Last February I had the pleasure of attending a full day symposium at the Vancouver International Wine Festival that focused on what it takes to enable the development of a prosperous and healthy wine culture here in Canada.  The premise is that despite world class winemaking expertise, ideal terroir, and an increasingly knowledgeable and growing consumer base, the effects of lingering Prohibition-era policies and protectionist measures that are (sadly) still in-place in most provinces, it has shown that Canada has a long way to go before we can declare that we’ve succeeded in this domain.

With over 15 expert industry speakers, from seasoned educators, professionals (including a legal expert that specializes in the wine trade), Sommeliers, entrepreneurs, to decorated winemaking pioneers, such as Anthony van Mandl of Mission Hill and CheckMate (one of Canada’s up and coming iconic wineries if you hadn’t already heard that name, take note as it’s poised to be a Canadian icon), and Donald Ziraldo of Ziraldo winery (perhaps best known for starting the first winery in Canada following prohibition, Inniskillin), participants were enriched with a variety of perspectives on what has worked well and what needs to change in order to support the Canadian wine industry to position it to succeed in the global marketplace.

Although many tried not to dwell on the past, we did review Canada’s brief wine history which was summarized well by David Stanfield (Corporate Somm for Earls and Wine Director for Vancouver Urban Winery), by splitting our history into three waves.  The 1st wave from 200,000,000 BC to 1975 where frankly not too much happened; the 2nd wave from 1975 to 2005 – otherwise known as the awkward teenage years where vines were planted, torn out and replanted, and many lessons were learned during the industry’s adolescent years; to the 3rd wave from 2005-current which he referred to as the ‘coming of age’ era.

It is within the last decade that the Canadian wine industry has matured and exploded with expertise, quality, world-recognition, and the beginning of the major policy changes to enable a prosperous and competitive wine industry to flourish.  Although all in attendance agreed that despite the great progress that’s been made over the past 40+ years, and especially the past decade, there is much work collectively for all involved in order for the industry to realize its full potential.  Good news is that the industry is maturing well, at the same time that it grows literally from coast to coast between BC and Nova Scotia.  The message that resonated over and over was that there’s unlimited growth opportunities available should the industry be enabled to capitalize on them.

Some of the frequent messages heard during this full day seminar included what seemed like an overwhelming consensus that Canada needs to have a unified voice for advocacy and coordination of our industry’s interests.  There are many different interest groups in each of the major winemaking regions across Canada which are doing great things, each with their specific focus, but none with a pan-Canada mandate or objective to bring all of Canada’s wine to international markets. Several speakers noted that there’s no single voice that represents Canada both internally and abroad where our efforts need to be coordinated and aligned in order to become better known and appreciated on the international scene.  Although many are champions within the industry across our great country, there was an overwhelming consensus of the need for both government and industry leadership to complete outside of our borders.

Another theme was that of moving away from Prohibition-era thinking which would be a gigantic step and transformation-enabling move for Canada.  For the on-going Prohibition-era framework with which virtually all are forced to operate within, with its  heavy-handed liquor control policies and growth-limiting tax regimes that many noted they do little for the industry and only act as barriers to entry, versus catapolting our industry on the international fine-wine scene.  If governments could move away from viewing wine sales solely through the lens of tax income generation and transform to take the perspective of a supportive opportunity to leverage growth of many sectors including tourism, that could be a win-win-wine for all involved.  It’s no wonder Canada’s international wine export statistics are laughable, although improving slowly, when you realize how challenging it is for wineries to sell within Canada alone, not to mention internationally.  Perhaps once the borders are truly opened up across Canada to support our Canadian vintners, it’s possible that then we’ll be able to begin putting the nails in the Prohibition-era coffin and finally putting that part of Canada’s history to rest once and for all.  With pot legislation imminent across Canada, many speakers were left wondering why are we still restricting our wine (beer and spirits too) industry as if all hell would break loose if we weren’t taxed at 80% on wines, or if we could buy a bottle of VQA wine, perhaps a Benjamin Bridge Nova 7, at our neighbourhood corner store?

Imagine an era where Canadian governments focused significant attention and funding on the Canadian wine industry, and associated food and tourism industries, to increase the awareness, opportunities, and appreciation for the wonderful things that exist across this great country.  The Canadian wine industry is fortunate to have a passionate group of devoted advocates with some industry leaders across the country such as John Skinner from Painted Rock Winery , Jak Meyer from Meyer Family Estates Winery, and Jean-Benoit Deslauriers of Benjamin Bridge Winery, to name a few, that continue to invest lots of time and energy spreading the good word about Canadian wines to international markets and by doing so are helping place Canada on the international map for premium wines.  Furthermore, the role that Global Affairs Canada plays in bringing awareness of the Canadian wine, beer, spirits and tourism industries to international markets is wonderful and hopefully their roles and outreach will continue to be supported and grow to keep up with the needs of the Canadian wine industry in seeking new international markets and opening doors internationally for our trade missions to walk through and compete for space in international restaurants, wine shops, and of fine wine collectors cellars for Canada’s world-class wines.

Canadian wines are produced along the full spectrum of wine styles and in many cases are as different as Alsatian and Chianti wines are when comparing wines from one region to another.  This as another point that resonated with the participants during the full day symposium.  Don’t try and label all Canadian wines with the same narrowly focused descriptors.  Yes, Eastern Canada produces great cool-climate wines, but don’t try and call Osoyoos or the Golden Mile Bench in the Okanagan Valley as cool-climate wine regions as the Okanagan is Canada’s hot and dry pocket-desert and certainly is very different from the growing conditions thousands of miles away in Niagara, Prince Edward County, and Nova Scotia.  Speakers noted their preferences to focus on regionality and highlight the strengths of each region.  Every wine has an address.  This is becoming more and more well known as the specific terroir in each region and subregion are understood and those region’s potential are beginning to be exposed with ideal varietal plantings versus simply planting the top 20 most popular varieties in each region to try and ensure you’ve got something for everyone and every palate that visits your tasting room.

Needless to say, there’s been a tremendous maturation of the Canadian winemaking industry and consumer interest in it.  The future looks very bright for the Canadian winemaking scene and with wise investments, policy decisions, and support from local, provincial, and federal legislators, Canada is poised to become renowned as a premium winemaking nation and enjoy a prosperous future of great growth in this exciting emerging industry.

If you haven’t attended the Vancouver Wine Festival then I highly recommend adding it to your wine tourism plans as it’s a terrific off-season event that hosts many of the best wine personalities, and wineries, in the world in one state of the art location in downtown Vancouver.

I look forward to attending the 2018 Vancouver International Wine Fest and tasting more of Canada’s top wines, along with hundreds of terrific international wines.  2018 will see Spain and Portugal highlighting their many wine styles which many love for a variety of reasons with high quality and very affordable prices being top of mind for savvy consumers.
Hope to see you in Vancouver in February 2018.
Matt Steeves

Quercus Vino
PS: if you’re looking for a place to stay in Vancouver I’d highly recommend the Fairmont Pacific Rim… located right beside the Vancouver Wine Fest main venue, it’s a happening spot all day and night with some of the finest rooms available anywhere.