Saturday, November 22, 2014

Remembering Ted Brouwer

Photo: Ted Brouwer with Inkameep Vineyards in the background

Ted Brouwer, one of the pioneers of Okanagan viticulture, died in Oliver on November 21.

In memory, I reproduce here two essays from my 1996 book (out of print),  British Columbia Wine Companion. One was a biographical sketch of Ted and the other was a long piece on struggles of getting Inkameep Vineyards established on a bench of land north of Oliver.

Today, the vineyard is one of the most important in the south Okanagan. Its legendary U2 block of Cabernet Sauvignon delivers grapes that, at $4,000 a ton, are perhaps the most expensive in the Okanagan. The quality of the fruit justifies the price.

Without Ted Brouwer’s perseverance during the vineyard’s first two decades, wineries today might not be benefitting from the site’s well-grown grapes.

The biographical sketch refers to Ted’s desire to grow grapes on the apple orchard to which he had moved after leaving Inkameep. Subsequently, he did plant a vineyard with Syrah, among other varieties. Several years ago, he almost died when his tractor rolled over on him. His life was never dull.

A rotund and cheery optimist with infinite patience with bureaucracy, Brouwer steered Inkameep Vineyards Ltd. through its tumultuous early years, learning grapegrowing as he went until he was completely seduced by viticulture. After he left the vineyard in 1986, he bought a small apple orchard nearby on a property with no vines. "I still would like some grapes," he said wistfully in a 1995 interview.

Brouwer was born in 1925 in Heemstede, a small town about twenty-five km west of Amsterdam in Holland, the son of a food wholesaler. In 1946 Brouwer enlisted in the Royal Netherlands Army's medical corps and was posted to Indonesia, then still a Dutch colony. In his free time there, he enrolled in courses in tropical agriculture. On returning to Holland in 1950, he went to work for his father's firm but continued his agricultural studies until, with a group of other ex-army friends, he came to Canada in 1955. After a summer on a grain farm near Medicine Hat, Brouwer moved to Vancouver and spent two years working as a poultry technician at the University of British Columbia. That led to his working on several large turkey ranches until the fall of 1967 when he enrolled in a two-year agriculture course at Northern Lights College in Dawson Creek.

In the summer of 1967 he had responded to an advertisement for a vineyard manager at Monashee Vineyards. The job did not materialize because owner Ed Wahl decided to run the vineyard himself; but the offer piqued Brouwer's interest in grapegrowing. When he heard that a job was opening at Inkameep, he was able to spend the summer of 1968 there before returning to the college, completing his studies with a term paper on grapegrowing. In the spring of 1969 he took over as the vineyard manager, staying there until February 1986 when he clashed with a newly-elected chief of the Inkameep band and was fired. The resulting suit for wrongful dismissal was settled out of court with Brouwer getting a cash settlement to compensate for the abrogation of his contract.

Inkameep Vineyards:  At 215 acres in size in 1995 and one of the Okanagan's largest commercial vineyards, Inkameep was judged an "apparent failure" after its first decade. It survived, now selling more than one million dollars worth of quality wine grapes each year. Today, Sam Baptiste, the vineyard's ambitious general manager, envisions several thousand more acres planted to grapes in the Osoyoos Indian Band's reserve, which stretches from Oliver to Osoyoos along the eastern slopes of the Okanagan Valley here.

In 1966 Andrés Wines, then five years old and wanting an assured source of grapes, sought, but was refused, a long-term vineyard lease on Osoyoos Band land. The following year, however, the Band re-considered the opportunity, in concert with the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs and one Agnes MacDonald, who proposed she would supply vinifera vines from Germany to the project. (MacDonald withdrew from the venture before planting began.) With Ukrainian-born Balthaser Bachmann as vineyard manager (he had been running the Andrés vineyard at Cawston), a development plan was drawn up. The Band invested $60,000 and Indian Affairs  $428,000. Andrés was to provide technical advice through Bachmann. A man nearing seventy at the time, he was described in a letter by an Indian Affairs official as  "an older man with set ideas and minimum patience [who] has not worked on a Reserve before and has difficulty realizing that the people he is advising have not the background in grapegrowing that he has."[1] Bachmann declined the job as foreman, preferring to be an advisor, and Jim Stelkia, a Band member, was chosen as foreman, with Ted Brouwer, who was still finishing a community college agriculture course, joining Inkameep initially as project manager. Andrés' founder, Andrew Peller, acknowledged that Brouwer "had no experience with vineyards" but was "a smart man [who] learned the best methods from all over the world. He certainly knew how to work."[2] Brouwer believed that all agriculture has common principles. "I find apple growing more difficult than growing grapes," he said. "There is a way of adapting yourself. You have to take an interest in how things progress. You grew up along with the grape." An almost scientific record-keeper, Brouwer filled 104 diaries of data during his eighteen years with Inkameep. Unfortunately, enthusiasm was no substitute for experience, as the events of 1968 showed. Because an irrigation system was not installed until late summer, the newly planted sixty-three acres of vines had to be watered by hand, causing a  $20,000 labor cost overrun. "The failure to install a satisfactory irrigation system until mid-August resulted in a twenty per cent [vine] loss through drought,"  according to a project review of the vineyard done in 1977 for Indian and Northern Affairs and signed by Fred Walchli, then its regional director in British Columbia.[3] Frost in December knocked off another twenty per cent.

That inauspicious start set the tone. "The new year [1969] began with no money for wages, and consequent labor problems," the Walchli review continued, alluding to the perennial difficulty in getting the bureaucrats to release Inkameep's operating funds as they were needed. Brouwer, who took over as the full-time manager this year, described the vineyard's initial years as "a struggle that was unbelievable." He attributed some of the problems to the way Indian Affairs disbursed funds. "We got actually piecemeal financing and you got piecemeal results," he said later. On occasion he got personal bank loans to meet the payroll, being reimbursed later when the money arrived from Ottawa. In 1969, he could not hire enough planters until the summer school break; this was much too late to plant and many new vines, with no chance to become dormant for winter, were damaged by an early October frost. By February 1970 the vineyard project had burned through $267,000 of its capital yet, with eighty-three-and-a-half acres planted, was well behind schedule. However, Inkameep harvested its first thirty-five ton crop that fall, marking the event with an official opening where Joseph Peller was made an honorary chief, shared a peace pipe and picked up the bill for the event. Plantings remained stalled in 1971 but the existing vines produced 153 tons of grapes which were sold for $26,900, covering about half the vineyard's wage bill. In September 1971, the vineyard incorporated so that it could borrow additional funds from a federal government program. Brouwer recalled: "The bank at that time said, 'Hey Brouwer, an organization of this size should have sufficient funds available to carry out an operation of this size.'"

"The company planted 49,000 vines in 1972," Walchli reported. "However, the pattern of the previous years was repeated; funds were received too late to ensure that adequate labor was on hand." Once again, vines were planted later in the spring than they should have been and many, not fully dormant in the fall, were damaged by cold weather. Then on January 4, 1973, a week of cold weather after a long spell of mild weather caused what Walchli described as "almost wholesale destruction of the new plantings, as well as severe stunting to many of the older plants, particularly those planted in 1969."  No vines were planted in 1973 while the damage was assessed. It was bad: the 1973 harvest was only sixty per cent of the 252 tons produced in 1972. Uncertain how severely vine productivity had been hurt, Brouwer ordered a very light pruning to preserve a large number of buds -- with the result that 1974's crop was almost double that of 1972. The vineyard then compensated by pruning the overcropped vines aggressively and the 1975 harvest dropped to 235 tons. This was, however, the first Inkameep vintage taken off with a new mechanical harvester, acquired because of the perennial labor shortage. The best news for 1975 was that Andrés sponsored an experimental planting of vinifera vines -- johannisberg riesling, ehrenfelser and scheurebe --  purchased from the Geisenheim Institute in Germany. This marked a turning point for Inkameep which had been planted initially to Okanagan riesling, foch, de chaunac and other hybrid varieties.

Planting was suspended after the 1973 freeze, in part because the major wineries now decided they did not want the white varieties scheduled for Inkameep. The vineyard, with land ready for cultivation, sought to generate cash with corn in 1974 and with vegetables in 1975. Once again misfortune dogged the project. The vegetable crops soaked up the labor pool, preventing Inkameep from doing any significant planting. In the late summer, much of the bounteous tomato crop rotted in the field due to a shortage of labor.  Sixty acres of corn planted in 1976 were ploughed under after a cold spring and unusually wet summer. The grape harvest that year also was poor. Walchli's report, which was done just after that harvest, called the vineyard an "apparent failure." He did not blame Brouwer, having recognized that "the position of the vineyard manager is unenviable" because of the energy Brouwer expended on dealing with the real culprits, the departmental bureaucrats, who had impeded developing Inkameep to the 200-acre vineyard planned at the outset. "While staggering investments were made in capital improvements," Walchli wrote, "little concern was given to planting the vines, upon which the ultimate success of the project would depend.... The circumstances reflect the deep-rooted belief that Indian-operated projects will ultimately fail."

Despite that devastating report, the promise of new funds from Ottawa enabled Brouwer to carry on, this time with a significant planting of white vinifera vines imported from Geisenheim, in early 1977. "There were 83,000 plants and Andrés underwrote the whole thing," Brouwer recalled. The backing by a major winery enabled Brouwer to do the usual juggling of his finances (Ottawa disbursements being late as usual), stalling suppliers such as Air Canada -- which flew in the vine cuttings -- as much as six months. Inkameep managed to plant another ninety acres that spring, bringing its size to about 250 acres. Production was 465 tons in 1977 and 735 tons in 1978; and Inkameep had operating profits. The vineyard's profile improved further when Andrés in 1977 released Inkameep Red and Inkameep White, two of the Okanagan's earliest vineyard-designated wines. Then the notorious 1978-'79 winter killed 15,000 of the Geisenheim vines and damaged the vineyard's mature vines so badly that grape production plunged to 107 tons in 1979 and did not recover to the 1978 level until 1982.

Amid the rebounding optimism of 1980, Simons Resource Consultants of Vancouver was hired to produce a major feasibility report on what was called Wolf Creek Farms Vineyards. The concept was to develop a new 500 acre vineyard (eighty per cent in white varieties) on the Osoyoos Reserve, with Andrés and T.G. Bright each to  purchase the production of 200 acres and the remainder to be marketed to other wineries. Four locations were studied, including two near the current vineyard, with the preferred site being a bench on the east side of Osoyoos Lake. "A new vineyard will certainly lend more feeling of pride to the Osoyoos band and utilize prime land for which there does not appear to be other plans," Simons commented in its 1984 report.[4] Had it gone ahead, about $6 million would have been invested over five years, with all of the planting done in the first two years. This audacious plan was stillborn; by this time, the wineries were struggling with a surplus of red wines and wanted growers to pull out vines.

Brouwer meanwhile had begun encouraging an estate winery based on Inkameep's production. Indian Affairs, perhaps understandably given the financial struggles of the vineyard, wanted nothing to do with the idea -- but the T.G. Bright & Co. winery from Niagara Falls did. After failing to acquire the Mission Hill winery in 1978, Brights seized the opportunity to develop a winery north of Oliver, not far from the vineyard, in a $1.9 million building financed by Inkameep Vineyards Ltd. with a loan on commercial terms from the federal government. The winery, now operating under the Vincor name, was opened in 1981. "Without my suggestion and the gut feeling that we could do something with a winery, Vincor would not be there," Brouwer asserted later. Sam Baptiste was chief of the band when the winery agreement was negotiated. "It almost didn't happen," he recalled. Some of his fellow chiefs were opposed, telling him at a meetings of chiefs: "Sam, the biggest problem on every reserve is alcoholism -- and you're putting in a winery!" His first reaction was to call off the talks with Brights but he changed his mind after the meeting. "I thought about it and I decided it was none of their business." 

Ironically, the Geisenheim vines imported in 1977 set back the planting of the vineyard. The federal plant health authorities discovered viruses among the vines, stopped Inkameep from importing more Geisenheim vines to replace the losses and quarantined the entire vineyard for several years, which prevented Inkameep from sending vine cuttings out to nurseries for propagation. "We had brought those plants in on the assumption that those plants were free of any contaminated viruses," Brouwer recalled. It should have been a safe assumption, Geisenheim being one of Germany's leading grape breeding stations.  In any event, vines do not produce enough wood to yield cuttings for new vines until their third year. Forced to rely on its own resources, the vineyard did not fully replace the losses of 1979 until 1986. 

In 1983, however, the vineyard began to show its potential by producing 1,000 tons for the first time. Cold weather then reduced the 1984 vintage to 750 tons and selective pruning was a factor in 1985 production dropping to 625 tons. This was a factor in the confrontation between Brouwer and the Osoyoos band which led to Brouwer's abrupt departure in February 1986 (and a subsequent out-of-court settlement in Brouwer's favor). His successor, Kenn Visser, inherited a vineyard on the turn: it produced 1,100  tons that fall and turned a tidy profit.

The Missouri-born Visser, who had lived in the Okanagan since 1980 and who was a manager at Covert Farms before being hired for Inkameep, soon found himself considering strategies to help Inkameep survive the free trade agreement Canada and the United States signed in 1988. Along with most other growers, Inkameep got rid of unwanted grape varieties (foch, de chaunac and Okanagan riesling),  pulling out 107 of the 255 acres then in production. That still left Inkameep B.C.'s largest producing vineyard; and while it had contracts for its remaining grapes through the 1994 vintage, Visser and the Osoyoos Band  probed the winery option again with the production of Nordique Blanc, a white wine aimed initially at export sales. The market trials in New York and Chicago gained significant media attention for Inkameep but ultimately the label was licensed to Summerhill Estate Winery and the vineyard continued to sell its grapes, negotiating new three-year contracts for them in 1995.
Baptiste has presided over replanting Inkameep with vinifera. The new vines have included thirty acres of chardonnay along with plantings of merlot and pinot noir and scheduled plantings of cabernet franc  and sauvignon blanc. In 1995 the vineyard still retained twenty-six acres (of 215 planted) in two workhorse red hybrids, chancellor and baco noir, that may ultimately give way to red vinifera. He also has had some struggles with the weather but they have been a far cry from Ted Brouwer's experiences. In part, this reflects the knowledge that has been gained in vinifera growing. Newly-planted chardonnay were caught by freezing temperatures in early 1991 but this time most  of the vines survived. "I'd never grown chardonnay before and I found out how hardy it is." Baptiste also has adopted conservative techniques. "Every time there is a bad freeze, I take the ones that survive and I take cuttings," he says, arguing that these are stronger plants. "I also hill my young plants [ploughing a protective blanket of earth against the base of the vines each fall] until they are three years old."  He has great confidence in Inkameep's ability to grown quality grapes. "There's going to be a surplus of grapes in a few years," Baptiste predicted in a 1995 interview, "but there will never be a surplus of premium grapes."

[1] A.B. Ash, regional agricultal supervisor for Indian Affairs, in a letter April 26, 1968 to Jim Stelkia of the Osoyoos Band; in Brouwer personal files.
[2] Quoted in The Winemaker, Peller's autobiography.
[3] Inkameep Vineyards Ltd. Project Review, January 1977, prepared by F.J. Walchli, Regional Director General, British Columbia, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Copy in personal files of Ted Brouwer.
[4] Inkameep Vineyards: Analysis and Forecast, copy in personal files of Ted Brouwer.


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