More Appellations, Less Red Tape

Byline: Peter Mitham, Wines and Vines

B.C. task group completes review of rules, recommends new indications

Kelowna, B.C.—The landscape of British Columbia’s wine industry could get a little more exciting in the next year if members endorse an ambitious plan to reshape the province’s system of appellations.

The recommendation—as well as proposals to regulate labeling terminology and streamline winery audits—follow several months of discussions conducted this summer by a 16-member industry task group chaired by Summerhill Pyramid Winery CEO Ezra Cipes. (See “B.C. Eyes New Wine Appellation Rules.”)

The linchpin of the process was a stakeholder survey in July that garnered 724 responses, a quarter from industry and the remainder from the wine trade, consumers and others.

“We were able to proceed with what we felt was pretty close to a consensus, based on those survey results,” Cipes told Wines & Vines. The results “showed really strong support for an appellation model (and) for label terminology to be regulated, and so most of our recommendations focus on…how structurally we accomplish that.”

Current legislation permits seven geographical indications for B.C. wine: British Columbia (a general appellation encompassing the five regional indications of the Okanagan Valley), the Fraser Valley, the Similkameen Valley, Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. A subappellation for the Golden Mile Bench, located within the Okanagan Valley, formally took effect this year.

The task group’s final report, slated for release this week, recommends recognizing 15 new geographical indications within the existing Okanagan Valley appellation.

Working with federal research scientist Pat Bowen of the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland, B.C., the task group determined that the 15 new designations sufficiently reflected the acknowledged local differences rooted in climate, aspect and landforms without making things unduly complicated for the marketplace.

“It would be challenging for the marketplace to learn about too many very specific places all at once,” Cipes said, noting that they also leave room for additional subappellations such as the existing Golden Mile Bench, which exists within one the potential new appellations.

“Those three things—climate, aspect, and landform—gave us the basis to carve up the valley into larger subgeographical indications that still leave room for further subdivisions such as the Golden Mile Bench.”

In addition, four new indications—linked, like existing appellations, to local watersheds—are envisioned for the emerging regions of Lytton-Lillooet, the Thompson Valley, the Kootenays and the Shuswap (home to Fort Berens Estate Winery, Privato Vineyard and Winery, Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery and Recline Ridge Vineyards and Winery, respectively).

“They are developing to a point now where they deserve to be recognized,” Cipes said. “Our survey results and the industry all really supported the notion that it’s time to develop an identity for these developing regions.”

Backing up the new system of appellations is a proposal for simple but clear rules about the terminology producers are allowed to use on labels. The goal is to bring as many producers as possible under the oversight of the B.C. Wine Authority, which is charged with regulating the use of geographical indications, and therefore ensure both a standard use of terminology on labels and clarity for consumers. Of the province’s 240 grape wineries, approximately 80 aren’t members of the B.C. Wine Authority.

At the same time, the task group recommends conjunctive labeling, the practice of naming all the appellations where a wine originates to ensure that larger regions as well as subappellations get recognition.

“The statement of appellation would include the subregion within the larger region,” Cipes said, noting that the task group examined the circumstances of Sonoma and other regions where this wasn’t standard practice. “We’ve learned from the mistakes that other wine regions have made. The Okanagan Valley has very good brand equity.…Do you want to take that off the label?”

Auditing of wineries for compliance with provincial regulations also promises to be streamlined, reducing the regulatory burden on wineries and duplication of effort by the BCWA, the B.C. Liquor Control and Licensing Branch and the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch.

“A winery might have four different audits in a year, and they might all be slightly different,” Cipes said. “We’re recommending at least three of those audits…are harmonized into one.”

The changes aim to reflect a more mature industry than existed 25 years ago, when the province’s vineyards were replanted with vinifera varieties following the pullout of 1988, and the B.C. Wine Institute was established to administer the BC Vintners’ Quality Alliance program with its tasting panels and marketing program for wines made exclusively from B.C. grapes.

Since then, the BCWA has taken responsibility for quality control, while the BCWI has focused on marketing and promotions.

Now, the task group has recommended that the tasting panels be disbanded.

“The tasting panel has benefitted the industry and has been a big part of our growth and maturation, but maybe it can be compared to training wheels, and maybe it’s time for the training wheels to come off,” Cipes said. “We don’t need a tasting panel to determine that for us; the market will determine that.”

Cipes’ viewpoint is consistent with the stance of task group member John Skinner, owner of Painted Rock Estate Winery in Penticton, B.C., who has long advocated for a standard that looks beyond tasting panels to terroir and winemaking practices.

“I think the market is your best arbiter,” he told Wines & Vines earlier this year, noting that the public was hardly at risk of the “gut poison” everyone feared would taint the industry 25 years ago.

What other members of the industry think of the task group’s work remains to be seen. The group’s final report and recommendations will go to the BCWA for consideration.

The wine authority will put the report to an industry vote, likely early in 2016. If approved, the recommendations will go to the province’s agriculture minister for final approval.

Cipes is confident that will happen, though he looks forward to continuing to discuss the future of the industry as the process continues. “I know I, at least, will keep the consultation going,” he said. “I feel confident that we came up with a very logical set of recommendations that reflect the will of the industry and should pass a plebiscite.”