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Confessions of a Wine Novice


The year 2014 will mark 10 years since my wife and I relocated our family from the endless horizons of Manitoba (where you really could watch your dog run away for three days), to the sun-drenched mountains and lakes of the Okanagan Valley in the B.C. interior. While I think I will always be a Winnipegger at heart (go Jets!), I have definitely come to appreciate all that this Region has to offer. And this year especially, I am not missing the prairie winter!

As a Chartered Accountant in public practice, our move 10 years ago gave me fresh start with a fast-growing firm, and an opportunity to focus on an industry I knew very little about at the time – the equally fast-growing B.C. wine industry. As many people have reminded me since, if you have to pick an industry to specialize in, it doesn’t get much better than hanging out at wineries! And that’s what I tried to do from the start. In fact, some of you reading this may have been “victims” of my early visits. I spent lots of hours asking questions as long as my hosts were willing to answer. Winery owners are definitely passionate about their businesses, so getting them to share information and opinions wasn’t all that difficult. I am grateful to everyone who made the time to chat, whether we continued to work together or not.

While I do spend a lot of time keeping abreast on the B.C. wine industry, I am far from an expert when it comes to wine itself. The truth is that this wine industry business advisor is really just another beer drinker from the prairies. Sure, I have attended enough industry events to know to how to sniff, and swirl and look the part, but for the most part, it’s just an act. The nice thing is the surprising lack of pretention you encounter when you do admit to your wine appreciation naïveté. Wine tasting events can be intimidating for a newcomer, but most winemakers and owners I have met in this region will quickly tell you it’s not about wine scores, ultra-premium price points and flashy marketing; it’s about what appeals to your own individual taste.

And there must be lots more wine novices like me out there. According to Vinexpo’s 2013 report, wine consumption in Canada is growing at a rate that is three times the global average. Over the next three years Canada is expected to become the world’s 5th biggest wine consumer – ranking behind only China, the US, Russia and Germany. That’s great news for our domestic industry, but only if we can convince all those wine newbies that Canadian wine  is every bit as good (or better) than all the international brands we can expect to continue to flood our market.

So, in order to give back in some small way to the industry that has shared so much knowledge with me over the years, I thought I would offer a little insight into the mind of the wine novice:

Get me to your winery and spend time with me

This, to me, is the key to success for the smaller wineries. The winery is where you make your best margins and create advocates for your brand. So actually attracting visitors to your door is very important. Many smaller wineries in B.C. have formed marketing groups to create a distinct identity for their regions. By working together, the marketing dollars go farther and they can all benefit.

When I visit a winery with friends or family, we love to taste and talk about what we like. We enjoy wine shop staff that are friendly, down-to-earth and not in a rush. It’s very hard to leave without buying when you have a good experience – you feel obligated, but in a good way. The wine I take home I will share with others, and if you did a good job telling about your winery and the wine, I’ll share that too.

Pricing is important

Wine novices like me tend to look for that middle tier – whether it’s at your wine shop, the liquor store or a restaurant.

We are not likely to go high end, because we are not sure we would like it any better. The whole ultra premium thing can be pretty intimidating.

On the other hand, prices that seem too low prices may make us question the quality. The old adage “you get what you pay for” applies to just about everything, wine included. And the last thing I want is to be known as the guy who tried to poison his guests with some sort of glorified cooking sherry.

Go Canada Go!

At the time of writing this article, the XXII Olympic Winter Games are just under way. It’s a great opportunity for all of us normally humble and reserved Canadians to wave the Maple Leaf and cheer on our own against the best the rest of the world has to offer. And even though Canada is still a tiny player among the wine making heavyweights of the world, we are beginning to garner more than our share of international attention.

The problem is most Canadians haven’t got a clue just how good Canadian wines are. We are saddled with an outdated web of government regulations that seem to actually discourage the growth of our domestic wine industry.

It's only since moving to the Okanagan that I have become aware of just how many wonderful wines are being created right here at home. But when I return to Manitoba for a visit, only a handful of the over two hundred B.C. wineries are represented. There is just no economic incentive for smaller Canadian wineries to attempt to navigate the provincial liquor board monopolies and mark ups that comprise our domestic distribution system.

We have  to find a way to spread the word of Canadian wine beyond the major wine regions of B.C. and Ontario. Recent federal changes could make it much easier for smaller Canadian wineries to ship direct to consumers across the country, but only if the various provincial governments adopt regulations allowing them to do so in a meaningful way. So far, progress has been slow.

If we can believe the statistics, the number of wine drinking novices in Canada is continuing to grow at one of the fastest rates in the world. To reach these newcomers, wineries need to focus on a great experience, strategic pricing and play on the natural desire of Canadians to support their own. If we can do that, we will have a strong Canadian wine industry we can all be proud of.