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Sara Harker of Rustic Roots.
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Steve Venables of Forbidden Fruit.
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Del and Miranda Halladay
Miranda and Del Halladay of Elephant Island Orchard Wines.
For a number of dedicated fruit growers in British Columbia, making wine from fruit is not only a labour of love; it also makes good business sense. Certainly diversification and adding a value-added component can mean less exposure to the inevitable variances in demand and weather. But no two fruit growers take the plunge for the same reasons; circumstances and objectives differ widely. Here are four very different stories about growers in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys who opted to bottle their product.
RUSTIC ROOTS WINERY
Qualified as a VQA taster and a graduate of Okanagan College’s Assistant Winemaker Program, Sara Harker knows about wine. She and husband Troy represent the 5th generation of the Sam Mannery’s family that first settled in Cawston as ranchers in 1888.
As families grow, you can do one of two things: break up the farm or grow it. In the case of the Mannery/Harker clan, the key has been adding profitable, new areas of endeavour and diversifying the business. Troy’s parents, Bruce and Kathy, built a thriving business, obtaining organic status for their farm, starting a wholesale fruit packing and marketing enterprise and expanding the organic fruit stand (launched in the 1950s by Troy’s great-grandparents) to a store in 1993.
Aiming to expand the business sustainably, Rustic Roots opened in 2008 with a tasting room addition (with a gallery of family photos from the earliest days of their arrival) and Sara Harker as winemaker and manager.
“We do things differently here,” she says. “Instead of encouraging farmers to drop fruit by charging them 6 cents per pound for fruit with blemishes, we ask them to strip the trees. No. 1 goes into the box for shipping to market, while seconds go into making cider or fruit wine.” The biggest award winner is Santa Rosa, a single variety plum dessert wine. On an equal footing, Mulberry Pear is made with organic mulberries and Bartlett pears and has a rich, dried fruit character like Amarone. Winner of the battle of sparkling wines, Fameuse is a mix of Santa Rosa plums and apples of the same name from the 110 year-old snow apple tree still growing on the family farm, and depicted on the label of Rustic Roots wines.
About her methods, Sara Harker explains: “I take a minimalistic approach. With great fruit, I let the valley do its thing.” A former restaurateur, she is looking forward to an exciting 2014 with the opening of a commercial kitchen, a bistro serving healthy, local food with counter service and take-out, and a covered area for picnics and weddings.
FORBIDDEN FRUIT WINERY
Placing himself squarely in the “back to the land” generation, Victoria native Steve Venables wanted a world with clean food free of chemicals, long before the movement became the organized force it is today. Instead of marching for peace and love, he moved to the Similkameen Valley in 1972.
“It was pretty sleepy at the time,” he says. For the next five years, he immersed himself in learning the nuts and bolts of growing fruit by “picking and pruning for bigger growers.” When he purchased a 142 acre property between Highway 3 and the Similkameen River in 1977, the self-described organic orchardist was at the forefront of the organic revolution.
By the 1990s, demand and prices started to cool off. With the emergence of agri-tourism in the South Okanagan, Venables hatched the idea of starting a fruit winery as a value-added addition to the orchard business. After all, Venables reasoned, he already had some winemaking experience as part of a small wine club that included Roger Hall of Similkameen’s Rocky Ridge Vineyard. As well, the enterprise required little capital. He had much of the infrastructure already in place, including a cold storage/fruit packing area that could be adapted for winemaking, and space in the family home to house a combined wine shop and gallery for co-proprietor Kim Brind’Amour’s art.
With 60 different varieties of soft fruits, including many exotics such as Asian pears and white cherries, grown in the orchard, Venables could make a wide range of wines and styles. Every year since Forbidden Fruit opened in 2005, globe-trotting winemaker Dominique Rivard visits after the cross-flow filtration process to assist with final balancing, blending and finishing the wine. With almost 3 acres of vines grown on higher land above Highway 3, Forbidden Fruit now produces six grape wines under the “Earth Series” label, in addition to 14 fruit wines made in four different styles – table, dessert, port-style and sparkling. Assisting Steve and Kim at the winery are daughter Tesha and son Nathan, who has completed the Assistant Winemaker Program at Okanagan College.
SLEEPING GIANT FRUIT WINERY
Established in 2008, Sleeping Giant is a logical extension of Summerland Sweets, the thriving store-front, agri-tourism business in Summerland which makes an array of fruit-based products from B.C.-grown fruit. Despite the importance of the fruit wine arm of the business – Sleeping Giant produces 13 table wines and 8 fortified dessert wines – it is not the one that draws the biggest crowds. As general manager Len Filek explains, “We’re closing in on 35,000 ice cream cones, the best gauge for business.” Summerland Sweets dates back to 1962 as a retirement project for its founder, Ted Atkinson, after a distinguished career as head of the food processing lab at the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre in Summerland. According to family lore, the business grew out of Ted’s efforts to make a fruit jelly candy to raise funds for the local Rotary Club. Today, his only daughter Frances Beula lives nearby in the original house Ted bought in 1929. Her children, including Michael who runs the orchard side of the business, own orchards that supply tree-ripened fruit for Sleeping Giant wines as well as other tasty products. A graduate in marketing from UBC who married Frances’ oldest daughter Susan, Len took over g.m. duties in 1984. Len credits winemaker Ron Taylor, a microbiologist who worked as chief winemaker at Andrês Wines in Port Moody, for designing and crafting distinctive and exemplary wines from 27 varieties of fruit. Some like Blackberry, Cranberry, Raspberry and Strawberry Rhubarb are sought after by top restaurants for use as irresistible ingredients for making fruit martinis. Sparkling fruit wines are in the works and will include Cranberry/Raspberry, Peach and Blackberry bubblies. The key to top quality fruit wine, according to Felik, is using fresh, fully-ripened fruit. “We know the fruit is ready when 10% of the fruit has fallen to the ground,” he says. “At this point most peaches and other soft fruits are no longer transportable. The best way to maintain quality is to freeze the fruit quickly and store it until processing.”
ELEPHANT ISLAND ORCHARD WINES
Not a winery like the others, Elephant Island marches to its own provocative tune. Convinced that well-crafted wines could be made from pure, undiluted fruit grown in the Okanagan Valley, Del and Miranda Halladay started Elephant Island in 1999 in partnership with their feisty grandmother Catherine Chard Wisnicki. One of Canada’s first female architects, she purchased a property in the midst of a cherry orchard on the Naramata Bench in 1972 as a summer haven for herself and grandfather Paul Wisnicki, affectionately called Poppy. To ensure preservation, they leased the orchard at first. When Catherine designed their dream house, Poppy, an engineer, considered the project a “white elephant”, and referred to it as ‘EYE-land;’ aesthetically pleasing but not following logic.
It was Poppy who first dabbled in fruit winemaking and distilling as a hobby, and whose recipes inspired the Halladays. Fun-loving beer drinkers in their 20s – Del became a professional lacrosse player and Miranda had a degree in geology – they changed course, taking on the challenges of nurturing an orchard and running a winery.
“If we were going to stay on the property, we had to develop a business plan,” Miranda Halladay says. To start off on the right foot, they hired Bordeaux-trained consultant Christine Leroux to make the wine and mentor Del, who completed the winemaking program at Okanagan College. Competitive by nature and “to answer critics who say we couldn’t do it,” the Halladays planted grape vines on their 5 acre home property and launched Told You So Viognier and Naysayer Cabernet Franc under the Unconventional Wisdom label, proudly winning best varietal spot for their Viognier at the 2013 Spring Wine Festival.
“We have the same reverence for fruit wines as grape wines,” Miranda Halladay says. Sheltered by a mature oak and maple trees, and bordered by the cherry orchard, the licensed courtyard outside the log barn wine shop provides cooling respite from the intense Okanagan summer sun. ■