B.C.’s Okanagan Valley has long been known as ideal wine country. What's new? Many of the top grape growers and wine makers are women
It was not quite dawn. With the morning sun yet to tip into British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, Senka Tennant and her husband, Bob, giggling like lovestruck teenagers, snuck out of the dream home they’d built in their vineyard and scampered past rows of Bordeaux vines into their winery. “It was dark and we were all alone,” Tennant laughs lustily as she tells me this story. “But we wanted to do it together, and three hours later we were done. It was good.”
As we stroll past rows of Merlot grapes, it takes me a few moments to realize that Tennant is talking about starting the fermentation of her wine, Alibi, at the winery and vineyard she and Bob had started with friends Susan and Peter McCarrell. The 54-year-old, who looks chic even in a fleece pullover, has a visceral, sensual way of talking about the passion she discovered in her mid-forties, when the two couples cashed out of their careers and homes in Vancouver in 1996, moved onto this 34-acre patch of land and threw themselves into the hard work of planting some 36,000 vines.
Tennant, who had studied botany at university and opened a children’s store in Vancouver while raising two kids, became consumed by the notion of making wine and went to night school for two years to study the craft. “Bob knew how much I wanted this,” says Tennant, adding that starting the new venture has been good for their relationship. “Sometimes there’s a growing apart when your kids grow up, but this gave us an opportunity to get to know each other in a whole new way.”
In 1999, Black Hills Estate Winery opened in what Tennant describes as “a Quonset hut.” She worked alongside a consulting winemaker until she was ready to take over. Now critics rave about her “cult wines”: small-release and pricey vintages such as the $36 Nota Bene, a robust, peppery blend of Bordeaux grapes, and Alibi, an intensely floral blend of two whites. They sell out within weeks of release. Bob concedes that the winery has soared on Tennant’s reputation. “As the general manager, I used to think I was the boss,” he grins. “But what Senka’s wine has accomplished is beyond our dreams.”
Last year, Black Hills opened a new multi-million-dollar retail, cellar and production facility, then the foursome sold the upstart winery to a team of investors (including actor Jason Priestley), enabling it to double production over the next few years. Tennant will stay on as consulting winemaker for a limited time.
I leave this stunning patch of vineyard on the Black Sage Bench south of Oliver with the well-noted Nota Bene and an excellent Alibi — and a buoyant sense that something remarkable is happening in the Okanagan. I have arrived in the midst of the fall wine festival, a 10-day celebration overflowing with tastings, tours and winemakers’ dinners. In the past five years, about 35 new wineries have opened here. But rather than simply checking out new wines, I have organized my tour to meet the new stars — the female winemakers.
Later that day, I meet up with Christine Leroux at one of the many wineries she has worked for as a winemaker and consultant. Just 43, she already considers herself “well established” in the industry, having made wine for the giant Inniskillin winery and the smaller St. Hubertus Estate Winery, and now as a consulting winemaker for as many as six wineries in the valley, including Oliver Twist Estate Winery. “My job is to guide the owners,” says Leroux. “There are so many wineries in the valley now, if you don’t produce quality you don’t survive. I bring in the theory and my knowledge and my palate to achieve that quality.” Having grown up on the south shores of Montreal, she studied winemaking in the penultimate location, Bordeaux, France, and although she loved learning “the very classical techniques,” she found the tradition stifling.
She estimates that women comprised half her class, but only 10 per cent got jobs as winemakers after graduating. “Women winemakers still have a lot to prove. It was tough.” She found work in California and Ontario’s Niagara area, then visited the Okanagan and discovered amazing wines in an upstart winemaking region full of opportunities. “In North America, the wine industry is still young, without the obstacles of tradition. I felt there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do here.”
Like Tennant, Leroux believes women bring a different sensibility to the industry, which becomes apparent five minutes into any conversation. Both refer to the oak barrels for aging wine as “children,” each with a unique personality to manage. Releasing a wine is labour pain, full of anxiety. And the new vintage? “Those are the babies,” laughs Leroux, who juggles her winemaking and consulting duties with raising two young children. “I love what I do so I have the motivation,” she says. And she makes no apologies for the feminine twist she gives to wine lingo. Indeed, she might say it’s about time.
"Women in general are better tasters. We follow our instincts on the grape to imagine the flavour in the bottle. And we bring a bit more personality into finessing the wine. It’s not that we can’t produce a robust wine, but we work on balance more.” Indeed, her wines demonstrate her point — they’re packed with big flavour yet perform a complex dance on the tongue.
Undercapitalized and with a vineyard that had the unfortunate name Prpich Hills, Campbell took a chance on an upstart branding strategist trying to break into the industry. “I told him we wanted a name that would take the snobbery out of wine, to make it approachable.” Bernie Hadley-Beauregard poked about in local archives, uncovered the story of a church that had been dynamited from its foundations in order to move it, and Blasted Church was born. In more attention-grabbing moves, bottle labels featured wine critics as cartoon figures on cheekily named wines — The Dam Flood red and Revered Chardonnay. Now the winery adds considerable fun to the fall wine festival with a gospel choir singing at its “Midnight Service” event.
The marketing strategy was a hit, and both Hadley-Beauregard’s career and sales at the winery took off. Now Campbell says she’s having her own blast running what has become a mid-size winery. “We’ve been successful and that’s a great feeling,” she says, especially after the upheaval of a career switch, moving and early struggles starting a business. “It’s not a bad thing to make a clean break and start something new.” But she adds a caveat: “You have to have the energy to put everything you have into that change to make it work. And the change period has to be a bit shorter at this time of your life, to give you time to enjoy it.”
Six kilometres north, on the Naramata Bench, just north of Penticton, Gitta Sutherland is enjoying the fruits of 16 years of building the Poplar Grove Winery. Her ex-husband, Ian, manages the winery, and Sutherland owns and operates the vineyard and, recently, started making cheese for sale on the premises and through exclusive retailers in the valley.
When I arrive at Poplar Grove’s retail store, Sutherland, 44, emerges from the backroom — her refrigerated cheese factory. She tells me that she and Ian started making cheese in their kitchen, ripening it in their basement. “We were getting fairly good but we knew that to do this commercially, we had to have a proper facility with controlled temperatures.”
She peels off her white lab coat and the net covering her shoulder-length brown hair and offers a tour of her vineyard, a mere six acres that grow just beyond the front deck of her house and slope down to the high clay cliffs of Okanagan Lake. The late afternoon sun bounces off the lake to shower the vineyard with sunlight — one of the reasons that the Naramata is a prime grape-growing microclimate.
As Sutherland tests grapes for ripeness, she tells me Ian was a “garage-ist” — one of the pioneers here who started making wine in their garages. Yet Sutherland blazed her own trail — it’s still rare for women to manage the vineyard side of winemaking, doing the hard physical work of planting, pruning and harvesting. Tall, slim and strong, Sutherland says she can handle this hard grunt work of farming: “I’m good at practical stuff. I can change a wheel on a tractor.” And she loves the finicky work with the vines — pruning, trellising and picking grapes by hand. “It’s repetitive, but I get into a zone. And I enjoy the stillness and quiet. It has grounded me.” Her careful nurturing techniques produce some of the very best grapes in the valley.
Back at the house, Sutherland’s two dogs, a collie and lab, plunk down on the deck by her feet. She pours us a glass of luscious Pinot Gris. She sits across from me and we make a toast to the beautiful day, the intense afternoon sun. “This is my little piece of tranquility,” she says. “I’m in good shape so I hope I can do the vineyard work for another 10 years and be on the farm for the next 25. It’s too good to leave.” She looks over her property and the sparkling waters of Okanagan Lake and smiles serenely.
Black Hills Estate Winery The wineries in the south can make big, full-bodied reds, and Nota Bene’s signature red is a blend of Bordeaux grapes that’s both rich and silky smooth.
Oliver Twist Estate Winery This new winery is located on the Black Sage Bench near Black Hills. The Merlot 2006 is one of its first releases, a rich vibrant red aged in French Oak.
Blasted Church Winery Halfway down the valley, this winery makes a full slate of whites and reds, but the Revered Chardonnay is a favourite, with pear, vanilla, toasted oak and tropical fruit flavours.
Poplar Grove Winery Situated in the middle of the Okanagan, Poplar Grove makes great whites and reds — the Pinot Gris is citrusy and crisp while the Legacy, a sophisticated blend of reds, is a valley knockout.
The Okanagan hosts four wine festivals — spring, summer, fall and an icewine celebration in winter. Check the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society’s website for more information.
Penticton is ideally located as a base for touring wineries south to Oliver and Osoyoos and north to Kelowna, both easy half-day trips.
Deer Path Lookout is a romantic Spanish villa-themed inn tucked into the hills south of Penticton.
The Naramata Heritage Inn & Spa near Penticton was built in 1908 as a hotel and now has two splendid restaurants on site.
Many of the larger wineries, including Mission Hill, Sumac Ridge and Nk’Mip Cellars, boast excellent restaurants. If you’re visiting during wine festivals, many host winemakers’ dinners and tasting events.
Amante Bistro in Penticton serves contemporary regional cuisine, antipasto plates, salads and sandwiches that pair nicely with B.C. wines. Open for lunch and dinner.
Toasted Oak Bar & Grill, tucked inside a renovated historic fire hall in Oliver, has one of the largest B.C. wine collections in the world, many by the glass. The upscale yet casual bar atmosphere is perfect for lunch or dinner.