BC Wine Report: Reinventing Tasting Rooms

by Rhys Pender, MWJuly 16, 2015


Rhys Pender, MW

Rhys Pender, MW

I’ve just come back from a quick visit to Walla Walla Washington, the town so nice they named it twice. If you haven’t visited the place, the region isn’t much to look at compared with the visual beauty of BC wine regions and in fact it was pretty hard to find any vineyards at all amongst the sea of golden fields of wheat. They have got one thing very right though in Walla Walla and that is the vibrancy of the town and the way the place is energized with over 20 small tasting rooms in the downtown, all within walking distance. This is a concept that I think could revitalize many BC towns.

Walla Walla is about the size of Penticton and equally remote as it is over four hours drive from the main markets of Seattle and Portland. Yet, it has managed to become a thriving wine town, a real food and wine destination. There are many parallels with Penticton in the Okanagan and imagine the boost the town could get if it too became a hub for the local wine industry with a vibrant downtown filled with tastings rooms?

It is not that things are going badly for winery tasting rooms in British Columbia but there is starting to be an awful lot of them and the pieces of the wine tourism pie are getting spread ever thinner as growth in the number of tasting rooms outpaces the growth in numbers of wine tourists. Naramata Bench now has nearly 40 wineries. Investment in creating an attractive tasting room and staffing it is resulting in lower and lower returns, unless the draw of a great wine reputation or such a magnificent facility is enough to help you take a bigger piece of the pie.

Tasting rooms are important for many wineries. Having customers actually make the effort and come to the vineyard and winery and see things first hand can result in a relationship that no amount of advertising, marketing and public relations could ever achieve. They can meet the main people involved in the business, see the vineyards and forever have that personal link to a place. But with so many wineries spread so far apart it makes it inefficient for both visitors and winery investment. Could downtown tasting rooms in the small towns of BC be just what is needed for a new lease of life?

Seven Hills Winery

Many of the wine towns of BC would hardly be considered to be bustling and instead are often teetering on the edge with many small but characterful shop fronts sitting empty and the towns looking and feeling unloved and neglected. Picture a number of wineries giving these empty shops a facelift and setting up individual or combined tasting rooms where wine lovers could come and taste a whole bunch of wines from a sub-region without having to drive for miles and miles between each stop.

Think of the benefits that could arise as these towns become destinations and all of a sudden there is the need for restaurants, cafés, artisans, small hotels and countless other amenities to cater to the tourist. Jobs, a boost to the economy – only good things as far as I can see. Less people driving on the road should also reduce risks of drinking and driving as people could park in a town for the night and explore the region’s wines before eating at its restaurants and staying at its hotels. This certainly seems to be the plan in Walla Walla.

A more visible presence in the town could also help wineries become a more integrated part of the local community, something that doesn’t always exist as the sudden rise of the wine industry has often been met by resentment and mistrust in small communities. Even though it isn’t justified and wineries are generally big supporters of local communities the feeling that winery owners are generally rich outsiders prevails. The world is full of examples where a community embracing its wine industry and vice versa has given a giant boost to its wellbeing.

It is understandable that many wineries would be against the concept of downtown tasting rooms as they have worked hard and spent a lot of money building destinations and a strong customer base that comes to visit the winery. Nobody would want these off-site tasting rooms to completely replace visits to a winery, as seeing a place and its vines is essential to showcasing a region and a brand. Downtown tasting rooms would have to be in addition to what is on offer and could take the form of a second tasting room for some producers. They would provide an efficient way for both growth in new wine customers and allow small wineries to have a presence when they can’t compete on grandeur for driving traffic to the winery door.

The concept of downtown tasting rooms might not work for every place, as there simply might not be enough traffic through the town to justify it. It could, however, expand the number of customers as there are probably many potential wine customers who drive through places like Keremeos, Summerland, Oliver or Okanagan Falls to whom the wineries are merely names on signs and possibly considered too intimidating to visit. We can’t forget that many customers are still incredibly intimidated by wine and that visiting a winery would be like throwing oneself into the fire.

It is still legality that is holding back this concept. Currently, satellite tasting rooms are not allowed in BC although the issue has been at the forefront during the recent reforms to the liquor laws in the Province and the government appeared to support satellite tasting rooms as an area of priority. The concept was floated along with the idea of allowing sales of BC wine in farmers’ markets, which has received the green light and is happening successfully. For some reason, progression on satellite tasting rooms has come to a standstill.

It feels to me that allowing towns to showcase local wineries away from the traditional boundaries of their production facility could be a win-win for all. There would be benefits to the towns, reduced costs to the wineries, more consumers, a greater integration of the wine business with local communities and even a few safety benefits. This could help make some of these BC towns’ serious wine towns to visit. The side benefits are immense and, quite simply, the whole concept just makes sense.

Rhys Pender, MW


WineAlign in BC

The BC Wine Report is a look at all things in the BC Wine Industry. In addition to this, we publish our popular 20 Under $20 shopping guide and the BC Critics’ Picks report including the wines that excite us each month. Treve Ring shares her wine travel adventures in a periodic report entitled: Treve Travels. Lastly, Anthony Gismondi closes out each month with his Final Blend column – an expert insight into wine culture and trends, honed by more than 25 years experience as an influential and global critic. Hope you enjoy.