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Lillooet’s new (liquid) gold rush

In the mid-1800s, at the height of the Cariboo Gold Rush, thousands of gold prospectors flooded Lillooet, which is located at Mile 0 of the Cariboo Trail.

In the mid-1800s, at the height of the Cariboo Gold Rush, thousands of gold prospectors flooded Lillooet, which is located at Mile 0 of the Cariboo Trail. One-hundred-and-fifty years later a pair of modern-day Dutch settlers have taken over the site of a former Hudson's Bay Company trading post and converted it into a winery, where they've been producing cases of their own "liquid gold."

Heleen Pannekoek and Rolf de Bruin recently moved from the Netherlands to Lillooet to open their own vineyard, Fort Berens Estate Winery, located in east Lillooet. While B.C. wines are usually sourced from grapes grown in the Okanagan area, these European wine-lovers are confident that in a few years an area just two hours north of Whistler will eventually be just as renowned for its wine.

It looks like they may be onto something. In their first year of operation they've already managed to snag a silver medal at the prestigious All Canadian Wine Championships for their 2007 Meritage.

"For us, that's a great thing, being a start-up," Pannekoek said, pointing out that their $28 Meritage was competing with some $50 bottles in the Over $25 category.

They planted their first six varietals in the spring of 2009 in hopes that they would bear fruit in the fall of 2011. The vines are doing well and weathered their first winter very well. Their own locally-planted grapes will eventually be turned into the first batch of true Lillooet wine. In the meantime, they have been sourcing wine and grapes from the Okanagan region and are selling and producing five types of wine on-site.

They opened to the public in early October 2009, and from May to October are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. There, visitors can sample their 2007 Riesling, 2007 Pinot Noir Rosé, 2007 Select Late Harvest Pinot Blanc, new 2009 Chardonnay and their award-winning 2007 Meritage (a blend of 80 per cent Merlot, 15 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and five per cent Cabernet Franc). All are priced between $18 and $28.

On top of their big win at the All Canadian Wine Championships they've also just landed some new investors for their business: Hugh Agro, Sean Harvey and John McConnell, a group of Toronto- and Vancouver-based mining execs and members of the board of directors of a TSX-listed gold exploration and development company.

"Actually, (Agro) has had a long interest in Lillooet - I still don't know exactly why - but he had been looking at another investment (in the area) years ago that didn't go through at the time," Pannekoek said. "But he has kept a subscription to the Lillooet News and has been reading about us over the last year."

In December, Agro got in touch with Pannekoek and de Bruin, asking if they knew of any interesting investment projects. Their timing couldn't have been better.

"We have been in contact with quite a few banks and basically because of the economic crisis, a lot of banks have become more hesitant, I think, to finance at all. So that made us have to look for additional equity earlier than we had expected in our original plan."

Now, with new investors in the mix, it's looking like it will be easier for the pioneering winemakers to meet their original goals and plans. Pannekoek and de Bruin are currently in the planning stages of constructing a new winemaking operation and shop on their 65-acre site, which will allow them to upgrade from their small tractor shop to much more spacious digs. The existing buildings are located on top of a fertile bench overlooking the vineyards but they are hoping to dig into the bench and create the production facility below ground, to allow for better temperature regulation. The upper level would be turned into the wine store with a beautiful view of their vineyards, Cayoosh Creek and the Fraser Canyon.

"That's always been the plan and basically because we now have these guys on board, we can now proceed on the realization of it, and that's great," Pannekoek said.

So far, Fort Berens wines are being sold on-site in Lillooet and at a number of specialty wine stores in Vancouver, Whistler, Kamloops and Lillooet. Anyone interested in testing their wine can pick up a bottle at Whistler's Blackcomb Liquor Store, Nester's Liquor and Roland's Cold Beer & Wine Store, and in Pemberton at the Pemberton Hotel. Or, try just a glass with dinner at the Pony Espresso or Araxi.