of wines in the truly iconic stage. I, of course, wanted a provocative title so that people would sit up and take notice of the book but more importantly take note of the wines. So, yeah, blame me if the industry seems to be getting ahead of itself.
The names of some top cuveés spare little in the way of confidence: The Goal, Le Grand Vin, Legacy, The Legend, Nota Bene, Pinnacle, Quintessential, Red Icon. Some commentators, as you note in the book, have dismissed trophy bottles as statements of winemaker ego. What's your take?
I obviously don't agree. One of the positive things about wineries trying to make icons is that the effort tends to cascade over the entire product portfolio, because if you have to do everything right in the vineyard and in the winery to make an icon, the other wines will benefit.
Is there also a halo effect in terms of marketing and branding? High prices certainly grab attention.
Very much so. A case in point is Pinnacle, which unfortunately was discontinued by Constellation Brands when it took over Sumac Ridge. I would see bottles of Pinnacle in my local VQA store pile up. It was $50 and people weren't used to spending $50 for a B.C. wine. I'm having lunch with Harry [McWatters, Sumac Ridge's founder] one day and mischievously said, 'Harry, how is Pinnacle doing?' And he said, 'Oh, it's reduced the price resistance on my Meritage,' which is $25 a bottle. That was what was happening. People were coming into the wine shop, they saw Pinnacle at $50 and they thought, 'Well, if they can make a wine worth $50, I'll bet you the $25 wine is pretty good, too.'
You revisited some older vintages for the book. Did a few stand out as marvellous?
Yes. Osoyoos Larose is a very Bordelais style and it's pretty hard when it's young, begins to evolve and show its good qualities when it's about seven years old. Laughing Stock Portfolio is one that starts to come into its own at five years and has a rising profile of quality, or it plateaus somewhere 'round about seven or eight and holds that for a few years. I've tasted a number of verticals of Black Hills Nota Bene. It has surprised me because I've tasted even the first vintage  four or five times as recently as last year. And on a couple of occasions it was fading and when I tasted it last year there was still a surprising amount of life. I guess it depends on the bottle and on the cellar conditions. And Blue Mountain has been making pinot noirs for a long time and I've discovered how just their ordinary $25 pinot ages pretty well and longer than one would expect, up to 10 years.
Despite the occasional riesling, like Synchromesh and Tantalus, many bottles in the book are based on full-bodied, late-ripening red grapes, like merlot and cabernet sauvignon, which perform well in the Okanagan sunshine. Could Ontario, with its stronger focus on crisp, cooler-climate varieties, muster enough showy wines to fill a similar book?
I think so. Take a wine like Trius Red [from Hillebrand], which I would define as an Ontario icon. Trius has a long history. And if some of the styles from Ontario are leaner, that doesn't upset me. Ontario has, as long as I can remember, made terrific riesling. And I believe the pinot noirs have come into their own. I would put Norm Hardie [of Prince Edward County] in the book and put his top pinot in there, for example.
Most wineries in Icon are tiny boutiques that lack wide distribution and consumer awareness east of, say, Alberta. Are Canada's antiquated interprovincial-shipping restrictions to blame?
The interprovincial-shipping rules, I think, limit the exposure of B.C. wines in Ontario and the east. But the other reason is that many of these wineries have been able to sell everything they make locally. Why go through the hassle of shipping elsewhere? And then there are peculiar things. One top Okanagan pinot producer told me he was making more money selling one of his pinots to Tesco supermarkets in Britain than if he'd sold it to Alberta. I didn't press him on why that profit margin is so mean in Alberta. But there are factors like that.
Would you say consumers in British Columbia are more passionate about B.C. wines than Ontarians are about their local industry?
I think the British Columbia wine industry is spectacularly lucky in the loyalty it has with its own consumers. And I know from the time that I spent in Ontario that Ontario consumers are not near as loyal to Ontario wines. I think there's a general loyalty to things British Columbia in this province, at least in the food-and-wine side of things.
Where do you think the B.C. wine industry goes from here?
I think there's a lot of upside still to come. The industry is just now doing the fundamental stuff of a wine region, sorting out subappellations, defining them, sorting out the grapes that are best suited for those subappellations and those sites. Back in '92, '93 and '94 and up through that decade when planting began, well, everything was being planted everywhere. That's a bit of an exaggeration. But people were planting pinot noir in the south, where it's too hot. And people were planting merlot in places that were not hot enough, like Comox on Vancouver Island. When there's an appreciation of the terroir, the wine has to improve. And, of course, there are many more trained winemakers.
This interview has been edited and condensed.