Okanagan Wine Culture: Thanks Millennials

I was recently perusing the shelves at a liquor store when something occurred to me. Wine and craft beer cultures have both made a serious change to liquor stores in less than a decade.

It occurred to me that though there were people coming in and heading straight for the Bud section and then heading to the checkouts, there were also people who were selectively looking at the craft ales and wines.

Road 13 Vineyards is a family owned and operated winery located between Osoyoos and Oliver, at Highway 97 and Road 13 on the Okanagan Valley’s historic Golden Mile. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Road 13 Vineyards is a family owned and operated winery located between Osoyoos and Oliver, at Highway 97 and Road 13 on the Okanagan Valley’s historic Golden Mile. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On one shelf were $90 bottles of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, $120 bottles of Sauternes, and wine royalty from New Zealand and South Africa. As I stared at a $45 bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (really??) I started thinking.

Then, when I realized that there was no way I could possibly afford to get all of the wines that I was thinking about, I quickly realized something else. A store like this would not have even considered bringing in those types of wines even just ten years ago. This wasn’t just a small shelf in the corner either. It was two multi-tiered shelf sections.

The craft beer section was even larger and filled with all kinds of bizarre and creative labels from small producers.

Located on the Naramata Bench, Lake Breeze produces a variety of red wines in both single varietal and blends including a classic Bordeaux blend, Meritage, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Pinotage. For whites we are well known for our Ehrenfelser, Riesling, Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located on the Naramata Bench, Lake Breeze produces a variety of red wines in both single varietal and blends including a classic Bordeaux blend, Meritage, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Pinotage. For whites we are well known for our Ehrenfelser, Riesling, Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What has happened in the past decade?

Indeed, there has been a big shift in many ways and not just within the wine and beer industry.

Rightly or wrongly, I can’t help but put most of the onus on the wine industry for leading this charge in foodie/ craft-quality culture in which we now find ourselves. Small boutique wineries (first called “cottage” wineries before changing the name to “estate” wineries) predated what we used to called micro-breweries (now called “craft brewer”) by almost four vintages.

From a historical perspective, that is really not a lot of time but the close coincidence of craft breweries and estate wineries is hard to ignore. Estate wineries grew to include just under a dozen by the end of the 1980s and really only took during the 1990s. Wineries were aided by the fallout from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which saw the creation of the BC Wine Institute and the Vintner’s Quality Alliance.

When you do see your first bottle of Blasted Church, you'll probably gasp like everybody else does. This is an Okanagan wine label? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you do see your first bottle of Blasted Church, you’ll probably gasp like everybody else does. This is an Okanagan wine label? © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brewers never saw this same kind of government-sponsored push but regardless they managed to persevere through to the present boom where every modestly-sized towns can support a small community of small independent craft brews and brew pubs.

So what has brought us to where we are? Are the small farm gate wineries suddenly producing wines that are that much better than they were in the early 1990s? Or are there simply more people paying attention? How is it that these businesses (wineries, breweries, and liquor stores) have survived by selling such high-priced bottles?

This is where we get to put the blame—at least partially—on the Millennial generation. According to a recent article in Forbes, Millennials want a better everything.

You don’t forget a Moon Curser bottle when you see one. The labels are whimsical. While the name and packaging are memorable, the wine inside the bottle is what is most important. You wont't be disappointed. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You don’t forget a Moon Curser bottle when you see one. The labels are whimsical.
While the name and packaging are memorable, the wine inside the bottle is what is most important. You wont’t be disappointed. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now even smaller liquor stores have to stock a bewildering array of small breweries and wineries in addition to the big brewery brands like Bud, Miller, and Coors so now we have a lot of choice. Thanks Millennials!

In the words of Oscar Leroy from TV’s Corner Gas, “We’ve been bumped up into a new wine bracket!” Thanks Millennials!

Of course, once you taste the good stuff, it is really hard to go back. There are a lot of wineries, like Gehringer Brothers, Hester Creek, and Tinhorn Creek for example, who have been producing wine on that level for a very long time and are now quickly getting onto the radar of those who are looking for that level quality. Other estate wineries have also figured out about this quality quotient, sometimes taking it to an extreme and with prices to match. Is this sustainable?

The Hester Creek property has a long history by Okanagan standards. Hester Creek’s grapevines were first planted in 1968, when Italian immigrant and would-be grape grower Joe Busnardo was looking for the perfect spot to plant the cuttings he’d brought from Italy. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hester Creek property has a long history by Okanagan standards. Hester Creek’s grapevines were first planted in 1968, when Italian immigrant and would-be grape grower Joe Busnardo was looking for the perfect spot to plant the cuttings he’d brought from Italy. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As long as wine is still on the forefront of foodie fashion (arguably as much as it ever could be) and paired with favorable economics, wine will probably continue to occupy the tables of Millennials throughout their lifetime. This will no doubt be a good thing for the stability of the Okanagan’s estate wineries for the next generation of wineries and wine makers. Even though I’m a pre-boomer and not a Millennial, I will still drink to that. Cheers to the Okanagan Wine Country!

Where to Stay: Desert Gem RV Resort, Oliver; NK’mip RV Park and Campground, Osoyoos; Walton’s Lakefront RV Resort, Osoyoos

Worth Pondering…

I am not a glutton—I am an explorer of gourmet food and fine wine.

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