Past is Prologue at Tantalus Vineyards

Past is prologue, Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, and I’ve learned that if I want to figure out  the future I first need to understand the past. That’s why we decided to visit Tantalus Vineyards on Dehart Road southeast of Kelowna, British Columbia. My investigation of the future of Canadian wine had to start at its roots.

Jane Hatch (that’s her in the video) and David Patterson showed us around the contemporary winery and hospitality facility that  opened just a few months ago (the video was made while it was still under construction).  Jane is the winery’s general manager and David its production winemaker.

Past, Present and Future

Looking down over the vineyards to the lake from the new LEED certified building with its First Nations mask decorations, it would have been easy to forget the past and just enjoy the present. But Tantalus is a place where past, present and future come together.

J.W. Hughes bought land here in 1927 and planted his Pioneer Vineyard to vitis lambrusca varietals (think Concord grapes and the like), to be sold on the table grape market. In 1930 he agreed to sell grapes to Victoria Wineries Ltd. (for $100 a ton) in what may be the first wine grape contract in Canadian history.  Commercial B.C. wine production up to that point was focused on fruit wines – loganberry wines at Victoria and apple wines at nearby Calona Wines Ltd, for example. It was a good way to use up surplus fruit.  There is no indication that the wines were of particularly high quality. Consumer expectations for wine were low and these products found buyers.

Hughes expanded his vineyard holdings and then, starting in the mid-1940s, began to sell them off to his farm managers. That’s how Martin Dulik came to own Pioneer Vineyards, which he paid for over seven years beginning in 1944 by giving Hughes half of the revenues from each harvest.

Dulik, a Czech immigrant, managed the vineyard well and the grapes that he and his son Den produced were sold on both the wine and table grape markets. As wine production in the region expanded in the 1960s, many growers replanted to French hybrid varietals like Seyval Blanc, but Den Dulik resisted the trend, reasoning that his vitis labrusca grapes made better wine than the hybrids. He was probably right, although the wines they were went into were often the unsophisticated “pop” products that were popular at the time.

Taking the Next Step

In 1978 Dulik was persuaded to plant White Riesling and these vines are the foundation of Tantalus Old Vines Riesling that I tasted on my visit. Soon Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other vitis vinifera vines joined Riesling in Pioneer Vineyards.

Everything was in place, therefore, when Den’s daughter Susan developed a passion for wine and started making wine with the family fruit. Her project soon developed into a farmgate winery called Pinot Reach conceived with the intention of making exceptional Pinot Noir. Pinot Reach opened in 1997. Its wines, especially the  Old Vines Riesling, were soon being praised by no less than Jancis Robinson, the celebrated British wine critic.

Investor-enthusiasts Eric Savics and Eira Thomas bought the winery and vineyards from the Duliks in 2004, renaming the operation Tantalus,  and began the transformation that includes the new winery facility you’ll find there today. Tantalus’s recent development reflects two trends that I saw everywhere on our Okanagan wine tour.

Global Meets Local

The first is a growing international influence. Although the market for these wines is mainly local, the winemaking influences are decidedly global. Tantalus’s senior winemaking consultant, Jacqueline Kemp, is a New Zealand “flying winemaker,” who brings international experience to her work here. Production winemaker David Patterson is Canada-born, but he learned winemaking  in New Zealand and earned his winemaking spurs there and in Oregon and Australia.

All across the region I met winemakers and “flying interns” from around the world. In a way this continues an existing pattern, since many of the early winemakers here were immigrants who brought winemaking knowledge with them, but it is more than that. The Okanagan is now clearly part of a very intense global exchange of technical winemaking knowledge.

Talking with David about the great strides that the region’s wines have made, I brought up climate change. Surely the changing natural environment accounts for the improvement, I suggested. David disagreed. It was better winemaking, not warmer weather, that made the difference he said, and surely the international influences are part of that.

The second trend, which is seen so clearly at Tantalus, is that this global energy is clearly focused on identifying distinct local terroirs. The Tantalus team realize that theirs is an exceptional location for Riesling and Pinot Noir and they are drilling down into those vineyards and particular varietals to see what they will reveal.

The region is extremely varied in its micro-terroirs – almost anything is possible here from ice wine to Syrah and Zinfandel. But just because something can be done doesn’t mean you should do it and the race is on to find out what works best for each vineyard block.  Focus and increasing specialization are the wave of the future here.

Yes and No

So is past prologue?  Yes and no. Yes in the sense that the Okanagan wine industry wouldn’t be what it is today without the evolutionary process it’s experienced. The industry is stronger for the work of its pioneers and the legacy they created.

But no, the world has changed, is changing. With better winemaking and increased investment the true potential of  this region’s wine industry is being unlocked. The challenge now is to get the word out and then to get the wine out. I’m trying to do my part on the former, but the latter is the bigger challenge in the long run because of regulatory structures that make marketing and distribution costly and inefficient even within Canada to say nothing of international trade.

O Canada, my how you’ve changed. I’m looking forward to visiting again in a few years to see how present trends develop.

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This post owes a debt to John Scheiner’s writings, especially The Wines of Canada (Mitchell Beazley, 2005), John Scheiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide (Whitecap Books, 2006) and his British Columbia Wine Companion (Orca Books, 1997).  Scheiner’s blog and books are great resources for anyone who wants to know more about B.C. wines.

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