I paid little—no, make that no—attention to a February event in Vancouver billed as The Grape Debate. Put on by UBC Alumni Affairs, Wines of BC and the UBC Research Centre, the event put a question to a half dozen B.C. wine experts: should B.C. focus on developing a signature varietal?
There is only one real reason why proponents of the idea would have owners tear out many of the large variety of vines now grown in the province’s scant 4,000 hectares of vineyards. It would force growers to focus on the development of an export industry and make it easier to develop a name for BC wines in other countries.
The wine snobs, aka the pro side, didn’t win over the audience. But they did plant the seed, if not the vine, that B.C. wineries are getting it all wrong in continuing to explore just how this province’s countless microclimates and terroirs can be exploited. Focus on Syrah in the hot areas, Pinot Noir in cooler climes and whites like Chenin Blanc and Rielsing around Kelowna and northward, the signature varietalists say.
There are flaws in that argument though. First, why limit choices for your local market when BC consumers buy and drink nearly all of the production in the province, and lots of imports, too? After all, there is a business adage that says that 80 per cent of your sales are made to 20 per cent of your customers, and it is cheaper and easier to increase sales to existing customers. After all, they have already said they like your product, casting votes with their wallets.
Perhaps more importantly, sales directly from the winery provide the biggest profit margin. No commissions to sales reps, trucking costs and retail markup that spread the wealth along the supply chain. About 20 years ago, on a tour of Sumac Ridge, the guide told our group that direct sales were responsible for the lovely tasting room and gift shop.
Wine and tourism go hand-in-hand and, while international exports might result in tiny increase of visitors, tourists from close by are responsible for the vast majority of visits to wineries.
The math simply does not compute for B.C. to focus on the export industry. We have high production costs here and few advantages that other countries enjoy. No cheap land and labour, like South America, no vast vineyard tracts that invite the use of technology such as mechanical harvesters, like California, no ability to out-produce what local purchasers demand, like New Zealand, which has three times the vineyard space that B.C. has, with only a quarter of the size and an almost identical population.
So Canada would be exporting an expensive product to compete against countries that have huge advantages, and wineries would be getting a smaller share of the sales than they get from bottles they sell on site with less paperwork and none of the risk that goes with having a shipment go “missing” in China (it has happened) or being rejected, with little recourse.
Admittedly, I’m a local product guy. I prefer my food to come from producers as close to home as possible. I think that shipping products all over the world often makes no sense at all. Two decades ago I listened to a conference speaker say that as long as there are Danish cookies for sale on Canadian grocery store shelves, the economics of food will never make sense. Just because international shipping has cost advantages (fuel tax avoidance being the key reason) doesn’t mean it makes sense, especially when environmental responsibility is factored in.
And yes, I am aware that my position could ultimately lead to fewer imports on wine store shelves here in Canada. Being a great enthusiast of B.C. wines, I could live with that. Happily.