By: Briana Tomkinson
The wine industry in British Columbia has bloomed over the past 30 years from a handful of grape growers and wine producers to several hundred. As the industry matures, producers are facing new challenges, including shifting consumer preferences and climate change.
Industry players, including the B.C. Wine Institute, B.C. Wine Grape Council, the B.C. Grapegrowers’ Association, and the B.C. Wine Authority, have responded by coming together to create a unified vision for the wine industry and to support B.C.’s many smaller producers in meeting these challenges.
According to a long-term strategic plan developed by Artemis Group and O’Donnell Lane for the British Columbia wine industry, the future of B.C.’s relatively young wine industry depends on tourism, export, and brand-building, as well as a strong focus on environmentally sustainable business practices.
The 10-year plan was released in March at the B.C. Wine Industry Insight Conference in Penticton. Developed over 18 months, it included input from more than 650 industry stakeholders who participated in over 30 meetings in 12 locations throughout the province. The plan was funded by the governments of Canada and British Columbia through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.
The plan highlights potential threats to the industry, including climate change, crop failure, land value inflation, decreasing talent pool, competition from exports and Canada’s fledgling legal cannabis industry.
The Wine 2030 plan includes 12 strategic recommendations to strengthen the B.C. wine industry, including committing to industry-wide sustainability standards, promoting wine tourism and links with restaurants and other hospitality partners, and building name recognition for B.C. wines in leading export markets.
B.C. Wine Institute President and CEO Miles Prodan said that many of the recommendations are in line with initiatives already underway, which he said was a good sign that the industry is on the right track. The plan has been endorsed by the Wine Institute’s board of directors and will influence operations planning going forward.
“We’ve been doing too much, and spreading ourselves too thin,” Prodan said. “Now that we’ve sat down and identified what we need to do to sustain our growth, we can be more focused. This will rally the industry around the key objectives and strategies.”
The number of grape wineries in B.C. has ballooned from just 17 in 1990 to more than 280 today. According to Wine B.C., wineries in the province welcome over a million visitors a year to its 370 licensed wineries.
More than 90% of B.C. vineyards are located in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys, which boast ideal growing conditions for grapes: short, hot growing seasons in a dry, desert-like microclimate that is distinct from the rainy, cool coast. The area is known for its extreme temperatures, dipping as low as -4 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and as high as 104 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.
Other Official wine-growing regions in B.C. include the Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, Gulf Islands, Thompson Valley, Shuswap, Lillooet, and the Kootenays. Sub-regions include Golden Mile Bench, Okanagan Falls, Naramata Bench and Skaha Bench.
There are over 900 vineyards in B.C., representing more than 10,260 acres of planted land. The ratio of white to red wine planted is nearly even, with red representing 51% of grapes planted.
Consumer demand for locally produced wine is strong. B.C. VQA wine is the second-best-selling category in the province, representing about one-fifth of market share. The top-selling category is non-VQA wine produced in B.C., which includes both wine made from local grapes and international blends from imported and domestic wines.
VQA, or Vintners Quality Alliance, is the official stamp to mark wine that produced with only B.C.-grown grapes. When including B.C.-produced non-VQA blends, B.C. wines represent more than half of the wine sales in the province. When it comes to imports, U.S. wines are the largest segment, at just under 10% of wine sales.
While local support for B.C. wines is strong, the Wine BC 2030 report notes that future growth depends on exports. More than 90% of the region’s wine production sells within the province. In the next five to ten years, industry players hope to position B.C. wines as a premium product on the international stage. Prodan said another key goal is to lift restrictive interprovincial trade barriers on alcohol to open up new export markets for B.C. wineries within Canada.
The report identifies that amping up promotion of B.C. as a wine tourism destination is an important tactic to build the brand reputation of B.C. Wines in international markets. According to research from Tourism B.C., inviting visitors to taste wines results in sales more often than not. It estimates well over half of wine tourist visits result in sales for wineries. Other noted benefits included higher margins when wine is purchased directly from the winery, the opportunity to attract new customers and enhance brand loyalty, and also to get detailed customer feedback on products.
Prodan said that B.C. wine country was already gaining traction as a desirable tourism destination. Many wineries have begun investing in onsite restaurants and accommodations, making the experience an even more memorable one for visitors.
Sustainability is another crucial area of focus for the industry, and not just for growers. A new sustainability certification program is in development from Sustainable Winegrowing B.C., which is expected to launch next year. SWBC was created by a coalition of viticulturalists, winemakers, hospitality directors, researchers and sustainability and marketing specialists.
SWBC already offers several free online resources for vineyards, wineries and wine-related hospitality businesses, including online assessments, educational resources and training to help growers protect the health of their vineyards, cut costs and reduce the environmental impact of wine production.
Because most B.C. wines are produced in desert-like climates, water-use efficiency is an essential component of SWBC’s sustainability education. While the cost of water alone may not be a significant line item on most growers’ balance sheets, SWBC notes that inefficient irrigation can have significant hidden costs, including increased system maintenance, a need for canopy management due to vigorous growth, the need to spray for powdery mildew and other diseases, and additional wear and tear on machinery.
However, Prodan said the focus on sustainability isn’t just about farming; it extends to every facet of the industry from tourism to trade.
“Sustainability is not a marketing tactic for us. It’s about taking care of what we’ve got. To be a winery here in B.C., you need to have land. Our wineries are literally tied to the land, so we can’t say if things aren’t good here, we can pull up and go somewhere else,” he said. “We know we have to take care of our land. Without it, we wouldn’t have anything.”