Canadian Wineries Eye the World Stage

Some vintners suggest united marketing front to replace regional groups

by Peter Mitham
wine grape ice wine canada
Table wines from Canada have not achieved the same recognition as the nation's ice wines, members of the industry said during a recent gathering in Vancouver, B.C.

Vancouver, B.C.—Canada’s wine industry donned its debutante dress and prepared to step onto the world stage in mid-February as wineries from across the country headlined one of North America’s largest consumer wine festivals.

Seventy-six wineries from British Columbia, Ontario and Nova Scotia participated in the Vancouver International Wine Festival held Feb. 11-19, giving the trade, consumers and each other a taste of the cool-climate wines they hope to pour for the world in the months and years to come.

“This is the reason why we’re here,” said winemaker Thomas Bachelder, a consulting winemaker and internationally recognized figure who is also making wines under his eponymous label from grapes in Ontario, Oregon and Burgundy.

The collective appearance in Vancouver was a foretaste of international appearances at ProWein in Germany later this month as well as a tasting scheduled in May featuring 30 wineries. The international events will present Canada—a country producing 21 million cases of wine annually, according to a new economic impact report—as a place warm enough to produce something other than ice wine but crisp enough to yield wines with bracing acidity.

But it was clear at seminars held during the week-long festival in Vancouver that presenting a single identity for such a large country will take finesse.

While wineries in Ontario and Nova Scotia happily identify themselves as cool-climate growing regions, David Scholefield, former chief wine buyer for the BC Liquor Distribution Branch and a Falstaffian personality on the Vancouver wine scene, said the dry and sunny Okanagan means British Columbia hardly fits the bill.

“We presumably have a closer geographic affinity with Walla Walla or Wenatchee than Niagara,” he said during a seminar about Canada’s wine culture, arguing that geographical rather than political borders should be the basis for positioning a region’s wines.

But a national approach is important when speaking to the world, argued two of the industry’s pioneers.

“The greatest embarrassment, the greatest humiliation” for Canada’s wineries is that they can’t legally ship their wines across the country to broaden internal markets, let alone international markets, said Anthony von Mandl, founder and principal of Mission Hill Family Estate in the Okanagan.

“The reason has to do with a) provincial revenues, and some grapegrowers association and some other wineries being concerned. Our competition is the world, it’s not each other,” he said. “We have to understand that.”

Competition among industry organizations is also a concern for Donald Ziraldo, co-founder of Inniskillin Wines in Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, acquired by Constellation Brands in 2006.

Ziraldo believes Canada has too many associations advocating for Canada’s wine industry, resulting in the duplication of effort, dilution of impact and wasted resources.

“Yes, Niagara is very different from the Okanagan, and I think that from a regional perspective they are very distinct and should stay that way, but they must stay under the Canada umbrella,” he said. “So my bold suggestion is let’s take all the organizations in Ontario, of which we have too many.…You’ve got a number of them, mentioned today, in British Columbia. We’ve got Quebec. Put them all together under one umbrella of the Canadian flag.”

A united front is important on the international stage because few people outside Canada know the country’s individual winemaking regions. Most don’t even know Canada produces any wine, other than ice wine, that is.

Toronto sommelier and wine writer John Szabo boldly reviewed festival proceedings at a final seminar featuring wines from Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia, saying, “We can say with confidence we’re on the world stage,” but other speakers weren’t so sure.

During a question-and-answer session following a mid-week panel discussion about wine education, Ian Harris, chief executive with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) in Croydon, U.K., told B.C. winemaker Ann Sperling that Canadian wines aren’t included in the WSET program because Canada simply isn’t an internationally recognized region.

“Ice wine, that’s the one wine people know is produced in Canada,” he said. “That’s the one Canadian wine that has a global presence.”

Ziraldo agreed, recounting how his efforts to convince the Tribeca Grill in Manhattan to list Chardonnay from Ontario were met with resistance. The restaurant had listed his ice wine, but table wines were another matter.

“I discovered very quickly that ice wine is something people got, psychologically. Canada has ice, Canada has hockey, Canada has great ski mountains in the Rockies—so people get ice wine from Canada,” he said.

Table wines need to live up to ice wine’s reputation if they want a spot in the world’s cellars, he said.

“We put our best foot forward, as every other wine region in the world does,” he said, referring to ice wine. “Then bring other wines in—in the table wine category.”

But it’s a tough challenge to broaden the Canada brand, said trade commissioner Janet Dorozynski, who oversees beer, wine, spirits and tourism for Global Affairs Canada, the federal department responsible for foreign affairs and trade. Speaking on a panel about wine tourism, Dorozynski said Canada is still known for the four Ms: Mounties, maple syrup, mountains and moose and less so for wine and wine tourism. “Our challenge is getting over that,” she said.

Dorozynski said that international trade promotion and branding is very costly and requires a concerted effort on the part of governments, industry and wineries interested in wine tourism and the international market. She indicated that cutbacks during the era of Canada’s former prime minister limited the activities of Canada’s diplomatic corps and largely eliminated any activities related to trade development for tourism.

Hurdles remain despite the change of government in 2015, Dorozynski said, but von Mandl believes the government elected in 2015 put an attractive and powerful spokesperson for Canada in the prime minister’s office: Justin Trudeau.

“We have, in our prime minister, an unbelievable brand-builder for our country and our products around the world,” he said. “This is the opportunity, I believe, for the best of Canadian wines to really take the world stage, and with it, really change consumer perceptions around the world about who Canada is and what we can produce.”

Ziraldo, for his part, suggested hiring trained professionals for the job with all the cash saved from the consolidation of the industry’s trade and marketing associations.

“Take all the money that’s spent on lobbying and various other things, put it into a pool and, I would boldly suggest, hire a dozen or maybe two-dozen sommeliers, just let them go out and sell wine,” he said. “Then maybe we’ll get results.”

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