The disappearing VQA symbol
BC VQA (top) has replaced the familiar VQA symbol (bottom)
Since October 2011, wineries in British Columbia have been prohibited from using the VQA medallion that has been on bottles and labels since 1990. Instead, five letters - BC VQA - appear in small type on the labels.
It is a little surprising that the Vintners Quality Alliance designation has become inconspicuous considering its contribution to the success of BC wines. Sales of VQA wines have risen from 600,000 litres in 1990 when the VQA program began to 7.8 million litres in 2010.
The medallion directed consumers to those wines made from grapes grown in British Columbia, distinguishing them from the "cellared in Canada" wines made with imported bulk wines. As it is, the CIC wines grab $250 million in sales annually in BC, against $193 million in sales of VQA wines. It is debatable that BC wines would have anywhere near that market share without the VQA program.
VQA was imported from Ontario in 1990, where it had been launched a few years earlier. Consumers interpreted the VQA symbol as an indicator of quality. In fact, the panels that taste wines submitted for VQA do not taste for quality. Their role is to screen out faulty wines.
The current VQA assessment form lists only faults. Wines with technical faults are rejected; wines without faults are VQA-eligible. A mediocre wine can pass if it has no technical faults. Fortunately, most VQA wines are not mediocre.
There is an explanation why consumers understood VQA to be a seal of quality. Before 1990, most BC wines were made with such inferior grapes that wineries had to add water and/or sugar at times to make palatable wines. Most of the inferior hybrid varieties were pulled out in 1988; and the rules for VQA winemaking forbade adding water or an unreasonable amount of sugar.
The grape varieties remaining after the 1988 pull-out were almost entirely vinifera. At first, only wines made with vinifera were even eligible for VQA. As it happens, these were also better wine grapes. For example, the European Riesling grapes always made better wine that the Okanagan Riesling hybrid. The VQA wines tasted better because they were made with better grapes. Hence, consumers understood VQA to mean better quality.
In the two decades since VQA was introduced, many acres of premium vinifera have been planted. At the same time, vineyard and winemaking practices have become vastly more professional, resulting in dramatic improvements in wine quality. That has reinforced the perception that VQA means quality.
BC VQA wines can only be made from grapes grown in BC. The wide acceptance of VQA wines has allowed vineyards to flourish. Without VQA, I suspect wines from grapes grown here would have been crushed by the the volume of low-priced CIC wines because consumers would have had no simple way to identify local wines and support them.
There are also many excellent wines from BC grapes that do have have the BC VQA symbol, since the program still is voluntary. But even the wineries not applying for VQA benefit from it because VQA created such broad acceptance of homegrown wines.
So why has the symbol been banished? That decal belongs to VQA Canada (effectively, VQA Ontario). BC and Ontario have never been able to agree to the same national wine standards. Arguably, the BC wine standards are just as effective but because they are not the same, BC no longer is allowed to use VQA medallion.
For the time being, BC wineries replaced it with the letters, BC VQA.
The irony is that many wineries had stopped using the "stop sign" - as the VQA medallion is sometimes called.
The BCWA has commissioned the design of a new certification symbol. "We are in the process of developing some alternative designs that we can then present to the industry in consultations, to see if we could get some consensus as to what the replacement mark will be," Thomas says. That process is likely to last a year or so.