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.

Vino Ogopogo: Wine Tourism Okanagan Style

We recently returned from an “extreme wine” research trip to the surprising Okanagan wine region in British Columbia (click here to read part one of the series).

Surprising? Well, many U.S. wine drinkers find the very idea of Canadian wine surprising (ice wines apart), which is understandable since only a handful of wineries have successfully navigated the process to get distribution south of the border. The wines themselves hold many surprises, if you can find them.

And then there are the wine tourism opportunities. Wow! For a lot of people, this will be the biggest  surprise of all.

On the Wine Tourist Trail

Wine tourism has become big business as enthusiasts seek closer links to their favorite wineries, wine producers try to make more high margin direct sales and the hospitality industry has embraced the wine tourism trend. George Taber has written a fascinating book, In Search of Bacchus, that surveys the global wine tourist scene and gives a sense of the industry’s rising profile.

Wine tourism is a naturally appealing — even if you omit the wine! — because vineyards and wineries are often located in areas of real scenic beauty. But wine tourism in many areas has been slow to develop because vineyards are agricultural zones often  lacking in the expected tourist infrastructure and amenities. And at some point as more people arrive there is tension between farming and tourism. The debate over the Napa wine train captures some of this problem.

Vino Ogopogo

The Okanagan wine region in British Columbia has a decided advantage over most winegrowing regions. Usually the wine comes first and then the tourist infrastructure slowly develops. It’s the other way ’round here. The Okanagan region has spectacular scenery with four season sports and recreation opportunities that have long attracted visitors. At the center of it all is beautiful Lake Okanagan, a long narrow north-south body of water that feels like a fjord and has just about everything a tourist might desire, including a resident Lake Monster named Ogopogo.

Wine grapes are known to love to look down on lakes and rivers and so do people, of course. So the Okanagan developed its tourist infrastructure long before the current wine boom (which I’ll discuss in an upcoming blog post). We benefited from this timely development on our trip, staying right on the lake at the Summerland Waterfront Resort in Summerland, B.C. and enjoying meals made from regional ingredients at Local, a restaurant just next door. Sipping wine in the evening with the fireplace roaring, looking out across the lake to the vineyards on the Naramata Bench — well wine tourism does not get much better than this.

Raising the Stakes

As this region’s wine industry developed from the 1990s on, many wineries made very significant investments in wine tourist facilities — partly, I think, because of the need to compete with and complement the amenities already here in order to attract tourist business.

Direct sales of the kind that wine tourists provide are extremely important to wineries in this region. Every wine maker I talked to noted the cost and difficulty of getting distribution in other Candadian provinces to say nothing of entering the U.S. market. Direct sales are therefore key and tourists from Vancouver in the west, Alberta in the east and the U.S. down south are a big part of that business.

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery in Oliver a good example of a B.C. destination winery. Perched on a hillside, it is a beautiful facility in a great location that includes the winery, a tasting room, restaurant and an inn with a swimming pool. A must stop on the wine tourist trail, they count on cellar door sales to move most of  their substantial annual production.

Wine economics note: tasting room fees are still very low in this region — amazingly low for anyone who has visited Napa Valley lately. Most of the wineries I visited offered free tastings for a limited number of wines. At Burrowing Owl, a $2 donation was encouraged — the money goes to the a nature conservancy group.

Top of the World

The ultimate wine tourist destination in the Okanagan Valley must be Mission Hill Winery. Inspired by Robert Mondavi’s iconic winery in Oakville, Mission Hill sits atop a peak and looks out over the lake. The winery is stunning, with an entry arch that immediately made me think of the Mondavi winery and a soaring bell tower. Everything inside is strictly first class, too, including comprehensive tours that end with sommelier-led tastings from your souvenir Riedel glass.

As beautiful as the building is, I don’t seem to have taken any photos of it. I guess I couldn’t resist the view (shown above) looking down over vineyards to the lake below. I wasn’t alone: members of a photography club were buzzing around like bees making images of the vineyards, grapes, rose bushes, bell tower and, inevitably and unintentionally, each other.

Mission Hill is the cherry on the Okanagan wine tourism cake. Altogether, this wine region is quite a treat and sure to grow in popularity as the word gets out. We’ll be back — possibly staying at one of the guest ranches in the area, horseback riding in the morning and wine touring in the afternoon, or perhaps taking advantage of vineyard lodgings like the ones at Working Horse Winery.

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This is the second of my “extreme wine” reports on the Okanagan wine scene. Watch for the final post (on the region’s future) in a few days.

Extreme Wine: O Canada Ice Wine

Ice wine, Canada’s distinctive contribution to the world of wine, holds a fascinating place in the world wine price tables and so qualifies for inclusion in The Wine Economist’s extreme wine series.

Top of the World

Which country gets the highest average price for its bottled wine exports? You might think it would be France with all those expensive Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy wines or Portugal with its costly eponymous after-dinner wines. But both of these countries also export a good deal of much cheaper wine, bringing their average  export earnings (USD per liter) down to $4.24 and $3.70 respectively. (Data are for 2005 from my copy of The Global Wine Statistical Compendium.)

New Zealand with its gorgeous Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs ($6.64) and the UK with its classy sparkling wines  ($6.87) both earn more per liter of bottled wine exports than the “usual suspects” of France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain to say nothing of New World powers Argentina ($1.87), Australia ($3.65), Chile ($2.72) and South Africa ($2.42).

(Remember that wines that are exported for, say, $4.00 will have a much higher price on your store shelves due to transport  costs, distribution and retail margins and applicable taxes.)

At the very top of the table, for reasons that I think are due to exchange rate sand import resales more than domestic wine prices, is Switzerland ($8.23 per liter) followed closely by Canada ($7.32).  How can frigid Canada rate so high? Ice wine (or Eiswein) , of course!

The Highest Compliment?

Canada didn’t invent ice wine (credit Austria with that) but it is the world’s largest producer of this chilly wine, making nearly a million liters in a good year according to John Scheiner’s authoritative The Wines of Canada. Ice wine’s high cost is the biggest single factor in Canada’s lofty export earnings average.

Tiny bottles of ice wine bring enormous prices — $50, $100, even $500 and more for a half bottle at retail. Who pays these spectacular prices? Japan and other Asian countries are the largest export market.  Ice wine is the quintessential high end gift wine — attractively sweet, beautifully packaged and luxuriously expensive. Tourists snap bottles at Duty-Free to take home to Asia.

I’ve heard that so much ice wine is bought by Tokyo-bound travelers that some Canadian duty-free stores have special bonded facilities in Japan to make purchases more convenient. Pay at the airport in Canada and pick up your ice wine at baggage claim in Japan. Sweet!

Ice wines are so expensive and sought after in Asia that counterfeiting is a serious problem. Some experts believe that as much as 50 percent of the ice wine sold in Taiwan is bogus — sweet wines from Canada and elsewhere that are doctored up and repackaged.

Check out this image from the label of one of the faked wines — brewed, not fermented! Yikes. Must have got ice wine mixed up with ice beer. These may be big counterfeiting operations, but not necessarily sophisticated ones.

A recent Globe and Mail article suggests the problem may be even worse in China.

Well over 50 per cent of icewine in China is fake from what I’ve seen and heard,” said Allan Schmidt, president of Vineland Estates, which has quit the market entirely. “If it was 80 per cent … I wouldn’t be surprised.

The legitimate Chinese market for Canadian icewine has grown rapidly, which the industry attributes to a burgeoning middle class and the desire to give exotic gifts. It rose to $2.16-million in 2007 from $270,000 in 2005. The market sagged in 2008, but was worth $1.2-million in the first half of this year [2009]. It’s our most important flagship wine produced,” said Bob Keyes, vice-president of economic and government affairs with the Canadian Vintners Association.

Chilly Saga, Intense Experience

Ice wine is a very particular product. The grapes for ice wines are left on the vine long after regular grapes have been picked. By law natural ice wine in Canada can only be made from grapes that have been frozen to -7 degrees Celsius (17 degrees F) and harvested at minimum 35 degrees brix. The juice, what is left of it, is highly concentrated so each grape yields just a drop or so. Picking is done by hand, of course, since many clusters will have experienced bird damage or fallen prey to disease.

Vidal Blanc is the grape of choice for Canadian ice wine — its tough skin can stand up to harsh weather — along with lesser amounts of Riesling and other varietals. Most of Canada’s ice wine is produced in Ontario, where wine makers can pretty much count on frightfully low temperatures early in the winter season. But the first ice wines came from out west in British Columbia.

North America’s first commercial ice wine was made in 1978 by German-born Walter and Tilman Hainle of Hainle Vineyards Estate Winery in Peachland, British Columbia. Tillman Hainle, Walter’s son, generously shared precious bottles of a recent vintage from with us at the 2008 Riesling Rendezvous meetings. [See Tilman's helpful comment below.] It was one of the most memorable wines I’ve ever tasted, so I just had to visit Hainle Vineyards on my recent Okanagan wine country expedition.

Sue and I met with Dr. Walter Huber, the proprietor of Hainle Vineyards and Deep Creek Wine Estate, who purchased the business from the Hainle family after Walter’s death.  Dr. Huber was an extremely generous host, pulling corks with almost excessive enthusiasm. He’s refuses to release his wines before their time, choosing to let them dribble out slowly to lucky wine club members. He is generous to a fault with inquisitive visitors like me, even letting us sample an ice wine from 1984. Wow! I purchased some old vine Rieslings to drink a few years from now when they have fully matured.

Only the Beginning

Ice wine is what made Canada’s reputation in wine, Dr. Huber explained, but it’s not all there is to Canadaian wine these days, especially in the Okanagan Valley in eastern B.C., where the vineyards overlook Lake Okanagan and dozens of very different micro-climates co-exist. Winegrowers are able to ripen cool climate grapes like Riesling and Pinot Noir, of course, but also Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and apparently even Zinfandel!

I love ice wine, but it is only one element of Canada’s dynamic wine industry. I’ll report on the surprising wine tourism industry in my an upcoming post, followed by a peek at what might be the future of Canadian wine. O Canada, you produce some unexpected wines! Check back soon to learn about what’s happening today and what the future may hold.

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[Note: This post is part of an occasional feature on extreme wines. Extreme wines? You know, the cheapest, the most expensive; the biggest producers, the smallest; the oldest, the newest and so forth.]

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