Rhys Pender: The Results Are In

The results are in. In a very quick turnaround, the British Columbia Wine Authority (BCWA) has already published the results of the recent “BC Wine Industry Plebiscite Regarding Certain Proposed Amendments to the Wines of Marked Quality Regulation.” The results came out in a letter on July 8, even though the deadline to complete the application was only June 30. The results are exciting. There is a strong general consensus amongst industry with all but one of the 11 proposed changes supported by what the BC Wine Authority calls a double majority. The BC wine industry, it turns out, may not be as resistant to change and evolution as many feared.

Rhys Pender MWThe changes are not drastic nor are they measures to correct a sinking ship, but rather small changes to the regulations to allow BC wineries to keep doing what they must to continue to build a quality reputation. BC wine sales are growing nicely, quality is improving all the time and even though only a small amount of wine makes it out of the country, people are starting to take notice. Laura Kittmer, Media Relations Manager with the BC Wine Institute reports “we are getting more and more requests from national and international media either for visits or for information on BC wine.” The word is starting to get out and the reputation is starting to build. I strongly believe that BC’s wine future is about small quantities of top quality wine that can stand up against anything in the world. To do that there needs to be a regulatory framework to back up and support these efforts. Task Group Chair Ezra Cipes sums up the results nicely. “The industry has spoken and set a course based on sense of place and premium values. We’ll look back on this as an important step for BC wine,” says Cipes.

Before I get to commenting on the specific results, I just wanted to touch on how much passion and belief was behind the Task Group efforts. I was part of the group and I watched many of our hardest working influential winery people volunteer many dozens of hours throughout 2015 and 2016 to make sure these recommendations were, first of all, really good for the industry and, second, really met the needs of the vast majority of BC wineries. Getting 252 wineries (the final number of licensed operating grape wineries at the time of the vote) to come to some kind of consensus has been likened to the impossible task of herding cats. Mike Klassen is largely to thank for his organization in bringing it together along with Task Group chair Ezra Cipes of Summerhill. But we still need the Minister to enact these changes into law before anything can change.

So let’s look at the results. Of the 252 wineries licensed, only 174 were currently members of the BC Wine Authority, with the remaining 78 non-members. The hard work from the Task Group and a program of reminders from the BCWA saw ballots received from 180 wineries, or 71% of the total. There were 136 ballots from BCWA members and 44 ballots from non-members. These votes are estimated to represent about 90% of all BC wine production. Under the Bylaws and Operating agreement with the Province, the BCWA needs what it calls a double majority in that 65% of the members who make at least 50% of the wine must vote for any amendment to be proposed. This was met in 10 out of the 11 recommendations. You can read the full results here. The results have been broken down by member and non-member votes and it is clear to see that those non-members who are receiving many of the benefits without contributing were resistant to having further controls placed on them.

Perhaps the most important recommended change was Recommendation #1, which simply would put every winery operating within the same set of rules. I am not one for extra bureaucracy, but for many wineries to be able to opt out of following the rules yet still take all the benefits others have paid for is a potential recipe for disaster. If any winery in the Province can choose to not follow the rules of the Wines of Marked Quality Regulation and use whatever terms they like on their labels with no one having the ability to police it then it is just begging for someone to use and abuse this loophole. This could potentially do huge damage to the budding reputation of the industry. So to me, a level playing field for all is a no-brainer.

Number 2(a) also makes sense. The name “Wine of Distinction” was always a curious term for a wine that goes through no kind of controls or analysis. “British Columbia Wine” makes more sense as a catchall name for wines that could be experimental styles or small batches that don’t want to go through the extra measure to achieve BC Vintners Quality Alliance (BC VQA).

The only recommendation that didn’t pass was #2(b) which recommended that both BC VQA and Wine of Distinction/British Columbia Wine could use the approved Geographical Indications on their labels. This is an interesting result in that it is not really a failure on the recommendation but more the industry taking a stronger position on the BC VQA category. By rejecting this recommendation, it is the industry saying that you must support the full process of BC VQA or you can only use the term “British Columbia Wine” and nothing else. Not surprisingly, 81% of non-member wineries voted for this measure by wanting to keep the ability to use Geographical Indications without going through BC VQA. The unfortunate part of this result is that wineries making small batches of some wines that they may not want to put through the full, and somewhat costly and arduous, BC VQA process (for something like 25 or 50 cases of wine) will not be able to indicate the region or sub-region it is from on the label.

Recommendation #4 seeks to give control to the BCWA to prohibit the use of unregulated terms once a series of sub-regions have been created with a deadline for this to happen of January 1, 2019. These regions will likely build reputations over time for different grape varieties or wine styles and will become valuable names that need protecting. Recommendation #5 ensures all wines must register as one or the other of the categories BC VQA or British Columbia Wine. Again, just common sense.

Recommendation #6 was put in place to make sure that the overall recognition of the larger region remains important and this would be done with conjunctive labelling. This would mean, for example, any sub-region created in the Okanagan would first have to list Okanagan then the sub-region on the label. This is important to me because we are still building the reputation of our existing regions and we want to make this easy for consumers to understand. I find in some parts of the world a sub-region is listed when many consumers won’t have a clue where that sub-region is, making it essentially meaningless. Napa Valley has done a good job putting Napa first then the sub-regions second and I believe this is a good model for BC to follow.

Recommendation #7 is a logical development with all the new vineyards and wineries popping up in the emerging wine regions of BC. Until they get their own Geographical Indication, these wineries can only use the generic region of “British Columbia” which gives little ability to help celebrate the characteristics of the place. #7 recommends using the different watersheds, the same criteria used for Okanagan and Similkameen, to create new regions to encompass these emerging regions. #8(a) opens the doors to look at the proposed new sub-Geographical Indications that the Task Group recommended, an important next step to follow on from these results and one that is well underway with a logical base of recommended sub-GIs already having been created. Mike Klassen comments, “It is an opportunity for B.C.’s emerging regions to benefit from what has been happening already elsewhere. Which is to make wines that express a sense of place and that wine lovers can identify with.”

Recommendation #10 would go some way to alleviating the issues with #2(b) not passing. This would create a flat membership fee for small wineries. With the current system you are charged for each wine and logically, small wineries making lots of small volume wines find it not worth paying for the cost of BC VQA for so many wines. This is why many haven’t joined the BCWA in the past. If there isn’t an extra cost for small wineries to put through lots of small batch wines then they will be more likely to go through the full BC VQA process and then be able to use the Geographical Indications on their labels.

Recommendation #11 is also just common sense. It allows grape growers to be included in any votes to create new sub-Geographical Indications, not just wineries as was the rule previously. Recommendation #12(a) opens up the process to create the new sub-GIs by removing a difficult to achieve paragraph in the current regulations that controls what must be proven to create a new sub-GI. This needs to be re-written as part of the process to make sense for logical, meaningful sub-GIs to be created.

As you can see, many of the recommendations are just logical common sense developments for an industry to continue to grow and are just adaptations to the realities of the business environment of the day. A few others, such as the creation of sub-GIs, are important to allow wineries to go to the next step, build a reputation linking grape to place, and furthering BCs reputation as a premium quality wine producer in the wide world of wine. This was no mean feat to achieve and it will be exciting to get these changes enacted into law and allow the industry to continue on its positive path. As Mike Klassen nicely puts it, “perhaps what pleases me the most is that, as large as it has become, the whole BC wine industry came together to weigh in on these changes, and then strongly supported them.” This is about as clear a direction as any industry will give for change. Well done BC.

byline: Rhys Pender MW, republished from WineAlign with the author’s permission.