B.C.’s wine industry has grand ambitions to take on the world–if only it could stop the internecine battle that’s tearing it apart
For a while, it looked like peace had finally settled over B.C. wine country. At the end of a three-day Wine Leaders Forum last April, set against the tranquil shores of Naramata’s Sandy Beach Lodge and Resort and co-presented by the UBC-Okanagan faculty of management and Bordeaux’s Kedge Business School, a joint communiqué was signed. The two warring factions—the British Columbia Wine Institute (BCWI), the government-mandated voice of the industry, and Terroir B.C., a vocal splinter group of disenfranchised small wineries—agreed to stop their public bickering and work together toward a common goal of international growth under the neutral, academic, third-party umbrella of the UBC-Kedge wine industry project.
Impressed, the federal government pitched in $630,000 from Western Economic Diversification Canada (matched by UBC and industry) to help the young industry enhance its export readiness, develop a global identity and, perhaps most pressingly, strengthen internal cooperation. In November, the first of several UBC-Kedge task forces began studying bottle labelling—a highly contentious issue that will require the support of B.C.’s big three wineries (Mission Hill, Peller Estates and Constellation Brands).
But by year’s end, the already frosty détente had shattered. Terroir B.C.—highly suspicious of almost any policy promoted by the BCWI—came out swinging against a BCWI-promoted plan to sell wine in grocery stores. While the group has long complained about a lack of new listings in government-run liquor stores, they also don’t trust the BCWI to look out for their interests. “The BCWI, without really sitting down and talking to its members, believe the grocery store is the greatest thing they’ve ever seen,” says Terroir B.C. co-chair Kim Pullen, the proprietor of Church & State Wines. “Today it may well be, but in the long term it could be disastrous,” he adds, pointing to Australia and California as examples of large-winery shelf domination.
The BCWI, for its part, isn’t buying that argument. “B.C. wine in grocery stores is supported overwhelmingly by small B.C. wineries, and they are very well represented on the shelves of the four stores that have opened so far,” counters the normally soft-spoken Ezra Cipes, a BCWI board member and CEO of Summerhill Pyramid Winery. “[Pullen] is constantly trying to undermine the BCWI. He makes a lot of noise and pops up in the media quite often, but if you follow his arguments, it’s almost nonsensical. His targets are constantly moving.”
According to Christine Coletta, co-owner of Summerland’s Okanagan Crush Pad winery, B.C. wineries will never conquer the world until they can stop fighting among themselves. As founding executive director of the BCWI, a position she held from 1990 to 1999, Coletta was instrumental in establishing the VQA program and increasing the market share for B.C. wine in this province. After 14 years of consulting on global and domestic wine brands, she agrees “100 per cent” with Terroir B.C. that the BCWI needs updating. But she doesn’t agree with their tactics. “I’ve lived through seven or eight hostile takeover attempts in the last 25 years. It’s tedious. We need to work together as one collective otherwise we won’t be effective.”
Terroir B.C.—which emerged in mid-2014 and is said to have anywhere from 70 to 90 signed members—grew out of frustration with the BCWI’s perceived resistance to change. According to Pullen and his co-chair, John Skinner, owner of Painted Rock Winery, the small guys (many of them savvy retired businessmen) were tired of being ignored on a variety of issues, from shelving to the BCWI’s focus on promoting local wine tourism over global strategizing to the composition of the BCWI board. But most importantly, they objected to the lack of action on international Canadian blends: cheap bulk wines made from foreign grapes, primarily produced by the Big Three, that confuse domestic consumers and give B.C. a bad name internationally.
“The BCWI should be an advocate for B.C. wine, not international blends,” says Skinner. “At the end of the day, there are too many conflicts of interest—the big guys control too much of it. We do owe it to the government to speak with one voice. But if [Terroir B.C.] didn’t exist, many of these issues would not be addressed.” Despite its rocky start, Skinner remains hopeful about the UBC-Kedge project, which will address governance after it tackles labelling. “I hope we can get the [big wineries] to the table. That would cool everyone’s jets for a little bit.”
Cipes, in turn, says Terroir B.C.’s “moving targets” are all being addressed with due process through various channels, including the UBC-Kedge task force on labelling. “They are correct in saying we are not a nimble organization. We do not shoot from the hip. But the flip side of that is that we are conscientious and always hit the bull’s eye when we do shoot.”
GLASS 2/3 FULL
The B.C. Wine Institute was originally created by an act of the provincial legislature in 1990–when there were only
17 grape wineries in the province
Today the BCWI counts 152 wineries as members
BCWI accounts for 2/3 of B.C.’s 248 wineries yet accounts for almost
of total grape wines sales in the province.