BC’s Unsung Valley
The Okanagan has long stolen the thunder of its neighbouring valley to the west, the Similkameen. But all that could soon change. This rugged ranching and former gold-mining region runs northwest from Osoyoos at the southern end of the Okanagan, and it shares with its more famous neighbour the most northerly reaches of the Sonoran Desert. You don’t want to walk the vineyards here in open-toed sandals in case you step on a rattlesnake or a scorpion.
At the time of writing, there are only five grape wineries and one fruit winery located in Similkameen between Keremeos and Cawston, towns that are ten kilometres apart; but I predict that, with the soaring cost of vineyard land in the south Okanagan, this region will explode with wineries in the next ten years. In effect, it will become the Sonoma Valley to Okanagan’s Napa.
Both the Okanagan and the Similkameen valleys run roughly parallel, bridged at the desert town of Osoyoos by the Richter Pass. Similkameen, a former gold-mining area now given over to cattle ranching and horse farms, tends to attract rugged individualists, mavericks who march to the beat of their own drum. Take Orofino Vineyards, for instance, whose winery and shop are built out of straw bales, or Joe Ritlop of St. Laszlo Estate, who has been growing such retro North American hybrid grapes as Clinton and Interlaken since 1976. The frontier spirit is alive and well in the valley.
Peller Estates has invested heavily in the region, creating the sixty-five-acre Rocky Ridge Vineyard on a former alfalfa farm owned by local Roger Hol. Actually, it’s more a case of reinvesting, since the company — formerly known as Andrés Wines — was one of the first wineries (as early as the 1960s) to try to grow grapes in this hot, arid, windswept valley. You may recall a wine they made called Similkameen Superior
Similkameen is ideal for growing fruit, berries and vegetables, so much so that Keremeos, the hub community of the valley (population 1,200) is known as the “Fruit Stand Capital of Canada.” This is definitely red-wine country because the blistering summer heat — hotter than in the Okanagan — allows the grapes to ripen fully, and the cold nights guarantee good acidity. The high sugars accumulated during the heat of the day, complemented by balancing acidity, make for wines that are more in Washington State–style with vibrant dark fruit flavours, ripe tannins and lively structure.
As in the Central and Southern Okanagan, growers here have to irrigate the vineyards. The gravelly, sandy loam and silt-loam soils do not hold the water well, and the fierce winds that roar along the valley can dry the ground in minutes. Crowsnest Vineyards once lost its winery roof on a particularly blustery day; the wind has its virtues, though, because it keeps vineyard pests and frosts at bay, allowing growers to farm organically if they so desire.
Keremeos boasts one of the few remaining working flour mills in North America — a log house with its own water wheel, built in 1877. You can also wander through the Heritage Gardens with their “living museum of wheat.” And don’t miss the turn-of-the-century covered bridge over the Similkameen River a few kilometres west of the village. If you visit in mid-September, you can — as if it were not hot enough already — participate in the annual Pepper Festival.
Crowsnest is named after Highway 3, the Crowsnest Highway, and it’s a true family affair — Olaf and Sabina Heinecke, their daughter Ann, who makes the wine, and their son Sascha, who manages the sales and oversees the dining aspects. Set on the windy upper bench of the valley, the winery commands a spectacular mountain view, especially for sunsets. One of the oddities offered here is a wine made from a red grape grown in Germany called Samtrot.
Recommended: Chardonnay Stahltank, Barcello Canyon Pinot Noir
2036 Surprise Drive, Cawston, BC
Herder Winery & Vineyards
Californian Lawrence Herder studied winemaking at Fresno State University before embarking on an eight-year winemaking education that took him to B. R. Cohn in Sonoma, his own eponymous winery in Paso Robles, Jackson-Triggs in the Okanagan and Golden Mile Cellars in Oliver. It was great training for the winery that he and his Nanaimo-born wife Sharon, a graphic designer, have now set up in the Similkameen Valley, which they run themselves. While they wait for their own 7.5-acre vineyard to come on stream, they buy in grapes from local growers and produce vineyard-designated wines that exhibit bright California style — including their bold, collectible labels. It’s a winery to watch.
Recommended: Bellamy Merlot, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay
716 Lowe Drive, Cawston, BC
Orofino is named for the mountain that overlooks the property. It’s a Spanish term harking back to earlier mining days meaning “fine gold,” which could portend the colour of the medals this small winery will consistently win with its beautifully crafted wines. John Weber, a teacher from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, and his wife Virginia, a nurse with a diploma in horticulture, have hit the ground running with this new winery. The 5.5-acre vineyard was already sixteen years old when they acquired it, and those well seasoned vines provided them with mature fruit. Their 2,300-square-foot building, with its breezeway separating the winery from the tasting room, is unique because it’s the only facility in the country constructed from straw bales. Orofino’s earthen walls are 54-centimetres thick, maintaining a constant temperature inside; they provide sufficient insulation for the barrel cellar and tasting room against the heat of the Similkameen summers. “The bales allow our barrel building to remain at around 17°C when it is 30-plus outside,” says Weber.
Recommended: Merlot/Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
2152 Barceló Road, Cawston, BC
St. Laszlo Vineyards Estate Winery
Joe Ritlop was born in the former Yugoslavian town of St. Laszlo, and his wines have an Eastern European feeling. He built the first winery in the Similkameen Valley (in 1984), although the ten acres of vineyards — originally called Keremeos Vineyards — were planted as early as the 1970s. Ritlop is another industry maverick, having planted an eclectic variety of grapes, including such table grapes as Clinton and Interlaken. He believes in natural yeast fermentation and uses no chemicals. His son Joe Jr, who took over as winemaker, has introduced more classic varieties as well as fruit wines made from a range of berries, pears, peaches and cherries. He has the largest collection of fruit and berry wines in the province, including a unique off-dry wine made from rose petals. I asked him how he made it and he replied, “It’s a trade secret.” Joe Sr will tell you, “I will create my own wine in my own fashion. I cannot do anything else. We can make as good or better white wines here as in any European Country.”
Highway 3, Keremeos, BC
The Seven Stones Winery (formerly Harmony-One Vineyards)
George Hanson spent twenty-four years in the Yukon in the telecommunications industry before moving to the Similkameen Valley to fulfill a lifelong ambition to grow grapes and make wine. Initially he named his gravity-flow winery Harmony-One because he saw himself as a conductor orchestrating all the different elements that go into winemaking. In 2005, Hanson changed the name to the Seven Stones, because there are seven rock formations in the valley, each with its own legend. The green-painted building that houses the winery and the tasting room is a 1,200-square-foot former workshop situated on sloping benchland overlooking the magnificent Similkameen River Valley and the mountains beyond. The talented winemaker Alan Marks, who produces Icewines for Paradise Ranch, makes the wine here.
1143 Highway 3, Cawston, BC