STYLE

B.C. winery's learn that a celebration of wine and song increases bottom line

08/31/2012 02:57 EDT | Updated 10/31/2012 05:12 EDT
UNDATED, - When the president of Cedar Creek Estate Winery first started hosting concerts at his Okanagan vineyard and inviting musicians to perform there nine summer ago, many prominent Canadian artists wouldn't give him the time of day.

After all, a 350-seat venue — a pavilion under the open sky and surrounded by rows upon rows of lush green grape vines, no less — hardly seemed like an attractive offer to the agents of singers such as award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk, who are used to performing at larger venues, said Gordon Fitzpatrick.

"The first concert we did, we didn't even have chairs, people brought blankets," he said in an interview, laughing. "My son, who wasn't very old at the time, still hasn't forgiven me . . . [the band] was a bunch of middle-aged women with harps."

Cedar Creek has come a long way since that summer, when Fitzpatrick decided he wanted to follow the footsteps of wineries in Washington state and in California's Napa Valley and start offering concerts, too.

Over the years, he has hosted Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo three times, and Chantal Kreviazuk performed this summer at the winery's pavilion for the second time. This year's Polaris Music Prize nominee Kathleen Edwards was also a guest a few years ago.

It was the exquisite wine offerings, the stunning Okanagan scenery, summer weather and the intimate and interactive venue that convinced them all to come, said Fitzpatrick.

Those same elements, plus the relaxing atmosphere, the romantic ambience and great music, are also drawing plenty of locals and tourists to British Columbia's wine country every year.

"You can imagine a glass of Cedar Creek Pinot gris in one hand, and listening to Chantal Kreviazuk, it makes for a very memorable evening," Fitzpatrick said.

Every year the winery hosts several concerts in the summer, and all proceeds go to Kelowna's Rotary Centre for the Performing Arts.

Fitzpatrick says concert tickets, which range from $50 to $95 each, tend to sell out within two or three days. Wine sales also go up significantly during performance days.

"We do $5,000 or $6,000 worth of business on a regular week day at the winery during the summer," he said.

"We come close to doubling that on concert evenings just on wine sales."

But the Kelowna winery isn't the only one in B.C. to host musical talent and benefit from the resulting spike in wine and dinner sales during the summer.

Many others in the Okanagan Valley do so as well, and the concerts attract tourists from the Interior, Metro Vancouver, Alberta and as far away as Europe, said B.C. Wine Institute chair Josie Tyabji.

"It's really the next evolution in offerings of the arts and cultural experience of the wine industry," she said.

"How the industry basically started out was with winery visitations, tours and tastings. As the industry began to mature, we saw more opportunities to integrate different experiences."

Mission Hill Family Estate Winery in West Kelowna boasts a 1,000-seat, dramatically sloped amphitheatre. Since the property is located in a valley, the sound quality is second to none, according to Kelowna-based arts critic Glenna Turnbull.

For at least $90 a ticket, visitors can watch artists such as Grammy nominee and award-winning jazz artist Chris Botti perform against the backdrop of the vineyard, the pristine Okanagan Lake, the Coast Mountains to the west and the Monashee Mountains to the east, and of course, the brilliant orange glow of the setting sun.

"There's just something magical about being outside on an Okanagan evening and staring out into the lake and listening to good music and drinking good wine," said Turnbull.

She says the smaller venues in the Okanagan Valley also make for a different entertainment experience, such as the time she reviewed a Colin James concert where he performed an entire set with an acoustic guitar.

"How often do you get to hear Colin James just play acoustic?" she said. "You tend to think of him just rocking out with an electric guitar in his hand all the time. Just to see him sit and talk and play acoustic . . . it's just such an intimate feeling."

Turnbull adds that the musicians often get swept away by the Okanagan scenery as well.

"The last couple of performers I've seen had pulled out their cameras in the middle of the set, said 'Excuse me,' and turned around and took a picture of what the audience sees — the view of the lake — because they just can't believe how gorgeous it is where they're performing," she said.

Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in Oliver, B.C., has also hosted big names such as Colin James and Toronto's Bedouin Soundclash. Its concert series run from May to August every year, and usually ends with a grand finale performance by a headliner musician in September.

Tinhorn Creek's is a more casual venue. For usually $24 to $60 a concert ticket, patrons can bring a picnic basket, sit on the grass overlooking the vineyard, and sip on a glass (or a bottle) of vintage Merlot, Chardonnay or icewine as they watch the performance and dance the night away.

Hospitality manager Muriel Allen says the concerts began in 2001 because the winery's owners wanted to give the people of Oliver, a small town known as the wine capital of Canada with a population of about 4,300 people, something more to look forward to in the summer.

"They wanted to create something fun to do in the south end of the valley, where there really wasn't a whole lot of events, or fun things or music things," she said.

Several years ago, Tinhorn Creek decided to take its concert series in a direction different from other wineries in the region by inviting more Canadian indie bands or Juno Award hopefuls such as Hey Ocean, Said the Whale and The Boom Booms. Sloan is also set to perform on September 8.

"We didn't want [the concert series] to get tired, so we wanted to feature the younger talent and also attract younger people to the wine industry in general," said hospitality manager Muriel Allen.

"It's amazing, it's fun, it's family-friendly. We have amazing talent, and of course, there's wine."

MORE:cpStyle