Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Remembering Pioneer Vineyard's Bert Sperling

The Okanagan wine industry was saddened to learn of the death on December 26, 2012, of Bert Sperling, a leading Kelowna grape grower and the father of a distinguished winemaking family.

Pioneer Ranch, the 18-hectare Kelowna vineyard which he operated for many years, has become home to Sperling Vineyards. The winery was opened in 2009 by his daughters, Ann and Susan (with their spouses), fully supported by Bert and his wife, Velma.

To give a flavour of the man, here is a brief profile that was printed in 1996 in my book, The British Columbia Wine Companion.

Sperling, Englebert (1928-) Bert Sperling, as he is called, was born in Sedley, Saskatchewan, in 1928 but grew up in the Okanagan after his family moved to Kelowna in 1930. After a brief postwar stint in the air force and a decade in road building and construction, he agreed in 1960 to take over Pioneer Ranch, the eighty five-acre farm just outside Kelowna operated by his father-in-law, Napoleon Peter Casorso, who was retiring and who had not restored vines and fruit trees badly damaged in a winter a decade earlier. Not interested in tree fruits, Sperling replaced the orchard and replanted the existing vineyard, for a total of fifty acres of vines.

The grapes originally were sold to Calona Wines, Casorso having been a founding shareholder. Almost all were labrusca varieties, except for perle of csaba, an aromatic early variety whose maturity coincided with the arrival of California grapes at Calona.  "By the time Calona would accept them, the wasps would have eaten the grapes right out, leaving just a shell there," Sperling recalled. After several years of quarrelling with the winery about when his perle of csaba would be picked, Sperling angrily switched his contract to Growers' Wines, and with this winery's encouragement, converted the vineyard from labrusca to preferred hybrid grapes such as de chaunac. This relationship ultimately led to Sperling and his son, Douglas, buying the Beau Séjour Vineyard from Growers'. The Pioneer Ranch vineyard still grows perle of csaba, along with several other white vinifera varieties, including gewürztraminer.  In 1995, finding a surprising demand for the old standby, maréchal foch, Sperling converted all of his verdelet vines by grafting them over to foch.

[The Beau Séjour vineyard is now home to St. Hubertus Estate Winery.]


At Sperling Vineyards, Ann Sperling, now a winemaker with a national reputation who grew up amid the vines, relies on those vines to make an excellent Old Vines Foch, along with Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat. The wines are a tribute to Bert’s foresight as a grower.

In 2008, Ann shared this memory of her father’s vineyard:

“When I was very young the area that is now under vine had grapes, peaches, cherries, apricots and prune-plums growing on it. All the grapes at that time were labrusca or labrusca hybrids like Delaware, Diamond, Campbell Early, Patricia etc., but the exception was the Perle de Csaba. It is a vinifera and a Muscat type. It ripened early (i.e. late August) and tasted wonderful. I certainly attribute my love of muscat and Moscato d'Asti to having gorged myself as often as possible on those grapes.

“For all the fruits, the trueness of character and intensity, with supporting acidity, was always prized by the family through the generations. Great flavours are a hallmark of the terroir.”

The winery, with its fine-flavoured wines, is a legacy for Bert Sperling.


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