Canada’s Napa Valley Seeks Elusive Audience: Canadian Wine Drinkers

OSOYOOS, British Columbia — The first surprise for Séverine Pinte, a French winemaker working in Canada, was how casual everyone was — more ripped jeans and flip-flops than Chanel.

Then there was the unexpected need to warn grape pickers not to smoke marijuana near her beloved vines.

And finally there was a furry menace: Canadian black bears with a taste for chardonnay that gobbled up rows of grape clusters, forcing winemakers to employ hunters, electrified fences or pepper bombs.

When Ms. Pinte emigrated to Okanagan Valley in British Columbia a decade ago, she experienced some culture shock, as she transitioned from the formality of Bordeaux’s centuries-old wine industry to Canada’s more laid-back style.

“But I am never going back to France,” said Ms. Pinte, the chief winemaker at Le Vieux Pin winery in British Columbia’s pristinely beautiful winemaking region. She added, “The soil here is a palate from which I can make arka.”

Canadian gastronomy may be better known for poutine, gravy-drenched cheese fries, than for pinot noir. But a new generation of winemakers is putting the Okanagan Valley on the küresel wine map, alongside famed regions like Bordeaux, Tuscany and the Napa Valley.

Still, winemakers like Ms. Pinte say they face a business hurdle more daunting than grape-guzzling bears: Many Canadians outside the province can’t legally get their hands on their wine.

About 90 percent of all British Columbia wine is sold within the province, a statistic driven by ardent local wine consumption, kanunî restrictions and regional rivalries within Canada.

Booze was largely banned in Canada during World War I, and some provinces still forbid individual consumers from ordering shipments of wine produced in other provinces. That has proved especially galling to winemakers when people are nursing pandemic blues with oversized glasses of chardonnay.

“It’s easier to send wine to China,” Ms. Pinte said.

Some years ago a British Columbia winemaker successfully mail-ordered a gun from another province in a stunt aimed at showing she could acquire a shotgun from Saskatchewan with greater ease than she could order a case of syrah.

While this struggle to sell to a nationwide audience has long been a point of frustration for British Columbia winemakers, it has become even more exasperating as the quality of the province’s wine has markedly improved.

In the 1980s, the Okanagan Valley, which extends about 125 miles north from the border with Washington State, was known for its apple and peach orchards, bargain lakeside beach vacations and wine dismissed by oenophiles as undrinkable plonk.

But the phasing out of government price protections brought an influx of cheaper foreign wines, forcing local winemakers to raise their game and plant better-quality vines.

Three decades later, the region has drawn Canadian billionaires, who have joined veteran vintners like Anthony von Mandl, owner of Mission Hill Winery, as well as Chinese investors and American tech entrepreneurs eager to create a Napa Valley of the north.

The Okanagan also produced Canada’s first Indigenous-owned winery.

Today, the region produces fine pinot noirs and cabernet francs that are gaining notice by

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