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B.C. wines face homecoming test

Special to The Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER — Harry McWatters remembers the days when British Columbia winemakers were banging down the doors of the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, still begging to get in.

This was in the early eighties, when the event was still called the California Wine Festival. And organizers were not the least bit interested in having the local plonk sully their esteemed tasting room.

"When they finally agreed to let us in, they put all of us along one wall in the very far corner," recalls Mr. McWatters, founder of the Okanagan Valley-based Sumac Ridge Estate Winery.

The ghettoized sideshow in 1983 drew a trickle of curious consumers, but most of the local restaurateurs and trade attendees, even those who were friends with Mr. McWatters, scuttled past quickly with their noses held high.

"They weren't expecting much - for good reason," says the man often referred to as the "grandfather" of the B.C. wine industry. "We didn't have a lot of vinifera vines in the ground back then."

Twenty-six years later, the local wine region has grown by leaps and bounds. It finally comes of age this week as the 31st edition of the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival elevates its home province to centre stage.

As this year's theme region, B.C. will have 58 wineries pouring wines in the International Festival Tasting Room, the festival's main event, which kicks off tomorrow night and continues until Saturday at the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre.

"I think the crowds will be bigger this time," Mr. McWatters predicts.

They had better be. This is a crucial coming-out party for the B.C. wine industry. After a solid decade of loyal local support - more than 80 per cent of B.C. wine production is consumed within the province - people have stopped complaining about B.C. wines being hard to find and started griping about how much they cost.

"B.C. is not good value," says Heidi Noble, winemaker and co-owner of JoieFarm Wines in the Okanagan's Naramata Bench. "Is regional pride and loyal support going to be enough to get the industry through these hard economic times?"

And as the world turns to Vancouver, with the 2010 Olympic Games less than 11 months away, some observers are saying it's about time that the insulated B.C. wine industry started thinking about itself in a more competitive global context.

"We always hear about our world-class wines, but how do we know they're world-class?" asks Barbara Philip, a Vancouver wine consultant and Canada's first female Master of Wine. "They don't compete on the shelves in London or New York, or even Toronto."

The week-long bacchanal, which also features seminars, boardroom tastings, winemaker dinners, a three-day trade show and tonight's gala dinner and auction (a fundraiser for the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Co.), is one of the world's oldest and largest wine expos. Last year, it attracted a record crowd of 25,000.

For the B.C. wine region, the VPIWF is a premium marketing opportunity that can boost its fortunes in the local market.

"B.C. obviously wanted to put its best foot forward and reinforce that it's playing with the big boys," explains John Schreiner, a local wine writer and chairman of the festival's selection committee. "But given what's happened to the economy, it's probably more important for them to maintain this loyalty they've had, at a time when consumers and restaurants are starting to chop down and go to lower price points."

According to the latest annual report from the British Columbia Wine Institute, VQA wine now averages $17.83 for a 750-millilitre bottle. But depending where you shop, it can be difficult to find a decent red for less than $25. And almost all of the premium Bordeaux-style blends are over $40.

"There might be some icons that tumble," predicts Jim Tobler, executive editor of Wine Access magazine, noting that several BC wineries have begun discounting and doing away with their middle-tier labels. "Pricing is a huge issue here, and loyalty only goes so far. That's the bottom line. Eventually, quality wins out."

Some participating winemakers hope to make that case this weekend, going toe to toe with B.C.'s more-established competition.

Andy Johnston, owner of Averill Creek Vineyards, is eager for the opportunity to showcase his gold-medal-winning pinot noir and pinot gris alongside the more familiar brands of the Okanagan.

"Our wines are brilliant. It's time for the Lower Mainland to understand what we're making on Vancouver Island," he says.

But Ms. Philip, among others, will be watching more closely to see how the crowds react this weekend when they are able do a direct comparison with other wineries from around the world.

"How will we perform next to France and Australia?" she wonders. "A lot of people are curious."

She is even more curious to see how B.C. wines are perceived by visiting producers from France and elsewhere.

"This is the first event that has brought everyone together like this. They've had to work together to present a united front. But what is that united front? What is the bigger picture? What is the overall message?"

As of last year, the province boasts 154 wineries and 9,100 acres planted, with 710 vineyards growing more than 60 grape varieties, an astounding diversity, unheard of in any other wine region.

For her master's dissertation, Ms. Philip examined pinot blanc as a potential signature wine for the Okanagan Valley. (Pinot, in all its varieties, is the global theme of this year's festival.) "When you reach for an Argentinean wine in the liquor store, you're there because you're craving malbec. When you think of New Zealand, you think sauvignon blanc. What do people think of when they think of B.C.?"

David Scholefield, the chief judge for the annual Vancouver Magazine International Wine Competition and industry consultant who will be leading several festival seminars this week, rejects the growing but contentious notion that the B.C. wine industry needs to position itself with a signature grape.

"Yes, we have to define ourselves, but not that way. It's about place, not grape."

He agrees that pinot blanc is a natural for the Okanagan because of the region's cool northern climate, which lends the wines a fresh liveliness and natural acidity.

But he argues that the provincial terroir works the same magic on pinot gris, merlot, syrah and even zinfandel.

"They're different by virtue of being grown in B.C. They're lighter, they're crisper, they're intensely aromatic. Those are the hallmarks of all our wines.

"The whole world is going postvarietal. What we need to sell is our B.C.-ness."

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