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
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
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?