Good intentions and green inventions in Okanagan wine country: Hangovers with a clear conscience
Drinking a 2016 chardonnay in British Columbia’s Okanagan wine country might give you a hangover if you over-indulge but it doesn’t have to leave you with a guilty conscience thanks to sustainable tourism initiatives from several winery owners.
Minutes after landing in Kelowna I’d stopped to cuddle a baby kangaroo at the Kangaroo Creek Farm where former paramedic Caroline Wightman shifted gears from rescuing people to saving marsupials. I would come to realize this out-of-the-box thinking was common in the Okanagan and my trip would be better for it.
Strolling into my first winery I wondered what kind of wine went with a post-kangaroo snuggle. The Chase winemaker Adrian Baker suggested some of his favourites. I liked the rich flavour of a 2016 gewürztraminer that Baker likened to Amy Winehouse. “It’s lush like she was,” he said with a slight kiwi accent, adding, “Wine is a postage stamp from wherever it’s grown.”
As a geographer I could appreciate the connection between landscape and palette and between landscape and sustainability. Baker pointed out beams in the tasting room recycled from an old apple packing facility and that all the seafood served by Chef Alex Lavioff was ocean wise (a program labeling sustainable seafood harvesting). A .5-acre garden plot provided fresh vegetables to accompany the fish.
It seemed a connection with the land drives green initiatives here. My next tasting stop was at Off The Grid Organic winery which had off-the-wall views and was, as expected, off the grid. The roof of the tasting room was covered in solar panels and winemaker Sheri Paynter hails from a family on this land for five generations and with a strong interest in maintaining its health. I sipped a 2017 unoaked chardonnay as rescued goats frolicked nearby. “They help with pest control,” Paynter said of the shortest employees on the payroll.
Next up was a visit to Indigenous World Winery – the world’s first 100% owned indigenous winery. Near downtown Kelowna but nestled into a forest with views of Okanagan Lake that almost make you forget about wine, proprietors Chief Robert Louie and his wife Bernice carry forward land that has been protected by the Okanagan Syilx people for thousands of years. Joining them in their quest is Chef Andrea Callen who designs aboriginal-inspired cuisine in the Red Fox Club located under the tasting room.
As I sipped a 2016 Hee-Hee-Tel-Kin red named after Chief Louie’s son (who’s training to be the winemaker one day) I nibbled on bison back ribs. Callen explained how she forages on the land every morning and uses items like pine pollen and fennel fronds in meals. “We put a quarter of our foraging away every day for winter,” she explained of her desire to make local flavours a mainstay. “The nutritional value of wild edibles is like nothing we buy.”
I could have lingered longer to learn about the blending of traditional and modern ways happening on Chief Louie’s land but the day was over. After a restful slumber at Hotel Eldorado on the shores of Okanagan Lake I headed to British Columbia’s most visited winery – Summerhill Pyramid Winery. This is Canada’s largest certified organic winery and also uses biodynamic farming principles with a focus on soil health and activities linked to moon cycles.
It was the white, four-story pyramid that caught my eye as I arrived at the winery. Built using the same sacred geometry principles as the great Egyptian pyramids this electricity and nail-free structure is where wine is aged.
Guests are allowed into the pyramid so I inched my way along the dim staircase to the main chamber. Folding chairs circled a large oil lamp hanging from the ceiling and cases of wine were stacked around the periphery.
Closing my eyes the air felt cool and still. I wondered what affect it had on the wines. In the early days of the winery, founder Stephen Cipes had asked visitors to compare wine aged in the pyramid versus that aged elsewhere without telling them which was which. Over 90% chose the wine aged in the pyramid and now all their wine go from the bottling line into the pyramid for final cellaring before being sold.
“Farming is like mining,” explained CEO Ezra Cipes (Stephen’s son) on why green initiatives are so important, “when you take a (crop) yield it is coming from sunlight, water, and nutrients from the soil which can be easily depleted. To mitigate (depletion) we integrate regenerative practices.”
The Cipes aren’t just concerned about making their business sustainable. “We helped our whole supply chain with the paperwork so they could become organic too,” Ezra said. Today Stephen is lobbying to make the entire Okanagan valley organic by 2020.
It would take me another day to reach the Burrowing Owl Vineyard in the south Okanagan but I would discover another entrepreneur with green in his soul. Solar panels shade cars in the parking lot built over storage cellars heated and cooled with a geothermal system. Tasting fees of $3 per person are donated to save the valley’s rarest residents – burrowing owls. As owners Jim and Midge Wyse celebrate 25 years in business they can enjoy a glass of wine knowing they have raised over one million dollars for owl conservation.
I managed to avoid a hangover despite several tastings but it was the sustainable efforts of these Okanagan attractions that put a spring in my step as I headed back to the airport. It seemed good intentions and green inventions had meshed perfectly in the Okanagan.
If you go:
Bring your lunch and get a picnic license at Off The Grid Organic Winery so you can enjoy a bottle of wine with a stellar view.
If you are visiting the Summerhill Pyramid Winery during full or new moons join one of the yoga classes held in the pyramid.