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Strategic principals

Locating outside “crowded” Okanagan and taking part in the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival provide competitive advantages for B.C. wineries

Principals at B.C.’s 208 wineries are using new strategies to court tourists and increase sales outside the province as B.C.’s wine sector rapidly expands and becomes more competitive.

B.C.’s wine industry has ballooned to 208 wineries from 134 wineries five years ago, according to the BC Wine Institute.

It contributed $173.7 million directly to the B.C. economy in 2009, and provides 2,400 direct full-time jobs and nearly 1,000 other full time jobs at companies that either supply products to wineries or sell wines, according to the wine institute’s executive director, Miles Prodan.

Increased competition, however, has prompted entrepreneurs to consider some of the province’s under-the-radar wine regions, such as Vancouver Island, and to be more open to spending the $5,000 total cost of attending the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, which runs February 27 through March 4.

Festival director Harry Hertscheg told Business in Vancouver that 22 B.C. wineries are slated to attend his 34th annual festival. That’s more local wineries than in any past year except for 2009, when B.C. was the international festival’s theme region. More than 50 wineries participated that year, he said. Last year, 18 of the 180 wineries that sent principals to the festival were based in B.C. Through much of the festival’s history, only about a dozen B.C. wineries took part.

“The numbers show that B.C. wineries increasingly want to participate in Canada’s premier wine show,” Hertscheg said.

Hertscheg’s festival charges participating wineries varying fees to operate a table at the main tastings at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Some get discounts if they donate wine to be auctioned to the festival’s marquee event, the bacchanalia gala dinner and auction, or if they donate wine to be served at that function.

“My gut feeling is that it has been very important for us to be at the festival because it has brought extra business,” said Andy Johnston, who co-owns Vancouver Island’s Averill Creek Vineyards and has been at the festival in each of the past three years. He estimated that the total cost for he and his wife to attend the festival is about $5,000 including table fees, six cases of wine that he brings to pour, hotel and other costs.

“There’s a wine store in Jasper that sends buyers who we met at the festival. They are now carrying our wines,” he said.

Networking at the festival also helped Johnston sell some of his annual 7,000-case production to restaurants such as the Salt Tasting Room.

Other entrepreneurs have followed Johnston’s strategy of buying land on Vancouver Island, building their own winery and marketing their venture by buying rack cards on BC Ferries vessels.

West Vancouver’s John Windsor has spent his retirement converting an unused agricultural land reserve (ALR) property on the Saanich Peninsula, which he bought five years ago, into a family-run vineyard and winery that produced its inaugural vintage in 2010.

He reasoned that Vancouver Island, which in 2007 had 21 wineries and has grown to 27 wineries, was a better region to court tourists than what he called the “crowded” Okanagan. In the Okanagan, 125 wineries compete for tourist dollars, including 40 that have opened in the past five years.

“We’re on the doorstep to Victoria and a metropolitan area with 400,000 people,” said Windsor. “We’re a 20-minute drive from the Empress Hotel. So, we have the potential to appeal almost year-round to a large group of people.”

Windsor estimated that it costs up to about $2 million to build a winery on Vancouver Island. He just completed spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to expand what is now a 20-seat tasting room.

He has also tracked his tourist counts. About 500 people visited in 2010. Eleven times that number passed through his winery last year thanks to more marketing and expanding the number of days that his winery was open for visitors.

This year, he aims to attract 7,500 visitors to taste some of the 2,000 cases of wine he expects to produce. •