Tours to wineries like Poplar Grove on the Naramata Bench might just become more visitor friendly with proposed changes to B.C.'s liquor regulations.

Tours to wineries like Poplar Grove on the Naramata Bench might just become more visitor friendly with proposed changes to B.C.'s liquor regulations.

La Dolce Vita: B.C. liquor law review creating changes for the better

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Like everyone I’ve ever spoken to with any connection to the wine industry, I have long been critical of B.C.’s hopelessly outdated and overly restrictive liquor regulations. With the changes announced last week, though, I am happy to give credit where it is due.

Many of my criticisms have not been connected to the availability of alcoholic beverages — in grocery stores, for instance. And happy hours are a nice idea, but not particularly important to me. I am far more interested in seeing the wine, beer and liquor industries acknowledged as potentially much greater contributors to the province’s economic development. Nitpicky regulations and ones that simply don’t acknowledge the fact we are now in the 21st century have hampered these industries in many ways. Fortunately, the government’s announcement that it will adopt all of the recommendations from the BC Liquor Policy Review addresses most of my concerns.

One of the most exciting changes will come with wineries being allowed to establish off-vineyard tasting rooms and wine shops. On visits to the state of Washington, we have seen the clear benefits of wineries there setting up shop in other locations. The most obvious example was a trip that took us to the depressingly quiet, beautiful downtown core of Lewiston, Idaho. It seemed like half of the retail buildings were empty. A short time later, we were in Walla Walla, Wash., where a couple of dozen tasting rooms are located right in the downtown core. Empty retail spaces were non-existent and in the evenings the streets were alive with pedestrians strolling around, taking part in planned events and just wandering, not only into tasting rooms but into other businesses, as well.

The Walla Walla airport, once busy with ancillary businesses like aircraft service centres, had become pretty much moribund. An economic development effort, though, had attracted about a dozen-and-a-half wineries to set up tasting rooms. A beautiful five-building development was constructed to incubate new wineries, which are restricted to the number of years they can remain in the buildings before moving into another location and freeing up the space for another newcomer. Both of these concepts — off-site tasting rooms and incubator wineries — came to life because the Washington government has a well-earned reputation for working with the private and academic sectors to benefit all sectors.

Other changes to come seem to address some niggly rules, like ones that prevent winery customers from carrying their glasses of wine from one area to another. At one Okanagan winery. we heard the ridiculous story of customers being forced to take their drinks outside and walk along a path and down stairs to get to picnic benches — it was illegal for them to take a shorter, stair-free direct route through the building because part of it is an area designated to hold extra tables and chairs for a restaurant in the same building.

What wineries, craft breweries and distilleries have had to cope with in B.C. are regulations that seem like vestiges of the Prohibition era. Indeed, some of the public’s objections to specific changes sound exactly like that. The fear that allowing pubs to open up to families with children of any age is a good example. I recall carrying our months-old first son in a snuggly and walking into a completely empty pub on one of the Gulf Islands more than 30 years ago. Only the co-operation of an understanding server, who was willing to risk her job, allowed us to sit on the patio to have lunch in the only restaurant in the area. In my opinion, the single easiest way to civilize behaviour in pubs is to allow children in them. We have never, ever seen the slightest hint of a problem when we have gone into child-friendly pubs in other provinces and countries.

The many changes promised by the B.C. government are long overdue, but credit to Premier Christy Clark and her team for taking up the challenge to modernize liquor policies. Finally.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance. His website, www.lorneeckersley.com, features a collection of columns, stories and photographs about wine, beer and spirits, food, travel and arts.