The Okanagan Wine Initiative (OWI) is a collaboration of some of the top wineries in BC, who got together with the purpose of promoting the region’s wines to the international marketplace. Their purpose statement on their website states it well: “The Okanagan Wine Initiative was formalized in 2018 by a group of winery owners seeking to elevate the region’s rich and diverse narrative through business excellence and the promotion of quality Okanagan wines outside of British Columbia, Canada.” This summer we met with three of the 5 wineries that currently make up the OWI and asked them to tell us more about their project.
The founding members included 7 wineries: Painted Rock, Poplar Grove, Haywire, Culmina, 50th Parallel Estate, Liquidity and Summerhill Pyramid. Liquidity and Culmina both left the group when their ownership changed. The remaining members continue to travel overseas and promote the Okanagan Valley and its wines to a large market that has very little knowledge of the quality revolution that is currently taking place.
Forming OWI created “a formal platform giving like-minded winery owners a structure under which to collaborate”, Christina Coletta of Okanagan Crush Pad and Haywire Wines told us. John Skinner, owner of Painted Rock and tireless backer of the Initiative said “Ten years ago the first ‘Canada Calling’ wine tasting event took place at Canada House in London. The intent was to get Canadian wines in front of the London wine community and many of the world’s most influential wine reviewers. 34 Canadian wineries attended, 14 from BC. It became an annual event. Many of the attending BC wineries then started to look towards ProWein in Düsseldorf as the next opportunity. This would get our wines in front of the European market and further grow our brands. The core group of Okanagan wineries who consistently attended recognized that in order to grow our personal brands it was first necessary to grow our regional brands. Canada first, BC second then the Okanagan. We decided to act as a team to grow the profile of the Okanagan on the world stage. Our national and provincial wine associations could not pick a team from their members, so we did. We established criteria for membership and pooled our resources and energies.”
As the old saying goes, “A rising tide floats all boats”. Tony Holler of Poplar Grove told us about how the Initiative is also improving the local market: “There’s a bunch of us who believe it’s advantageous for our wines to be recognized internationally for their quality which helps us internationally but also helps us locally. The famous ballerina Karen Kain talked about the history of ballet in Canada – Canada wasn’t respected until the Canadian ballet decided to go international and do shows in London and NY; once they did, they got rave reviews internationally and guess what? They started to fill theatres in Canada as well.”
John Skinner told us about how it is important for the Initiative to do more than just sell wine. His vision is to build a lasting reputation.
“It’s more about building the brand than selling more wine. We’re trying to earn a reputation for quality on the international stage. We were recently written up by Jancis Robinson in the Financial Times in London. We hosted Steven Spurrier and Dave Macintyre a year ago. I’m just sending wines to the Spectator and Eric Asimov from the New York Times. Painted Rock 2017 Red Icon will be announced “a 2020 Decanter Wine of the Year”. Baby steps but, where attendees of the London and ProWein event used to ask if we produced ice wines, many of the attendees not only know our wines, but they know us.”
The OWI has had success in bringing recognition of the quality of BC wines to the international market. Their efforts and those of other quality-focused wineries have given rise to favourable international press such as this article published in the New York Times by the well-known wine writer Eric Asimov: (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/19/world/canada/british-columbia-wine-Okanagan-Valley.html )
But Asimov points out that strict regulations at home around the selling of wine are not making it easier for BC wineries to grow. Skinner agrees. “We need to focus energies politically so we can sell direct to consumers across Canada. While many of us sell wine directly anyway, I recently received a threatening letter from the SAQ. This will come to a head soon. The most difficult issue we face is interprovincial trade. Seven Canadian provinces will not allow their citizens to purchase wines directly from wineries in other provinces. It’s easier for me to sell my wines to China than Quebec and Ontario, our two largest markets.”
Haywire’s Coletta has an excellent perspective on how the Okanagan wine industry has evolved. “I go back 30 years so of course it is night and day. We have gone from selling people on the notion that the region CAN make acceptable wine, to having consumers that brag about their BC wine knowledge and their affinity to specific brands. It truly is a new world.” Skinner agrees: “The reputation of the Okanagan has grown enormously. Our industry did very little outreach before and many wineries relied on farm gate sales. Our plan was to change that and it’s working.”
It is important for initiatives like the OWI to continue with their work and keep the region relevant in the international market. Great strides have been made at many wineries in the Okanagan over the past two decades in both viticulture and viniculture. But in a highly competitive and international wine market, focusing on quality alone won’t do the job. Quality is table stakes, but to increase the pot you must be able to tell your story to an international audience. Doing that successfully will also help the local market to realize what treasures exist in their own back yard. Poplar Grove’s Holler summed it up nicely: “I think Canadians are skeptical about our own things but the minute we can show we can compete with the world, Canadians are very supportive and loyal.”