Ticket to Ride (or not). Okanagan Wineries at VIWF

Ticket to Ride (or not): Okanagan Wineries at the Vancouver International Wine Festival

For many of us, wine festivals mean buying a ticket for an event (or two), donning party clothes, and enjoying a night on the town. It’s good bang for our buck, with hundreds of wines under the same roof for us to sample at one go. If we’re lucky, we nab a few nibbles before the crowd descends like locusts on the buffet table.

For a winery, wine festivals are months of planning costs and budgets, scheduling, and hoping the event doesn’t fall on the day you booked the bottling truck. It’s more than standing behind a table with a ready smile and good story. By the time consumers arrive glass in hand, all we see are the table linens and glamorous façade – but someone picks up the cost of all that free-flowing vino.

From February 24 to March 2 2014, Vancouver hosted the Vancouver International Wine Festival (VIWF). What began as a small, one-winery event in 1979 has grown to include 178 wineries pouring more than 780 wines with an additional 8 regional-based tasting stations throughout the grandest of ballrooms. Upwards of 400 volunteers help this small wine-o-phile city run smoothly through a week of seminars, lunches, and tasting events. *Read our reports from the week here & here.

This year, Canada was among the 14 countries with a group of 25 wineries from the Okanagan; approximately 10% of the wineries in our province. While the Okanagan is only a five-hour drive from Vancouver, it takes a team to play at this level: during a two-three hour period, thousands of trade, buyers and consumers circulate the room, waiting to be wooed. With table fees, cases of wine to pour, and staff to room and board away from home, a smaller player might find it cost prohibitive to get into the game.

“We’re lucky to have [in British Columbia] good industry leaders like Tinhorn Creek and Blue Mountain who regularly come to this”, says Tyler Harlton, principal of TH Wines. This year, Harlton attended the Festival like most everyone else – by purchasing his tickets. He wasn’t at a table pouring his outstanding 2012 Pinot Noir; instead, Harlton spent the time developing his palate, discovering styles he prefers, and measuring where his wines might stack up against international ones. “I like to see trends. What are people buying? What are they interested in, and why?”

It’s a big ask for a smaller producer to commit to something like the VIWF: consumer and trade tastings can absorb four or five cases of product and each wine you pour must be available for sale at the on-site liquor store, which means sending extra cases months in advance with no guarantee of sales. If, like Tyler Harlton, you make 270 cases of Pinot Noir, it’s like asking you to give away almost 5% of a product that has a low profit margin – and sell another 20% at a reduced price. Yet the stage here is truly international, with representatives from around the globe tasting what we in BC take for granted. In that case, what is the value of product awareness on this scale?

Based on anecdotal evidence accumulated in an entirely un-scientific manner (while cruising the festival floor with champagne in my glass), there seems to be an unspoken minimum production threshold at which Okanagan wineries feel – or perceive – a benefit to the expense of participation: upwards of 5,000 cases per year.

“I’ve never not been here”, states Harry McWatters of TIME Estate Winery. McWatters is a grand master of BC wine, having founded Sumac Ridge winery in 1980 and being instrumental in VQA Canada – among other accomplishments. TIME produces around 5,000 cases a year and the three wines in the portfolio range in price from $25 to $30. McWatters believes the right thing for his winery is to participate. “If you’re making 5,000 cases of $30 to $50 wine, you had better be here.”

VIWF 2014

Being here is about getting your brand in front of decision makers: sommeliers, buyers, and in part the consuming public. “It’s not inexpensive to participate”, says McWatters. “We’re here with a major commitment. My business partner is here too. The only thing different for us is the airfare, and it’s probably cheaper to fly here from California than Kelowna.”

The decision to participate in the Festival has in large part to do with how you assign value. For producers like TIME, being here is valuable because of connections made and re-formed on the festival floor, and brand recognition for a fairly new label. When competing for shelf space in a liquor store with hundreds of wine options, a laugh shared with a new customer over a taste of Meritage can make the difference of that hand hesitating at your bottle instead of moving on to the next on the shelf.

The cost is echoed by other BC wineries, with caveats. “Yes it’s expensive to play here”, says David Paterson, winemaker at Tantalus. “But we’re in front of amazing people.” Tantalus has made a name for itself by producing consistently high quality, food-friendly wines – and, according to Paterson, visiting the festival occasionally. “We’re not here every year, so people are happy to see us.”

For Tantalus, educational tasting is valuable – as is getting the wine in front of trade and media. “This is a bonus for our staff”, says Paterson. “And we budget for it. There’s nothing worse than cellar palate.” Paterson is referring to getting accustomed to only drinking your own wine, an industry no-no. As for the trade part, the value of connecting with sommeliers who put bottles on restaurant wine lists is a repeating theme – and from what I saw of the crowded tables during trade tasting hour, it appears a valid one.

The perceived value of participating at the Festival changes depending on your definition and situation. “If you’re in a position to utilize the show to the best of its possibilities, that’s great”, says Jay Drysdale of Bella Wines. A small bubble-only producer, one would think that participating at this year’s Festival – a champagne/bubbly theme – would be an easy yes. Not so. “We need to have enough product”, explains Drysdale’s business partner and spouse Wendy Rose. “We just don’t make that much wine.”

For a traditional method bubble house like Bella, the value of the Festival is in market research: they buy tickets to events, like Tyler Harlton does. “We can evaluate the caliber of British Columbia against the world and look at different price points, all at the same time”, says Drysdale. He and Rose had a tasting plan before setting foot in the big world of wine: first old world, then new, taking notes and comparing as they went. “Something like this helps BC find its value”, explains Drysdale. “Champagne has certain expectations.  With Prosecco, it’s floral. Cava is different. Then you get to BC – it’s bright, and laser focused. So we ask ourselves: how can we amplify what we’re already doing?”

Drysdale and Rose didn’t apply for a table, but three weeks before the Festival began the British Columbia Wine Institute called to say Bella had been chosen to pour at the BC regional booth for a portion of the week. “That fit so much better for us”, says Rose. “We want to be that winery you heard about from someone. To be tucked away at a table like the BCWI is an anomaly, but it’s perfect.” They had to commit to pouring product, but not as much.

Regardless of how each defines value in this circumstance, every winery agrees that consumers interested in wine should attend events like those offered at the Vancouver International Wine Festival. “You’re going to learn something, no matter what your wine experience or knowledge”, says Drysdale. Over at Tantalus, Paterson concurs. “I hope what they [consumers] get out of this is some sort of education. BC wines do stand up against the rest of the world.”

Interested in expanding your palate? Visit www.vanwinefest.ca for information about the 2015 Vancouver International Wine Festival. The theme country is Australia, and the grape: Shiraz/Syrah. I’d best bring my toothbrush.

Written By:

Jeannette is EAT's Okanagan writer. With her rural Canadian roots and love of grand experiences, Jeannette is equal measures country and city. Since moving from Vancouver to the Okanagan in 2007, she quit her day job ...

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