Vancouver businessman Thane Pipes has a passion for wine. He has toured California’s Napa Valley and scoured the Web in pursuit of his hobby. In a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Pipes recalled that for many years he didn’t think much about B.C. varieties. However, that changed when a Texan wine seller told him that the Kettle Valley Winery had created the best Pinot Noir in the world.
“They have this Pinot Noir select, which is very, very good,” Pipes said. “I had never really paid much attention to the B.C. wines until that point, when somebody else told me about them from the outside.”
Pipes has since gone on three Okanagan wine tours, visiting several operations, including Kettle Valley. He said that the Burrowing Owl Estate Winery probably remains his favourite, because of the quality of its Pinots and Cabernet Sauvignons. But, he noted, the highlight of these tours comes when he discovers a smaller, family-run operation, like Wild Goose Vineyards and Winery, which doesn’t get a great deal of media hype but which, in his opinion, produces superb wine. “It’s the ones that you don’t hear about that are the best,” Pipes said.
Oenophile John Schreiner, a retired financial journalist, has chronicled the growth of the Okanagan wine industry in numerous books. The third edition of his Okanagan Wine Tour Guide (Whitecap, $19.95) will be released just in time for the Okanagan Spring Wine Festival, which takes place from April 30 to May 9. In a phone interview with the Straight from Osoyoos, he said there were approximately 100 wineries profiled in the 2007 edition, whereas the new book highlights 130 operations.
“Until the bit of a recession that we went through in 2008 and 2009, the British Columbia wineries were basically able to sell everything they produced,” Schreiner said.
He attributed the industry’s growth to early producers in the 1990s, including Black Hills Estate Winery and Burrowing Owl, creating terrific wine that achieved immediate “cult followings”. Schreiner pointed out that other wineries flourished on their coattails, creating a momentum that exists to this day. And this burgeoning popularity of Okanagan wines has created a booming business in wine tourism from late April through October. “I keep seeing these busloads showing up at wineries that I’m visiting,” Schreiner said.
He suggested that wine tours are critical to the success of some of the smaller companies because it’s far more profitable to sell bottles directly to consumers than through other distribution networks. He also said that knowing something about a winery in advance can make a visit much more enjoyable and noted that some of the finest meals in B.C. are available in winery restaurants.
“Beyond that, the fundamental thing is to remember how big the Okanagan is, and don’t try to tour the whole area in two days,” Schreiner added. “The valley is over 100 miles long, with over 100 wineries. At best, you can do four or five wineries in a day—maybe more if you spit [rather than swallow the wine].”
Schreiner’s books are not the only source of information on the topic. The B.C. Wine Institute Web site features maps of the Okanagan, as well as suggested tours. The BCWI map for the north and central region extends from Salmon Arm to Penticton and includes the area around Naramata, which, according to Schreiner, includes about two dozen wineries.
“Tourists do that because it’s so compact,” he said, adding that there are also plenty of wineries in Kelowna and West Kelowna, including Mission Hill, which he described as the most spectacular winery in the area. The map of the southern Okanagan includes the “Golden Mile” of wineries near Oliver and extends into the Similkameen Valley.
Karman O’Brien, an event coordinator with Global Village English Centre, takes international students on a three-day Okanagan wine tour every year. “Sometimes we do trips to the northern Okanagan and sometimes we do the southern Okanagan, but one of my favourite areas is definitely Naramata Bench,” O’Brien told the Straight by phone. “La Frenz is one of my favourite wineries.”
The school books its trips through C & C Destination Tours Inc., which is owned by Cameron Mein. His company offers wine tours to Kelowna, Oliver, and the Naramata Bench. In a phone interview with the Straight, Mein noted that the harmonized sales tax takes effect on July 1, but pointed out that the provincial portion—seven percent—doesn’t apply to any trips booked by April 30. He said he learned about this at a government seminar on the HST.
“In fact, we were going to send an e-mail blast out today to our clients, letting them know about travel this summer, because most of them”¦simply don’t know they can save seven percent on a $600 package,” Mein said.
Okanagan wine tours aren’t just for amateurs. Barb Philip, a partner in Barbariain Wine Consulting and one of only three “masters of wine” in Canada, says she visits the region’s wineries a couple of times a year. Philip, who selects European wines for the Liquor Distribution Branch, has seen a vast improvement not only in the quality of Okanagan wines, but also in the viticulture and the industry’s business operations.
“In the last five or six years, the people in the tasting rooms in the Okanagan have become very well educated,” Philip told the Straight by phone. “Their level of customer service is really good.”
Traditionally, Okanagan wines have been discussed as one broad category, but Philip expects that in the coming years, they will be defined by specific areas. “Climactically, it’s a different situation from north to south,” she said. “So I think you’ll see people talking about the south and north in different ways—maybe talking about grape varieties, different styles of wine—and eventually that will translate to the consumer.”
Philip obtained her master of wine designation from the U.K.–based Institute of Masters of Wine after writing a dissertation about Okanagan Valley wines. She noted that there are 70 different grape varieties in the region, which is why so many different styles of wine are produced there. In 2007, she began working on her thesis, which explored whether Okanagan Valley producers should try to make Pinot Blanc their signature wine in the same way that New Zealand has specialized in Sauvignon Blanc and Argentina has focused on Malbec.
In blind tastings with industry experts, Philip discovered that Okanagan Pinot Blanc is as good as that produced in other regions in the world. However, she also learned through a survey that half of Okanagan producers didn’t feel it was important to have a signature grape variety or style of wine. And those who felt this was desirable didn’t agree that Pinot Blanc was the correct choice.
“They were selling everything they made, so to narrow the focus would not be a good idea,” Philip said. “They felt handcuffed by that.”
For Thane Pipes and many other lovers of B.C. wines, this leaves plenty of opportunities to taste different varieties on their next trek to the Okanagan.