OPINION: Legislation overhaul is needed to keep up with the growth of the BC wine industry

Byline: Mel Priestley, Vue Weekly. Mr. Priestley is a certified sommelier and wine writer who also blogs about wine, food and the arts at melpriestley.ca

As British Columbian wine evolves, so must its approach to one of the less glamorous—but vitally important—parts of the industry: label and content law.

The British Columbia Vintners Quality Alliance (BC VQA) program has come under scrutiny in recent years. Some argue the program doesn’t work at all while others state that it’s just not working properly. In light of this, the industry is coming together to address these issues, and it’s likely that we will soon see some major changes in BC wine.

First, a primer. BC’s wine-labelling regulation is the Wines of Marked Quality Regulation, an appellation of origin program akin to France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). The Regulation has two categories: the BC VQA and the BC Wine of Distinction. Wines sold as a Wine of Distinction must be made from 100-percent BC grapes and must meet minimum quality standards; BC VQA wines must meet a few additional requirements. BC’s VQA system shares a name with Ontario’s VQA and is where the program originated, but the two are wholly independent from each other and have evolved quite differently. Participation in the VQA is not mandatory but well over 150 wineries do participate, representing approximately 70 percent of all licensed BC grape wineries producing 95 percent of all wine made in the province.

To gain VQA designation, a winery must be a member of the British Columbia Wine Authority, the agency that has been delegated the administration of the BC VQA program, and must submit each wine to the Authority for testing. In addition to confirming the origin of wines via audit and inspection, the Authority also puts each wine through a tasting panel aimed at filtering out wines with technical faults. This panel is a particular source of contention amongst the province’s wineries.

“The tasting panel sucks—it’s a hassle,” Ezra Cipes says. Cipes is the CEO of Summerhill Pyramid Winery as well as the chair of the BC Wine Appellation Task Group, a brand-new, industry-based group that formed to review the current system and hopefully enact changes to the regulation.

“I wouldn’t say that VQA is negative right now; it’s just not helping us,” he explains. “It was designed at a time when there was not good wine being made here. I like to use the example of training wheels: at the beginning there were a lot of wines that failed the VQA tasting panel. It really did help us develop quality in our industry. And now the market is demanding quality, so the tasting panel is arguably not as important for that. The most important thing for the marketplace is guaranteeing the origin and establishing an identity of our wine and a knowledge of what makes British Columbia such a special place to make wine.”

British Columbian wine has undergone a massive evolution in the past 25 years, having gone from producing mass quantities of cheap, sweet, bargain-basement wines to a world-class region making fantastic wine. In those early days, much of the wine was faulty; now only three to five percent of tested wines fail the tasting panel. Unfortunately, some of the wines that fail aren’t actually faulty bottles—Cipes explains that one of Summerhill’s wines, an aged sparkling wine, initially failed because the wine’s oxidative quality was perceived as a fault instead of a feature. He was eventually able to get the Authority to make an exception through the creation of a new category, but that was a runaround and he even had to get an endorsement from a Master of Wine.

“The most important thing is to get mandatory audits of origin for all wine labelled with anything to do with British Columbia,” Cipes says. “Right now it’s a voluntary system, which means that if you participate you are audited and your labels are under scrutiny. And if you do not participate, you can put pretty much whatever the heck you want on the label, whether it’s true or not. Nobody’s checking. That’s a problem for the integrity of our identity as a wine-producing region.”

Another major area that needs to be examined is the permissible regions under BC VQA. Currently there are five: the Okanagan Valley, Similkameen Valley, Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands. A major milestone just occurred a few weeks ago with the establishment of the Golden Mile Bench as a sub-region of the Okanagan. It’s likely that many more sub-regions will be established over time, given the significant climatic and geological differences within the current regions.

“The better that we are able to understand our region and what makes it special and unique, the more other people from outside will be interested in what we’re doing here,” Cipes says. “That’s another huge opportunity that we have as an industry, is to look at our region and see if we can start creating sub-regions in a meaningful way.”

It’s ultimately up to the industry to decide what changes will be made. The Appellation Task Group will be hosting town-hall meetings throughout May in all of BC’s wine regions to spark conversations and get feedback from the industry. If a consensus or large enough majority can be reached, the propositions will eventually be put into law. Cipes notes that while the VQA might be scrapped entirely in favour of a totally new program, he feels there is still value in the VQA—it just needs a total overhaul.

“VQA did a huge amount for our industry,” Cipes notes. “It’s been enormous and it’s brought us to the place we are now. The compromises that have been made along the way are starting to show. This is a real potential for the long-term evolution of the quality of the wines that come out of our region. It’s time for an evolution.”

Chair Ezra Cipes responds: Just to set the record straight on my feelings towards BC VQA, I think it is a useful designation for Icewine and exports especially, and I do not personally think it should be scrapped or totally overhauled. I just think that the voluntary nature of it makes it not that useful as an appellation of origin, and I empathize with wineries that opt-out due to the tasting panel.