Lillooet's pioneering wine growers
Photo: Vineyard at Fort Berens
Lillooet is a long way from earning its own appellation but wine grapes have been growing here in a modest way for half a century – and now it is getting serious.
I checked it out for myself recently, saw three vineyards and met interesting people. What else does a wine region need?
The vineyard that started the current flurry of interest is at Roshard Acres, a farm just east of town perched on a plateau with the Fraser River rushing by 200 meters below. The farm is owned by Christ’l Roshard, a former mayor of Lillooet, and her partner Doug Robson.
There is a small block of hybrid vines, primarily Maréchal Foch, which was established here in 1972 by Christ’l’s father, Robert, who died in 2008. In the 1960s, he managed Riverland Irrigated Farm for B.C. Electric Company. Wanting to see how wine grapes would do at Lillooet, the farm planted the varieties then commercially important in the Okanagan.
After B.C. Hydro took over B.C. Electric, the farm was sold. The vineyard trial was abandoned but Robert salvaged vines for a little home winemaking at his own property. Doug and Christ’l continue to make wines but they have no intention ever of opening a winery. The Maréchal Foch in particular still produces well and, to Doug’s credit, yields good wine.
In 2004 a small group of farmers led by Christ’l decided to re-examine the future of wine grapes at Lillooet, in part to replace the jobs lost to a declining forest industry and a total collapse of ginseng production. They secured vine cuttings of 20 vinifera varieties from the Okanagan and, with some funding from the province, planted test blocks in 2005 and 2006 on three farms, including Roshard Acres.
The funding, which might run out next year, has paid for the deployment of 87 weather data collectors, the logging of the information, the analysis of grape ripeness and other information that future wine growers will need. The cold winter of 2008/2009 (it got down to -24.6ºC on December 20, 2008) caused measurable damage to the young plants. However, that needs to be kept in perspective: the same freeze hit the Okanagan and the Similkameen and triggered $20 million in crop insurance claims. Those vineyards have not been abandoned; nor have the Lillooet trial blocks even if some of the vines seem to be struggling.
Photo: Brad Kesselman and Eckhard Zeidler
Independently of the Lillooet trial, two Whistler residents planted 20 or so varieties in 2009 on a 10-acre test block at a property called Texas Creek Ranch, a one-time orchard that now grows hay. The owners are Eckhard Zeidler, a former investment banker and now a Whistler councilor, and Brad Kasselman, who runs Whistler’s biggest photography company.
They have a spectacular winery site once they figure out what grows (Auxerrois looks good) and what does not (Sauvignon Blanc). “We have a number of years of evaluation,” Eckhard says of his vines. “We have to prove we can grow excellent wine grapes. If we can’t do that, then we are doing other things.”
Photo: Rolf De Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek
At the Fort Berens Estate Winery at the edge of town, Heleen Pannekoek and Rolf De Bruin are betting the farm, so to speak, on Lillooet viticulture. In 2009 they planted 20 acres of vines (Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc). The vines are luxuriant, looking established enough to get through a normal winter and produce the winery’s first crop next year.
Meanwhile, the winery is open, selling wines made with Okanagan grapes. Their objective, however, is to become self-sufficient when their vines are in full production. “Since we are pioneers out here, we decided we would need to be pretty much self-supporting,” Heleen says. “The Okanagan is quite a way away. We don’t want to depend on that forever.”
They are career-changing immigrants from Holland, a professional couple (he was born in 1970) with two children. They met at the University of Groningen where both studied economics and business. Heleen worked 15 years at the ING Bank and Rolf, after being a financial controller with a telecom firm, switched to management consulting.
“One of the primary reasons why we chose to start a vineyard was that we could not foresee ourselves working in a corporate environment and having kids,” Rolf says. “We are both very, very ambitious. We knew that a vineyard and a winery will be a huge amount of work but we saw the opportunity to put our energy to good use. We find it very difficult to move at half pace. If we embark on something, we go all for it.”
They are getting advice from some of the best brains in the Okanagan: Sumac Ridge founder Harry McWatters, veteran vineyard manager Richard Cleave and form CedarCreek winemaker Tom DiBello.
Earlier this year, they also brought in three partners with capital. These resources will be used to complete the vineyard and to build a new winery next year with the capacity to produce 4,000 cases. The winery will command a spectacular view over the Fraser River as it cuts through Lullooet.
For now, they make the wine and operate a tasting room in a renovated tractor barn on land where the Hudson’s Bay Co. once planned (but did not build) a post called Fort Berens.
These are the current offerings from Fort Berens, most of them made with Black Sage Road grapes:
Chardonnay 2009 ($18): In style, this will appeal to lovers of California Chardonnay with its buttery textures and its flavours of tangerine and peach nicely framed by oak. 86.
Meritage 2007 ($28): This wine got a silver medal at this spring’s All Canadian Wine Competition, a nice credit for a debut offering. It has soft ripe tannins with plum and berry flavours. It is 80% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc. 87.
Meritage 2008 (likely $28 on release): Youthful and still firm, this has excellent flavours plum and black cherry and a structure to age well for another five years. 88.
Cabernet Franc 2008 ($N.A.) This wine has the classic spicy, brambly fruit that makes this variety appealing and, arguably, more reliable in B.C. vineyards than Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is generous on the palate and again has the structure to age. 88.
Late Harvest Riesling 2009 ($20). This wine was virtue from necessity when super-ripe grapes arrived at the winery. Rather than make a dry and alcoholic white, Rolf and Heleen have left residual sugar here. Not overly sweet, the wine tastes lightly of honey and apricots. 86.
It is a good start for Lillooet’s first winery.