Oliver, BC is the Wine Capital of Canada.
This is a solid fact that confronts every visitor who drives into the town on Highway 97. Facing both North and South, two big signs broadly and proudly proclaim “Oliver – Wine Capital of Canada.”
It’s a grandiose declaration, but there it is. Plain as the grapes on those vines.
But how exactly did Oliver, BC become the Wine Capital of Canada?
This is something I’ve been wondering about since we first drove through the tiny hamlet, population 4,564, back in 2005.
Moreover, I wondered with so many other wine regions in Canada, how in the hell did Oliver get away with this claim?
Last year, Sandra Oldfield of Tinhorn Creek Winery told me her husband Kenn did it. Kenn Oldfield simply declared Oliver the Wine Capital of Canada and the rest is history.
So when I saw Kenn and Sandra at the Memories of California wine dinner at Covert Farms Winery in July, I decided to get the straight dope on what happened.
I asked Kenn, where did you get the gigantic huevos to make such a sweeping declaration as, “Oliver – the Wine Capital of Canada?”
This is what he told me:
“Before 2001, we had put together an economic development company for Oliver. There was a board of us, and we hired an economic development officer to develop a plan.
We already had the Festival of the Grape – since 1997 – and somebody said, ‘Oliver was once the cantaloup capital of Canada, but now that we’re growing grapes let’s call it the grape capital of Canada.’
Across the table, another board member said, ‘good idea, but there’s no sex in grapes. The sexiness and the vision, for people is in Wine Capital of Canada. We’re making wine out of these grapes, so can we make a case for that? That’s where I came in. I said ok, lead me to it.”
How did you figure out how Oliver was the wine capital?
“I was the president of the Chamber of Commerce and I started doing research on the official BC web sites. I looked at what BC had for grapes and I looked at Ontario and what they had for grapes. I did a count for wineries. I used the postal codes to divide the areas up.
I found that Oliver had 12 wineries at that time and Niagara-on-the-lake only 10, and those were the top two. Naramata had 4 wineries.
So, I’ve got the grapes and the wineries in my pocket, and then that was the year the Canadian wine awards came out. It was judged by Wine Access Magazine and I looked at who won the awards. It turned out that Oliver wineries took 5 out of 10 top awards in the first annual Canadian Wine Awards. So if we 12 wineries took half of the awards, that’s good outside affirmation. BC wines won much more than Ontario did.
So, we have the grapes, we have the wineries, including winemakers who were international trained – Sam from California, Olivier Combret of France, Walter Gehringer trained in Germany. These were not only garage winemakers, but world class winemakers, and we backed it up with the awards. Therefore, there’s my case.”
Did anyone refute your claim to wine capitalhood?
“Hey, I just put together the data! Who’s going to stand up and shoot you down? Because here’s my data whether you like it or not. Somebody might say they are Wine Capitol of Canada, but that’s just sour grapes, copycatting.”
How did you announce this new designation of Wine Capital of Canada?
“We just said it! We proclaimed it!”
(Kenn said this with a big shrug of his shoulders as if capitalizing was just something that happened.)
“And here’s the funny part:
It was 2001 when we proclaimed ourselves the Wine Capitol of Canada.
In 2002, the Queen was on a promenade, doing a tour of Canada. I don’t know who her economy officer was, but Queen Elizabeth gave us a royal proclamation that proclaimed Oliver the Wine Capital of Canada!
Not only did we proclaim ourselves the Wine Capital of Canada, the Queen of England did too! So when you have a royal proclamation declaring Oliver the wine Capitol of Canada, nobody’s going to come at you.
Now, it’s on our sign and people stop and take photographs. I read a blog post today that said we were deemed it by Tourism BC. It’s not true, but I don’t care. The more information that gives it credibility, the better off we are.
The upshot is that in 2001, we decreed. In 2002, the Queen agreed.”
And that is how Oliver became the Wine Capital of Canada.