Sunday, January 22, 2017

BC wineries need to circle the wagons

Photo: Mission Hill Oculus: best in the room at Wine Festival preview

For at least 60 British Columbia wineries, their presence at the Vancouver International Wine Festival in February takes on added importance in light of the new U.S. administration’s protectionist attitudes.

Having a high profile at one of North America’s best wine festivals gives the wineries a further chance to connect with consumers. British Columbia wineries already enjoy considerable consumer loyalty. They have a 17% market share, according to the B.C. Wine Institute.

I am actually surprised it is not higher. The Festival recently hosted a tasting for wine trade and media and poured a representative selection from the 1,700 wines that will be poured during the week-long event.

Festival staff may well have cherry-picked 29 wines to ensure that the BC wines stood out. Nevertheless, I thought that the best wine in the room at this mini-tasting was Mission Hill Oculus 2012. Overall, the BC wines stood up very well against the American and other international wines. And one of the most mediocre wines in the room was a Sauvignon Blanc from California.

The BC wineries at the Festival need to hope that consumers at the event continued to be impressed with BC wines. Even before Donald Trump had his tiny hands on the nuclear codes, the United States had launched a trade action against the BC wine industry. The Americans argue that allowing exclusive grocery store access for BC wine is an unfair trade practice.

Canada has been the single largest export market for American wines, predominantly California wines, since 2008. California wine sales to Canada in 2015 totalled $461 million. While BC has been a good market for California wines, their market share here is about a third of the market share of BC wines. Hence, the argument that setting up an exclusive sales channel for VQA wines is discriminatory.

The Overwaitea Food Group began selling VQA wines in selected grocery stores in April 2015. Seven Overwaitea/Save-on-Food stores now have wine sections. The company controls other VQA licenses not yet activated. As well, Loblaw’s and other grocery chains have, or are acquiring, grandfathered wine store licenses for the sale of just BC wine.

In theory, they could sell imported wine, but only in a separate section of the store. That would lack the appeal and the convenience of the VQA wine section.

The Americans have been complaining for some time that this discriminates against them. And they have allies. In November, 2016, the Wine Institute in California said this in a statement:

“Wine Institute appreciates the continued efforts of, and strongly supports, the governments of the US, Australia, Argentina, Chile, the European Union, Mexico and New Zealand which on April 29, 2016, filed a formal objection with the BC premier challenging the province’s grocery store regulations. [These give] less favourable treatment to imported wine than they do to BC Wines. As such, [they are] violating Canada’s commitments as a member of the World Trade Organization. … For this reason, BC’s discriminatory program must be modified to allow equal access for imported wines.”
The trade action was finally launched just a few days before the Trump inauguration by Michael Froman, President Obama’s trade representative, and is being continued by Trump’s trade representative.
Froman said in a statement: “The discriminatory regulations implemented by British Columbia intentionally undermine free and fair competition. Canada and all Canadian provinces, including BC, must play by the rules.”

Robert Koch, the president of the Wine Institute, chimed in last week to observe that: “BC consumers are among the most knowledgeable and sophisticated purchasers of wine. Any expansion of retail distribution channels should ensure that consumers have convenient access to their preferred wines from around the world.”

 Never mind that their preferred wines currently are BC wines, by a big margin. Never mind that imported wines are sold in 600 private stores and 200 BC liquor stores.

I cannot admit to a great deal of sympathy for the American position, given the pride I take in the remarkable accomplishments of the BC wineries. If the US is adopting an American First policy, surely it is not discriminatory if we have a BC First policy regarding our wines!

Sadly, while the trade action will take some years to resolve, at the end of the day the Americans are likely to prevail and grocery stores will be opened to all wines, not just VQA wines.

It would deprive VQA wines of an important marketing advantage, but that will not be the end of the world. The quality of BC wines now easily matches the quality of imported wines and BC’s “sophisticated” consumers obviously know that.

However, the BC wine industry needs to keep up its efforts to convince consumers this is so. Taking part in the Vancouver International Wine Festival is an important promotional effort.

Here are some of the stellar BC wines you will find at the Festival, both at tasting events and in the on-site liquor store, based on wines the Festival has previewed.

Black Hills Nota Bene 2014 ($60). The wine has sage and herbal notes on the aroma and the finish. The fruit flavours include black cherry, plum, coffee and chocolate. The texture is rich and ripe, with long tannins. The winery says this was “more masculine” than previous vintages – even after dialling back the Cabernet Sauvignon, which speaks well of the quality of the Merlot.  92-94.

Burrowing Owl Syrah 2014 ($40) The wine begins with aromas of ripe, dark fruit – plum and black cherry – with floral notes, perhaps reflecting the four percent co-fermented Viognier in the blend. It is rich and juicy on the palate, with a smoky hint on the finish. 92.
Haywire Switchback Vineyard Pinot Gris 2015 ($25). Here is a Pinot Gris with good weight on the palate. It has aromas and flavours of pear, apple and citrus. 88.
Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate SunRock Shiraz 2014 ($27). This full-bodied red begins with aromas of fig, plum and leather. The flavours are bold and intense: black cherry and fig with black cherry on the finish. 92.
Mission Hill Oculus 2012 ($125). This wine is juicy in texture with aromas of cassis, black cherry and red liquorice, leading for flavours of red and black fruits. It has a svelte, polished finish with long ripe tannins that promise 10 to 15 years of improvement in the cellar. 94.
Nk’Mip Cellars Qwam Qwmt Pinot Noir 2015 ($27). Here is a rich, bold Pinot Noir, dark in colour, beginning with aromas of spiced cherry. On the palate, there are luscious flavours of cherry and strawberry. The seductive texture is all velvet. 92.

Sandhill Small Lots Viognier 2015 ($25). This wine has aromas and flavours of peach, apricot and apple, with a rich texture and with bright acidity to create a refreshing finish. 90.


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