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In the past few years, we’ve seen an explosion in the consumption and interest in wine especially in America. In fact Americans now drink more wine than they do beer, for the first time in recorded history. While I realize this is a blog about all things Canada, I think that’s worth a mention since American consumers are typically a good market for Canadian businesses. Additionally, when it comes to wine, Canada and America have a lot in common, crazy State/Province specific shipping laws and the general difficulty faced by small start up wineries to get noticed even when they’re producing a better product at a cheaper price.
Every year a city near an important wine region is granted the rights to hold the annual Wine Bloggers Conference. In 2013, Pentiction, British Columbia (ok, ok it’s 50 miles east of Vancouver if you’re an American reader) hosted, making it the first Canadian destination to be granted the honor of hosting. While hosting a wine bloggers conference doesn’t sound like a terribly impression honor in many industries, in wine it is incredibly important. The major wine review magazines like Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator will only review wines which have wide enough distributions to be available for a significant percentage of their readership. Of course, gaining the level of necessary interest for a national distributor to pick up your brand is nearly impossible these days for any winery, let alone one from a more obscure growing region like BC.
In total there are only four truly national wine distributors left and over eight thousand American wineries, when you add in the twenty thousand or so international wine brands whom are already competing for sales in America, you can see it’s an incredibly difficult market to tap into. Part of the reason that BC and it’s wine industry was interested in hosting the wine bloggers conference, was to gain the chance to receive some critical attention, hopefully gain some distributor placements and let the snow ball begin rolling so to speak. Distributor placements lead to critical reviews, consumer interest and even more distributor placements etc.
So why Penticton instead of Niagara on the Lake or another one of Canada’s wine industry sites? To start, Penticton offers a nice venue for a visit. It’s close to the US, usually that’s not important, but for a weekend conference made up largely of American bloggers paying their own way, it counts for something. The area also boasts close to 50 wineries, all within a 20 minute drive of each other making it as populated with wineries and vineyards as any stretch of land in Sonoma or Napa Valley in California. Lastly and most importantly this is a well established wine region with a variety of producers, crafting a wide variety of wines.
Canada’s wine industry is focused, largely on ice wine to date. That’s not surprising given their climate and the success that they have with the wine, often critics consider Canadian ice wine among the best versions in the world (Germany often being the other, better known competitor for the honor). Penticton is a bit different though, it’s more a classic wine growing region in that the days are warmer, but the night’s are cooled by a body of water. In this case, that’s the Okanagan Lake which allows local wineries to grow a full assortment of white wine grapes, but also to focus on Pinot Noir (of course, no wine region would be without it these days) some Bordeaux styled reds and cooler climate Syrah clones as well.
So you might be wondering about which wineries are truly worth a visit on a trip to Penticton. During a recent set of tastings that I was able to take part in because of my day job, these were my favorites:
3 Mile Estate Winery: The wines are varied and show a clear focus on varietal specific white’s, but an interesting and eclectic mix of red blends. You won’t find Merlot and Syrah blended together in France or California, but you do see it in Australia from time to time, which helps to explain that winemaker Kelly Symonds is a local, but learned her craft during the early 00’s Australian wine boom. 3 Mile Estate is also noteworthy because they have a small 3 room hotel on site, making it one of the great places to stay during a trip to taste wine in British Columbia.
Stag’s Hollow: The Stag name undoubtedly has a history in the wine industry, not to mention the famous Stag’s Leap district of Napa Valley. The nod here to Napa Valley, even if inadvertent is evident in the wines as well, these are some of the densest and most brooding in the area. Part of the connection is furthered by winemaker Dwight Sick, who like many of the winemakers in Napa, learned his craft at UC Davis. Of peculiar interest at Stag’s Hollow is their Riesling and especially their Cabernet Franc, which seems to do the best job at taking some of the wildness of the attached wilderness and placing it in the bottle.
Top Shelf Wine: I was born in Buffalo, New York so hockey isn’t quite as exotic to me as it was to my friends growing up in Southern California. That being said, it’s still unusual to see a winery with such a clear connection to Canada’s national pastime. Top Shelf is simple enough to understand, they only make four wines (Blush, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris) and the wine is frankly, a ton better than similar sports oriented spots that we’ve run into elsewhere. I think that quality speaks to the quality of the soil and location in BC, but also shows that the Canadian wine industry hasn’t forgotten the basic premise of people on vacation-it’s suppose to be fun and enjoyable to visit wineries!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to the wines and wineries of Penticton, British Columbia. I think over the coming years, this is a wine region that will continue to gain market share both at home, but also in America and beyond. Simply put, there are quality wines being produced and the wineries producing them seem intent on making a name for themselves in the process.
Mark Aselstine is the owner of Uncorked Ventures, an online wine club based just outside San Francisco. He enjoys learning about, and yes, drinking wine. Find him on Twitter as and in a vineyard near you.