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A vineyard takes root in Lillooet




The mere mention of B.C. wine usually conjures up an image of one of the many wineries in the Okanagan area. But if a pair of European transplants has their way, an area just two hours north of Whistler will eventually be just as well known for its wine.

Heleen Pannekoek and Rolf de Bruin are the husband and wife team behind the brand new Fort Berens Estate Winery, located in east Lillooet.

This spring, they planted six varietals of grape vines - Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc - over 20 acres of their 65-acre site, in hopes that three years from now the vineyard will bear fruit that can be transformed into the first batch of real Lillooet wine.

Until then, the Dutch couple has sourced wine and grapes from the Okanagan, and are selling and producing wine on site. They opened to the public in early October, selling from their own wine shop and distributing at a limited number of stores.

Their wine shop is open from Wednesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., throughout the winter months. There, visitors can sample their Riesling, Pinot Noir Rosé, Select Late Harvest Pinot Blanc and Meritage (a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc).

They'll be selling the Okanagan-sourced wines and fermenting grapes from the region for the next few years, while they wait for their own locally planted grapes to mature.

They also just took part in Cornucopia's House Party, where they introduced the new winery (and some of their first wines) to the general public.

"...We received very many positive reactions, not only regarding our being the closest winery to Whistler, but also regarding the quality of our wines," Pannekoek said in a recent e-mail.

Long-term, they want to become certified as an organic vineyard.

"We want to sell very elegant wines. There's a lot of boldness these days - very high alcohol, very high stretching - and we prefer to have a little lighter, elegant wines."

So, why Lillooet?

The area appealed to them for a few reasons. First and foremost, it's beautiful and rugged, the perfect environment in which to raise their two young children, Thomas and Josine.

"We weren't used to a lot of space because the Netherlands is like 17 million people living on Vancouver Island," she said with a grin.

Both worked in the financial industry but knew that it was time to make a career change.

"If we wanted to continue that at the level that we were doing it, it would probably be in a big city again, like Vancouver, Toronto," she said. "So we said, 'well, if we want to do something where we live outside more, we need to change our careers to something completely different.'"

They decided to couple their longtime passion for wine with a fresh start here in Canada. So, they began researching the best place to open a winery. While they originally wanted to set up shop in the Okanagan, land prices were too high.

"It's so terribly expensive that it would be impossible to make an economic return," she said with a shrug.

So, at the suggestion of a few wine experts, they decided to check out Lillooet, which has a similar climate and temperature to the Okanagan.

While they're actually not the first to try and grow grapes in the area - former Lillooet mayor Christ'l Roshard has been testing grape growing conditions on her property for a while now - they are the first commercial winery to open for business.

"It's easier to start a new vineyard in an upcoming market than, like, in France, where they're pulling vineyards out because they're overproducing," she said.

They visited Roshard's test vineyard and another two that are just outside of Lillooet to do some research before making the decision to base their winery in the area.

"There's a lot of tourists going through Lillooet, so a lot of traffic in the summer. So we wanted to find out how many tourists," she said.

They must have liked what they discovered, because they quickly found a plot of land to lease for their winery, which they dubbed Fort Berens Estate.

You see, they were also attracted to Lillooet's rich history. About 150 years ago, during the Gold Rush, Lillooet was a supply point for miners heading to the Cariboo gold fields. The Hudson's Bay Company decided to build a fort on the east side of the Fraser River in Lillooet to act as a trading post and supply outlet. They began construction, but never completed Fort Berens, and the site was eventually used to grow melons, tomatoes and alfalfa.

To pay homage to the history of the region, Pannekoek and de Bruin decided to reference the area's Gold Rush roots in their name.

"We've had a very warm welcome," Pannekoek said with a smile.

"For us, Whistler and Kamloops are our main markets, so Whistler is where we want to focus on first. We're just two hours away and I know there's a lot of restaurants and people who are really big fans of the 100 Mile Diet, and we're within a hundred miles of Whistler!" she said with a laugh.