B.C. winemakers thirsty for more exports

Producers have won over global tastemakers, but market stays stubbornly domestic

International wine critic Steven Spurrier raises a glass of B.C. Pinot Noir with local wine consultant D.J. Kearney. Despite praise from influential experts like Spurrier, the B.C. industry’s relatively small size has hurt its ability to make its wines competitive in U.S. and overseas markets | Gordon Hamilton

British Columbia’s wine producers are making wine that’s good enough to attract international luminaries like Steven Spurrier, but many still face an uphill battle in translating praise from wine critics into export sales.

“Our wines can compete with the big boys. There’s no question about that any more,” said B.C. wine author John Schreiner.

Schreiner was one of the judges in a recent Vancouver taste-off with Spurrier, a renowned London critic, where B.C. wines compared favourably with others from around the world. One wine, a Syrah by Okanagan producer C.C. Jentsch, came out tops in its category.

But the small scale of the B.C. industry means costs are high, so domestic sales will always be the main market for this province’s wines, Schreiner said. B.C. can’t compete on price; the giants of the wine world will always have lower production costs.

And while B.C. wineries have the medals to prove that they can compete on quality, it is difficult for them to gain an international profile when they don’t have the volume to warrant international attention in the first place, Schreiner said. That’s where people like Spurrier, whose tour was paid for by the BC Wine Institute, come in.

Having a positive quote from Spurrier is more important for export sales than winning gold medals, said Ezra Cipes, CEO at Kelowna’s Summerhill Pyramid Winery, which sells into the Chinese market and hosts busloads of Chinese tourists.

“There are only a few people who move the needle internationally in the wine world,” Cipes said of Spurrier. “I think he was impressed and will continue to pay attention to what we’re doing here. That bodes very well for our international reputation and acceptance.”

Spurrier is a British wine writer who chairs the Decanter World Wine Awards and is renowned for organizing a 1976 tasting in Paris that catapulted California wine into the international market. He was in B.C. during the last week of August to take part in the wine taste-off and also attended the third annual B.C. Pinot Noir Celebration in the Okanagan. He said many of the wines he tasted there are good enough to earn silver medals at the Decanter awards, the world’s largest and most influential wine competition.

Spurrier intends to publish details of the wines tasted on his tour in London-based Decanter magazine.

Spurrier’s presence shows the recognition that B.C. wine is attracting around the world, said Pinot Noir Celebration co-chair Jak Meyer, of Meyer Family Vineyards.

Meyer said he is focusing on exports at his winery to diversify his sales channels and to show the world that B.C. can make world-class wines.

Meyer Family Vineyards specializes in Burgundian varietals and exports 20% of its production to seven countries, including the U.K., arguably the world’s toughest wine market to crack. Meyer Family wines are offered in London restaurants, and the winery recently signed a deal to sell 600 cases a year of specially labelled wines to the Marks & Spencer chain. That wine was to hit the shelves September 1.

“With the exchange rate, it is now one of my better sales channels,” said Meyer.

Also, he said, selling wines in Michelin-starred restaurants in the Mayfair district of London can’t hurt the winery’s image.

“I am already finding the path of resistance in introducing Canadian wines is getting easier.”

A lot of what the industry can accomplish in export sales is driven by trade agreements, said Maggie Anderson, marketing director at the B.C. Wine Institute.

“There has to be a favourable trade climate for people to be able to participate in the export market,” she said. “But B.C. is still fairly small in comparison to anywhere  else in the world in terms of production. So what we export is extremely high in quality and in limited amounts.”

The BC Wine Institute says that 30 wineries are exporting. Export sales have grown in value from $7.7 million in 2012 to $8.3 million in 2014, about 10% of total wine sales.  Anderson said each winery will have its own export strategy.

Cooler, wetter weather is ‘a godsend’ to growers

A week of cool weather in the Okanagan has brought some relief to what was shaping up to be a challenging vintage for Okanagan grape growers.

The early hot summer played havoc with sugars, flavours and acid levels in this year’s crop, said wine writer John Schreiner.

“The change in the weather that began last week has been a godsend,” Schreiner said. “It slowed this absurd ripening down. ... We could have some pretty good red wines after all.”

Smoke from Washington state wildfires and the Testalinden fire at Oliver were a worry, but recent rain has since cleared the air.