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Swiss Forester Grows Winery In B.C. Alps
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Wine ShopLarch Hill's wine shop and winery.
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Wood PileWood storage from logged sections.
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Jack ManserJack%u2019s Manser's furnace.
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Swiss Forester Grows Winery In B.C. Alps
Standing under the tall cedars and Douglas firs outside Larch Hills Winery, the setting is both charming and elevating. At 700 metres, Larch lays claim to being B.C.’s highest elevation winery with the south and west facing vineyards overlooking the northern Okanagan Valley.
Until this spring, co-owner Jack Manser has proudly displayed the Okanagan Valley as the geographical (VQA) designation on the winery’s wine labels. But now that’s changing.
According to Manser, the B.C. Wine Authority has ruled that the winery is outside the Okanagan Valley, and, therefore, wines made from Larch Hills grapes can no longer show Okanagan Valley on their labels. As a separate Shuswap appellation is not approved, the wines are only covered by the all-inclusive VQA British Columbia designation.
“The decision came out of the blue,” he says. “It’s based on a map from the Agricultural and Agri-Food Canada Research Centre in Summerland which shows that the winery – and Deep Creek – is excluded from the Okanagan Valley watershed. But from this vantage point, it is apparent that the water flows to Deep Creek below our vineyards, which runs into the Okanagan. Suddenly, the authorities are getting a lot tougher.”
With the Okanagan well-known as a wine producing region, the question is obvious – will this change affect Larch Hills’ sales numbers? Manser says it’s too early to tell.
“Grapes grown here make up only 40-50% of wines we produce, with the rest sourced from Westbank and Kelowna, which is part of the Okanagan Valley,” says Manser. “I can’t tell how much the change will impact on sales.” But he indicated that he may have to join other wineries in the area to request a separate Shuswap appellation.
A forester by training, Manser worked as a district forestry manager in his native Switzerland before immigrating to Canada in 1992. Facing a scarcity of jobs in his chosen field, he opted to buy a mixed farm in Alberta. When the break-up of his first marriage necessitated the sale of the farm, Manser’s search for a viable business opportunity took him to Larch Hills.
As the Shuswap’s first winery – opening in 1997 - the 72-acre property included an eight-acre vineyard along with a rugged forested area, over 55-acres, covered with cedar, birch, aspen and Douglas fir.
With his new wife Hazel, who he met in Alberta, the couple purchased Larch Hills in 2005. “At 2,500 cases, the numbers made sense and there was the potential for growth,” Manser explains. “Besides, I loved the land.” With no experience in winemaking, he arranged for previous owner Hans Nevrkla to coach him for the first 18 months.
“I learned winemaking by asking questions, reading books, searching the internet and making mistakes.”
His background in forestry proved invaluable. To expand the acreage under vine, he would propagate his own vines. But the first year taught him a crucial lesson.
“After planting the vine cuttings in little pots with peat moss – the same as for trees - they all died over the winter,” he explains. “It resulted in a lot of wasted time. Now they go in the ground and I have to dig.”
Since taking over the winery, Manser has added seven acres of vines – Ortega, Siegerrebe, Madeleine Angevine and Madeleine Sylvaner – for a total of 15 on the mountainside.
That required clearing a section of his beloved forest – and another opportunity to use his former training.
“I logged the trees myself without clear-cutting and used the trees as carefully as possible,” he says. Utilizing untreated wood from homegrown wood, he made posts with a peeler he had acquired, as well as patio railings and benches. The bulk is used as firewood in an outdoor wood furnace unit that he conceived and built himself. It heats water that circulates in each building – winery and wine shop, storage building and house – using a heat circulator with temperature controlled heat exchangers that provides all of the heating needs and shuts off in summer. “I am not a green activist, but there is so much wood around,” he says.
When Manser took over the winery, it lacked up-to-date equipment. The basket press and diatomaceous earth filter were inefficient, according to Manser, so he invested in major upgrades, such as a computer-controlled Sutter press and crossflow filtration system. “I was told that the cost is too high for a small winery,” he says. “But spread over 10 years, it has been worthwhile as we can improve the quality of our wine and save time, especially during the harvest. It allows me to spend more time tending the vines even though production has doubled to 5,000 cases.”
Preferring operations and farming, Manser has had to face marketing challenges in recent years. While doing fairly well in the northern Okanagan and Shuswap, sales in the Lower Mainland have been hampered by difficulty finding experienced agents.
To address the situation, Manser wants Hazel and Karin, his daughter from his previous marriage, to travel to Vancouver and visit restaurant and private stores. Assisting at the winery over the summer, Karin lives in Red Deer where she is a business student and is looking at transferring to Okanagan College in Salmon Arm. “She is great with people,” adds Manser.
Manser hopes to see his 19-year-old son take on a bigger role too. Wayne currently lives and works at the winery.
“He helped with the 2011 vintage,” Manser says. “But if he wants to stay, he should go to school and study winemaking.”