A four-hour drive east of Vancouver is Western Canada’s wine country. The Okanagan Valley is a summertime playground for wine lovers, golfers, watersport fanatics and visitors to the region’s many lakeside resorts. The valley, which spans 155 miles, is home to 84 percent of British Columbia’s vineyard plantings, which include everything from Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Syrah to Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Riesling.
According to WineBC.com, the valley boasts just over 8,800 acres of vines with an equal split between white and red varieties. By the end of 2021, it’s expected that 20 percent of the vineyards will be certified organic, pushing the region to claim one of the highest proportions of certified organic vineyards of any wine-growing region in the world.
At the forefront of this is Anthony Von Mandl, founder of the Mark Anthony Group, who, along with creating White Claw Hard Seltzer and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, is leading the organic certification charge with six wineries in British Columbia. Once certified, these wineries will represent the largest proportion of certified organic vineyards of any wine-producing region in the world. This is all made possible by Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Of course, going organic is as prohibitively expensive for some Canadian winemakers as it is elsewhere around the world.
The Okanagan Valley’s current proportion of certified organic vineyards is approximately 5 percent. In comparison, IWSR data published by Forbes cites the global organic production rate as roughly 3.6 percent. The drive to increase organic vineyards in British Columbia’s flagship region by 15 percent is being spearheaded by the Mark Anthony Group of wineries, which have been going through various stages of organic transition for the past three years.
The Grand Organic Plan
The Mark Anthony Group oversees many British Columbia wine brands, but six wineries in particular are involved in the organic venture: Mission Hill Family Estate, CedarCreek Estate Winery, Road 13 Vineyards, Liquidity Wines, Martin’s Lane and Checkmate Artisanal Winery. (The Mark Anthony Group declined to verify exactly how many brands it oversees, likely aiming to maintain distinction between its organic ventures and the non-VQA or artisan-focused brands it owns.)
Robert Achurch, the group’s senior viticulturist for vineyards in the southern part of the valley, says the directive to go organic came from the top. “It’s 100 percent top-down. It’s Anthony’s belief that it’s the right thing to do as stewards of the land. The idea of leaving it in a much better state than how we found it.”
One step down from von Mandl is Darryl Brooker, Mission Hill president, who was the winemaker at CedarCreek when discussions about organic transition first started six years ago. “It took us about 18 months to two years to do our research, travel the world, and see how other people are doing it,” he says. “To convert a 20-acre vineyard is one thing but to convert many, many vineyards in different parts of the valley was a much bigger undertaking.”
Despite the vineyards being strewn across the entire valley, most vines (particularly in the central part of the valley) are adjacent to the Okanagan Lake. The current winemaker of CedarCreek, Taylor Whelan, says that fact alone was a big inspiration for the change. “It’s pretty easy to figure out the runoff water from the vineyards is going right back into the lake,” he says. “That’s also where our drinking water comes from. It’s where recreation happens. It’s where we’re pulling water for agriculture. So it’s a pretty closed loop here. We came to the conclusion that we didn’t want to continually introduce new kinds of pollution and contaminants, like Roundup, into the system.”
Planning the 3-Year Organic Transition
The proposition of transitioning approximately 1,300 acres of vines from six wineries to organic grape growing and winemaking was lofty. Instead of delegating a small team to oversee the progress, von Mandl and Brooker agreed to let the responsibility of the vineyards lie with two lead viticulturists, one in the north end of the valley and one in the south. The responsibility of the winemaking transition, however, was to sit with each winery’s winemaker.
Whelan says he appreciates this decision: “That’s the only realistic way to do it. Each winemaker has a unique way they want to make wine, using a certain set of products,” he says. Winemakers, including Whelan, “have to work through the process and find the procedures and the products that are going to work for [them] post-transition. It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of approach.”
Organic winemaking standards limit the type and quantities of yeasts, yeast nutrients, and filtration. Add to that the differences in soils and micro-climates, and a favored strain of yeast at one winery may behave completely differently at another. Each winemaker needs to have the flexibility to choose the variants that work best for the style of wine they’re aiming to make.
In the vineyards, Brooker says that staggering the transition over three years was a strategic approach. Transitions began in the northern vineyards, followed by the central part of the valley in year two, then finally the southern vineyards in the third year. “We spread it over three years so we could learn and transfer those learnings as we go,” Booker says.
Part of that learning process, according to Achurch, is fully understanding the valley’s soils and the fruit it produces. That itself can take years of research, even outside of farming organically. “You plant in it and you see fruit three to four years later, and then you see quality fruit eight years later, and then you start to see its true character 15 years later. It’s definitely a long game,” he says.
Achurch says the primary goal through organic transition has been to better understand how to make the soil more self-sustaining. The soils throughout the Okanagan Valley vary in nutrients and density. In southern sections, most soils are sand-based or rocky, both of which are well-draining, meaning they don’t hold much moisture or nutrients.
“Our goal has been to increase the soil’s structure and water-holding capacities within the compost and cover crops so that nutrients and a wide variety of soil life can be sustained,” Achurch says, adding, “I would say it’s been our biggest challenge, but it’s the biggest success as well. The amount of understanding that we have in our soils now, compared to before we started the journey, is crazy.”
A Glimpse at Organic Winemaking in the Okanagan
Organic grape growing has been a part of the region’s history since the 1980s. At that time, it was mostly organic growers who sold to various wineries, including the Buchler family in Oliver, the Harbeck family in Okanagan Falls, and the Hainle family in Peachland. However, there was no organic wine standard in Canada at the time.
Ezra Cipes, CEO of Summerhill Pyramid Winery, says part of his family’s legacy has been to help create that standard. “When we started in 1987, the time it took to transition from conventional to organic was seven years,” he says. “Now it is three years.”
Ground cover management techniques were one of the most important aspects that Summerhill pioneered to help reduce the amount of time it takes to transition to organic. Before national standards were put in place, few believed that quality wine could be made without exposing the soil.
Cipes continues: “We had our winemaking team as part of the council to create the national standards for organic wine in Canada. There was no standard for organic wine in Canada before 2007. … We’ve shared everything we’ve learned with the B.C. wine industry so that we can all live in a healthy community that makes something we are all proud of.”
Outside of organic farming, coincidentally, Summerhill and CedarCreek have shared a relationship for decades. “We’ve been neighboring wineries for 30 years. Now all three vineyards on our bench [Summerhill, CedarCreek, and neighboring St. Hubertus] are organic,” Cipes says. “I am extremely proud that our shared slope of vineyards have evolved in this way, and our friendship and collaboration has never been stronger.”
What This Means for Okanagan and Canadian Wine
For the global wine industry, presumptions of organic wine being less premium or not as good as regular wine are long gone. Winemakers and producers such as Bonterra in Chile or Frog’s Leap in Napa continue to squash those suspicions for consumers as well.
“Even though we have these restrictions on what we’re allowed to do within the winery and the vineyards, the thing I’m most proud of is that the wines continue to improve,” Whelan says. “We’re still getting better and better every year.”
For Brooker, chasing the top spot in the world for the highest proportion of certified organic vineyards is somewhat of a moot point. “The data is always two or three years old. Because there are so many certifying bodies, it’s hard to get the exact data.”
A 2019 trade news article published by BeverageDaily states that France increased its organic vineyards by 250 percent in the preceding decade. Across the country, 10 percent of planted vineyards are organic with some regions, such as Alsace, allegedly as high as 17 percent. But Booker still believes the Okanagan has a chance to surpass that. “We’ve got a chance as a valley to be the highest percentage relative to growing land in the world,” he says.
Published: April 6, 2021