Fresh Days in the Okanagan
Crush pad opens door for aspiring winemaker
I hadn’t planned to make my own wine, not at this point in my life.
After all, I’m still in my 30s and I have only recently left the security of running restaurants and wine programs for the not-so-secure life of being a selfemployed wine consultant. Only a couple of years ago, my wife and I managed to scrounge enough money and feign enough responsibility to the bank that we were able to buy our first home in Vancouver. (By “home,” I mean a 650-squarefoot condo in a semi-industrial area off Main Street.)
It was in our home, in fact, where we both recently swirled a couple ounces of 2011 British Columbia sémillon, a tank sample from a concrete egg-shaped fermenter that is part of the facility at Summerland’s Okanagan Crush Pad. Not only was this my own wine, but it was a meta-moment — the wine we were tasting is called “Kurtis.” (Kurtis 2011 Wild-Ferment Sémillon is for sale, by the way, through okanagancrushpad.com.)
There have been many twists and turns on the path that brought me here. A couple years ago, I was running Salt Tasting Room, a critically acclaimed wine bar in Vancouver’s Gastown. On one fairly unremarkable Wednesday, I nipped out to a local hotel for a Wines of Chile trade tasting event, dropping my business card into a bowl at the door for a draw later that afternoon. I thought nothing of it; we all do this kind of thing all the time, right?
But, within an hour, a Chilean winemaker announced my name into a microphone. I had won a two-week trip to his homeland. Six months later, I was boarding a plane to Santiago with a few other colleagues and Christine Coletta, whose marketing company worked with Wines Of Chile and was responsible for my good fortune and the trip.
There was a celebratory air to my travels; not only had I just wrapped up my restaurant career, but I’d also been named Vancouver’s Sommelier of the Year by the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival.
Over the next few weeks, as we sipped on Casablancan pinot noirs and Colchaguan cabernets, Coletta and I had intermittent chats as I tried to extract a subliminal mentorship from her, knowing her history and experience in developing the B.C. wine industry could provide a wealth of guidance to my new career.
Not only did we become fast friends, we talked about what was to be her next step — one she shared with me in confidence. “A custom-crush facility,” she said, “where we’ll have the capability to not only make, bottle and sell our own wine, but where others can use our winery, whether they employ us to make wine for them with their own grapes, or they simply need to use our equipment and resources.”
Modelled after similar businesses in Northern California, New Zealand and elsewhere, the concept excited me because it suddenly made the dream of making one’s own British Columbia wine much more possible.
It would no longer strictly be the domain of the wealthy since purchasing land, building a winery and buying equipment were taken out of the equation. Suddenly, making my own wine seemed possible.
I’d just need a few years to put aside money to buy grapes, bottles, develop a marketing strategy and secure Okanagan Crush Pad’s services, including those of muchlauded local winemaker Michael Bartier, who joined the team after a high-profile tenure at Road 13 Vineyards.
Coletta’s mind never rests, though. A handful of months later, the winery neared completion and the team was about to launch the second vintage of Haywire and the first for Bartier-Scholefield, the first two of their in-house labels.
It was another unremarkable Wednesday when I pulled the buzzing phone out of my pocket to see her name on the call display.
“What if,” she’d started right away, “we started a tradition at the Crush Pad where each year’s Sommelier of the Year had the opportunity to make 100 cases of their own wine — whatever they wanted to make — and we would sponsor the project, giving all proceeds to the B.C. Hospitality Foundation [a charity that provides financial assistance to those in the industry going through a serious medical crisis]?
“We’d name each wine after that year’s winner, starting with your wine — the Kurtis!”
Her next question was the kicker.
“Do you think it’s a good idea?”
Well, 2010’s Sommelier of the Year didn’t skip a beat before responding in the affirmative, giddy for the opportunity, both for himself and those down the line.
Back at home, as I swirled that tank sample in my glass, I recalled all these things. I remembered my relief when Coletta and Bartier encouraged me to share my vision for a low-alcohol, Hunter Valley, Australia-styled sémillon that would be wild-fermented in one of their concrete egg fermenters; a wine that would be citrusy and fresh in its early years, before becoming more figgy and waxy while exhibiting those classic secondary nougat elements as years went on.
The best part, though, as I stuck my nose in the glass, was that it immediately transported me to that tiny sémillon vineyard in Oliver, B.C., last spring under the sun, the bright blue morning sky, the smells of orchard fruit and sage in the fresh air, where Bartier and I examined the grapes that would literally become the fruits of our labour.
A fresh new day in the Okanagan, indeed.