Whether a seasoned oenophile or a casual imbiber, most Canadians with even a passing interest in wine associate California with the good stuff. “Canadians have a bit of a sweet tooth,” says Ilaria Rimessi, general manager and sommelier of The Barrington restaurant in Halifax. “Fruit-forward Cali wines play well on our palates.”
The easy-drinking, fruity flavour of California wines, combined with their long-standing reputation for quality, continue to make for steady sales performance in Canada. The LCBO reports a modest eight-per-cent increase in sales in this category for 2017/2018
Rick Slomka, Canadian director at the Wine Institute of California, says California-wine sales, while still strong, have plateaued in the last year or two as a result of the unfavourable exchange rate. “The exchange rate is making our wines a little pricier,” says Slomka, “but the good news is, we seem to have a very loyal following. We’re continuing to do well on the premium side of the business.”
David Hannay, owner of Vancouver’s Brix + Mortar restaurant, is also noticing the impact the disadvantageous exchange rate is having on California-wine sales. “California fights in this marketplace a little bit because of our weak dollar,” says Hannay.
The locavore movement, too, is causing many Canadians to choose wine grown in their own backyards over imported bottles. “When we first opened almost 20 years ago, people were looking for California, Australia and other New-World wines and it was a challenge for us to sell something local,” says Hannay. “Now people are looking at B.C. wines and there’s a lot of pride there.”
But, in spite of increasing prices and changing consumer preferences, Hannay says Canadians still have trust and familiarity with wines from California. “They’re still making those great, pleasing styles of wines,” says Hannay. “It’s a pretty easy sell, as long as people are okay to spend a little bit more money and they understand you have to pay for quality.”
Although the stalwart status of California wines is one of the driving forces behind their continued popularity in Canada, that doesn’t mean it’s only classically popular varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, that are selling well.
Slomka says many smaller wineries are experimenting with producing new, different varietals not traditionally associated with the Golden State. “There’s still a trend towards red blends. A lot of these blends have a strong Zinfandel component.”
Slomka adds that Pinot Noir has also seen a boost in popularity over the last few years. “It just seems to go well with everything.”
As more Canadians take an interest in wine, Rimessi says consumers are becoming more sophisticated in their wine choices. “People have started looking for specific areas in California and are becoming more educated on which areas are best for which varietals.”
As long as California keeps making good wine, it seems Canadians will keep buying it. “We have a great consistent climate, we have great soils, we have very passionate winemakers,” says Slomka. “Over the years, our quality continues to get better and better and consumers recognize that.”
Written by Jessica Huras