Monday, August 22, 2011

Fort Berens hires winemaker Bill Pierson


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Photo: Fort Berens vineyard in Lillooet

With the first harvest from its Lillooet vineyard expected this fall, Fort Berens Estate Winery has appointed a staff winemaker.

Bill Pierson, who spent four years making wine with Tom DiBello at CedarCreek Estate Winery, anticipates that the Fort Berens vineyard will produce about 35 tons in its ground-breaking inaugural vintage.

“This is the first commercial production of grapes in this climate,” Bill says. “It is a new region. There will be more vineyards planted and it will develop as an appellation.”

The vineyard was planted in 2009 by Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek, two former Dutch bankers who emigrated to start a winery in British Columbia. Unable to find reasonably priced vineyard land in the Okanagan, they decided to take a gamble on the Fraser Canyon, encouraged by the results of recent small-scale grape growing trials in the Lillooet area.

With consulting advice from Richard Cleave, a veteran Black Sage Road vineyard manager, Rolf and Heleen planted 20 acres of vines, a block large enough to prove (or disprove) the commercial viability of a vineyard in this area. Climate data indicates the vineyard gets as many heat units, if not more, than Oliver area vineyards.

“The first harvest is exciting but the real excitement will be the accumulated knowledge that they will gain,” Bill says. “That’s the real story – a new vineyard in a new area. Hopefully, it will bode well for the Fraser Canyon.”

One challenge in the Fraser Canyon is finding vineyard sites that are not excessively shaded by the high mountains on either side of the canyon. The Fort Berens vineyard is on a plateau bathed by sunlight which falls through an enormous cleft in the mountain wall to the south. (The Duffy Lake Road to Pemberton goes through this pass.) Fort Berens has another 20 acres suitable for vines once the initial planting has proven itself.

The varieties currently grown here are Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling.

The winery’s two previous vintages were both made in an Okanagan winery with grapes primarily from Harry McWatters’s vineyard on Black Sage Road. The winery will continue to buy at least some Okanagan grapes in the future, to supplement its own production volumes and its selection of varietals.

“There are certain varietals we don’t have,” Bill says. “We don’t have Cabernet Sauvignon; it is not planted there. And the search is always on for more Cabernet Franc. Rolf’s a big fan of it; and that varietal is on the rise.”

Bill will be make some of his 2011 wines in an Okanagan winery and the rest in a temporary facility at Fort Berens, which expects to begin construction next year on a 4,000-case Lillooet winery. This will be the third time that Bill has been involved in winery construction.

Photo: Bill Pierson

Born in Montreal in 1956, Bill studied political science and geography but started his working career with Montreal Engineering in planning and costing projects. He worked on pulp mills and power plants in Ontario before moving to another engineering firm in Saskatoon. After a 1980s downturn in engineering, Bill who was a serious competitive runner, became a sales representative for Nike, first in Saskatchewan and then in Vancouver.

When he and his wife, Julie, moved to Bowen Island in the late 1980s, he switched to residential construction with an architect and builder.

“I got to 40 and thought, what am I going to do with my life?” he recalls. “Do I continue in building or so I look for something different?” He had been interested in wine since growing up with a wine-loving father. So he decided to take the wine programs offered by Okanagan University College.

He eased out of the construction business, doing his practicum at Nichol Vineyards, then doing a few crushes in the Okanagan until, in 2004, he moved to the Okanagan. Initially, he helped plant the vineyard and build the winery for Township 7. Then he moved to Laughing Stock Vineyards in the summer of 2005, in time to help build that winery.

In 2006 he joined CedarCreek, to work under the mentorship of Tom DiBello, then the senior winemaker there. Bill left CedarCreek in the fall of 2010. Tom is now a member of Harry McWatters’s The Vintage Consulting Group. When Tom was making the Fort Berens wines in 2010, he engaged Bill in the project and that led to the winery employing Bill as its winemaker.

“He is very collaborative,” Bill says. “He gave me a lot of responsibility [at CedarCreek] and I ran with it. I had input in virtually every aspect of what we were doing there. We made some good wine in those four years.”


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