Back in the 1980s, B.C.’s jug wines were the bottom of the barrel, but a lot has changed since those inauspicious days.
Winemakers improved their craft, creating top shelf vintages that earned steadily higher marks among oenophiles across the country and national borders.
That widespread industry improvement came to be under the implementation of the Vintners Quality Alliance seal of approval.
In recent years, however, that seal and all it represents, has fallen out of favour with many vintners, prompting a call for another industry shift.
“The VQA is now 25 years old, and it was meant to be an authentication mark that let people know they were buying 100 per cent B.C. wine,” explained Ezra Cipes, one of the 15-member BC Wine Appellation task group that formed in March.
“Before that, wine wasn’t always an agricultural product and it wasn’t about our land…It was a commodity and a market-driven thing.
‘Now B.C. wine is artisinal and a product of the agriculture industry. It’s about building a quality premium product that speaks about a place, and can compete in the premium tiers of the marketplace.”
And the market, in turn, keeps pushing the industry to greater heights that Cipes said the rules governing wine making are restricting it from reaching.
Task force recommendations released this week address those rules and suggest ways to raise industry standards, matching them with what exists in an American Viticultural Area, where the regulations are about trace-backs, audits of origin and authenticity, rather than maintaining defined styles.
“Our recommendations are all around ensuring everybody is playing by the same rules so we can develop integrity in our labeling and an identity for our wine region, so we can grow and flourish on the world stage,” said Cipes.
Goodbye tasting panel
B.C.’s wine industry, he explained, “has lacked unity and integrity because the VQA system has been a little bit broken.”
Not every winery owner opted to get the VQA seal, making what was sold to consumers as “an industry mark of authenticity” optional.
If the task force’s recommendations are accepted, buy-in won’t be optional anymore.
There will be mandatory membership in the B.C. Wine Authority for winery licence producers making wine from 100 per cent B.C.-grown grapes.
To sweeten the pot for those who have yet to join, the task group recommended ditching something the industry has grown out of, the tasting panel.
To get VQA approval winemakers now bring their creations to a tasting panel that looks for faults.
“Twenty-five years ago that was important because we didn’t have the history and expertise as a wine industry,” said Cipes.
“We had the raw potential in the land, but not the knowhow.”
There were a lot of failures back then, but now the fail rate is under five per cent. Occasionally there will be a brilliant and beautiful wine that’s misinterpreted by the tasting panel.
“That’s frustrating. You have to resubmit it, you don’t know if you’re going to have to print your labels with VQA on it and there’s a cost associated with it,” said Cipes.
“And there are frontiers of winemaking that stylistically don’t fit in …styles that are valuable in the market place and strong.”
An example at Summerhill was a rosé it released a couple of years ago. It used pinot noir grapes, which can be earthy, and gamey, and that came through.
It was unusual because a rosé, is expected to be light and fruity, and that’s what the VQA tasting panel came to expect.
“They thought it was a bacterial problem, but it wasn’t. It was a pure varietal character of the grape coming through,” said Cipes.
“They weren’t doing chemical analysis, they were doing taste analysis and it didn’t pass.”
The market, however, didn’t balk at the earthier flavour and the wine sold out in a month and a half.
The VQA also doesn’t recognize naturalist winemaking, which is increasingly popular.
With those examples and many more highlighting the tasting panel’s weaknesses, Cipes said that it’s time to let it go.
“Restricting innovation in winemaking with a tasting panel is questionable,” said Cipes.
“We can let market forces dictate which wines consumers give their stamp of approval to.”
Existing accredited lab analysis should continue, the task group stated, to ensure that B.C. wines meet health, safety and technical standards.
Cipes said that the task group also recommended putting an end to the optional element of the wine authority.
The task group also called for mandatory membership in the B.C. Wine Authority for winery licence producers making wine from 100 per cent B.C.-grown grapes.
In addition, the task group wants the B.C. Wine Authority to be able to prevent the use of unapproved regional names for wines made only from B.C. grapes.
The task group took a serious look at labeling terminology, which is something consumers may want to keep an eye open for in the years to come.
They’ve identified—but not affixed labels to—15 sub-appellations for the 140-kilometre-long stretch of the Okanagan valley.
To get a better idea of what that is think of the Golden Mile Bench, which is the first Okanagan wine region to have gone this route.
That South Okanagan stretch of wineries used its historical name “golden mile” and combined it with a geographical feature, its “bench,” to create a name that only they can use to denote quality and place.
The same could come for all areas of the valley that have distinct conditions. West Kelowna wineries, for example, may include something that indicates the unique volcanic soil grapes are grown in. Wines using an approved sub-appelation must place this on the wine’s primary display label.
“The biggest opportunity available to us wasn’t just to make a regulation that everybody abides by and bring integrity to the industry. It was also to give everyone an opportunity to talk about our terroir seriously,” Cipes said.
“If we take our terroir seriously, and speak knowledgeably about what makes it special, then maybe the world will, as well.”
The report has been submitted to the B.C. Wine Authority, which regulates the quality of B.C. wines. There will be an industry plebiscite before any of the recommendations are implemented.