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A tour of Canada’s wine region

After a decade of hard work, Okanagan wineries are going for it

People who have been drinking B.C. wines for more than 15 years probably remember a time when the only varieties available were red and white. It usually came in jug, in sizeable quantities that may or may not have had handles and a wicker liner.

The emphasis was on quantity, alcohol content and price – the top winery was the one that offered the biggest bang for the buck.

The B.C. wine market definitely had some growing up to do…

* * *

What a difference a few years can make.

In 2003, the Okanagan wine region has succeeded in producing some award-winning varietals, while steadily increasing market share at home, across Canada and abroad. Some B.C. wines are so popular with customers, including restaurants and connoisseurs, that wineries don’t even have enough left over to export.

Although the wineries are, by European standards young, they have worked hard to cultivate an old-world feel, with a product that looks and tastes like its been cultured over the ages.

With wines that are finally worth drinking, the Okanagan region is now taking the next step – inviting the world to the valley to see and taste it for themselves, and to offer a visitor experience that’s on par with the Napa Valley and Sonoma wine regions of California.

Estates have been built. Gardens have been planted. Winemaking operations are now open to the public, providing wine lovers with a more intimate opportunity to learn about the people and the countryside that makes the Okanagan so unique.

By opening their doors, the Okanagan wineries are creating new forms of revenue for themselves, eliminating the middle men at the provincial liquor distribution branch by selling directly to customers, while expanding operations to include inns, outdoor concert venues, restaurants, and other attractions.

Letting the public in also helps to establish the area’s reputation as a first-class destination for the wine tour crowd.

And it’s adding credibility to the B.C. product as people tend to think more highly of wines when they can see for themselves the thought and care that goes into making them, and can appreciate the investment that winemakers’ have made.

In a short period of time, B.C. wine has gone from the class clown to valedictorian. It has matured and grown in popularity, the winemakers are as knowledgeable as they come, and the finished product is earning top marks from the people who judge these things.

* * *

Over a hectic day and a half, I had the opportunity to accompany David Foran on a whirlwind two-day tour of the Okanagan wine region.

Foran is a sommelier by trade and, since last summer, a partner in the David Mitchel Wine Group, a tour company offering clients custom and package tours of the Okanagan.

He organizes transportation, accommodation, winery tours, sightseeing and recreation for visitors to the area, and he will accompany groups as their personal tour guide and wine expert. Having your own personal wine expert on hand to answer questions and explain different bottles and winemaking processes adds a unique educational element to a tour, Foran believes.

"Wine is one of those things that you really have to get to know at a lot of different levels to really appreciate fully," he says.

His business is targeting the Vancouver and U.S. market, arranging tours to the Okanagan from Victoria, Vancouver, Whistler and other destinations. A typical tour will include a scenic flight to the region, visits to several wineries, four-course meals, accommodation at local inns and bed and breakfasts, and a variety of other options, including golf at one of the valley’s top-rated courses.

Wine tourism to the Okanagan Valley is relatively new industry, but one Foran believes has a lot of potential. Although he expects things to start slowly for the David Mitchel Wine Group’s B.C. Wine Tours, he wanted to be one of the first agencies to create and package comprehensive wine tours to the region.

"Is there a market? I’ll say this – Napa Valley is one of the top tourism destinations in the U.S., and with the quality of B.C. wines increasing exponentially, there’s the potential for something like that here. It’s an area that’s just starting to get put on the map."

He’s got a point. Disneyland gets about 14 million visitors each and every year. Napa Valley, which is located in northern California, gets about 5 million visitors, contributing billions of dollars to the local tourist economy, while providing a direct market to wineries for millions more in sales.

And the Okanagan is perfect for wine. According to Foran, the south-facing slopes receive ample sunlight, have excellent drainage, and boast soil conditions that rival California and Europe. The water is ample, and, most importantly, it’s hot – grapes thrive in the heat, and in regions that border on being desert because it results in sweeter, plumper fruit.

"It’s not California," says Foran, "But in some ways it’s even better."

* * *

Our group included myself, Mr. Foran, and concierges from the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, Club Intrawest and the Westin Resort and Spa.

When it comes to wines, I was probably the biggest cretin in the bunch. I took a one-hour introduction to wine tasting at Cornucopia, Whistler’s food and wine celebration, a couple of years ago, but still buy most of my wine using the "Eeny Meany, Miney, Moe" process.

We were picked up by Dan O’Brien, the chief pilot and owner of Coastal Mountain Air, which will be doing most the flying for the David Mitchel Wine Group.

At Pemberton Airport, we boarded a six-seat Cessna 207, and took off north.

The flight from Pemberton to the Okanagan Valley can take anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half, depending on the cloud cover’s impact on visibility. With the clouds hovering anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 feet, we followed the Duffey Lake Road route, staying below the ceiling.

"If we can’t see the mountains, we don’t fly over them," explains O’Brien.

The view was still spectacular, with views of deep gorges, glaciers, forests, and Lake Okanagan.

We made a perfect three-point landing at Kelowna International Airport, and took off layers while Foran booked a rental van. It was about 15 degrees warmer in Kelowna than Whistler was that morning, which is just part of the reason why the area can grow such fine wine-producing grapes.

* * *

Our first stop was Cedar Creek Estate Winery, Winner of Wine Access Magazine’s 2002 Canadian Winery of the Year award.

The property, which includes 47 of Cedar Creek’s 92 acres of vineyards, was recently upgraded with a $2 million renovation. It has an incredible view of Lake Okanagan, with a southern aspect that collects heat and light.

Workers were just putting the finishing touches on a garden and a copper-roofed gazebo that could be used for weddings and receptions. One of the events planned for the area was a festival featuring the Mozart Philharmonic Society – a summer evening of sitting on the grass, listening to classical music, and sipping on one of Cedar Creek’s award-winning wines.

We were greeted at the gate by winery president and owner Gordon Fitzpatrick, whose family has worked the Okanagan valley for three generations.

"We’re getting more and more international visitors all the time," he says. "Outside of the region, I would say about a third of our visitors are from Alberta, and the rest are from the coast, Vancouver and Seattle.

"It’s amazing when people do get here, the way they become enamoured with the place. We have to keep that feeling here. We have to develop it in a very responsible way.

"In a sense, Napa Valley is a victim of its own success. It’s crowded, it’s commercialized, with guided tours ever hour on the hour. We have to make sure we still keep the dream. It’s nice to go to wineries, and still be able to wander around and maybe bump into the winemakers. Hopefully we don’t lose that."

Although the estate has a rustic feel to it, the design of the actual winemaking operations is a mix of traditional techniques and state-of-the-art technologies. The result is a process that is efficient, conserves power and water, and is careful, ensuring that the grapes are processed in such a way that the wine doesn’t lose flavour or character.

"Our wines are very fruit-forward," says Fitzpatrick. "There is naturally a lot of acidity in our wines, which makes for great pairings with food. We shouldn’t fight that."

After touring the facility, including a massive new room stacked with French oak barrels where the wine is aged, Fitzpatrick took us back to the wine shop, where we tasted a few of his wines.

We sampled a 2002 Dry Riesling, a 2001 Pinot Blanc, a State Select 2000 Chardonnay that won a Governor General’s award, a 1999 Pinot Noir, and a unique 2000 Meritage – a blend of Merlot, Cabernet-Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc grapes.

My favourite was the Pinot Blanc, which Foran credited as being "an explosion of ripe rounded fruit, a balanced acidity, with a solid, lingering finish." If you were pairing it with dinner, Foran said, it would go best with cream sauce pasta and any dish made with salmon.

Although Cedar Creek has won dozens of awards and much acclaim in the past four years, Fitzpatrick is far from complacent. He says he will continue to look for ways to increase the quality of his wines.

He also likes to have fun with his profession. "This business requires a lot of patience, but I always want to be experimenting, trying things, trying to come up with something different than the usual things we do."

The 2000 Meritage, and a special Madeira the winery created a few years ago that was modelled after a 19 th century wine – and that quickly sold out in the wine shop – are just a few examples of Fitzpatricks’ desire to experiment.

Overall, Fitzpatrick likes where the Okanagan is heading.

"Let’s face it, back in the ’80s, we made swill. Then came Free Trade, and we had to get serious about wine. Now we’re seeing the wine industry merge with the tourism industry, and things are just taking off. Wine is never about grapes, it’s really about people, places, properties – it’s the whole experience."

* * *

The North America Free Trade Agreement is generally credited with turning the wine industry around, according to Foran. The B.C. market was suddenly opened to sophisticated wines from California at a comparable price, and our home-grown jug wines could not compete. At the same time, it opened up a huge market south of the border for B.C. wines.

"In order to export, we had to up the level," says Foran. "Wineries were ripping all of their old vines out, and some got government grants to start to plant some of the more well know varietals,"

* * *

The next stop on the tour was lunch at Summerhill Pyramid Wineries, one of the Okanagan’s most commercially successful vineyards. Summerhill was the first B.C. winery to sell its product in the U.S., in 1992, drawing rave reviews from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Most recently the winery was featured in Canadian publications for producing a very fine 2000 Pinot Noir that was served at the 2003 Academy Awards.

Summerhill Pyramid manages to sell most of its stock locally, and is by far the most visited vineyard with a huge parking lot and anywhere from 10 to 12 tour buses stopping by every day in the summer months, filling the Summerhill Sunset Veranda Restaurant and patio with customers. Graeme Stayley, the operations manager, also told us that Summerhill was hosting almost 60 weddings this year.

In addition to being successful, Summerhill has also earned a reputation as being the most eccentric vineyard in the valley – though in an interesting and logical way that reflects the beliefs, spirituality and natural showmanship of owner and operator Stephen Cipes.

The property features a four-storey pyramid made entirely without metal, and the Summerhill World Peace Park, which boasts a garden with plants from around the world, a half-globe of the world, and a gigantic effigy of a champagne bottle filling up a glass.

Summerhill is also unique in that it is the largest certified organic vineyard in Canada, proving that organic wines can compete on the market in price and quality.

Cipes hails from New York City, and moved to the Kelowna area in 1990.

"My four boys and I needed a change," he explains. "New York was not a good place to be. It’s a good place to make money, but we like it better here."

He made his first commercial batch of wine in his garage in 1991, and Summerhill was officially launched the following year to critical acclaim.

Cipes has expanded gradually over the years, and now cultivates 65 acres of land. Although he grows several different grape varietals, Summerhill is becoming well known for its sparkling wines – to date, Summerhill is the only Canadian winery to win a major international award for its sparkling wine – the French Chardonnay of the World competition.

To properly appreciate a Summerhill Pyramid wine, you have to understand something of Cipes’ philosophy.

He believes in pyramid power.

Although some European wineries have used pyramid power for generations, nobody in North America was following suit. So Cipes did an experiment. He took two parts of the same cloned vine and planted them in different pots. The first pot was left outside to grow, sheltered from the wind, and the second was placed inside a small glass and wood pyramid. Both were given the same water and the same light, but at the end of the experiment the vines looked very different. The vine that was outside sprouted in all directions, while the pyramid vine grew up straight, strong, with a noticeable counter-clockwise swirl.

That was good enough for Cipes, who now ages every bottle he produces – 40,000 cases a year – for at least three months in the pyramid.

Nobody is sure why or how, but believers in pyramid power point to the flow of positive and negative ions. City streets, rooms filled with electronics, the inside of cars, all have high quantities of positive ions, while forests, free-standing stone buildings and pyramids are filled with negative ions that have a calming effect.

Applied to wine, Cipes believes the pyramid naturally amplifies the characteristics of wine, improving the taste, clarity, fruit flavours and aftertaste.

He put his theory to a taste test over a three-year period, giving customers a sample of the same wine, one aged in the pyramid and one aged normally. Almost 90 per cent of them preferred the pyramid-aged sample.

Cipes also believes passionately about the ecology, embracing organic principles and leading a movement to convince other wineries and fruit growers in the region to follow his example.

"I don’t think that using pesticides and herbicides and chemical fertilizers is in the best interest of the lake," says Cipes. "The lake is on a hundred-year cycle, which means that it takes about a hundred years for all of the water to be replaced, so it’s very slow."

In the past, Cipes has not mentioned his organic status on his labels, acknowledging that the current market perception is that organic is more expensive and the quality is not as good.

"The real market for organic is in the States," says Cipes.

Unfortunately, although he did well in the U.S. when he first took his wine south of the border in 1992, a pricing system with mark-ups of up to 100 per cent made it impossible for him to compete in stores.

Summerhill still fills a lot of personal orders from Americans, and recently Cipes launched his Enchanted Vines series that he hopes will find an audience down south.

The wines are an Alchemy Chardonnay, an Inspiration Cipes Gabriel 1997, and a Solus Foch. These wines were designed to be a little different, and really play up the organic and pyramid power angles.

Lunch at Summerhill was a four-course affair; each one paired with a different Summerhill wine. The salad was organic greens with raspberry vinaigrette and locally produced goat’s cheese, matched to a Cipes Sparkling Pinot Noir from 1993 – everyone in our group bought a bottle when they left, if that tells you anything about our first impressions of Summerhill.

"What you are looking for in a sparkling wine is the intensity and depth of the aroma, the persistent elegance of the bubbles, and good acidity," explains Foran.

"A good sparkling wine can go with anything as long as we are balancing the flavours and weight of the wine, with the flavours and weight of the main flavour component of the dish."

2001 Estate Reserve Gewürztraminer was paired with Bouillabaisse seafood soup. The chicken pasta was paired with an excellent Pinot Blanc 2001, and the chocolate cheesecake was served with a 2001 Riesling Icewine.

After lunch, we were given a tour of the facility before heading off to our next destination.

I can’t speak for the concierges, but I had a little bit of a buzz on.

* * *

Running a little behind schedule, we made a quick stop at the B.C. Wine Museum in Kelowna, which combined a few exhibits of winemaking history in the region with a first class wine store.

Curator Keith Almotti gave us a crash course:

The first wine grown in the region was cultivated by Father Charles Pandosy of the Obelate mission in 1863. The wine was grown for religious ceremonies, while the apples that grew in the area were pressed to make cider.

The first commercial operations didn’t set up shop until 1926, and even back then the emphasis was on quantity, not quality. Labels like Baby Duck, Duddle Duck, Cold Duck and Blue Bird – which featured a picture of a duck – were the common fare of the day.

It wasn’t until the Free Trade talks of the late 1980s that winemakers began to think seriously about changing the way they did business.

After the museum, we toured a new gourmet restaurant in Kelowna, Fresco, before checking out the Harvest Golf and Country Club Grounds.

Golf appears to be the activity of choice for the wine tour demographic, and in the north, central and southern Okanagan regions, there are almost two dozen courses. Other activities include sailing and water-skiing on the lake, horseback riding, hiking and cycling.

* * *

The next stop on our trip was Tinhorn Creek Winery in Oliver, less than a two-hour drive south of Kelowna in the Osoyoos Valley. Foran takes tours to both areas, and can fly clients in to a local airport through Coastal Mountain Air.

The Osoyoos Valley, also known as the South Okanagan, has a distinctly different feel than the Kelowna area, as it borders on an area of badlands that is officially Canada’s only desert. The conditions for growing grapes are excellent however, and the area boasts south-facing slopes and more heat and light than any other growing region in Canada. The area only gets about 30 centimetres of rain a year.

We slept the night in the Tinhorn Guest House, and woke up to take a tour of the winery.

Unlike Cedar Creek and Summerhill Pyramid, Tinhorn Creek is committed to producing a short list of wines, rather than experimenting. The goal, says Sandra Oldfield, who bought the winery with her husband Ken in 1993, is to take advantage of the unique growing conditions in the valley, which naturally favour some varieties more than others. Practice makes perfect.

"The oak we use, the yeast we use, they’re all important, but 90 per cent of the quality of our wines comes from the vineyard, and the quality of our grapes," says Oldfield.

"From there we fine-tune it a little, but we generally let the grapes do the talking."

Tinhorn Creek Vineyards has 160 acres planted, and increased sales from 1,000 cases in 1994 to 45,000 cases in 2002. Even so, the demand in B.C. and Canada has kept most of the wine at home, where it is well appreciated.

In 2001, Tinhorn Creek won the Red Wine of the Year honours at the Canadian Wine Awards, for a 1998 Merlot – one of the best growing years on record for the B.C. wine industry.

Although her vines are young – and the age of grapevines has a lot to do with the taste and character of the wines, Oldfield says they have managed to instil a lot of character into their wines in a very short time.

"Everybody has been here for five or six years, and we can all do each other’s jobs if we have to," Oldfield explains. "We don’t buy grapes from anyone else, we grow it all ourselves… so we have managed to create wines that are very consistent.

"We ferment clean and pay attention to the dryness. There’s no funky wood flavours, we just want the fruit flavours to come out."

The Oldfield’s are from California originally and recently obtained their Canadian citizenship. They rooted for the Canadian hockey team in the Olympic gold medal game, if you have any doubts.

Like other B.C. wineries, Tinhorn Creek has recognized the value of tourism to their operations, which allows them to market directly to customers while educating them about their wines.

They have taken it another step with the creation of the Tinhorn Creek WineLovers’ Club, a customer loyalty program that is already attracting repeat business. Foran hopes to bring more customers to the club through a mini-getaway package he has organized in conjunction with Tinhorn Creek.

A typical stay at the club condos – small but elegantly furnished rooms overlooking the valley – includes an introduction to wine making techniques, a tutored wine tasting seminar, a lesson in pairing with a house chef, and a workshop in Tinhorn Creek’s demonstration vineyard. They also take field trips to neighbouring vineyards.

The club is popular for couples and groups, providing a laid-back and educational foundation in wine. They also make good use of the recreational opportunities in the area, including golf and more golf, followed by a session with a massage therapist.

Another popular offering is an art package, where you can sit and paint with a prominent local artist.

"The wine club is a unique way to market ourselves to the world," says Sonya Konig, the WineLovers’ Club director.

"A little bit of education goes a long way, and it helps to create lifelong customers that can really appreciate good wines and all of the things we do here."

After the tour, we headed to the club to do some tasting. A 2001 Pinot Gris, a 2001 Chardonnay, a 2002 Gewürztraminer, a 2000 Pinot Noir, a 2000 Cabernet Franc and a 2000 Merlot.

We also tried some of their Kerner Late Harvest wine from 2001, pairing it with chocolate.

My personal favourite was the Chardonnay, although the more knowledgeable people in our group, including Foran, liked the Pinot Gris. Pinot Gris is a rare wine and tricky for B.C. because of the level of care that goes into growing and processing the grapes, and Tinhorn Creek’s offering has won critical acclaim.

* * *

Back at the International Airport in Kelowna, we hoped the weather would be better so we could fly a little higher on the way back to Whistler.

We were not disappointed, and O’Brien took us over mountain ridges and glaciers before making another perfect landing at the Pemberton Airport – after sampling more than 20 wines in just over a day, and not having the presence of mind to spit out every sample, it was the exact landing I wanted.

We were tired, but a whirlwind tour of the Okanagan was enough to give a sense of what the B.C. wine industry and David Foran are trying to accomplish, and how close we are to a breakthrough.

Although the business side of things is important, there’s a lot of pride and character as well. Most interesting was the praise that B.C. wineries heaped on one another.

Collectively, Okanagan wineries know they are going to either make it or break as a region – once Okanagan table wines become synonymous with quality, flavour, and quaint estates sprawled along the shores of a breathtaking lake, the valley will really be on the map.