Writer and wine columnist John Schreiner is Canada's most prolific author of books on wine.
Sunday, May 16, 2021
Remembering Joe Zuppiger
Photo: Joe Zuppiger (courtesy of Arrowleaf Cellars)
For the third time this year, one of the British Columbia wine industry’s leaders has died. On May 3, cancer took Joe Zuppiger, one of the owners of Arrowleaf Cellars in Lake Country.
In an obituary, his family summed up Joe’s life in this succinct sentence: “Joe was a self-made, industrious and creative person who lived his life with passion, courage and humility.”
I had come to know him and like him (who didn’t like him?) while profiling Arrowleaf Cellars in numerous books and articles over the last 20 years. I even helped the winery find its agent, one of the more curious episodes in my wine writing career.
It happened in 2003, the year that Arrowleaf opened. Joe invited me to the grand opening. A few days earlier, at a wine tasting in Vancouver, agents Peter and Elizabeth Crews of New World Wines, told me they wanted to add an Okanagan winery to their portfolio. Did I have a recommendation? I took their card and said I would give it some thought.
Arrowleaf’s grand opening was a splendid affair, with hundreds crowding the winery grounds to taste what were excellent wines. I gave Peter and Elizabeth’s card to Joe. He looked at the milling crowd and replied that he did not think he needed an agent. A few days later, when the crowds had evaporated. Joe appreciated that wine does not sell itself. He phoned me and asked me who the agents were. New World Wines has represented Arrowleaf ever since, making a significant contribution to the success of the winery.
It speaks to the competence of Peter and Elizabeth that they still represent Arrowleaf. Wineries often change agencies, for various reasons. It also speaks to the attitudes of the Zuppiger family and the family’s loyalty to everyone they work with. Joe and his family are widely respected.
My tribute is this excerpt from the second edition of The Wineries of British Columbia, published in 2004.
It is tough being a “born farmer” like Josef Zuppiger when one lives in Switzerland, where farms are tiny but very expensive. Born in 1950 near Zurich, Zuppiger rented his father’s small dairy farm and orchard for 12 years. In 1986, after it was sold, he brought his wife, Margrit, and their five children to Alberta where they owned a farm with about 80 dairy cattle.
It transpired that their children were not born dairy farmers. “I wanted to stay in agriculture,” Zuppiger says. “We travelled once to British Columbia, saw the vineyards and liked it.” With son Manuel, who was born in 1976, also showing an interest in viticulture, the Zuppigers sold the dairy farm and bought a producing vineyard in 1997.
Josef Zuppiger had no experience with grapes but he did not think it would be difficult. “Because I was an orchardist in Switzerland, I had an idea how to do it,” he says. “I knew how to prune trees. I also learned it from books and took a course, so I knew how to do it.”
Initially, Josef had continued selling his grapes to Gray Monk, the patron of the vineyard’s first owner. But he realized that he would not prosper and support a family as a grape grower with a vineyard only (6.5 hectares) 16 acres in size. He believes a grower needs a minimum of eight hectares (20 acres) to earn a living from selling grapes. “I would even say a bit more,” he says. “But when we have a winery with that acreage, I am sure we can make a living here.” Accordingly, son Manuel was enrolled in the three-year winemaking program at Wädenswil, Switzerland’s leading wine school.
The original owner had established the vineyard in 1986 with Gewürztraminer, later adding Bacchus, Pinot Gris and Auxerrois. The Zuppigers added Merlot and Zweigelt for their major red wines. To Manuel’s disappointment, there was no room in the vineyard for Pinot Noir, a variety he had come to appreciate when he was in school in Switzerland. What little planting room remained was filled with a few vines of Dunkelfelder, an inky German red useful for blending. There also is some Vidal for icewine or late harvest wine (depending on the winter weather). The Zuppigers intend to buy Pinot Noir grapes from vineyards elsewhere in the Okanagan. [Subsequently, Pinot Noir has been planted in their vineyard.]
As soon as the word got out that they were making wine in 2001, the Zuppigers began hearing from growers eager to sell them fruit. Cautiously, they declined to buy grapes immediately for the same reason that they built a functional winery rather than a fancy one. “We don’t want to jump into that right away,” Josef said. “We want to see how everything works with the store and how much wine we can sell before we make the next step.”
Manuel Zuppiger acquired solid winemaking experience at Wädenswil, where students spend most of the year apprenticing in wineries with periodic breaks to study theory. “It’s more practical,” his father suggests. “A lot of people go to university and don’t find out what hands-on really means.”
Manuel worked the 2001 vintage in the Barossa Valley with Grant Burge, one of Australia’s most awarded winemakers. In British Columbia, he also worked briefly at Tinhorn Creek before beginning to make Arrowleaf’s wines in 2001. Burge wanted him back in Australia for the 2002 vintage but, with the new winery under development, he could not spare the time to go.
The wines which Arrowleaf released when it opened in the spring of 2003 showed that Manuel had learned his art well. Both the Merlot and the Zweigelt, from estate-grown grapes, are ripe, juicy wines. The Merlot is lightly burnished with oak. “There is a lighter structure to the fruit flavours in the northern Okanagan, so we don’t want to drown it with oak,” he says. “We basically focus on the fruit and complement it with a bit of oak.” The crisply fruity whites are all aged in stainless steel tanks.
“Manuel prefers more dry wines but we kind of persuaded him to make some a little sweeter, maybe, just because the customers may prefer it,” the elder Zuppiger chuckles. The Arrowleaf Bacchus is aromatic and off-dry. The Auxerrois, also aromatic, is described as dry but “mellow” because of its fruitiness. However, the winery’s debut Gewürztraminer, while also aromatic, is powerful and full-bodied in the style of Alsace.
The winery, with its picnic area, might be at its most attractive in the spring when the surrounding slopes blaze yellow with the so-called Okanagan sunflower. This is the inspiration for the Arrowleaf name. The plant is balsam root, a perennial with bright yellow flowers and large leaves in the shape of arrowheads.