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April 17, 2009
Winemakers Round Table at the Banee
In the Photo: The media and the winemakers seeing eye-to-eye: Left: wine writer Tim Pawsey; Right: Robert Summers, winemaker for Hester Creek Estate Winery.

As mentioned yesterday, CityFood is attending the Banee in the South Okanagan -- a promotion for the region that began as a social occasion for winemakers based near Oliver, and has since expanded to three days of events designed to include the local community, visitors and journalists. 

Saturday night's "Banee" is still the central focus of the weekend, and the party that members of the South Okanagan wine industry most look forward to each year. It's an idea borrowed from the French -- choose a night during the early Spring season when bottling chores are finished and the vines are still lying dormant in the fields, to get together and sample each other's wines from the previous year's harvest.  Other events, such as Friday night's "Corkscrew Saloon", conducted in a zany Wild West theme (see some of the hijinks going on in our TwitPicks) is an invitation to local residents to join in, sample the new release wines, and have a little fun as well.

Recently, local resident (and CityFood contributor) Jay Drysdale, aiming to increase the dialogue between people who produce wine and those who sell, promote or write about them, has spearheaded a few educational components to the Banee.  One interesting example was yesterday's winemaker's roundtable discussion - an open forum between a group of mostly Vancouver-based wine media and several South Okanagan winemakers such as Sandra Oldfield of Tinhorn Creek, Michael Bartier of Road 13, John Ferreira of Quinta Ferreira, and newcomer Adrian Capeneata of Cassini Cellars, to mention just a few of the winemakers present.

Each winemaker brought two examples of his or her wines, recently bottled or still in barrel, for blind tastings by the media as well as their winemaking peers. As might be expected, and as was intended, beyond the dissection of each wine's merits and flaws, the conversation expanded to include topics of concern to the industry overall. Quite naturally, the opinions expressed deviated widely between the media's more idealistic vision of what Okanagan wines "should" or could be, and the more hard-core, practical lens on the subject that the winemakers looked through.

Perhaps the most pressing item on the table harkened back to a debate aired during the 2009 Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival between Naramata's JoieFarm and a Globe and Mail column. Namely: How do the Okanagan wineries, under the restraint of high land and labour costs, compete against the flood of readily available, well-made, international imports, that are often selling at much lower price points?  As everyone is well aware, the BC consumer may be open to paying a premium for local wines in order to support the home grown product, but, especially in today's economic scene, that consideration is only going to stretch so far at the cash register.

The media proposed one solution: that wineries should cease identifying their wines solely by their principal varietal, a system that only encourages consumers to make side-by-side price comparisons, and instead,  brand them under unique trade names. Marketed this way, consumers could be weaned away from expectations about what various wines "are supposed to" taste like, and be open to appreciating the unique qualities of BC wines. In the process, winemakers would be free from feeling they neeed to tailor their wines to conform to flavour profiles established elsewhere. 

That being said however, the definition of what makes up the "Okanagan flavour profile" has become increasingly segregated as various regions within the Okanagan Valley come to identify their distinct geographic differences and band together to market themselves as individual units within the whole.  Just as the wineries of the Naramata Bench before them, the wineries of the Similkimeen Valley have recently organized their own marketing group, and so too have the wineries of the South Okanagan (south of Okanagan Falls to Osoyoos), who recently ran a contest to involve the public in the renaming of their brand.  "SOWA: From Bluff to Border" may not be exactly catchy, but it does pinpoint the desire to be geographically specific.  Yet even within the physical boundaries of the South Okanagan itself there are three very different sets of growing conditions:  1) The east side, or Black Sage Road area (almost pure sand going down some 200 feet deep, and some of the hottest growing areas in the country); 2) The west side of the Valley or The Golden Mile (cooler, more shadowed and composed of rock beds that in some cases are so dense, meters must be removed to find enough dirt for plant roots to take hold; and 3) the north end or MacIntyre Bluff, which again is a more varied and complex combination of soil and weather conditions, even including a couple of glacial plateaus.
Somehow, given all this diversity, the wineries must determine what wines perform best for their very specific geographic conditions, market an understanding of that geology to the consumer,  while still creating an overall signature for the Okanagan so that the world understands what an  Okanagan wine is, why it is unique and why it needn't be soley judged according to some rigid global standard.

Let's just say that the Okanagan wineries have their work planted out for them.  And is it not ironic, that just as we have come to see the value of using old world ideas of identifying and marketing wines according to their regional  "terroir", it is the old world wineries, prodded by a younger generation of marketing people,  who have started emphasizing varietal identification on their labels, in order to make their wines more understandable to the new world consumer. Obviously we all have our challenges.

For more on this, read wine writers Anthony Gismondi's excellent article in the Vancouver Sun, where he proposes that the Okanagan adopt a system of "Bench" identification.

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Copyright Cityfood Magazine 2009