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Heleen Pannekoek and Rolf de Bruin left careers in banking and consulting to grow grapes. (Brad Kasselman/www.coastphoto.com)
Heleen Pannekoek and Rolf de Bruin left careers in banking and consulting to grow grapes. (Brad Kasselman/www.coastphoto.com)

In a B.C. frontier town, an up-and-coming winery strikes gold Add to ...

Lillooet, a small town on the Fraser River 250 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, got its start during the frontier days of a B.C. gold rush in the late 1850s. Today it’s a town on the frontier of wine.

Fort Berens Estate, the town’s first commercial winery, may lack the size and visibility of more established counterparts in the Okanagan Valley to the southeast, but after just three years in operation, it has struck gold of its own. Its first estate-grown riesling, an excellent dry white with rich stone-fruit flavours set against a spark of citrus tang, garnered a gold medal and best-in-class honours at the 2012 Pacific Rim Wine Competition in San Bernadino, Calif. Not bad for a pioneering wine.

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Owners Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek, who emigrated from Holland in 2008, arrived specifically to start a vineyard. They lacked industry experience – Mr. de Bruin was a management consultant and Ms. Pannekoek a banker – but they were eager for a career change and a more pastoral environment for their then two-year-old daughter. (They welcomed a son the year they arrived.) “We concluded that a congested place like the Netherlands would not be very conducive to raising a family,” Mr. de Bruin says.

Kelowna was their intended destination, but the Okanagan’s eye-popping land prices prompted plan-B action. Two B.C. agriculture veterans, grape grower Richard Cleave and government researcher John Vielvoye, suggested Lillooet based on promising, small-scale vineyard trials spearheaded by Lillooet’s former mayor, Christ’l Roshard. With a population of 2,500, the place at least promised to deliver on the less-congested front.

At 50.67 degrees latitude, Lillooet is at the northern border of viability for the tender vinifera vine varieties used in fine wine. But the growing season is long, with hot summer days, clear skies and lower spring-and-autumn frost risk than the south Okanagan, thanks to the Coast Mountains to the west, which trap humidity on the other side, yielding Whistler’s famous ski powder. “Lighter air, free of moisture, comes over mountains and starts to rise, and the clouds actually disappear as they rise,” Mr. de Bruin says.

It takes three years for vines to bear first fruit, and with plantings begun only in 2009, Mr. de Bruin and Ms. Pannekoek faced a challenge shared by every new grower: cash flow. To get over the hump, they began sourcing grapes from the Okanagan and selling it under the Fort Berens label for the 2009 and 2010 vintages, making wine in an old tractor barn, which doubles as the tasting room. Last year yielded a small quantity of estate fruit, which they supplemented with Okanagan grapes to create inter-regional blends. The award-winning 2011 riesling and a Pinot Noir Rosé, however, were entirely estate-grown.

Fort Berens should be self-sufficient, fruit-wise, in a few years, with riesling, chardonnay, pinot gris, pinot noir, cabernet franc and merlot in the ground. For the “meritage” Bordeaux-style blend, the couple will continue sourcing cabernet sauvignon, a late-ripening red they deemed too risky for Lillooet, from the south Okanagan to supply backbone to cabernet franc and merlot.

Unfortunately, the 2011 riesling – a mere 175 cases in total – sold out within five weeks of release at $17.99 a bottle. (Out-of-province shoppers can order other wines from fortberens.ca and get on the list for next year’s offerings.) Mr. de Bruin hopes to produce 500 cases of riesling in 2012.

The all-Okanagan wines are good to excellent, the quality clearly owing much to a dream team of B.C. consultants, including Mr. Cleave and Mr. Vielvoye as well as Sumac Ridge founder Harry McWatters and former CedarCreek winemaker Tom DiBello. I’m especially captivated by the 2010 Chardonnay ($17.99). It’s finely balanced and reminiscent of good white Burgundy, with tropical fruit and butter notes matched by acid zing and toasty oak – the sort of substantial white that would be bliss with grilled salmon or lobster.

Besides the consulting team and a new winemaker, Bill Pierson, formerly an assistant at CedarCreek, Laughing Stock and Township 7 in the Okanagan, there has been critical help behind the scenes. The First Nations population surrounding Lillooet forms the core of the vineyard labour pool, obviating the need to import seasonal migrant workers. And in 2010, four gold-mining executives and investment bankers from Vancouver and Toronto came aboard as partners. With 65 acres (20 under vine and another 20 in the works) plus a planned new winery facility, the total investment will amount to $5-million.

That’s a hefty chunk of change for a new venture in a town that turns on such traditional sectors as logging, orchard farming and government services. But it pales – in adjusted-dollar terms – compared with the bustle of the gold-rush days, when Lillooet boasted a population of 16,000 and was briefly reputed to be the largest North American centre north of San Francisco and west of Chicago.

Prosperity was fleeting, of course, a fact underscored by the winery’s curious name. Hudson’s Bay Co. had begun building a trading post on the property to pan for spare change from prospectors’ wallets, but Fort Berens was never completed, its remnants dismantled to build other structures as successive gold rushes moved up the Interior.

Mr. de Bruin wanted to honour the past while building something for the future. “It is still very much a frontier town that offers a lot of opportunities,” he says. “We feel a bond here. We’re new pioneers, trying something new and trying to make a go of it.”

Follow on Twitter: @Beppi_Crosariol

 

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