Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Kettle Valley Winery at 25

 Photo: Kettle Valley's Tim Watts (l) and Bob Ferguson

Kettle Valley Winery is markings its 25th anniversary this year. It is something that would never have happened if Bob Ferguson and Tim Watts, the partners who own it, had paid attention to naysayers.

“In the early days, we were told very clearly that you can’t grow certain varieties here,” Tim recalls. “Cabernet Sauvignon was never, ever going to be grown. We planted some in 1991 and the results were pretty good. We were told it wouldn’t live, or it would live but never be very healthy. We were told it might grow but it is never going to ripen. And we almost never fail to get below 24 ½ brix on it. It is usually 25. It is always nice when you realize you can do things like that.”

Only three other wineries – Hillside, Lang and Nichol – preceded Kettle Valley on the Naramata Bench. But no winery made such a major early commitment to both Bordeaux and Burgundy grape varieties at a time when few people believed in the future of British Columbia wines.

“We were on the front edge of what people were planting here,” Tim says. “Other than Petit Verdot – it is a bit of a challenge – everything else has really worked out.”

And they still are at the leading edge. “We have a Petit Syrah coming,” Bob says. “We said we would not grow any more varieties but we will get our first fruit this year. It is a couple of years from getting to market.”

The partners came to winemaking in 1980 as amateurs. Bob Ferguson was born in Scotland in 1950, grew up in Canada and became a chartered accountant in Vancouver. Tim Watts, eight years younger, was born in Victoria and became a geologist. Bob credits Tim’s geological training for the fact that the partners planted vines on choice sites while avoiding Naramata Bench frost pockets.

They discovered a shared interest in winemaking after marrying sisters, and started buying Okanagan grapes. In 1985 Tim and his wife bought a home near Naramata and put in a test block of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, ignoring warnings that these varieties could not be ripened there. The grapes did ripen and, starting in 1989, the partners began acquiring vineyard acreage and phasing down their former careers. 

The Naramata Bench, influenced by the proximity of the lake, has proven itself for growing fine grapes. The winery’s Old Main Vineyard was planted in 1990 to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, one of the earliest plantings of Bordeaux varieties on the Naramata Bench.  The wine from that vineyard is one of the most collectible long-lived red wines in British Columbia.

“Our Old Main Vineyard ripens Cabernet Sauvignon on a north-facing slope.  “It comes down to the lake,” Bob explains. Old Main is on a picturesque bench overlooking Okanagan Lake. The lake effect protects the vines from frost, allowing the winery to delay harvest into November. The Bordeaux varieties ripen here and in other Kettle Valley vineyards because the lake allows so much hang time.

Kettle Valley was one of the first to plant Malbec in the Okanagan. “Malbec was a surprise,” Bob says. “We were expecting, when we planted Malbec in 1998, that it would be quite tannic. And it turned out to be beautiful soft fruit with lots of blueberry notes. It was totally different from our anticipation after all the Malbecs we had tasted. That was a really eye opener. For the area, that was a really stunning variety.”

Good site selection and uncompromising grape growing lie behind the style of Kettle Valley’s wines.

“Our wines certainly reflect our taste in the wines we enjoy drinking,” Bob says. “Our style has always been bigger, robust, ripe, full-bodied wines because that is the style we enjoy. The luxury of being small is that you can afford to do that. We have certainly tried to make wines that are very intense and full-bodied. That’s our style and our mark.”

The winery opened its tasting room in 1996 (in what formerly was a three-car garage) with a Pinot Noir from 1992 and a Chardonnay from 1994. Boldly Burgundian, that Pinot Noir remained vibrantly alive a decade later, displaying the long-lived style of Kettle Valley wines.

“1992 was a hot summer,” Bob remembers. “The 1992s, the little we did, really stood out. And the 1994 wines as well. It was also hot summer and all the grapes came in well. I think that’s what really gave us confidence in moving forward. We had two really good years in which we had made wines we were extremely proud of.”

That certainly helped the winery get launched.

“In the 1990s, when BC wine just getting a footing, there were a lot of people that were not supportive – both consumers and restaurant industry people,” Bob says. “Trying to get on restaurant wine lists in the early 1990s was like banging your head on a brick wall. A lot didn’t want to see you.”

 Yet when Kettle Valley got into restaurants, the quality of the wines won considerable support. “A highlight [of our 25 years] is the way the restaurants have stayed behind us over the years,” Bob says. “That has been really satisfying.”

One of Kettle Valley’s biggest supporters over the years was the late John Levine, a former restauranteur and a founder of the Vancouver International Wine Festival. “The relationship we had with John was really special,” Bob says. “He bent over backwards to help us out any time he could.”  The Pinot Noir from Kettle Valley’s Hayman Vineyard was especially admired by John.

“In 2012, we lost a good friend in John Levine. John was a real inspiration to us and he certainly knew and loved his wines,” the winery says on its web site. “In memory of John we have renamed this single vineyard Hayman Pinot Noir as Hayman "John's Block". John, rest in peace.”
The production of this wine was only 96 cases in the 2012 vintage. Even though Kettle Valley produces about 9,000 cases a year – and once peaked at 13,000 cases – it is usual for the winery to make many small lots.

 “If we get a really nice wine, like Barber Cabernet Sauvignon, we will bottle two barrels … that is 44 cases,” Bob says. “The 2009 Petit Verdot was only 44 cases. We are set up to do small lots. We started that way.  We have the advantage, if we have a stunning barrel or two from somewhere. For the most part, things are fermented separately. It is a treat to take something that really stands out, whether it is 44 cases or 23 cases. We did the Crest Cabernet with 23 cases one year. It is a treat to be able to show people what you can do with a variety compared with the same variety farmed the same way but from a slightly different location.”

“When you have all of these small vineyards, as we have in Naramata, once you start blending them together, usually you are blending towards mediocrity,” Tim believes. “When you have a block that is special in a particular year, you want to put that in a bottle separately.”

However, Kettle Valley’s single largest production is its Pinot Gris, about 2,500 cases a year. What makes the wine iconic is its deep pink colour. This is achieved by soaking the juice on the pink skins of mature Pinot Gris for two to four days. The result is a wine full of flavour with appealing aromas. Only one other winery (Nichol) makes a comparable wine. 

“We had a winemaker from Oregon phone up one day,” Bob says. “He had been in Vancouver, tried our Pinot Gris and loved it. He phoned and asked how we made it. I told him; I told him how long the cold soak was. He said, ‘You can’t do that. The skins on Pinot Gris taste terrible. You can’t cold soak them.’ I said, ‘You phoned me, you told me you liked the wine, you asked me how we made it. I am telling you how we made it; don’t tell me we can’t do that!’ That ended the conversation.”

The partners reduced production from their peak of 13,000 cases when they found that was just too big. “We want to be hands-on,” Bob says. “We want to be involved in the process. The whole idea of being involved in the wine business was to do it, not to give the good jobs to someone else while you turn out to be the management.”

Tim adds that “13,000 was probably too much. It wasn’t fun anymore. Everything was a struggle.”

“I remember in harvest going from six or seven in the morning to 11 at night, seven days a week,” Bob says. “We were a few years younger, but it was physically taxing. We thought, this isn’t fun, this makes no sense. So we backed down. We are targeting 9,000 … maybe we will get to 8,000. That is a good number. You can still be hands on with everything, still control everything. We can come home from harvest at seven o’clock at night. It is not so draining.”

After 25 years, Kettle Valley remains a family operation. “We have always been reluctant to bring in people from the outside to be in charge,” Bob says. “We wanted to do it ourselves. That is the whole fun of being in this business.”

They have, however, named an assistant winemaker: Tim’s son, Andrew, who has trained in winemaking in New Zealand.

“We were kind of hoping the kids would be involved in the business and would carry things on,” Tim says. “I thought we had worked it out of all of them. Andrew for some reason liked the concept and went on to study winemaking at university.”


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