Wineries Bid for B.C.'s First Subappellation

Group in southern Okanagan Valley proposes Golden Mile Bench as new viticultural area

by Peter Mitham
The proposed Golden Mile Bench Designated Viticultural Area (DVA) falls within the Okanagan Valley DVA.
Oliver, British Columbia—Ten wineries in British Columbia’s southern Okanagan Valley hope the British Columbia Wine Authority will look favorably on their request for the creation of the province’s first subappellation.

The proposed Golden Mile Bench Designated Viticultural Area (DVA) lies within the existing Okanagan Valley designation, one of six geographical indications the province’s wineries are allowed to use.

The area lies to the west of Highway 97 and is roughly bounded by Reid Creek and Testalinden Creek, though it doesn’t cover the entire area between those two landmarks.

“The creeks are important because the creeks were how the alluvial fans were formed,” said Mark Sheridan, general manager of Hester Creek Estate Winery, which lies at the southern end of the proposed appellation.

Alluvial fans, including the one formed when an earthen dam burst at the head of Testalinden Creek in June 2010, define the area encompassed by the proposed appellation—indeed, development of the proposal was temporarily derailed by the landslide. (See “Okanagan Wineries Seek Subappellation.”) 

Sheridan said the fans define various aspects of the terrain, including soil composition, slope and elevation; these have in turn affected air drainage and sun exposure.

“There’s not one distinguishing feature; it’s a number of factors, and having all those factors in play represents that Golden Mile Bench,” Sheridan told Wines & Vines, emphasizing that the critical role played by research scientists Scott Smith and Pat Bowen of the federal Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland, B.C.

“We have involved soil scientists, viticulturists, plant physiologists, and the bottom line is that it’s based on science. It’s not based on politics or anything else, it’s based on science and understanding what the unique characteristics of that terroir are,” he said. “It is based on science, and therefore it’s defendable.”

Golden Mile Bench is the first subappellation proposal to come before the B.C. Wine Authority, which began operations in 2008. Consequently, some information may yet be requested.

While the area encompasses 10 wineries, specifics regarding acreage and the like—common in petitions in the United States—have not yet been publicly disclosed (the appellation proposal will be published on the BCWA site in the coming weeks).

“We’re going to get more facts on the actual acreage,” Sheridan said. “The (BCWA) will be asking for that as well,” Sheridan said

BCWA chair Jeffrey Thomas said the authority’s board has yet to review the proposal, which was submitted this week. Once it does, he expects the proposal will be posted online and a mandatory consultation process will unfold.

This will include interviews with the wineries proposing the new designation as well as the scientists involved in developing the proposal. A site visit also will be planned, and a ballot seeking a double majority of affected members will be conducted (a double majority comprises at least two-thirds of wineries in the proposal DVA producing at least two thirds of all wine made from grapes grown in the proposed area).

The authority also will consult wineries adjacent to the proposed area, with the goal of reaching a final decision this summer.

“More broadly, as well, I expect we will likely provide the proposal to all of our members and anyone that has any interest in commenting,” Thomas added. “We’re certainly open and receptive, although the regulation is quite specific as to what consideration we’re to take into account in determining whether the proposal is valid.”

The process differs slightly from that in Ontario, where the board of VQA Ontario (the local counterpart of the B.C. Wine Authority) makes the final decision following a mere 30-day consultation period with no industry ballot.

However, the Ontario authority seeks consensus prior to receiving applications and proceeding to a final decision regarding the validity of the proposals.

“We want to make sure that we get it right and there is a consensus around it,” Laurie Macdonald, executive director of VQA Ontario, told Wines & Vines. “When we created the subappellations in Niagara (in 2005), we went through two years of town hall meetings and fussing about the boundaries and exactly where they might be....At the end of the process there was virtually no objection.”

Two wineries that lie just outside the proposed boundaries of the Golden Mile Bench DVA expressed concerns to Wines & Vines regarding the basis for the new designation, charging that the area possesses many characteristics but nothing that distinguishes it from their own properties.

While the existing designations reference natural boundaries and watersheds, the new proposal references a host of new defining characteristics.

“We don’t have mountains between us, we don’t have any rivers,” said Adrian Cassini, owner of Cassini Cellars, who wants to see a strong scientific case for any new designation (Cassini said he hasn’t seen the proposal).

“If they draw a boundary without scientific backup, it’s not going to work. I will fight it,” he said.

Cassini and others also worry about the effect the new designation could have on marketing local wines, but Manfred Freese, president, British Columbia Grapegrowers Association, believes the overall effect should be positive.

While grapegrowers are excluded from voting on the proposed DVA, Freese believes it could help wineries sell more wine and encourage growers to produce higher quality fruit.

“If it will sell more wine, then why not?” he asked. “It will be another incentive to maintain top quality, and we’re always in favor of that.”

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