By Tim Pawsey
When I first arrived in Montreal, I was amazed to see how liquor was sold. Going to the SAQ in those days was more like going to an English bank: you walked up to a wicket and gave the clerk a number.
He or she would then return with the requested bottle. And I think you had to sign something. The only difference was: in the UK we never tipped the teller for advice!
We’ve come a long way since then, although when it comes to liquor regulation, especially between provinces, we still have a long way to go.
I was lucky enough to arrive in B.C. at just about the right time: when most Okanagan wines were still something to be sneered at. And France owned 50 per cent of the market.
The entire B.C. industry was based solely on volume. Stories abound of how growers would turn on the sprinklers the day before the buyers showed up, so they’d be able to bill the maximum weight possible.
Somewhere along the way my interest was piqued by food, only to be joined by wine. Richard Carras, of Vintage Consultants, told me I had to write about wine. I was highly intimidated but jumped in.
Thanks to a few people I was soon connected to the then very small band of visionaries who felt there was a future for wine in B.C. — and in Ontario and elsewhere.
The very first wine tour I went on involved a five-hour bus trip to Blue Mountain — to witness the miracle that was Ian Mavety’s Pinot Noir. More Okanagan tours followed, including more than a few to see Harry McWatters, who, you could say, had somewhat divergent views from Ian on all things VQA.
Those were interesting times indeed, a surge of tastings and discoveries that suggested something big was afoot.
Another of those trips found us listening to McWatters on a windswept day in 1993, when Harry and Bob Wareham announced the 115-acre Black Sage planting, on a fallow slope that’s now in the middle of its namesake bench.
It’s hard to understate today what a gutsy move that was — when few others were prepared to put money on Bordeaux varieties in the Okanagan. Or thought the valley could ever make a decent, full bodied red.
But Harry figured he could. And did.
Those bus trips became legendary, even if there was occasionally (possibly) a little too much booze consumed — including one that involved McWatter’s ill-fated Po-To white, destined for Chinese restaurants.
But looking back they were pure genius, as they forged a lasting connection between a cynical Vancouver restaurant community and those founding few who were driving the industry forward. (Truth be told, there was no such thing as ‘regional cuisine’ in B.C. before the emergence of the wine industry as the perfect marriage partner… And very few knew what a winemaker’s dinner was.)
Along the way we learned, and kept learning, often in a truly Canadian way, such as the time we went to Gray Monk and the tasting was bookended by George Heiss Senior’s infamous jokes. Or another, at Quails Gate, when the bus got stuck in a sandy hollow. Or, when Priscilla Queen of the Desert became the tour mascot …
There were fun times but hard work, too. Lessons came in every form, including the tragic loss of Frank Supernak, in 2002, who died trying to save Victor Manolo from carbon monoxide poisoning.
One still not so small player, in the late 90s, then BCWI executive director, Chriss Coletta invited me to go to London to help staff the Wines of Canada booth at the London Wine Trade Fair. To return to the city (where I’d worked some 30 years previously) was an eye opener. People would say: “Oh, can you actually grow grapes in Canada, then?” I knew we had a lot of work to do.
Many back home were critical of money being spent to promote B.C. abroad. But a watershed moment came with a tasting at the reopening of restored Canada House, attended by the Queen, seen above with Harry McWatters. Canadian wines, in ever so small a way, earned a place on the world map — in the most competitive market anywhere. It was a steppingstone.
Remarkable, also, is the way that Okanagan wine tourism took hold with a vengeance. Only yesterday, it seems, we were nervously watching for Black Widows in the shed that doubled as Alex and Kathleen Nichol’s tasting room. Or, listening to Ben Stewart’s ambitious plans for a new barrel cellar to be built adjoining the small warehouse that passed as Quails Gate’s winery. Not to mention plans for a picnic area.
Even B.C.’s Neanderthal liquor laws, still grounded in Prohibition, couldn’t thwart the arrival of the revolutionary ‘J’ License, which — gasp! — allowed limited consumption of wine and food at wineries.
Those early players, no more than a dozen or so, no matter how large or small, all made huge contributions. Although (and, for sure, ‘CIC’ doesn’t help), people often undervalue how much ‘the majors’ have contributed.
Anthony von Mandl hiring John Simes for Mission Hill was pure genius. As was the luring of Pascal Madevon to make Osoyoos Larose. The impact of their knowledge, as well as many others from outside, on such a neophyte region has proven profound.
Even the setbacks had silver linings. When St. Hubertus burned in the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire, wineries from the length of valley contributed grapes for that vintage. I’ll never forget Andy Gebert’s excitement in telling me he’d found a bottle, pictured above, that had survived the inferno. I thought he meant a full bottle. But no, it didn’t matter to him that it was twisted almost beyond recognition.
As Canadians, that incredible spirit of giving and sharing is what sets us apart. For sure, today, the wine industry across the world is awash in cross-pollination. But it wasn’t always thus.
I like to think it’s our Canadian-ness that’s played a unique part in our success. Never before, in any other industry, have I come across such generosity, acceptance of others from every background and genuine spirit of cooperation.
And — I’m certain — that’s what will be our strength in the next 150 years.
About Tim Pawsey
Tim Pawsey (a.k.a. The Hired Belly) has documented the blossoming of the B.C. food and wine scene for about 20 kilos. He writes and shoots at hiredbelly.com as well as for the North Shore News, WHERE Vancouver, Quench, SIP, BCLS Taste, Montecristo and several others — but is always seeking new challenges. He’s an original judge for The BC Lieutenant Governor’s Awards for Excellence in Wine, and a founding member of the British Columbia Hospitality Industry Foundation.