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BC wine: a short history (part 2)

With the repeal of Prohibition, wine was back on the table. But up until then, there had been no serious commercial attempts to meet demand. That’s when Grower’s Winery showed up.

Several investors formed Growers in 1921 in Victoria. They used loganberries and then native labrusca grapes to produce their wines. By the ‘30s, some of those grapes were coming from the Okanagan. Wine was not yet the multi-million dollar industry it is today, but there was enough demand that establishing vines had become a lucrative source of income for some farmers. 

British Columbia wine saw a small revolution in 1963. Up until then, wine from BC tasted very different from that produced in Europe. The labrusca grape, native to North America, is suited to Canadian climates. But it imparts a distinct, musky flavour that sets it apart from European varieties.

In 1963 Quails’ Estate Winery in the Okanagan began importing hybrid vines from France, encouraged by one of the vineyard’s French employees. The vines did well in the Okanagan’s climate, and they produced a higher quality wine. By the end of the ‘60s, the new grapes had spread throughout the valley.

More inspiration would arrive from Europe ten years later. In 1973, a new personality arrived on the BC wine scene. Helmut Becker was a member of the German Geisenheim Grape Breeding Institute, which worked to develop and spread grape varietals internationally. He made a deal with Okanagan growers to provide cuttings if they would allow him to reproduce his Geisenheim experiments on BC soil. Becker reasoned that, with a latitude almost identical to Rhine Valley, the Okanagan should be able to support Old World grapes.

Two plots were planted. They were a huge success. Becker’s work established Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer varietals in BC. These grapes still form the core of BC’s fine wine industry today.

Throughout the ‘80s, consumers in BC were able to find some locally-produced, quality wines. However, the market was still spotted with products made from inferior labrusca and hybrid grapes. This wasn’t a big deal when Canadian wine was still cheaper and easier to find than international offerings. But the tables were about to be turned.

The 1989 Canada-US Free Trade Pact changed all that. Suddenly, BC liquor stores were flooded with low-priced, quality wines from California. British Columbia’s inconsistent standards couldn’t compete.

Provincial and federal governments stepped in to provide a much-needed boost. They offered growers cash incentives to tear out their old labrusca and hybrid vines, and introduce Vinis vinifera in their place. Vineyards jumped on board, and before long, BC wine was catching its second wind. The establishment of the BC Wine Institute and the VQA appellation introduced high standards of production and gave a voice to the industry at large. 

Today, BC wine is internationally recognized. The province boasts more than 270 wineries, and last year, over twenty million gallons of wine were produced from BC grapes. We’ve come a long way from Father Pandosy’s frontier vines. 

However, there is still room to grow. In 2012, the federal government passed Bill C-311, amending the 1928 Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act. In theory, this makes it easier for consumers to order wine from other provinces. But legislative red tape makes it difficult to order more than a few bottles. Residents in BC are lucky enough to have full access to the nation’s finest selection of locally produced wine. Only time will tell whether the rest of Canada is granted this privilege. 

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