Red, White, and Green

 Vineyards in the wine hub of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley are becoming environmentally-friendly. Candice Vallantin visits three sustainable wineries.

My arms ache, my shoulders sting and my back stiffens with each stroke of the paddle as it parts the greyish-green ripples of Lake Okanagan. It’s still early this May morning, but ominous clouds crowd the sky and a light wind teases my kayak. An hour of paddling among swooping swallows in the shadow of Mount Boucherie and the patchwork of vineyards quilting the rolling hills all around is hardly enough penance for the enlightened decadence I’ve embarked on: to visit three of the region’s most sustainable, planet-loving, guilt-free wineries. For my part, I’ll be paddling, pedalling and walking—because if three vineyards can fully function at the mercy of Mother Nature, then so can I.

My kayak zigzags along the shore for seven kilometres before I glide onto Cedar Creek Beach, which ends at the foot of a small cliff with precariously perched wind-bent pine trees poking through the gravel. On shore, Ed Kruger waits to load my kayak into his big white van. Locally known as Trailhead Ed, Kruger has run Monashee Adventure Tours, a biking and hiking tour company, for 17 years. He was voted “best local historian on two wheels” by Okanagan Life Magazine in 2007, but today we won’t be privy to his encyclopedic knowledge—just his magnificently cushy Giant Sedona Comfort mountain bikes.

“The whine doesn’t start till the winery with these bikes,” he quips, pointing out the wide padded seats.

St. Hubertus Winery

Parched and peddling—uphill, of course—it occurs to me I’ve never craved a glass of wine in the a.m. as much as I do right now. Mercifully, we pedal only 15 more minutes east along Lakeshore Road and arrive at the elegant, undulating cast iron gates of St. Hubertus Estate Winery, a 76-acre property overlooking Lake Okanagan.

“It’s like Switzerland, but on steroids,” says Andy Gebert in a slight Swiss accent as he gazes over the vineyards he purchased with his brother, Leo, 25 years ago. At that time, only 13 wineries operated in B.C. “We thought it was so beautiful! What could go wrong with growing grapes?”

The disastrous Okanagan Mountain Park fire of 2003, for starters. Today, young shrubs and wildflowers bandage the charred hills surrounding the property, which lost 600 vines, the original winery buildings and the Gebert family home when the fire raged down into the valley.

Undaunted, they rebuilt, replanted and continue practicing sustainable farming methods that they adopted in the early 1990s. “Too many bags with skulls on them,” frowns Gebert, referring to his disgust with pesticides, herbicides and fungicides so prevalent at most of the planet’s wineries.

The former Swiss sailor works by hand whenever possible, and the vineyard yields 15,000 cases of wine each year, including four unoaked, Swiss-style varietals under the St. Hubertus label.

Gebert is particularly fond of their riesling. “It is one of the most versatile wines,” he says. “We’re lucky to have beautiful soil for it, and it’s [from] one of the older riesling vines in the valley.” And there’s the pinot noir. “It’s not like muscular Australian wines. It’s elegant. A lighter red.”

But in a valley where wineries clamour for the approval of the latest hot sommeliers, the Geberts do things differently. They stopped entering competitions years ago and it’s clear their dedication to joie de vivre precedes winemaking perfection.

“Grapes are like weeds—they don’t have to look perfect. The flavours are what’s important,” Gebert says. “And life is just stunning when you go at a slower pace.”

If resiliently high real estate prices are any indication, Gebert’s parting statement is especially true here. Angular, postmodern mansions compete with elegant Victorian homes for glistening water views. We pass greening peach and apple trees rooted in rocky soil at the foot of bald hilltops, prickly with cacti. Our dawdling pace is perfect for contemplating this unique microclimate. Flourishing on the northernmost tip of the Sonoran Desert, the Okanagan Valley’s fruit basket was once the bottom of a massive glacial lake. It drained thousands of years ago, leaving a string of smaller lakes and a gamut of fertile hills dried out by the rain-shadow effect of surrounding mountain ranges. The dry climate nourishes hearty vines that are rarely over-watered, resulting in potent, flavourful grapes. Combined with proper irrigation, it’s a grower’s dream.

Summerhill Pyramid Winery

Ironically, it took a Manhattan real estate broker to harness this cool northern climate, not only for vineyards, but for organic agriculture as well. Since typical vineyard pests like the glassy-winged sharpshooter barely venture into Washington state, let alone British Columbia, the need to obliterate them is abated. Mildew, another common vineyard scourge, is of little concern in these desert conditions.

The latitude of 49 degrees—nearly identical to Champagne’s 48 degrees—was also ideal for a New World riff on sparkling wine production. That was in 1986. Today, thanks to winemaker Eric von Krosigk’s loyal adherence to the French méthode traditionelle and a strong dose of eccentric determination, Stephen Cipes’ Summerhill Pyramid Winery is not only the country’s most visited, it’s also home to the nation’s largest organic vineyard, with 50 planted acres. His certified organic wines have won countless awards, including gold for both his bubbly Cipes Gabriel at Santa Monica’s Green Wine Awards, and his 2006 Peach Chardonnay Icewine at the reputed French Chardonnay-du-Monde competition last year.

Over a plate of locally made Carmelis cheese and a crab, fennel and artichoke-heart pizza from the winery’s organic Sunset Bistro, Cipes describes one of his secrets to success. “I set out to build an ideal and powerful sacred geometry chamber which I found to be the pyramid,” he says.

Cipes refers to a huge, white pyramid—a four-story cement replica of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, usually orbited by a busload of mesmerized Japanese tourists.

According to Cipes’ new age beliefs, it enhances the natural properties of its contents, as in making good wine excellent and tainted wine worse.

If things sound a bit Hollywood, it’s because they are. Summerhill was the official wine during a Global Vision for Peace event, a charity arm of the Academy Awards. But the attention is only pushing Cipes to stand out even more from the growing bandwagon of sustainable vinters. “We’ve applied for our [biodynamic] certificate and we are planting by the moon and we are doing all the permaculture steps, because, frankly, ‘organic’ is overplayed and you can’t do enough to be in harmony with Mother Earth,” he says.

The route to our last destination is appropriately cruel. Panting uphill along the seemingly endless Dehart Road, it’s tempting to jump ship and just walk. I imagine that’s how many B.C. grape growers felt in the late 1980s, when they realized their hybrid grapes produced pedestrian table wines at best. Compared to European vinifera grape varieties like merlot, riesling and cabernet, weather-resistant hybrids like concord—vines spliced with European vinifera and local North American strains—would never compete internationally.

Hoping to reinvent the industry before NAFTA was signed, the federal government allocated $28 million in 1988 to replanting efforts. Grape growers could replant vinifera, or get out all together. Many walked away. The province lost 2,400 acres of hybrids and gained only 1,000 acres of vinifera. For some, perseverance paid off and some hybrid varieties like Vidal, used for ice wine, or Marechal Foch, a dry red wine, still produce internationally recognized wines. A few grape growers, however, like Den Dulik, were already one step ahead.

Tantalus Vineyards

“Within the industry, he’s considered a pioneer,” says Tantalus Vineyards general manager Jane Hatch about Dulik, the property’s former owner, who planted vinifera grapes a decade before the rest of the Okanagan Valley caught on. Dulik’s foresight has blessed the property with some of the area’s oldest vines, a great advantage in wine production, says Hatch, admiring dewy rows of 30-year-old riesling.

But it wasn’t until current owner Eric Savics purchased the property five years ago that one of the oldest continuously producing wineries in the province captured the palate of reputed sommeliers and wine critics at home and abroad. In 2007, internationally renowned British wine writer Jancis Robinson rated Tantalus Vineyards’ debut 2005 Riesling amongst Canada’s Top 10 wines, and later in 2007 it was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s toast of choice when he met the Chilean president.

“It was really important for us to talk about a sense of place and terroir with our wines,” says Hatch, who works closely with her husband, Warwick Shaw, who manages the vineyard, and winemaker Matt Holmes. Their first crucial decision was to uproot 18 acres of vines to focus on the vineyard’s finest varietals: riesling, pinot noir and chardonnay, which respond best to the land’s elevation, slope and exposure to sunlight. And although they’re not certified organic, their dedication to sustainable production methods coax out the lauded flavours. Careful hands weed and pick grapes, while diverse crops grow amongst the vines, cycling nutrients into the soil, attracting beneficial insects and discouraging unwanted ones.

Finally, they’ve limited their production to just under 3,000 cases. Tantalus’ production is miniscule, but business is booming. The company broke ground on a new LEED-certified winery building in March. It’s set for completion by harvest time this September, and Hatch says they plan on increasing production to 10,000 cases by 2013.

Golden, sweet, with a hint of flowers, the riesling is by far my favourite wine of the day. I would come to regret this moment of leaving Tantalus without loading up on as many bottles as I could ride away with.

Hopping on a wet saddle, I ignore the rain and head to the Mission Creek Greenway, a 17-kilometre trail leading from Gallagher’s Canyon and ending at Lake Okanagan, conveniently across from Hotel Eldorado where I first launched my kayak. Tipsy and tired, a medley of wine sloshing in my belly—and in the souvenir bottles in my bike cooler—I pedal passively, embrace the downhill momentum and contemplate our self-propelled experiment as branches whoosh overhead.

Andy Gebert’s wisdom echoes on the wind: “Life is just stunning when you go at a slower pace.” 

Photos: Kelly Nigro, I am I.A.M., Michael Klassen

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