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Wine Capital of Canada (October 14, 2004)

If you drive south on Highway 97 from Penticton down the Okanagan Valley towards the Washington State border, you will reach a town called Oliver.

It's a small place; population, the last time I counted, 4,335 souls. With nothing much to do there, it might have grown by the time you read this.

As you enter the town you will be greeted by a large sign that reads: "Welcome to Oliver, Wine Capital of Canada."

When I first saw this sign it gave me pause for thought. Did this mean that the citizens of Oliver consume more wine per capita than other Canadian towns or cities? Did it mean that you can buy here a greater selection of wines, both Canadian and imported, than anywhere else in the country? Or did it mean that there is more wine production within the town boundaries than in any other Canadian wine region?

These are not "Frequently Asked Questions" because the official town website does not list them under this particular heading. It does, however, list other FAQs: "When is the landfill open?", "When is my garbage picked up?", "When may I irrigate?", "What happens to Cemetery flowers when the grass is mowed?" and "Why is there not any billiard halls in Oliver?" All very pertinent when you realize that Oliver is one of the hottest places in Canada, situated in our only pocket desert, where the temperature this year got up to a mere 41° Celsius. It's also rattlesnake country, which makes harvesting an extreme sport.

It was the First Nations of the South Okanagan who first settled the area that is now Oliver. They raised cattle and wild horses and knew nothing of the white man's ways until the arrival of fur traders around 1811 – one year before Johann Schiller, the acknowledged Father of Canadian wine, planted the first vineyard in Ontario. In the 1880s gold-bearing quartz was found east of present-day Oliver by a one-armed prospector named Reid and its discovery attracted the usual suspects. Which may have occasioned the region's first contact with wine for purposes other than celebrating Mass.

The town itself was established between 1918 and 1921 as a settlement for unemployed veterans of the First World War. It was named after the BC premier at the time, "Honest" John Oliver. (It says something about British Columbia politics when they had to prefix a soubriquet like that to distinguish him from his peers.)

Before the burghers of Oliver styled their town "Wine Capital of Canada," the only thing of note that happened here was an event on July 14th, 1990. The local Rotary Club baked the world's largest cherry pie. It measured twenty feet in diameter and weighed 18,000 kilos – an achievement that found its way into the Guinness Book of World Records. The pie, incidentally, was consumed by 1,500 people.

That alone might make Oliver "The Cherry Pie Capital of the World," but what has this to do with wine? In 2001, the local Chamber of Commerce declared its town the Wine Capital of Canada. Just like that. Their justification for so doing? Oliver, they said, had "10% of the country's wineries and 20 to 25% of the fine grape growing acreage."

Let's examine this. The first winery with an Oliver address was Vinitera in 1979. The enterprise had a rocky ride, in and out of bankruptcy, and eventually became Okanagan Vineyards in 1987. Bright's built a facility in Oliver in 1981, sourcing their grapes from the Osoyoos Indian Band's newly planted Inkameep Vineyards. The first farm winery was Divino (now Hester Creek), which the maverick winemaker Joe Busnardo started in 1983 based on the vineyard he'd planted in 1967. The first winery there with an unbroken history is Gehringer Brothers, founded 1986.

Since then, with the rush to buy vineyard land in the southern Okanagan, the number of wine production facilities in Oliver has risen to thirteen. This totals out at 4.3% of the country's wineries. The boast of "fine grape growing acreage" is even more spurious. British Columbia has 5,500 acres of vineyard, not all "fine." Ontario has 17,000 acres under vine, which would give Niagara-on-the-Lake a better claim to be Canada's wine capital. In terms of numbers, there are 20 wineries with Niagara-on-the-Lake addresses as opposed to 13 postmarked Oliver.

To put it in international terms, for Oliver to claim the title of Canada's wine capital is rather like Tain L'Hermitage in the Rhône Valley usurping the title of "Wine Capital of France" from Bordeaux.

Now, I am not suggesting that Niagara-on-the-Lake wrest this self-ordained title from Oliver. This might be construed as another power grab by Central Canada and further fuel Western Alienation. I for one am quite happy for Oliver to be the Wine Capital of Canada. I think those wineries that have Oliver facilities, like Black Hills, Burrowing Owl, Fairview Cellars, Inniskillin Okanagan, Jackson-Triggs (especially with Osoyoos Larose) and Tinhorn Creek, are making some of Canada's best red wines; and when you add the grapes grown there that go into wines produced by Sumac Ridge, Mission Hill and Quails' Gate – wineries situated further north in the Okanagan – the record is impressive indeed. Anyone for pie?




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