Wine sales at Duncan market a success story

Adding wine sales to the Duncan Farmer’s Market this summer has been a natural pairing that’s left the sweet taste of success in everybody’s mouths.

Starting Saturday, July 19, area wineries were allowed to open stalls at the bustling downtown gathering, and it’s been a savoury combo of sipping and sales ever since, with the number of wineries taking part rising to seven, the maximum set by the City of Duncan.

"We’re a farmers’ market and wineries have been sprouting up all over the Cowichan Valley and it is an agricultural thing," said Mickey Smith, president of the market, and a big proponent of the addition. "They are a part of the agriculture of the Cowichan Valley and they should have been included in our market right from the word go. There’s as many acres under grapes now as there is under lots of crops. To me, they were a natural fit to come in."

What kept wine sales out of farmers markets until this summer were provincial government regulations restricting liquor sales.

Those regulations changed on June 21.

There was some initial concern, Smith said, about creating a beer garden-type atmosphere – something nobody wanted.

But the market considered their options carefully and chose to designate the garden at the Green Door, located off of Ingram Street, for the winery booths. They also moved some food booths into the same area.

The presentation by the wineries has also been key to the experiment’s success, Smith said.

"They’ve done it first class," he said.

Comments so far have been overwhelming positive, and the wine booths are developing regular customers.

"The wineries are really liking it," said Smith.

Andy Johnston of Averill Creek Vineyard called the decision to open a stall at the market a "no brainer".

"We were the first winery there and probably one of the first wineries in B.C.," he said.

Where and when you can sell wines is restricted by law. And while Johnston has other avenues to sell Averill Creek products, including a wine shop at the vineyard, private liquor stores and restaurants, the last two include an added cost as a third party takes a cut of the profit.

Not so with direct farm market sales.

The only question was whether traffic would make it worth Johnston’s time, a question that has been answered in the affirmative.

"Sales have been very brisk," he said. "People are getting the idea that they come and they get their vegetables and whatever else they want, drop them off at the car, and now come to the wine section and do a tasting…then they can make a selection for their wine purchase."

It’s also been a good way to get more exposure for the vineyard outside of the Cowichan Valley.

Johnston estimates that 70 per cent of the people coming by his stall are from elsewhere on Vancouver Island. It’s a great way to reach into the Victoria, Nanaimo, said.

Exposure is one of the biggest pluses for Blue Grouse Estate Winery, who are also offering their wares at the market, said tasting room manager Brett Walmsley. "It’s been really fantastic," she said. "It’s actually opened up a lot of opportunities of business in the sense of, we are off the beaten trail, most of the time, so to be right out in public is wonderful. It really does bring a lot of attention to the vineyard and we’ve had quite a bit of success with customers coming out and visiting the winery itself after."

Duncan is a really "food and wine industry-friendly place" where people are always willing to try something new, she said, and that’s enabled their success.

They’ve already got people who come out every Saturday and pick up their favourite bottle of wine, she said, enjoying the added convenience.

Johnston has been covering the booth at the market himself to start out, but if sales hold he is considering hiring somebody next year to sell Averill Creek’s wares.

He’ll continue at the market until the weather turns, he said.

Smith said there are more wineries wanting in on the market, and these operations are in the process of getting all the Liquor Control Branch paperwork together. There are also a few distilleries interested, he said.

The market will have to take another look at booth numbers and perhaps a rotation when everybody has their ducks in a row.