BC Wine History

     Part 2 - Veering Towards Vitis Vinifera


In his introduction to the 1994 edition of “The Wineries of British Columbia” John Schreiner refers to “the Okanagan’s first great pullout program” in 1979, when “650 acres of labrusca grapes were uprooted”.  Replacing these “musky”, overly “grapey” but hardy and dependable - varieties of native North American vitis labrusca vines with classic European vitis vinifera vines was no easy task.. 


Despite the Rittich brothers early attempts in the 1930s and the ongoing Becker Project trials from 1977-85, the disastrously cold snap that marked the vine-killing winter of 1968-1969 lingered in many growers’ memories. 


Although early experimental vinifera plantings through the 1960s and 1970s (and the Becker Project trials) were well underway in the Okanagan, the need to plant hardy, dependable vines was reinforced by another devastating vine kill due to the deep freeze of the winter of 1978-79.


Many growers lost their vines to these frosts.   The Becker Project proved vitis vinifera could survive and even thrive in British Columbia when properly handled.  Avoiding overcropping by deliberate bunch-thinning, paying attention to soil, vineyard elevation and orientation, learning and applying viticultural techniques such as trellising and canopy management to ensure ripe fruit  - all of these were crucial for vinifera survival. 


In the process of learning these lessons many reluctant grape growers, who had become accustomed to being paid by the weight on their crops rather than the quality, had to be convinced to change their perspective.


The provincial government introduced “cottage winery” guidelines in 1978, in a speech given by Tourism Minister Grace McCarthy in Kelowna, offering  opportunities for grape growers to become winemakers overnight. If they could come up with 20 acres of vineyard, they were entitled to a license to make and sell up to 30,000 gallons of wine. 


One of the few stipulations was that estate wineries could not extract more than 150 gallons of juice from a ton of grapes, intended to prevent them from adding water and sugar to wines.  This practice was legal in commercial wineries at the time.


After almost 50 years of strict regulation, control of the direction that the wine industry in British Columbia would take began to shift from a handful of large companies to vineyard-owning families, small groups of investors and grape-growing entrepreneurs.


What soon became Claremont Estate Winery was first off the mark – established by grower Marrion Jon in 1979 as Chateau Jonn de Trepanier; Vinitera opened that same year.  Uniacke Estate Winery, Cedar Creek and Sumac Ridge were granted licenses in 1980.  Gray Monk came along in 1982 and Divino Estate Winery followed in 1983.  Gehringer Brothers and LeComte debuted in 1986.  Hainle Vineyards opened in 1988.



The Great Grape Pullout:

           The Canada  -  U.S. Free Trade Agreement 1988


In 1988, the Canada – U.S. Free Trade Agreement (in conjunction with a GATT ruling against protective barriers that favoured domestic wineries) provoked the federal, Ontario and British Columbia governments into funding a massive "pullout" of labrusca vines, giving wineries funding to replace them with vinifera ones.  Growers received $8100 an acre to pull out the vines. 


Approximately 2,400 acres of labrusca were pulled, reducing the B.C. wine industry to about 1,000 acres of primarily vinifera varieties.  Despite initial pessimism among existing growers, new vineyards planted with mostly “noble” varieties went into the ground at an accelerating rate, with fresh new faces coming into the renewed industry as fast as new estate wineries were licensed and built.


Farmgate wineries came on the scene in 1989 when the provincial government relaxed the licensing rules to include vineyards of less than 20 acres.  Lang Vineyards – the first farmgate winery (named because the entire production must be sold directly from the farm “gate”) - was joined by Wild Goose, Hillside Cellars and Nichol Vineyard.


Wine quality soared as new vinifera plantings matured and riper, “classic” wines were fashioned from the resulting grapes.  The formation of the British Columbia Wine Institute in 1991 marked a milestone.  With fine wines available, Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) standards were enacted and monitored by the B.C.W.I. They ensured that all VQA approved wines were 85% of the named variety and 95% from the named vintage, as well as being quality approved by an industry panel in blind tastings.


By 1994, vineyard acreage had rebounded to 1,600.   The bloom of new vineyards and estate and farmgate wineries continued.  In 2004 there were 6,000 acres under vine in B.C. – most of it in the Okanagan Valley but also elsewhere throughout B.C.


There are now, in 2005, vineyards and wineries in the Similkameen Valley, The Fraser Valley, the Cowichan Valley and up and down Vancouver Island, including the Gulf Islands of Saturna, Salt Spring and Quadra.  Vineyard plantings and new wineries are ongoing wherever wine grapes can be grown on the mainland and the Islands. 


Begun on a base of fruit wines made from loganberries and blueberries in the 1920s, the B.C. wine industry has come full circle with mouthwatering fruit wines being produced today by Elephant Island Winery in Naramata, Blossom Winery and The Fort Winery in the Fraser Valley, Marley Farm Winery in Saanichton on Vancouver Island, Godfrey-Brownell Vineyards in Duncan and Marshwood Estate Winery on Quadra Island.


In 1984 there were 13 wineries in B.C. In 2005 there are 126.  New sites for vineyards are created or discovered daily and fresh new people with new ideas turn them into working vineyards and wineries. There will be many more. 



The Role of the BCLiquor Distribution Branch in the Development of the BC Wine Industry


Between October 1917 and June 1921, the Prohibition Act banned the sale of all intoxicating beverages in British Columbia with the exception of products sold for medicinal, sacramental or manufacturing purposes.  As alcohol could still be sold by prescription, the government opened liquor stores in Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo, Prince Rupert, Quesnel, Cranbrook and New Denver.


Most of the “medicine” sold through 315,177 prescriptions (in 1919) was rye whiskey. But these government stores also sold 1,362 gallons of port, 445 gallons of sherry, 35 cases of champagne and 47 cases of St.Augustine sacramental wine that year. 


Although they had approved the Prohibition Act, it became apparent that most British Columbians wanted controlled liquor sales rather than a complete ban.  Today’s B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB) can trace its roots back to government liquor stores opened in 1921 under the Moderation Act - after the Prohibition Act was repealed. 


Stores built in the 1930s and 1940s had curtains installed on the windows to prevent children from seeing into the stores.  In the 1950s and 1960s, stores were built with glass bricks instead of windows - they admitted light but kept children from seeing inside.


The BCLDB was created in 1975 to separate the retail functions of the Liquor Control Board from licensing duties.  From new headquarters in Vancouver, the LDB opened new stores, explored overseas and increased product selection in B.C.  Between 1968 and 1978 the portfolio doubled from 700 listings to 1470. In December 1980 when the LDB opened its flagship store at 39th and Cambie in Vancouver, the store’s 1,962 listings included 1,271 wines, most of which were table wines.


B.C. commercial wineries grew with the new LDB through the 1970s, creating new products to fill consumer demand and rising expectations.  New imported products from Europe and the U.S. fuelled demand for B.C. equivalents. 


Begun in 1978, the annual Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival helped create a market that B.C. wineries and the LDB conspired to fill.  Expo 86 allowed our new estate wineries to showcase their products on the world stage.  British Columbians also sat up and took note. The LDB helped consumers gain access by listing them.


Since its inception in 1991, the B.C.Wine Institute has worked closely with the LDB to increase VQA listings and provide training and co-development of VQA advocates.  These are in-store champions and on-site trainers with specialized knowledge of premium VQA wines.  Beginning in 2005 the LDB committed to a “Service Plan” that aimed at increasing VQA sales 20% annually for the ongoing future. 


On April 1, 2015 the roles and rules changed dramatically.  Time will tell how retail wine sales in British Columbia develop...