Canada’s Napa Valley Seeks Elusive Audience: Canadian Wine Drinkers

OSOYOOS, British Columbia — The first surprise for Séverine Pinte, a French winemaker working in Canada, was how casual everyone was — more ripped jeans and flip-flops than Chanel.

Then there was the unexpected need to warn grape pickers not to smoke marijuana near her beloved vines.

And finally there was a furry menace: Canadian black bears with a taste for chardonnay that gobbled up rows of grape clusters, forcing winemakers to employ hunters, electrified fences or pepper bombs.

When Ms. Pinte emigrated to Okanagan Valley in British Columbia a decade ago, she experienced some culture shock, as she transitioned from the formality of Bordeaux’s centuries-old wine industry to Canada’s more laid-back style.

“But I am never going back to France,” said Ms. Pinte, the chief winemaker at Le Vieux Pin winery in British Columbia’s pristinely beautiful winemaking region. She added, “The soil here is a palate from which I can make art.”

Canadian gastronomy may be better known for poutine, gravy-drenched cheese fries, than for pinot noir. But a new generation of winemakers is putting the Okanagan Valley on the global wine map, alongside famed regions like Bordeaux, Tuscany and the Napa Valley.

Still, winemakers like Ms. Pinte say they face a business hurdle more daunting than grape-guzzling bears: Many Canadians outside the province can’t legally get their hands on their wine.

About 90 percent of all British Columbia wine is sold within the province, a statistic driven by ardent local wine consumption, legal restrictions and regional rivalries within Canada.

Booze was largely banned in Canada during World War I, and some provinces still forbid individual consumers from ordering shipments of wine produced in other provinces. That has proved especially galling to winemakers when people are nursing pandemic blues with oversized glasses of chardonnay.

“It’s easier to send wine to China,” Ms. Pinte said.

Some years ago a British Columbia winemaker successfully mail-ordered a gun from another province in a stunt aimed at showing she could acquire a shotgun from Saskatchewan with greater ease than she could order a case of syrah.

While this struggle to sell to a nationwide audience has long been a point of frustration for British Columbia winemakers, it has become even more exasperating as the quality of the province’s wine has markedly improved.

In the 1980s, the Okanagan Valley, which extends about 125 miles north from the border with Washington State, was known for its apple and peach orchards, bargain lakeside beach vacations and wine dismissed by oenophiles as undrinkable plonk.

But the phasing out of government price protections brought an influx of cheaper foreign wines, forcing local winemakers to raise their game and plant better-quality vines.

Three decades later, the region has drawn Canadian billionaires, who have joined veteran vintners like Anthony von Mandl, owner of Mission Hill Winery, as well as Chinese investors and American tech entrepreneurs eager to create a Napa Valley of the north.

The Okanagan also produced Canada’s first Indigenous-owned winery.

Today, the region produces fine pinot noirs and cabernet francs that are gaining notice by in-the-know wine snobs from New York to Shanghai. Some $40 bottles of Okanagan cabernet sauvignon have sold for nearly $1,000 in China.

But consumers in Quebec and Ontario — two of Canada’s biggest wine markets — tend to favor European imports, while some connoisseurs remain incredulous that the country can produce gasp-worthy wine.

And it is hard to create a national wine brand in a regionally divided country, where upmarket Montreal restaurants favor French vintages and Ottawa retailers champion Ontario-made wine.

When Jancis Robinson, editor of the “The Oxford Companion to Wine,” first visited the Okanagan Valley about a decade ago, she found the flavors of the wines very direct and pronounced: They “almost punch you between the eyes with their frankness.”

The region has since come into its own, she recently wrote, but Canadian regional chauvinism was still holding it back from nationwide appreciation. “The massive gulf between eastern and western Canada,” she said in an interview, makes it “as difficult for the Okanagan Valley to make an impact in Toronto as in London.”

In 2012, the federal government passed a bill allowing wineries to ship to individual consumers across the country. But provinces regulate retail sales and eight years later, only three — British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Manitoba — have permitted that.

Also, the wine market in many provinces is dominated by powerful alcohol-selling monopolies that sell in government-run stores that tend to favor European imports.

To get around the restrictions, some Okanagan wineries have resorted to subterfuge, sending wines to other provinces by using a medical transport company in boxes not labeled wine.

A New Brunswick man was fined $292.50 for trying to bring 14 cases of beer and whisky across the border from Quebec, more than the legal limit. Canada’s Supreme Court effectively upheld the fine, ruling two years ago that Canadians do not have a constitutional right to transport alcohol across provincial borders.

John Skinner, owner of the Okanagan-based Painted Rock Estate Winery, whose wines have gained a following in China and the United States, said he struggled to send his wine to relatives in Ontario.

“It’s balderdash!” he said. “Wine is a great ambassador for a country but Canada isn’t behaving like one nation.”

Some Okanagan wineries have played up their French lineage.

Caroline Schaller, the executive winemaker at Okanagan’s venerable Osoyoos Larose Estate Winery, said her “Le Grand Vin” red has had success in Quebec and Ontario, helped by the cachet of its French name.

Whatever the challenges, British Columbia winemaking has come of age from the time when it was known for cloyingly sweet ice wine produced from frozen grapes.

Even during the pandemic, droves of tourists have come to sample vintages from local wineries like Laughing Stock and Checkmate.

Ms. Pinte was holding court recently at Le Vieux Pin’s Provence-inspired outdoor tasting area, as several tables of socially distanced wine lovers listened intently.

“I imagine this wine to be like a model strutting down a Paris runway,” she cooed, as she offered up a glass of her velvety cuvée violette syrah.

Over at Daydreamer Winery, couples in shorts and T-shirts sipped on large glasses of rosé on picnic tables, as sheep grazed on grass at their feet. Ms. Pinte said she had come to adore British Columbia’s casual sensibility.

When Ms. Pinte told French friends she was moving to Canada, she recalled, they assumed she was abandoning winemaking to teach French. Even after she became an established Okanagan winemaker, her parents initially recoiled from her wine.

“When I served French friends my wine, they would pretend to drink it,” she recalled.

François Le Mouël, from Montreal, describes himself as a “B.C. wine fanatic,” with 700 bottles in his cellar. He said the region needed a “Judgment of Paris” moment.

He was referring to a 1976 wine event when plucky California wines trounced French wines in a blind tasting judged by renowned — and shocked — French oenophiles. The contest put Napa Valley on the global map.

Okanagan wine’s reputation, he added, needed similar burnishing. “When you are on a date with your wife or girlfriend,” he said, “ordering a British Columbian wine doesn’t sound super sexy.”

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