Canadian Wine Insider Report – November 2019

The B.C. Wine Boom and How Ontario Consumers Can Get Aboard

By David Lawrason

There are two ways to buy B.C. wine in Ontario. The old way, and the new way.  The legal way and the “is-that-actually-legal?” way.

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

On October 29 the 5th Annual Judgement of B.C. pitted local wines against benchmark international wines in four categories in a blind tasting by over two dozen local and international experts in Penticton. In three out of four categories – pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah – a B.C. wine took top honours, only missing out among rieslings to a German wine. One of the judges was Stephen Spurrier, the British wine writer who organized the now famous Judgement of Paris pitting California versus French wines in 1976.

Three weeks earlier a marketing group of eight British Columbia wineries that go by the Okanagan Wine Initiative led trade and consumer tastings in Toronto and Ottawa. They were hosted by DJ Kearney of Vancouver, an authority par excellence. And, in Toronto, co-hosted by our Sara d’Amato. Both are judges with the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada.


For family reasons I was unable to either attend tasting, but I know the “Initative” wineries well, having visited them, often more than once. The tastings were well attended by Ontarians aware that British Columbia wine is on the move and generating excitement that is spilling across North America. Articles about B.C. wine and the Okanagan in major U.S. wine, travel and lifestyle publications and websites abound.

In this article I want to analyze what’s happening and why, and how the rest of Canada, notably Ontario wine lovers, should be taking advantage.

For the record I have a fair bit of experience and perspective with B.C. wine. Vancouver-based wine critic Anthony Gismondi and I co-founded the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada almost 20 years ago and we have tasted thousands of B.C. wines ever since.  I go to B.C. on average three times a year.  I teach about B.C. wine as part of the Fine Vintage Canadian Wine Scholar course (Calgary Nov 16/17, Toronto Nov 23/24, Vancouver Dec 14/15).  I am selecting B.C and Ontario and other Canadian wines for the new Fine Vintage Wine Club. And I assemble wines from coast to coast for Canada’s Great Kitchen Party, a national culinary competition that raises money for culinary, music and athletic pursuits by Canadian youth.

David and Anthony at the National Wine Awards of Canada

So Why is B.C. Wine Booming?

Like most wine regions around the world nowadays, including Ontario, British Columbia is in the midst of drilling down in terms of terroir, and trading up to higher quality. It’s being fuelled by people with the money and passion to build wineries in the first place, who, in many cases, are hiring a younger, very well-schooled generation of globe trotting winemakers. They have swarmed to the gorgeous Okanagan, with its western frontier spirit, more open retail market and a relatively blank winemaking canvass, to create new and better wines year after year after year.  The competition among them is full throttle, despite their professional and after-hours camaraderie.

And the Okanagan is giving them a lot to work with in terms of terroir, not to mention the neighbouring Similkameen Valley, four new VQA appellations in the B.C. interior, plus sites on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

The Okanagan Valley is about 200kms top to bottom, but climatically much more complex than that might suggest, with an average of 1200 Growing Degrees Days in the north (comparable to Prince Edward County in Ontario or much of southern New Zealand) and almost 1500 GDDs in the south, (similar to the northern Rhone Valley of France or coastal California)

There are also temperature variations within the latitudes, based on altitude and whether vineyards lie on the west side of the valley catching more cool morning sunlight, or on eastern side exposed to warmer evening sunlight. And soils change quite dramatically from north to south as well, so the range of grape varieties and styles that work well is surprisingly diverse.

Some feel that B.C. needs a signature variety or two to carve its niche on the world stage, but the land is proving that thinking to be just plain wrong. I really can’t think of a major variety that should not be planted – and has not succeeded – somewhere in the Okanagan (but not everywhere in the Okanagan). It is as if all the world’s grape growing and wine making knowledge and experience is being stuffed into this new, long narrow geographic, northern test tube – that is now combusting and spewing fascinating results.

There is one more important reason for the boom. People like the wines! B.C. wine is the number one regional wine selling in B.C. In other words, it outsells California wine, Italian wine or French wine. Part of the reason is sheer consumer loyalty, but it also has to do with accessibility.

B.C wine is sold in B.C. government liquor stores, in supermarkets, hundreds of private wine stores, and hugely, through the wineries themselves. It is available! By contrast, Ontario wine consumers only have real access to the full and impressive range of Ontario’s best wines by buying from the wineries direct, and somewhat through LCBO and supermarket distribution for the higher volume, less inspiring stuff.

The popularity of B.C. wine in British Columbia, and in neighbouring Alberta, is one reason that less is seen in Ontario. Much of it is being drunk locally and westerly.

Nor is the industry very large. There are over 300 wineries in B.C. but they are farming only 10,000 to 12,000 acres – making many projects very small. For perspective Ontario is closer to 20,000 acres, with 200+ wineries. And for further perspective California’s famed Napa Valley is over 40,000 acres with over 800 wineries. Napa’s output doubles all of Canada, and Napa is less than 10% of California’s production.

Buying B.C. Wines in Ontario

Despite the limitations of availability, more and more B.C. wineries are looking to Ontario and its comparatively large fine wine market – a sign also of the growing competition within B.C. The Okanagan Initiative tastings are proof of the interest, as are increasing visits by some of the top B.C. winemakers.

And let’s not forget that twelve of B.C.’s larger wineries/brands are owned by two national companies – Arterra and Andrew Peller Ltd – headquartered in Ontario. They are obviously not oblivious to the appeal of B.C. wine, but they are handcuffed by the same LCBO regulations. The wine they make in B.C. might as well be made in Peru in terms of access to the Ontario market. Arterra could not import an Arterra from wine from B.C. to Ontario for a Kitchen Party fundraiser on the behest of a chef, because it was not listed in Ontario.

For consumers, there are two ways to buy B.C. wine in Ontario. The old way, and the new way.  The legal way and the “is-that-actually-legal?” way.

The old, legal way is through the LCBO, which “imports” B.C. wine in the same manner it does Tuscan wine, or New Zealand wine. This idea of importation from within Canada rankles many Canadians. Myself included.

The problem and reality is that the LCBO – as the only retail organization for imported wine – has limited shelf space and must carve that space up to service wines from around the world. So within the grand template B.C. can only ever achieve X number of listings. Consumer demand might conceivably move the needle for B.C. wine to X-plus, and has done so recently, although not by much.

Here’s where things currently stand with B.C. wine at the LCBO.

On October 24, I did a B.C. wine search of that showed 71 B.C. listed products. Vintages showed the largest number with 43, followed by LCBO general listings at 18 and fuzzy Destination/OnLine wines at 10.

But when I scrolled through the Vintages listings of higher priced/quality wines of interest to our readers twelve showed virtually no current stock of less than one case. Ten showed small inventory of up to three cases across the province. And only 15 showed more significant inventory. That is pathetic.

No surprise too that B.C.s larger wineries dominate the listings. Mission Hill is the largest supplier to Ontario, and that is a good thing. Mission Hill was crowned Winery of the Year at the 2019 National Wine Awards beating out 200 other Canadian wineries in blind tastings. Their wines are exemplary at the various price points offered. The widely available Reserve wines in the $20 to $25 range are tidy, typical of grape in B.C. and fine.

Mission Hill Family Estates – 2019 Winery of the Year

Burrowing Owl is strong too – but not always available at Vintages in the premium range, with its big classic south Okanagan reds that appeal to California wine fans. Quails Gate is often available at the LCBO, as well as Dirty Laundry, Sperling, Tinhorn Creek, Oak Bay, Tantalus, and Culmina.

The better way to experience B.C. wine in depth is ordering direct-to-consumer (DTC) on the internet. This bypasses Ontario regulations and mark-ups, and is widely practiced, although never overtly promoted, because it actually contravenes Ontario regulation. Previously it was an Ontario “policy”, but this year Ontario made it a regulatory issue. British Columbia or Nova Scotia or Quebec wineries who direct ship to consumers in Ontario could face stiff penalties.

But a senior Canadian industry spokesperson told me he couldn’t recall Ontario ever charging wineries or consumers for buying B.C. wines direct.  And I would bet that Ontario regulators would dare not do so given the public mood on this issue. It seems to be an interim place-holding regulation as the provinces wrestle at a higher political level with interprovincial trade issues, of which wine is one of the more visible and controversial.

Despite the questionable legality, the direct importation of B.C. wine into Ontario – driven by thousands of Ontarians who have travelled to B.C. to ski, golf, dine and taste – probably outstrips the quantities sold through the LCBO. And that is the way to go.

By the way, B.C. does allow its citizens to directly import Ontario wine, as does Nova Scotia, making any moral and political reason for Ontario not to reciprocate pretty flimsy.

So What to Buy from B.C.?

Not all B.C. wineries are keen to sell wine in Ontario. Many smaller wineries don’t have enough wine to sell, and too, there are added costs of shipping and handling and promotion that make out-of-province sales less lucrative.

But more and more of the mid and larger sized wineries are selling to Ontario, at least partially because of increasing competition at home. The  wineries listed above which are already sold through Vintages are one place to look. The member wineries of the Okanagan Initiative that poured in Toronto and Ottawa are obviously keen as well, including 50th Parallel, Culmina, Haywire, Liquidity, Summerhill, Painted Rock and Poplar Grove.

And then there are wineries that are sending samples for review on WineAlign. They are looking for press reviews primarily, but obviously those reviews will be read many Ontario wine lovers. And I taste them because I am interested too. The most recently active B.C. wineries sending samples include Mission Hill, Quails Gate, Burrowing Owl, Tantalus, Blue Mountain, Le Vieux Pin, La Stella, Joie, Township 7, Fort Berens, Bench 1775, Laughing Stock, Black Hills and Hester Creek. A new winery called Lakeside Cellars just showed up this week (as yet untasted).

So if you were wondering where to begin to import some of B.C.’s best, you might start right here on the WineAlign database. And remember, although many may only ship by the case – 12 or perhaps 6 bottles – they also have online wine clubs that will send x-number of mixed lots per year.

To help I have highlighted ten interesting wines that I have recently tasted from samples received, or encountered, that showcase the diversity of the Okanagan. Prices quoted are B.C. prices to which HST and shipping may be added.

Ten Intriguing BC Wines


Quails’ Gate Orchard Block Gewurztraminer 2018, Okanagan Valley ($22.00)
Gewurz is a low-key gem of the Okanagan which share many terroir aspects of Alsace – northerly in the rain shadow of big hills. Made to mark the winery’s 25th anniversary, this is sourced from gewurz vines planted in 1989. Expect typical lychee, spice, pear and grapefruit with a touch of evergreen. Lovely texture; almost creamy and satiny, again with that warm alcohol burr on the finish.

Blue Mountain Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2018, Okanagan Valley ($19.00)
Sauvignon Blanc has fared very well in the cooler 2018 vintage! Love the fine juniper, mint, basil herbality on the nose, along with lime and green apple. This is mid-weight, very firm, tart-edged and mouth-watering, yet balanced within its tensile frame. Great value.

Laughing Stock Viognier 2018, Okanagan Valley ($28.74)
Viognier is a warmer climate Rhone-based variety finding legs in the sun-drenched growing season of the Okanagan. This is nicely contained and focused with very bright, almost delicate peach/pineapple fruit and signature star fruit. Well-made, fresh and well-balanced with good acidity and almost saline minerality.

Joie Farm A Noble Blend 2018, Okanagan Valley ($22.50)
This has become one of most recognized Alsatian-style whites of the Okanagan. The 2018 ‘Noble Blend’ is a blend of gewürztraminer, riesling, auxerrois, pinot blanc, and muscat. The floral nose is lifted and complex with florals, lemon, almost white pepper spice, and melon-like fruit. It is medium-full bodied with a hint of sweetness, rich, yet fine, fresh acidity.



Blue Mountain Estate Cuvée Pinot Noir 2017, Okanagan Valley ($35.00)
It is on the lighter side of the B.C. spectrum, with honest, classic sour cherry fruit, a considerable dried herb/shrubby character that is very typical of this sight, and subtle oak spice. Nicely complex and integrated. Textbook B.C. pinot.

Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2017, BC VQA Okanagan Valley ($52.00)
Quails’ Gate pinot noirs are firm and sturdy with a core of rocky minerality from their site on the slope of volcanic Mt. Boucherie. As you move into the Reserve level there is more elegance. The nose shows finely etched new oak spice, vanilla and cedar amid fairly ripe cherry/raspberry fruit.

Le Vieux Pin Syrah Cuvee Violette 2017, Okanagan Valley ($35.00)
This continues to be one of the better value syrah’s of the Okanagan, especially for those who like the northern Rhone styling – with ample pepper, smoked meat, roasted herbs and that core dark cherry fruit. It rings with authenticity. And although youthful and tight now it carries this solid acid-mineral core. Second place at the Judgement of B.C. syrah category.


La Stella Fortissimo 2017, Okanagan Valley ($32.00)
Here’s a blend of 60% merlot, 18% cab sauvignon, 13% cabernet franc and a splash of sangiovese – La Stella’s signature variety. It has a generous, quite rich, deep and complex nose of red and black fruit, herbs and oak sweetness. I thought of Brunello. It is full bodied, firm but a touch green with quite firm, grippy tannin.

Township 7 Reserve Cabernet Franc Romar Vineyard 2016, Okanagan Valley ($46.00)
From an Osoyoos site in the deep south, it captures cab franc’s savoury, herbal, dill and oregano notes, with ripe raspberry pie fruitiness and nicely oaked spice and resin. It is medium to full bodied, with just right acid energy and quite fine soft, dusty tannin. Protypical BC franc.

Burrowing Owl Pinot Noir 2017, Okanagan Valley,  ($39.95)
Not personally tasted but colleagues Michael Godel and John Szabo are consistent in their ratings and comments. “A fairly bold and full-bodied pinot noir here from Burrowing Owl, though admittedly better balanced and fresher than previous vintages. Wood is quite well managed and length and depth are solid to be sure,” says John Szabo.  And this is one is currently available at Vintages.


David Lawrason
VP of Wine