An oasis of wines in the Canadian desert
Winemaker Walter Gehringer in his Okanagan Valley vineyard
OLIVER, British Columbia (CNN) -- I was born and raised near the Mexican border. As a kid, I assumed Canada was nothing but an endless stretch of snow-covered Christmas trees, from sea to frozen sea.
Dozens of trips north have cured much of my ignorance; I know now that big chunks of Canada are plain or prairie, farmland or frozen tundra. Still, it seems safe to assume there are no jungles or swamps north of North Dakota.
But until this week, I could never imagine I'd be sipping Canadian wine in a Canadian desert.
The Okanagan Valley is in south-central British Columbia, just above the 49th parallel and about 13 miles north of the United States-Canadian border. It's where the town of Oliver, population 8,000, claims it has the highest average annual temperature in the entire country. Because the valley gets only a few inches of rain a year, and because the thermometer in summer can soar above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius), the folks around here can brag that they are indeed the only desert-dwellers in all of Canada.
Wine a growth industry
Warm weather makes the Okanagan a Mecca for retirees in RVs, Gen-Xers on mountain bikes and baby boomers towing speedboats or snowmobiles. But the fastest-growing attraction in this picturesque valley is, of all things, Canadian wine.
Walter Gehringer looks much younger than most 45-year-olds. Tan, athletic and intense, he seems built from (or at least covered with) the very soil that nourishes his 41 acres of grape vines. Growing up in the Okanagan, Gehringer wanted to be an electronic engineer, until he figured the advanced mental gymnastics it required were too far over his head.
When he graduated high school, his German-born father sent him back to the fatherland to apprentice for one year at the feet of master vintners. There, young Gehringer immediately understood the mental exertions necessary to turn grapes into fine wine.
Although the Okanagan qualifies as a desert, it can get pretty cold in winter, and the soil is erratic, a hodge-podge of rocky materials left over from the last ice age. Apples, cherries, peaches and apricots have all done well here, but grapes were always an afterthought. For many years, the only grapes grown in the Okanagan were of mediocre quality, suitable for jug wine and not much else.
Gehringer and other local farmers spent 10 years experimenting with different grapes in various microclimates throughout the valley. To their delight, a select handful of vines did surprisingly well. A new era of free trade brought an end to government subsidies for poorer-quality grapes, giving Walter and his neighbors the boost they needed to tear up entire vineyards and replace them with top varieties.
And then they waited, ignoring the naysayers. In a region where California wines are king, and Washington and Oregon vineyards have built impressive reputations, Walter and his fellow farmers were forced to endure the snickers of those who figured their grapes would be laughed out of respectable wine cellars. Any season with insufficient rain or an early frost - both real threats in the Okanagan - could only extend the region's reputation for chintzy vino.
Patience, then prizes
Gehringer persevered, and has been vindicated. At the Los Angeles County Fair, the Gehringer Brothers' 1994 Pinot Gris was judged best -- not just of its class, but the best white wine in the entire competition - sending minor shock waves through certain California circles.
Other Okanagan Valley vintners also have won international competitions, notably Jackson-Triggs' Riesling Icewine, which took honors at the 1999 International Wine and Spirit Competition Ltd. in London.
While white wines are getting awards, most of the new grapes planted in the valley are red, reflecting the continuing popularity of merlots and cabernets. But Gehringer is openly skeptical: He says limitations of climate, rainfall and soil will cause Canadian reds to "fall off the table" on the international market.
My wife, Leslie, and I generally prefer red wines, but we were very impressed with a sample of Ehrenfelser. We also bought bottles of pinot gris and Riesling.
Tripped up by honesty
Which leads to a footnote: Re-entering the United States, we told the customs inspector we'd purchased three bottles of Canadian wine, plus a bottle of tequila we'd picked up at the duty-free shop with our refund of Canadian sales taxes. For that spurt of honesty, we had to park our car, head into the customs office, and pay the Internal Revenue Service 42 cents (Why is the IRS concerned about liquor?).
In addition, because we live in Seattle, we had to fill out a form - in quadruplicate - promising to send $2.70 to the Washington State Liquor Board. We had 10 days to comply, or else.
What else? The U.S. Customs agent couldn't be sure, but she was clearly irritated with the paperwork mess we'd dropped on her desk just before lunch. Earlier, Gehringer had warned us that honesty at the border (always the best policy, by the way) tends to discourage many Americans from buying Canadian wine.
Next time, we may have to stay longer in the Okanagan, and drink it all there.
There are 36 wineries in Canada's Okanagan region, most within a day's drive of each other. Many are open year-round, offering wine tastings and tours. The Sixth Annual Spring Okanagan Wine and Food Festival is May 4-7, 2000.
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