Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Looking Ahead to WBC13 - Week 6 - Orofino

Many of the participants planning to attend the 2013 Wine Bloggers Conference wouldn't be able to raise their hand if asked "How many of you have ever finished off a bottle of BC wine?" I'm willing to bet a couple bottles of that wine that even more of those hands would have to stay down if the question were to be phrased as "How many of you have tried a bottle of wine from the Similkameen Valley?"

Yes, there is more to BC wine than just the Okanagan Valley.

The Similkameen and Okanagan Valleys may be neighbours - just like Napa and Sonoma - however, the Okanagan has a much higher profile for its wines. That may not be entirely surprising, given that the Okanagan has been home to the majority of BC wineries since the modern era of the BC wine industry started in earnest in the 1980's. The Similkameen has long been known for its agricultural bounty though and many of the grapes that were grown over the last three decades were destined for Okanagan wineries.

In recent years, many of those grapes have been staying in the valley as the Similkameen has seen a burgeoning of wineries in its own right. Indeed, a few years back, the Similkameen Valley was named by enRoute Magazine as "one of the world's 5 best wine regions you've never heard of." That sentiment was echoed more recently in Vines magazine when the Valley was lauded as "one of the 6 most underrated wine regions in the world."

I figured I'd use this stop on my pre-WBC13 tour to introduce everyone to one of our favourite Similkameen wineries - Orofino Vineyards.

John and Virginia Weber started Orofino after they'd decided to change up their respective lives as a teacher and a nurse back in Saskatchewan. Thoughts of operating a greenhouse turned to growing grapes - the latter being far more "romantic" especially when you hail from Saskatchewan - when they discovered two properties were available, the first being one in Okanagan Falls and the second a six-acre vineyard in the Similkameen. They drove all night, on a Thanksgiving weekend, across the prairies and through mountain passes, to the thriving metropolis of Cawston (pop. 900-1000) and immediately "fell in love" with the Similkameen vineyard. It certainly didn't hurt that the vineyard had been planted with grapes in 1989 and the vines were already well-established. A deal was struck and the Webers then simply needed to learn something about grape growing and winemaking.

That was in 2001 and, at the time, the Similkameen wasn't known as a wine-producing region. The "frontier feeling" of the industry appealed to the Webers and they saw "a great opportunity to build something." However, they realized that participating in a new industry can be problematic as well. The small size of the industry makes it expensive to get the equipment and barrels needed to make top wine. Weather in the Similkameen can be challenging as well as the region is "really on the edge of where vinifera can survive and prosper." The weather is always going to be a concern but John feels that the local weather may also play a part in helping make BC wines as good as they can be. The prohibitively high cost of land doesn't help either - unless you're backed by deep pockets.

Realizing they were taking on a challenge, John figured he might need to supplement his experiences of pulling beer taps in England and making beer at a Saskatchewan brew pub, John took a wide-ranging collection of courses at Okanagan University College - covering farming, winemaking and marketing aspects of the industry. For the first so many years, the Webers sold their grapes, finally releasing their first vintage of Orofino wines in 2005.

Photo from Scout magazine
The wines were definitely well received from the start and it didn't hurt that the Webers had an interesting story to catch people's attention with in the early days. A healthy amount of press was garnered by the fact that Orofino was the first (and possibly still the only) winery in Canada made from straw bales. The construction method is not only environmentally friendly, its 21-inch thick walls gives the winery wonderfully high insulation properties, creating ideal conditions for maintaining constant barrel room temperatures and keeping the buildings cool in the summer, desert heat. John's sense of community building was evident when, in June 2004, they built the accompanying tasting room. A 5-day educational workshop was designed to allow 22 people the opportunity to participate in a hands-on experience of learning the dynamics of straw bale construction.

Photo from Orofino website
The Weber's innovation and commitment to environmental self-sufficiency didn't stop with the straw bales either. More recently, John was involved in the design of and installation of new "hybrid solar photovaltaic and solar thermal heating" systems. I'm not going to pretend to understand what all that means but Orofino is the first winery to this install new technology and it allows the tasting room to operate pretty much "off the grid." John has been quoted as foreseeing the application of this technology to other BC wineries that could benefit from the economic savings as well as significantly reduce the winery's energy footprint.

When asked for his view on the whole "signature grape for BC" debate, John responded that he felt "we are too young of an industry to determine that. Our market is predominantly provincial...and to ask BC consumers to love our Pinot Blanc or Cab Franc or Merlot because that is what we do best would turn our business plans upside down and we would all need to look for an export market. We should capitalize on our local/tourist market and produce a variety of wines to satisfy and keep their interest. I like making a number of wines and I am not sure which I would choose if you ask me to pick just one. That would be no fun and would stunt the growth and experimentation of what does well. Look at what Syrah has down here in the past 5 years! What's next?"

Accordingly, you might not be surprised to see that Orofino produces a healthy range of whites and reds - and even a new Moscato Frizzante bubble that has proved to be very popular. The wines are largely vineyard specific and are a combination of estate grown and locally sourced grapes.

1299.  2008 Orofino Red Bridge Red (BC)

When choosing an Orofino wine to add to The List in this post, I grabbed this bottle of Red Bridge Red as it is consistently one of our favourite BC Merlots. It was only after I'd opened the bottle that I realized that, of course, I'd chosen the one wine that Orofino makes that isn't made from Similkameen grapes. Silly me. I could have gone back and opened a different bottle to highlight the local terroir but I decided that, if the grapes are good enough for John to continually buy them as his only non-Similkameen grapes, the wine is good enough for this post.

The Red Bridge Red (now called Red Bridge Merlot) is named for a local landmark, is 100% Merlot and is a single vineyard wine from the Oak Knoll Vineyard in Kaleden - a 25 minute drive from Orofino. The wine is unfined and unfiltered and is intense with dark fruit. Production is limited to under 1000 cases and I'm a fan.

If you read through this blog, you'll also see that we've knocked back our fair share of vintages of Orofino's Riesling as well. John is particularly found of making Riesling and I'm particularly fond of drinking them. I'm really looking forward to orchestrating a side-by-side tasting of the three single vineyard Rieslings he produced for the 2012 vintage as this is a first for Orofino. All of the grapes were grown in the Similkameen - either on the home estate or at near by vineyards - and John was excited to experiment with barrel ferments and wild yeast ferments in making the wines. They aren't available yet but I'll be watching for them.

A couple of years back, I was fortunate enough to participate in a memorable luncheon at Orofino during the 2011 BC Wine Appreciation Society's Fall Bus Tour but John and Virginia also host an annual event that I've never been able to attend - but would dearly love to. The 100-mile diet took BC by storm a couple of years back but this special winery evening takes locavore dining to a new level, its being a fundraising, five course dinner that features only foods provided by artisan producers from within a 1.6 mile radius of the winery. I read that, one year, the dinner even featured butter and ricotta that was made from Orofino's own dairy cow. I'm hoping that they'll keep hosting the dinner and that, one of these years, we'll be able to fit it into our calendar.

Not to say that John's a stereotypical example of the adage, "it takes a lot of beer to make a good wine," John is a fan of craft beer and both he and Virginia would be willing to pop more Champagne corks (if only the wallets were more willing) as they do love their bubble. As mentioned, Orofino currently produces its Moscato Frizzante, but John's not adverse to trying his hand at playing with some traditional method sparkling wine down the road.

While John understands the reach of social media and tries to "use it to stay in the game," he, somewhat sheepishly, admits that Orofino's presence on Facebook and Twitter is limited as "we were really dragged into it as neither Virginia nor myself are really keen to get involved." You can follow their Twitter handle, @OrofinoWinery, though and catch some of their latest news. I'll be watching for the release of those 2012 Rieslings.

If anyone attending WBC13 is flying into Vancouver, you should consider renting a car and driving the Southern route to the Okanagan. The Hope-Princeton is one of the nicest drives in Canada and the continuation of Hwy 3 through the Similkameen just makes the journey all the more enjoyable. The Similkameen Valley is a favourite of our's and, now that wineries like Orofino - and Herder and Seven Stones and Forbidden Fruit and Clos du Soleil and others - are integral parts of the Valley, it's even more enjoyable than it already was.

And, it'd be a first hand introduction to the fact that, as wonderful as the Okanagan can be, there's lots more to be discovered when it comes to BC wine.

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