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Celista Estate Winery
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Jake and Marg Ootes
Jake and Marg Ootes of Celista Estates Winery.
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Larch Hills Winery
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Sunnybrae Vineyard & Winery
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The wineries of the Shuswap, north of the Okanagan, are becoming known for their award-winning “cool climate” wines, unique location and distinctive terroir. There are five family-run wineries here, which is one of North America’s most northern grape-growing areas: Celista Estates Winery and Vineyard, Larch Hills Winery, Ovino Winery, Recline Ridge Winery and Sunnybrae Vineyard & Winery.
“Customers in general are becoming much more aware of our wines, especially as a viable and interesting alternative to wines of other regions,” says Graydon Ratzlaff, co-owner with wife Maureen of Recline Ridge in Tappen.
The “Dirt” on Shuswap Soil
Shuswap soil is fairly rocky, with some clay, suitable for vinifera grapes, according to the owners of Larch Hills, just south of Salmon Arm. “Many people think that grapes need rich soil, but that’s not so," say Jack and Hazel Manser.
“The soil type can vary considerably from one vineyard to the next,” agrees Ratzlaff. “Ranging from gravel, sand, silt, and clay, the Shuswap has a variety of soils suitable for growing grapes.”
Jake Ootes, who owns Celista Estates Winery with his wife Marg in Celista, describes his vineyard soil as a mixed blessing. “There’s about a foot of top soil, then close to three feet of hard pan clay. It presents challenges because you have to drill or rip through the hardpan so the plants can get through that. That said, the clay has many minerals and holds water quite well, so we don’t have to irrigate like the southern areas.”
Fruity, Aromatic, Crisp Wines
“The varieties of grapes grown here are mostly short season because ours start a little later and end earlier,” says Ootes.
Grapes grown in the Shuswap include Bacchus, Gewutztraminer, Kerner, Madeleine Angevine and Madeleine Sylvaner, Marechal Foch, Ortega, Optima, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Schonburger, Siegerrebe and Zweigelt, Each winery grows varietals that best suit their terroir and environment.
Because Shuswap vineyards do not need to be irrigated, the Mansers of Larch Hills believe this produces an extra intensity to the grapes—”more flavours concentrated in less production of clusters on the vine.”
“I would say that our Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer pack more flavour and aroma than many grapes grown further south in the Okanagan, likely due to the slightly cooler growing area and cool nights,” says John Koopmans, who with his wife Catherine owns Ovino Winery in Salmon Arm. “The acidity is usually crisp and refreshing but the sugar content and ‘weight’ of the wine are normally lower than fruit grown further south.”
“The whites are extremely aromatic, full of a variety of fruit flavours, and cool and crisp and refreshing,” says Recline Ridge’s Ratzlaff. “Reds are also very fruit-intensive, but generally can be lighter in style. Marechal Foch, (a red), tends to be full-bodied, smokey on the nose, and finishes very smoothly.”
In the Family Way
All five Shuswap wineries are run by families, which has its challenges and benefits.
“Often a 24/7 adventure, the work must be performed at all levels, from working in the vineyards to bottling wine to working with customers in the wine shop,” says Ratzlaff. At Recline Ridge, he and Maureen are supported by full-time winemaker Jesse Steinley and seasonal staff.
Koopman admits it's a challenge at Ovino when several things might need to be done all at once, especially during wineshop open season. He likes to keep the operation small so he can handle the vineyard, most of the winemaking, while wife Catherine can alternate with daughter Jessica in the wineshop. Son-in-law Don Gawley helps out during crush and bottling. “At harvest, the whole family and friends get invited and seem to have fun!”
Similarly the whole family at Sunnybrae Vineyard & Winery in Tappen, owned by Barry and Nancy Turner, help out; not just their daughters, but also their husbands, children, nieces and nephews.
At Larch Hills, Jack Manser is in charge of the vineyard and winemaking, while Hazel takes care of marketing, government paperwork, and promotion. Both use help and consultation from others. “The benefits,” they say, “are that a small winery such as ours has very loyal and appreciative customers and we get direct feedback with face-to-face customer experience all the time.”
To Market, To Market
The five wineries of the Shuswap market themselves and their region both collectively and individually. They have reached out as a group, including the construction of a joint website, shuswapwineries.ca, which contains profiles, directions and contact information for each. They also engage in common marketing in a variety of print/trade media, and have a joint rack card displayed in tourist centres. They have not yet identified themselves with a distinctive name such as The Golden Mile or Bottleneck Drive like other wine regions, but for now, the moniker Shuswap Wineries identifies who and where they are.
Of course, each Shuswap winery does its own promotion. This can include case discounts; print and radio advertising; rack cards; interesting, informative websites; keeping in touch with customers through email lists; and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Then there are tastings at wine festivals, stores, participation in wine-related events both on and off-site and personal calls on potential wine outlets.
Each Shuswap winery has defined its uniqueness through its quality wines and distinct story. Larch Hills, for example, has been successful in product, sales and competitions since it opened in 1997. They were also the pioneers of vinifera grape growing in the area, and people know about that.
Wine competitions and winning awards may or may not directly affect popularity of Shuswap wines. The wineries continue, however, to enter and win—some have fared extremely well. “These competitions do provide access for positive results, publication of those results, and a growth of awareness amongst wine enthusiasts,” says Ratzlaff.
“At Ovino, we only enter one or two national competitions, more to see how our wines rank in relation to other wineries in the country,” says Koopmans. “Most of our wine is sold from our wine shop and customers go by what they like as they are tasting.”
The Personal Touch
It is still, however, the personal experience that largely promotes the individual Shuswap wineries and their wines. “Tourists and locals always help spread the word (about Sunnybrae), which is great,” says the Turner's daughter Kristie.
All of these wineries are in impressive scenic settings, which is hardly surprising in the beautiful Shuswap, whether it’s mountains in the background, overlooking Shuswap Lake, vineyards, or a combination.
The Shuswap wineries agree that one of the most important aspects of a winery visit is friendliness on the part of the owners. Personal chats, tours, storytelling about the wines and winery, in addition to great ambience and wines, all add up to a memorable experience that visitors never forget.
The Shuswap wineries are coming into their own despite challenges such as a certain remoteness and small population. “We get great satisfaction once we start reaching success,” says Ootes. “It’s a wonderful lifestyle.” ■
For more information, visit shuswapwineries.ca.