La Dolce Vita: Time for VQA to get its act together

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B.C. winery owners are quick — and justifiably so, in my opinion — to criticize the provincial government for its arduous regulation of their industry and the snail’s pace at which laws change to keep up with the times. An issue has come forward recently, though, that says that in some ways they are their own worst enemies.

Christine Coletta, one of the owners of Okanagan Crush Pad Winery, raised concerns about the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) program last week. The program is designed to ensure buyers that they are getting only quality wines when they see the logo on the bottle. It has rules for production and a tasting panel is the arbiter that determines whether a wine can bear the VQA lettering.

Okaganan Crush Pad is an innovator, providing a complete range of winemaking and marketing services to small producers, and it also produces wines under its own name and those of its team of owners. It has recently made a bit of a splash in the market by putting some of its wines into boxes, three-litre packages with plastic liners. Experimentation with wine packaging seems to have gained traction with consumer acceptance of screw top wine bottles — we’ve long had “box wines” but they were, well, “box wines” and not premium product. But quality and tradition, the wine market seems to have concluded, are not necessarily one and the same thing.

If Crush Pad boxes have been a hit with consumers, the same can’t be said for the BC Wine Institute (BCWI), which oversees the VQA program. The boxed wines not only can’t get VQA designation, they can’t even get to the testing stage because the BCWI can’t, or won’t, figure out how to fit the boxes into the VQA evaluation process. Wines submitted for testing must be contained in traditional 750ml bottles and apparently boxes are just too different for the BCWI to handle.

In a blog on the Okanagan Crush Pad site, Coletta points out that the tasting panel process is at best questionable, even when only bottles are tested. In 2011, she points out, only 41 out of 1,384 wines were rejected by the panel, which has been changed over the years to exclude winemakers as tasters.

Respected B.C. winemaker Tom di Bello weighed in with his own views by responding to Coletta’s blog. He has concerns about the lasting capability of wine in bags, but thinks they are fine for people who only want a glass or two of wine at a time because the bladder prevents air from getting at the contents and spoiling it.

“This is a good thing, isn’t it, so why aren’t we able to grow with the times?” he asks.

Di Bello suggests he is no big fan of the VQA testing panel process. For each wine submitted, the winery receives the testing panel results, so it can see what the panel’s response was even if the wine has been approved to be sold with the VQA designation. Some of his wines that were identified as having flaws went off to become some of his most successful award winners, he said.

“In addition to that,” he writes, “most of my own wines tasted by the panel, had the flaws of oxidation and reduction both checked on the same wine for fives years running. These are opposite flaws and you can’t have both. The other five years I had the flaws of flat (not enough acidity) and too much acidity checked on the same wines. Most of the best wines I’ve made, which went on to the most international and national acclaim had the most bad comments, with only a couple of exceptions. Mostly when I read the comments back from the VQA, I have a good laugh.”

Di Bello says he is aware of wines that were rejected for Brettanomyces (a form of yeast that can create unpleasant tastes in wine if it is present at sufficient levels), but when submitted for independent lab testing were found to be “Brett”-free.

As I read through the comments about VQA it occurred to me that I don’t even look for the VQA letters on a bottle any more, and haven’t for a long time. I rely on the recommendations of trusted friends and wine sellers, on my experiences at the winery and on my own sense of adventure. Di Bello points out that there are countries that simply let the market decide what a good wine is and I think I tend to agree with him that it’s not such a bad idea.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.