BC Report – Barriers to Entry: Why Young Passionate Wine People Can’t Get Into the Business
The British Columbia wine industry is doing pretty well right now. Reports of sales being up in virtually all channels and a string of very good vintages has spirits high. There really isn’t much to complain about and, with what looks like a large and high quality 2016 vintage to come, the future looks pretty bright. The future, however, is what has me a little worried. The success of the industry has practically made it impossible for young, enthusiastic, passionate wine people to get involved and make their own wine.
This is a dilemma. Young people with passion, ideology and willingness to push the boundaries is essential to the evolution and growth of an industry. We need people who are committed to trying something new and doing it in an ideological way to help all move forward. We need that excitement.
The costs of entry though are too high. I’m not just talking about making wine, something anyone can do through the custom crush options out there, but about growing and making wine. True quality wine is grown, not just made, and we need this youthful energy from the ground up, literally. We need to get these young drivers of the industry to own (or at least lease) the land and become winegrowers.
The majority of wineries in BC are pretty flash, and many of them have lots of money behind them to build beautiful buildings, buy top quality equipment and run lavish hospitality operations. There is certainly nothing wrong with this, and this wonderful infrastructure plonked down on the stunning setting of the Okanagan has made for a deserved, award winning tourist draw.
But what of the future? Who will keep a successful industry on their toes and keep pushing the boundaries to make it keep trying to get better? Sure, there are lots of young passionate people working in the wine industry but talk to any of them and they are not hopeful they will ever have any chance to own land, grow the grapes they want in the way they want to, and then turn them into wine. Having to put down 25% just to get a Farm Credit loan on a property that is going to cost you at least $100,000 per acre is beyond the realms of possibility for nearly everyone that doesn’t start with lots of money. And that is just to get the land. There are many more costs after that.
The custom crush facilities are still an important cog in the wheel but the laws of how the brands produced in custom crush are owned and sold is still a gray area that isn’t ideal. Unless these young winemakers can ply their trade openly and proudly rather than lurking around in a shady manner then it won’t go far. The liquor laws need to somehow take this into account. In many wine regions of the world young producers share a facility and equipment. In BC, the laws have rules on minimum quantities produced, number of acres of vineyard that need to be attached to the winery and limitations on how and where the wine can be sold. It isn’t very dynamic and discourages small production. If the laws could be loosened up it could generate some exciting projects that could help shape BC’s wine future.
Leasing land might be a possible answer for getting the future vignerons out into the vineyard to practice the farming methods they believe in, and allow a business to start without such large overheads. With many long-time grape growers advancing in years, and, in many cases, no family members wanting to take over the farming, it would be ideal to see someone put a little land or vineyard aside for this purpose, as a philanthropic gesture to the future, rather than just waiting for the big buyers to fight over a property and drive prices even higher.
The emerging regions could also be the affordable spark needed to get a new generation of winegrowers up and running, as land prices are much lower than in the Okanagan and Similkameen. The new and largely unknown prospects of these areas are risky but, just as up and coming restaurants move into and regenerate a low-rent and sometimes seedy area of a city, so too could the emerging regions become a catalyst for wine experimentation.
There isn’t really any easy answer to this predicament. The fact that the industry needs to keep moving forward and it needs the passion and energy of young winemakers and growers to do it means it is something we should continue to discuss. The future is the answer.
Rhys Pender MW
WineAlign in BC
In addition to Rhys Pender’s BC Report, we publish the popular 20 Under $20 shopping guide and the Critics’ Picks report which highlights a dozen of our favourites from the last month (at any price point). Treve Ring pens a wandering wine column in Treve’s Travels, capturing her thoughts and tastes from the road and, lastly, Anthony Gismondi closes out the month with his Final Blend column – an expert insight into wine culture and trends, honed by more than 25 years experience as an influential critic.