It needs to be said, from time to time: It isn't heat that ripens grapes, it's light. The engine that powers plants isn't hot air, but photosynthesis.
And so it is that the best wine-growing country in North America could well turn out to be the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, where long hours of intense sunlight during the growing season provide ripening power for classic grape varieties. At 50 degrees N, it's at the same latitude as the heart of Germany's Rheingau, and even further north than Champagne — a freakish accident in the crumpled geology of the Cascades that created a unique string of protected valleys from Vernon (at the northern end of Lake Okanagan) 100 miles south to Osoyoos on the US border.
I first traveled to the Okanagan 30 years ago, when there were barely a dozen wineries, most making wine from cultivars and hybrids, to research my Northwest Wine Country series of guidebooks. At the time I came to the reluctant conclusion that the quality of the wines did not merit their inclusion. But after the transition to vinifera grapes 20 years ago, the situation has changed markedly, and this year I accepted the offer of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association and the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society to return.
What I found was not unlike Oregon and Washington's wine country in the 1980s: Great enthusiasm on the part of the winemakers, and pride in the potential of a growing industry. On this side of the border, wine enthusiasts of the '80s would bemoan the lack of facilities (hotels, resorts, restaurants) dedicated to tourism (“The Yakima Valley is maybe 25 years behind Napa,” they would say.) But in the Okanagan, the tourism infrastructure is already in place; if anything, vineyards must compete with vacation homes for the most desirable bench lands. And the wines — bright Rieslings, elegant Pinot Noirs, rich Syrahs — show high levels of technical accomplishment.
In Vancouver, Brian Storen, Canada's 2005 sommelier of the year (and poet laureate of the Kingdom Bacchus), waxes lyrical about Okanagan wines. He is probably the only person to use the terms "sweaty bovine," "post-coital," and "necrotic" in the same sentence to discuss a wine, but he does it effortlessly, the words rolling from his tongue like arpeggios from Mozart's fingers. (That was in reference to a Malbec from Kettle Valley Vineyards). Talking about BC wines in general, Storen riffs in another dimension — a whirlwind of free-association, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Blake, and Jack Kerouac all at once: "earth, bramble and spice olfactory escalator's ascendance into gossamer strands of first crushed carnations then blackberry and melted purple crayon sylphs riding bareback through a heaving pack of saddle-mounted black currant." (Take that, Robert Parker!)
The word Okanagan means “meeting place” in the local Salish dialect. Halfway along the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake sits the region's biggest city Kelowna (pop. 100,000) with a spiffy international airport that's midway between Calgary and Vancouver. What used to be a sleepy valley dotted with motor courts that happened to grow juicy apricots is now all lakefront condos and glitzy resorts, vying with 10,000 acres of vineyards and dozens of “destination” wineries featuring gourmet dining.
It's a transformation that has taken place virtually overnight. The provincial tourism ministry has pounced on the phenomenal growth of tourism, pouring money into promotion of the Okanagan. The wine tourism industry itself has mounted the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society, which now involves over 100 wineries in four seasonal promotions that will produce 160 individual events this fall alone. Examples include “Pop Goes the Cork,” “Battle of the Benches,” and “All You Need is Cheese (and Wine),” in addition to bicycle races and mixology contests. To counter what might be termed tourism malaise, the Festivals Society has created sponsorship and partnership opportunities with local hotels, restaurants, banks, and transportation companies.
Still, if not for NAFTA, Okanagan would still be a minor player in the world of wine. After the trade act was passed in 1988, Canada could no longer put up trade barriers to protect its domestic products — including wine. The modest-to-inferior wines produced from hybrid grapes were no match for California's Chardonnays and Merlots. Canadian winemakers needed a change. But how fast could the Okanagan come up with vinifera grapes and how good would the wines be?
Enter Howard Soon. Soon, a Vancouver native, trained as a biochemist and worked for the Labatt Brewing Company for five years before moving to the Okanagan in 1980 and switching to wine. Working closely with the vineyard owners and managers, he played a leading role in the changeover to vinifera grapes, and, for the past 15 years, has been the master winemaker for a prestigious group that includes Sandhill — Canada's 2009 winery of the year — and Andrew Peller Ltd.
After growers pulled out their hybrids and labruscas in a government-subsidized renovation program in the late 1980s, the industry was down to 800 acres. “It was a steep learning curve,” says Soon. “What works in France, Italy, California, and New Zealand doesn't necessarily work here.” Fortunately, there was already a well-equipped agricultural research station on hand, at Summerland, funded by a $10 per ton assessment on BC grapes. Within 20 years, vineyard acreage had grown to 11,000 acres.
Soon makes some of his best wine from grapes grown on the spectacular 43-acre King Family Vineyard on the Naramata Bench. Brothers Don and Rod King use a remarkable trellis system developed in southern Oregon by Scott Henry — an aeronautical engineer who 40 years ago turned his family's bottom land on the Umpqua River into a pioneering vineyard. Henry's trellising system, which increases light exposure on the leaves and fruit, and literally doubles yields per vine without sacrificing quality, is known worldwide as the Double Scott Henry.
“You can't do this on lighter soils,” says Don King, “but we plant 680 vines per acre here instead of 1,400 and get yields of 8 to 9 tons per acre instead of 4 tons.” The downside of the system is that it's labor-intensive, requiring eight passes through the vineyards in the course of a growing season.
Like any "emerging" region, the Okanagan has its pioneers, and since it's a young industry, the pioneers are still around, still active.
The most influential figure in British Columbia's ascendance is Harry McWatters who, 30 years ago this summer, founded Sumac Ridge in Summerland, on an east-facing bluff overlooking Lake Okanagan. He'd been director of marketing for Casabello, an outfit known in Canada as a "Commercial Winery," and when the Province created a new category — "Estate Winery" — McWatters and his business partner Lloyd Schmidt snagged the first license. The principal requirements: At least 20 acres of vineyards and wine made from your own grapes. McWatters wasn't the wine maker, he was the business man who led Sumac Ridge through a number of firsts — among them the first bottle-fermented sparkling wine in Canada (Stellar's Jay Brut, in 1987).
Still, McWatters is even better known as the instigator of the Vintners Quality Alliance. Simultaneously an industry group and a standard of quality, the VQA began as a voluntary declaration of quality. Now it's an official designation on a bottle of wine certifying that the grapes are from British Columbia and that the wine has passed a blind taste test, like the AOC wines of France.
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