British Columbian wines deserve our respect
Our land and wine is first-class. We've got a real chance at becoming a benchmark for quality throughout the world. We've just got to support it.
The quality of British Columbian wine has grown substantially in recent years, but it still often takes quite a bit of hunting to find something truly well put-together. When you do, the rewards are totally worth it. I've grown up in British Columbia, and I've spent far too much time and money looking for the good stuff. I sell wine for a living, and when I'm able to find a product that totally thrills me, I love to share it with other people.
With much of the generic wine that saturates our industry, it's easy to think that we have no serious intention of competing with the world's more established viticultural giants. It's far more comfortable to walk into any old wine store and point to that well-known California Cabernet and say “damn, I know that stuff is pretty good, why would I bother wasting my money on some cold-climate swill I've never even heard of?”, or perhaps “I've got a date to impress, and Canada doesn't have anything near as classy as this trusty old Super-Tuscan.”
Don't get me wrong; a good brunello makes my heart melt and I can equally sing the praises of your standard Napa fruit-bomb or that obscure premiere cru Burgundy that I really, really could never afford (but I always end up buying anyways). It's always an incredible feeling to completely turn around someone's opinion of our own local product. I live for the days when I sell a customer a bottle of Foxtrot's stunning pinot noir, and have them come into my store a day later, raving about it.
I'm always a little sad (as someone who sells wine) when customers come to me and express their complete distrust in, say, a B.C. Chardonnay. Perhaps it was because they had a bottle of cheesed-out, super malolactic, lees-stirred-a-billion-times bottle of sugared-up grape juice. Or maybe just because that's what they were expecting and they got something that tastes more akin to fermented lemon-juice with the addition of some fancy (expensive) French Oak. This is an honest plea to those people; Keep tasting! It's not all like that!
Big commercial wine-makers often fall victim to the curse of trying way too hard to produce wines that are as appealing to the broadest possible market as they can make them. Investors make a killing, and vignerons lose their integrity. One of my favourite wine quotes (thank you, Jean Hugel) was related to me on a recent trip to the Okanagan by Mike Kosaka, the Operations Manager at La Stella Winery; “The entire quality of a wine is already in the grapes, not in the cellars, where you can only lose quality”.
In other words, we've got some excellent land, and that in itself is what makes a beautiful wine. Producers that respect the terroir have a head start in producing something that is almost certainly drinkable. You can definitely find wine-makers in our province who are working effectively with this idea in mind.
Yes, British Columbia does lack a long growing season like that enjoyed by California (our weather can be a bit of a nuisance, to say the least) and nurturing grapes to maturity can be an uphill battle. We lack the enormous amount of space available to many other appellations as well. Wine-makers need to use all their wiles to compete and a compromise between traditional and modern wine-making techniques is sometimes needed. But the best producers keep the land and the grape in mind, first and foremost.
I believe that BC's limitations are capable of giving us an advantage. Bottom line, we cannot compete with the rest of the world in terms of quantity and mass-marketability. Our focus needs to be on quality, I'm a firm believer that the growth of our industry's traditions and history will result in the production of world-class product (and I'll I no longer have customers walk into my store and say "whoa! I didn't know B.C. made wine too!").
Merlot grapes in the Okanagan - photo by Mychaylo Prystupa
What makes a wine for me is not just how good it tastes but its ability to express the place that it comes from. I love B.C. and I don't hesitate when I say that the Okanagan is one of the most gorgeous places I've ever been. The B.C. wine industry is going through a beautiful period of transition. Our industry is about as young as it gets when it comes to wine and these next ten years will be absolutely crucial in deciding what sort of role we play on the world stage. It's exactly at this point that we must decide to produce wine that speaks for itself, uniquely.
Like everywhere else in the world, we have both good and bad wine. We must remember that we, too, are unique. We need to make wines that are expressive of our land, and ultimately of who we are. I believe British Columbia has the potential to produce extraordinary wines, wines that won't be defined as imitations or “inspired-by.” I can't wait for the day when our best pinots and chards and whatever else stand up for themselves throughout the world, and people are able to recognize them as something that is completely unique -- something completely British Columbia.