The North American Wine Bloggers Conference is being held in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley next weekend, June 6-8, in a small city called Penticton–population 32,000.
I’ve written a couple of posts here on my issues with the the North American Wine Bloggers Conference, based on the one I attended in Virginia in 2011. I criticized a number of features of that conference here. That post sparked quite a bit of debate and led to an effort by conference organizers (a commercial entity that producers bloggers conferences on a variety of subjects) to revamp the programming for the succeeding conference, held last year in Portland. (For more background, see my follow up post here on how I was invited by conference and Wine Blog Awards founder Tom Wark to be part of the committee to make recommendations for the next conference, but was then excluded from that committee by Allan Wright, the head of the company that organizes the conference, Zephyr Adventures.)
At any rate, I understand from several attendees of last year’s Portland conference that the improvements made following my complaints about the Virginia conference did result in a positive difference. And the schedule for the Penticton conference includes a number of sessions that should be of genuine interest to wine bloggers, which was not the case in Virginia. So you’re welcome, WBC organizers and Portland and Penticton attendees.
Based on the reports about the Portland conference, I briefly considered attending the conference being held this year in Penticton. Since I had a business trip to Vancouver for a few days this past September, I decided to sample as many British Columbia wines as I could while I was there–having seen virtually none over the years in the otherwise very diverse wine market here in the San Francisco Bay area. I wanted to use my obligatory business trip to ascertain whether it might be worth my time and expense this month to travel all the way to Penticton (not a place that’s particularly easy to get to) to learn more about B.C.’s primary wine region.
I was a little leery of the region after reading beforehand how relatively new the wine industry is there–in modern terms dating back only to the late 1980s. It was then that more than two thirds of Okanagan vineyards, which had been planted to climate adapted hybrids rather than the vitis vinifera required for fine wines, were uprooted following the 1988 harvest. This was in response to anticipated competition from U.S. wines following adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement. I also read how difficult it was to grow vinifera grapes in the short, hot growing season found in the Okanagan Valley, and that irrigation was essential there due to arid conditions.
After sampling over two dozen B.C. wines and getting a sense of the (very limited) wine culture of British Columbia’s largest city, Vancouver, I concluded that while there are a few fairly good wines being produced in Okanagan Valley, there was really nothing compelling enough about the region or its wines to lead me to want to spend a significant amount of money and time to learn much more about them at this point.
My reasoning is that there are literally thousands of competing wines from many other parts of the world, including my huge wine producing State of California, that are both higher quality and better values than what I sampled in B.C. Most of those wines are actually available to U.S. consumers, whereas B.C., Canada’s second largest wine growing region, only produces 120 thousand hectoliters of wine per year, barely enough for the local market. (For comparison, California produces nearly 24 million hectoliters annually.) So why should I spend precious time learning and writing about fairly good wines from a small region that hardly makes enough for the local market, let alone for export, when my readers are never going to have a chance to sample the wines for themselves? And why didn’t the organizers of the North American Wine Bloggers Conference consider that point in designing a conference supposedly for the benefit of wine bloggers? Oh, that’s right, because the Okanagan Valley hosts offered to pay the organizers more than any other location did.
Secondly, the backward state of wine culture in British Columbia’s largest city really depressed me. Only one person at a single wine bar was knowledgeable about the region and its wines. Others working at wine bars and wine retail stores I visited showed little or no interest in or knowledge of wine in general, let alone much interest in the wines being produced in their province. If I was going to run into that much wine ignorance in British Columbia’s most sophisticated city–in fricking wine focused establishments for God’s sake–what kind of useful information was I going to get in a small wine country town like Penticton?
The latter judgment is no doubt unfair. Quite possibly Penticton and its surroundings, where presumably passionate winemakers reside, is the only place in B.C. where one is going to get into a serious and informative discussion about wine in general–and Okanagan Valley wine, and what makes it special, in particular. I’m hoping for the sake of my fellow bloggers on their way to this seeming backwater that this assumption is correct. For me, though, the fact that Pentictonite wine producers have yet to educate and interest people who work in the wine business in their province’s greatest city about their wines suggested to me these producers might not be amongst the wine world’s best communicators.
So to be very clear, I have not visited Penticton or the Okanagan Valley, nor do I have any intention of doing so in the foreseeable future. I look forward to the glowing accounts of visits there that should be spewing forth into the blogosphere in the next two or three weeks. I am confident they will paint an attractive picture of dedicated vintners, picturesque vineyards and delicious wines that, unfortunately, just aren’t available anywhere in the U.S. And since the main business of the Okanagan Valley wine industry appears to be agrotourism as opposed to wine production, I am sure conference goers will highlight the appealing sights and hospitality there, to the promotional benefit of the area’s true primary product.
In the meantime, for another point of view on British Columbia’s wine culture, here’s what I learned from scouring Vancouver for the four days I was there last fall for every taste and scrap of information I could get about the province’s wines.
I was staying for a series of meetings at one of Vancouver’s posher hotels, the Fairmont Waterfront. I enlisted the concierges there to supplement my online research about winetasting opportunities in their fair city. Unfortunately, although they are based in the city and presumably connected to more sources of information on the ground than were available to me via the Internet, in over a day of searching they failed to come up with anything more than I did.
That hotel’s Herons Westcoast Kitchen & Bar did feature a monthly rotating wine flight from a selected Okanagan producer. I therefore proceeded to sample the three wines on offer for that month in that single flight of wines from Blasted Church, a winery whose website claims it’s “Okanagan Valley’s most creative, inspired and fun destination for wine lovers.” I was reasonably impressed with the Pinot Gris but not at all by Blasted Church’s other two wines in the flight. Go there for the “fun,” I guess, but not for the wine.
The organization that set up the business event I was attending had scheduled lunches or dinners at some of the city’s better restaurants—including one widely reputed to have a very good wine list, Blue Water Café. I spoke to the somms or wine servers at each of those restaurants, asking for advice on what local wines to taste, and where in the City I could taste more wines. I received little useful information from any of them, and was frankly appalled at the wine pairings Blue Water came up with for the large party I dined with there. For the main course, a delicate white fish, they poured a lousy, oaky Argentine Tannat–I kid you not.
I could only assume they were unloading some of their bad buys on my hapless party, because their choices didn’t evidence anyone who gave a damn about any notion of food and wine somehow complimenting each other. They did have a long wine list with relatively few local wines compared to the European and California producers on offer. They also had a lovely new wine cellar they were anxious to show me when it became clear I was interested in wine. That cellar, however, mainly displayed trophy bottles of Napa Cab, Bordeaux and pricey Italian wines. Clearly, they were not proud enough of the local product to highlight it.
The best wine pairing I experienced in Vancouver was at lunch at the Dockside Restaurant, where I had a very tasty lamb cheek salad. When I asked about domestic Merlots (since Merlot is one of the primary red varieties grown in the region), the server came up with the ’09 Tinhorn Creek, which complemented the meat salad quite nicely.
I walked into several wine stores to check out the (limited) selection and to ask where one could actually sample local wines in the city. Most suggested restaurants, like Blue Water, that were reputed to have good wine lists (not necessarily including many local wines though). I asked about wine bars and places pouring wine by the taste instead of by the bottle or glass, and they just looked at me blankly.
I did know there was a wine bar in Vancouver’s Gastown district, on a hard-to-find street intimidatingly named “Blood Alley,” that friends here in Silicon Valley had recommended highly from their recent trip there. I also found a place called Uva Wine Bar.
Unfortunately, Uva mainly offered Italian wines. I tasted all eight of the local wines they had on their list, but the two servers could tell me nothing at all about the wines. Apparently the requirements for working in a wine bar in Vancouver do not include knowing anything about wine or the origins of what’s on the menu. I was, however, able to taste there another four Tinhorn Creek wines –only one of which, the 2010 Gewurz, rated for me above 88 points; a couple of decent Chardonnays with good acidity (from JoieFarm and Mission Hill); and one fairly good Pinot Noir (Cedar Creek).
So that brings us down to the one place in the City of Vancouver—a metropolis of over 600,000 inhabitants–where one can actually taste a small but rather good collection of B.C. wines, served by someone who truly knows something about the wines and their producers. That is the Salt Tasting Room, which my friends in California had told me about, but of which people working at retail wine shops appeared to be universally unaware. It also brings us to the one hero of my frustrating attempt to have a local wine experience in Vancouver—Salt Tasting Room’s Jay Whitelock, pictured below.
They had something like 14 B.C. wines available for tasting at Salt Tasting, and I tasted all but a few of them, based on Jay’s knowledgeable recommendations.
I started with a white flight—an old vine Chenin, a white Rhone blend, a Chard and a Gewurztraminer. All were fairly good, and I rated both the ’11 Meyer Gewurz and ’10 DiBello Duncan Vineyards Chard 91 points. Both had complexity, good aromatics and acidity. I then moved on to their rosé flight, in which both the 2011 8th Generation Pinot Meunier Rosé and 2011 Tantalus Pinot Meunier/Pinot Noir Rosés merited, for me, a lover of good rosé, 90+ points. Both, again, had good acidity. I then delved into Jay’s recommended reds, a Pinot, Pinotage and Cab Sauv/Merlot blend. By far the best of that trio was the 2010 La Frenz Pinot Noir Amos Vineyard, the most complex and appealing Pinot of my trip at 91+ points. I finished with one of the two sweet wines on the menu, the one Jay steered me to, which was a Late Harvest Riesling by Poplar Grove. It was okay, nothing special.
The Salt Tasting Room offers little bites, of cheeses and charcuterie to go along with the wines, and these were pretty tasty examples from local producers that were also well labeled and explained.
So the height of my experience trying to taste some B.C. wines in B.C.’s largest city boiled down to this not inexpensive but fairly satisfying couple of hours at the Salt Tasting Room, with knowledgeable commentary and advice from Jay. Why is this kind of experience such a rare possibility in a large urban city located in a wine producing region?
I did some research when I got back on the possible causes for the retardation of British Columbia’s wine culture and this is what I learned.
Current British Columbia liquor laws and policy, which date back to the repeal of Canada’s version of Prohibition in 1927, do not permit the sampling of wine during wine education classes, such as WSET courses. They require restaurants to buy all their wines from a designated government liquor store. These stores, mostly government monopolies like those in the most backward of our U.S. states when it comes to wine like Pennsylvania, typically have a very limited selection (like the ones I visited). Also the better producers that can sell through their own mailing list or other direct means won’t deal with them, as the wine prices at the stores are greatly increased by heavy government taxes.
B.C. law also permits wineries to have only a single tasting room, which must be located at the site of their winery. Absent such a law, I’m sure there would be a number of B.C. wineries with second tasting rooms in touristy Vancouver, thereby raising local and visitor awareness about B.C. wines. Anti-consumer legislators, however, have yet to authorize such an obvious innovation.
So I guess it’s no wonder, really, why even people in the wine business in Vancouver are basically stupid about B.C. wine. Misguided government over-regulation that’s a hangover from the 1920s has retarded the development of the kind of vibrant wine culture here that one finds in most other major North American cities.
These restrictive laws and regulations reportedly also made it quite difficult for the wine regions and producers from outside B.C. that are coming to next week’s Wine Bloggers Conference—like the wine boards of Uruguay and Greece–to get their wines into the country.
With this background, I have to ask why any wine oriented organization that doesn’t have to do business in B.C.—say a wine conference for writers and bloggers that could be held anywhere—would choose to locate an event there? Why support a government and economy that actively hinders wine awareness, choice and diversity? The WBC organizers, of course, are not wine afficianados–they’re just in the business of blogger conferences and adventure travel–so they presumably didn’t concern themselves with that aspect of B.C.’s wine culture when they saw the amount of money the Okanagan Valley offered for the conference.
Personally, I say screw states and jurisdictions with governmental authorities that pointlessly repress wine awareness and appreciation. Just like I avoid making any non-obligatory, pleasure trips to backward jurisdictions like Pennsylvania in this country, I don’t plan to return to B.C. until there’s a change in the laws, and wine culture, there. I urge other wine lovers to boycott Vancouver and B.C. too, no matter how scenic or “fun” the winery tasting rooms there are reported to be by bloggers returning from WBC. Life is simply too short for spending time in and supporting places that are hostile to, and ignorant about, fine wine.
So my next recommendation for improvement to the WBC organizers is to avoid holding their shindig in any jurisdiction that is hostile to the rights and interests of wine lovers and wine producers. Seems pretty basic, but, just like a lot of what I thought were fairly obvious recommendations I made after the VA WBC debacle, this one apparently needs to be explicitly stated. I expect other wine bloggers to insist on this too.
For additional background on the state of B.C.’s wine industry, I commend to you this summary of a 2011 report by two Canadian university professors who conducted a two year study on the competitiveness of British Columbia wine in the world market. The report’s summary, for the Canadian Wine Magazine WineAccess, asks the headline question, “B.C. wine industry heading for disaster?” According to the article, the report concluded “policy changes are constrained by the use of liquor sales and accompanying protectionism as a cash cow through the provincial monopoly. The bottom line is that no one in BC has a strategic long-term vision for the industry.”
By the way, if you think it’s a good sign that the Canadian wine industry has its own magazine, think again. The magazine announced it was ceasing publication with the Feb/March 2013 issue. According to the President of the media group that owned the publication, “this decision allows a refocusing of the company’s strategy on areas of greater potential growth.”
For my complete tasting notes on the 27 B.C. wines from 18 producers that I was able, through some persistence and resourcefulness, to taste in wine repressive Vancouver despite the design of powers to be there, see below.
I appreciate the many comments on this post by B.C. winemakers and others who are knowledgeable about the negative effects of B.C.’s restrictive wine laws and policies. I urge readers here who are interested in what’s going on in B.C. to review the comments to this post.
I also urge you to check out this radio interview I did on June 6 with Chris Walker on his Daybreak South program in British Columbia: http://www.cbc.ca/player/Shows/ID/2389901282/
- 2010 Blasted Church Pinot Gris – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/24/2012)
Light straw yellow color; aromatic, tart peach, pear, lightly floral nose; crisp, tart pear, tart peach, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 91 points
- 2010 Blasted Church Chardonnay Musqué – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/24/2012)
Light yellow color; banana, pear nose; creamy textured, juicy, ripe pear, pineapple, ripe grapefruit palate; medium finish 88 points
- 2008 Blasted Church Cabernet-Merlot – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/24/2012)
Very dark red violet color; tart black currant, plum, black fruit, cedar, vanilla nose; medium bodied, tart black currant, tart plum, tart berry, light coffee palate; medium-plus finish 87+ points
- 2009 CedarCreek Estate Winery Pinot Noir – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/24/2012)
Dark ruby color; redolent, baked cherry, black cherry, black raspberry nose; medium bodied, tight, black cherry, black raspberry, baked cherry, black fruit palate; medium-plus finish 90+ points
Clos du Soleil
- 2010 Clos du Soleil Capella – Canada, British Columbia, Similkameen Valley (9/24/2012)
Light chartreuse color; lemon grass, light smoke, cat pee nose; medium bodied, lemon grass, ripe citrus palate; medium-plus finish 89 points
- 2010 Clos du Soleil Celestiale – Canada, British Columbia, Similkameen Valley (9/24/2012)
Very dark red violet color; tart berry, black fruit nose; tight, tart berry, black currant palate; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish 88 points
- 2010 DiBello Wines Chardonnay – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley (9/23/2012)
Light yellow color; white flower, vanilla, poached pear, light spice nose; rich, medium bodied, poised, tart pear, ripe lemon, mineral palate, reminiscent of a villages Puligny-Montrachet; medium-plus finish 91 points
- 2011 8th Generation Vineyard Pinot Meunier Rosé – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley (9/23/2012)
Medium dark orange pink color; intriguing, savory, light pepper, tart pink grapefruit nose; juicy, ripe pink grapefruit, mineral palate with near medium acidity; medium-plus finish 90+ points
- 2011 JoieFarm Chardonnay Un-Oaked – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley (9/24/2012)
Light yellow color; aromatic, tart apple, tart pear nose; juicy, tart apple, tart pear, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (nice, juicy version of an unoaked Chardonnay) 90 points
- 2010 La Frenz Pinot Noir Amos Vineyard – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley (9/23/2012)
Very dark ruby color; stewed black cherries, dried berries, blackberry, creosote nose; complex, medium bodied, garrigue, very tart berry, tart black cherry, mineral palate; needs 4 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points
- 2009 Lake Breeze Vineyards Meritage – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/24/2012)
Very dark red violet color; intense, baked black fruit, VA nose; high pitched, tart black fruit, light pepper, tart plum palate with near medium acidity; medium-plus finish 86 points
- 2011 Meyer Family Vineyards Gewürztraminer McLean Creek Road Vineyard – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/23/2012)
Very light yellow color; aromatic, white roses, light potpourri, lemon blossom nose; very poised, juicy, ripe peach, ripe grapefruit, palate; medium finish (good with Thai and Indonesian food, chevre) 91 points
- 2010 Mission Hill Chardonnay S.L.C. – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/24/2012)
Light lemon yellow color; ripe pear, white jasmine nose; tart pear, mineral, white jasmine palate; medium-plus finish 91 points
- 2011 Pentâge Winery Rosé – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/23/2012)
Medium pink color with pale meniscus; very ripe currant, banana nose; ripe currant, light-medium bodied, cherry palate; medium finish (Gamay Noir) 88 points
- 2009 Poplar Grove Winery Riesling Late Harvest – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley (9/23/2012)
Light medium yellow color; lifted, petrol, light apricot nose; baked peach, tart apricot, grapefruit syrup palate with minerality and medium acidity; medium-plus finish 89 points
- 2011 Road 13 Chenin Blanc Old Vines – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/23/2012)
Light lemon yellow color; fresh green hay, green pear, green apple, mineral, light lanolin nose; tasty, medium bodied with good density, light lanolin, tart green pear, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (would be good with green vegetable dishes and salads) 90 points
- 2010 Sandhill Cabernet-Merlot Sandhill Estate Vineyard – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/23/2012)
Dark red violet color; tart currant, pyrazine, bell pepper nose; ripe currant, red berry, pyrazine palate with soft tannins and little structure; medium finish 87 points
- 2010 Stag’s Hollow Sauvignon Blanc – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley (9/23/2012)
Light yellow color; cream, tart peach nose; medium bodied, tart peach, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 91 points
- 2009 Stoneboat Vineyards Pinotage – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/23/2012)
Very dark purple red violet color; savory, tart prune, sweet smoke, pepper, roasted cherry nose; dense, medium-plus bodied, roasted fruit, tar, pepper sausage palate; medium-plus finish 88+ points
- 2011 Tantalus Vineyards Rosé – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/23/2012)
Medium orange pink color; ripe currant, tart cranberry nose; light-medium bodied, juicy, tart currant, tart cranberry, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium finish 90+ points
- 2010 Tantalus Vineyards Riesling – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/24/2012)
Light yellow color; ripe peach, apricot, baked apricot, oak nose; medium bodied, ripe peach, apricot palate; medium finish 88 points
- 2011 Terravista Vineyards Figaro – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley (9/23/2012)
Light yellow color; aromatic, straw, tart pear, white grapefruit nose; medium bodied, tart pear, mineral, light citrus palate with white grapefruit rind on finish; medium-plus finish (would be good with salads, chicken with lemon; blend of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne) 90 points
- 2010 Tinhorn Creek Gewürztraminer – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/24/2012)
Very light yellow color; aromatic, floral, roses, geranium nose; light-medium bodied, poised, tart peach, floral, geranium, mineral palate, quite dry; medium-plus finish 90+ points
- 2010 Tinhorn Creek Chardonnay – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/24/2012)
Light yellow color; poached pear, pineapple syrup, vanilla nose; creamy textured, medium bodied, vanilla oak, cream, poached pear palate; medium finish 87 points
- 2008 Tinhorn Creek Pinot Noir – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/24/2012)
Dark garnet red color; baked cherry, roses nose; tart red fruit, rosehips, mineral palate with medium acidity; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (reminiscent of a Villages Gevrey) 88 points
- 2009 Tinhorn Creek Merlot – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/23/2012)
Dark purple red violet color; smoky, tart black fruit, roasted plum, graphite nose; tasty, tart black fruit, spicy plum palate with smooth, sweet tannins; medium-plus finish (14.8% alcohol; 12 mos in barrel) 91 points
- 2008 Tinhorn Creek 2 Bench Red Oldfield Series – Canada, British Columbia, Okanagan Valley, Okanagan Valley VQA (9/24/2012)
Dark purple red violet color; VA, baked berry, honey baked beans nose; maturing, baked plum, cherry sauce, baked beans palate; medium finish 86 points