- Food & Drink
Christine Coletta is BC wines' perfect matchmaker
People talk a lot about which wine should be paired with which food. But for Christine Coletta, the owner of Okanagan Crush Pad and one of the people who brought the VQA program to BC, the most perfect pairing is between the wine and restaurant industries.
This September, the province’s restaurants will show her how much they agree when they induct her into the BC Restaurants Hall of Fame as a Friend of the Industry.
Laughing when she says the distinction makes her feel a bit old, Coletta says it also brings her life full circle to receive such a high honour from the province’s restaurant industry.
She was 15 when she got her first job in a restaurant — a Denny’s in Vancouver. She stayed in the restaurant industry (Bridges, Kettle of Fish, Prospect Point Café) for 15 years, gradually becoming involved in marketing and buying wine.
The problem with BC wines was their inconsistent quality. Some of them were just plain awful, or what Coletta calls “cheap and cheerful.”
“The industry had a bad reputation,” she says, and consumers couldn’t trust what they were getting when they bought a bottle of BC wine.
She knew “we had to create wine with a sense of place.” She helped found the BC Wine Institute, becoming its first executive director. Then, borrowing an idea from Ontario, the BCWI launched the Vintners Quality Assurance program in 1990. At the time, there were 14 wineries in BC; nine years later, when she left, there were more than 50. Today, BC’s wine industry boasts 220 wineries, everywhere from Vancouver Island, to the Okanagan to Langley.
In those early days of the VQA, Coletta had a very limited budget and resources. She tapped into her connections with the people who were vital if the initiative was to succeed: restaurant owners and wait staff. (Very few restaurants had sommeliers or wine directors in those days.) She needed them to not only put BC wines on their lists, but also suggest which ones patrons should try. To fulfill their part of the bargain, the VQA convinced BC winemakers that it was in their best interest to subject their wines to an evaluation and appellation process that committed them to crafting high-quality wines.
One of her first apostles was Sinclair Philip. “He was one of the few making journeys to the Okanagan to buy wine,” she says of the owner of Sooke Harbour House. Today, a regular pilgrimage to the Okanagan is de rigeur for any restaurateur.
Coletta’s role as matchmaker between restaurant owners and vintners was critical to VQA’s success. “When you know someone and put a face to a product, you’re more passionate about it,” she says.
After nurturing the VQA and watching the world start to welcome BC wines, Coletta started a marketing company. Then, in 2006, she and her husband, Steve Lornie, planted their own vineyard in an old orchard in Summerland “on a whim.” Switchback Vineyards was born, with Haywire as its first offspring. “I realized I was hooked,” she says with a laugh.
Their first harvest was 168 cases, compared to the 30,000 cases it releases each year today.
The couple was lucky to have many friends to offer advice and practical suggestions. One of them is David Scholefield, the former senior wine buyer for the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch. He in turn introduced them to the renowned wine consultant Alberto Antonini and provided the inspiration for Okanagan Crush Pad Wineries. (To say thanks, OCP now makes wine in Scholefield’s honour, including The Bub, a sparkling wine named after his daughter.
OCP is also home to three B•S [Bartier•Scholefield] wines made by OCP’s winemaker Michael Bartier and Scholefield.)
OCP provides the infrastructure for other wineries, helping to reduce production costs while they get their vineyard off the ground.
“We’re an incubator,” she says. “[Vintners] launch here, go away and new people find us.”
This year, OCP will crush the grapes for 7,500 cases of their own wines plus 22,500 cases for other vineyards.
Another OCP initiative is the partnership with the Vancouver International Wine Festival. Every year, the festival’s panel of judges chooses a Sommelier of the Year. Along with the accolades, the sommelier gets to go to OCP, choose his or her grapes and make a wine at OCP’s Okanagan Wine Campus. Last year, WE Vancouver City Cellar columnist Kurtis Kolt released his Kurtis wines. Last month, Coletta was at West on South Granville to congratulate Owen Knowlton, the restaurant’s wine director, on the launch of 100 cases of Owen, an OCP-produced Cabernet Franc varietal.
Oh, and do you remember Coletta’s comment about being hooked? She and Lornie have just bought an additional 320 acres of farmland, of which, 60 acres has the potential for becoming a vineyard. They plan to start planting vines on 12 acres next year.
OCP is open daily in the summer (until September 30). Find out more at OkanaganCrushPad.com. Go to WEVancouver.com to find out about this year’s 11 inductees to the BC Restaurant Hall of Fame. Tickets are on sale for the September 28 gala at BCRFA.com.