John Schreiner on wine

fruit wineries raise their profile


 Photo: Northern Lights proprietor Pat Bell

Pat Bell, one of the owners of Northern Lights Estate Winery, a fruit winery in Prince George, has a story about himself which sums up why fruit wineries battle to be taken seriously.

When he was the BC Minister of Agriculture from 2005 to 2008, he discovered the good grape table wines of the Okanagan. One summer, he and his wife swung through wine country, filling their vehicle with wines. On the way back to Prince George, they came upon the Bonaparte Bend Winery at Cache Creek. Not having heard of the winery, they stopped at the tasting room.

“When I discovered they only had fruit wines, we walked out,” Pat said recently, a little embarrassed to admit it today. In 2013, he launched a fruit winery with his son, Doug. When they built Northern Lights, they bought some production equipment and wine from Bonaparte Bend, which had just closed.

He told that anecdote at a recent meeting of leading fruit wineries. The owners had assembled, along with government and wine industry experts, to brainstorm ideas to raise the profile of fruit wines.

The fruit wine industry believes it has achieved critical mass in BC. There are about 25 licensed fruit wineries, along with about a number wineries making both grape wines and fruit wines. There is also a growing number of cideries. Cider sales are on fire, both in BC and across North America but fruit winery producers are still developing a following.

Pat Bell’s business and political careers have put him in unique position of leadership among the fruit wineries. He and Tommy Yuan, head of Canada Berries Winery in Richmond, put together the recent brainstorming session. Enough was achieved that the group is planning a second meeting in mid-June to advance strategies for the fruit wineries.

Bell enumerated several of the fruit wine industry’s operating disadvantages:

  • The wineries lack access to the sales channels for VQA wines because the VQA program, as currently administered by the British Columbia Wine Institute, does not extend to fruit wines.
  • As a result, fruit wines do not enjoy the markup rebate that VQA wines get. That means a much lower margin on fruit wines. One participant at the meeting told of netting just $1 on a bottle of wine that retails for $16 or $17 if sold through liquor stores.
  • Fruit wineries are not invited to take part the tastings and other public events organized by the VQA wineries.
  • Fruit wineries are not part of the grape wine industry’s quality assurance program. The VQA program was vital to the credibility of grape wines when the BC wine industry was reinventing itself in the 1990s.
  • And there is no single voice that speaks for the fruit wineries in the market place and in discussions with government.

After the recent meeting, about a dozen of the leading fruit wineries are now on the same page, at least to a degree. Canada Berries is more focussed on exporting fruit wines to Asia (Tommy Yuan argues they go well with Asian food). For Pat Bell and most of the others at the meeting, the domestic market has a higher priority.

Everyone seems to agree the fruit wineries might benefit from being associated with a quality standards program. They will now begin a conversation with the BC Wine Institute as well as the BC Wine Authority.

I think it unlikely that the BCWI’s 160 member wineries would agree anytime soon to share market and promotional channels with fruit wineries. They might agree to take on government relations. If not, the fruit wineries seemed prepared to establish an association of their own.

A quality standards program might be set up with the BCWA. The authority is an independent body administering the VQA tasting panels and the appellation and sub-appellations. Its audits ensure that only BC grapes are used to produce VQA and other BC wines. The authority, on a fee for service basis, could do the same for fruit wineries.

Some consumers are buying fruit wines but the volumes are modest. The quarterly market report from the BC Liquor Distribution Branch shows that fruit wine sales in the three quarters of 2016 ending in December totalled $3,632,717. That was barely one percent of total BC wine sales in that period.

If you are in the fruit wine industry, there is just one way to look at that figure: there is a lot of room for market growth.

John Schreiner on Norther Lights

Northern Lights Estate Winery is in a
handsome winery and tasting room constructed in 2013 beside the Nechako River in Prince George. It is owned by Pat Bell, his son Doug, and their families. Christine Leroux, a veteran consulting winemaker from the Okanagan, is the winemaker here. This BC’s most northerly winery, an example of how the expansion of fruit wineries can take winemaking to non-traditional wine regions.

Northern Lights Cuvée Blanche ($16.98). This is a blend of gooseberry, apple, apricot and rhubarb. None of the individual berries dominates this clever blend. It is a dry white with herbal and nutty notes mingling with the complex fruit. 88.

Northern Lights Heritage Haskap ($23.99). This is a full-bodied, age-worthy red. Some blueberry has been added to the blend and all has been aged in Hungarian oak. The wine begins with aromas of cherry. On the palate, there are notes of cherry and mocha. Time in barrel has added a note of tannin. The finish is dry. 90.