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Lillooet winery to celebrate first crop with free autumn harvest festival

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The Okanagan region may be lionized for its grape growing prowess but Lillooet is about to give those symmetrical fields a run for their money - or at the very least contribute more bragging rights to vine-proud British Columbians.

To provide a better sense of what they do, what kinds of wines they'll produce and how they operate, Fort Berens Estate Winery will be holding its second Lillooet Beer & Wine Festival this Saturday, September 17 (for free!). Now a few years into operations and with a first grape yield on the horizon, the company is ready to sing its glad tidings from the rooftops.

"This year we have our first harvest in October, so it's a huge celebration, we're just going to go hog wild here to celebrate," said Georgia Colton, tasting room and festival director for Fort Berens. "The crops were planted in May three years ago, so we've been making wine for the past three years by outsourcing our grapes from Black Sage Vineyards in Oliver, which is a well respected vineyard."

Fort Berens owners Heleen Pannekoek and Rolf de Bruin chose to work with grapes from Black Sage until their own were ready based on the similarities between the two vineyards' terroir (shaped by the mineral concentration in the soil, the number of hours of sunlight received and the velocity of the wind on the land). In the meantime, they planted five acres of riesling, five acres of pinot noir, two and a half acres of merlot, two and a half acres of cabernet franc, two and a half acres of chardonnay, and two and a half acres of pinot gris - all of which is finally ready to be picked and transformed into the world's most appreciated elixir after a three year gestation.

"We're anticipating 3,500 pounds (of grapes), and we'll have to see how the harvest turns out but we're looking to produce 3,500 cases of wine this year," said Colton.

Fort Berens is Lillooet's first winery, but not the region's first dabble in grapes. Pannekoek and de Bruin decided to pursue a lifelong dream of owning a vineyard after immigrating from Holland, and after doing due diligence in the Okanagan region, they were pointed towards Lillooet, a relatively untried region with loads of potential. But prior to that, the districts of Lillooet and Lytton, along with the government of B.C., and a number of other interest groups, including the British Columbia Grapegrowers' Association had already done a little research of their own. They conducted an extensive climate and feasibility assessment of growing wine grapes in the Lillooet-Lytton area. In all, 21 varieties of grapes were planted and tested for suitability and performance and a climate profile of the area was created. The findings were good, meaning Fort Berens could easily be just the first in a long line of wine-loving entrepreneurs to create a new economic reality for the region.

To get a sense of the wines they produce, the Fort Berens beer and wine festival will offer wine tastings throughout the event, which runs from noon until sundown. Regular wine and beer tastings will be complemented by vertical tastings - allowing visitors to try wines made in the past few years as well as the more recent varieties. The samples will be complemented by barrel tastings, horse and buggy vineyard tours, a tour of nearby Bitterbine Hop Company (check out their blog at http://bitterbinehops.blogspot.com < http://bitterbinehops.blogspot.com > ) and a blessing of the harvest by Lillooet Tribal Chief Kevin Whitney. After that, a different musician will play every hour on the hour.

"We're anticipating that we'll have approximately 12 vendors who will serve local produce and local arts and crafts and we have a woman coming in who will be making bannock on site, too," continued Colton.

Other morsels will include Texas Creek organic chickens kebobs and venison. "A team of our 12 farm workers, 10 of which are First Nations, have gifted the vineyard with a deer - meaning there will be barbecued venison for dinner prepared by Whistler's Rim Rock Café sous chef Jeff Alexander, who has created a signature barbecue sauce of apricots with smoked tomatoes and onions (Lillooet is apricot country, after all).

Due to the nature of the event, the winery is providing a field for anyone who wants to camp and bus service to and from town will be provided every hour on the hour. Anyone attending the festival will get a discount at local hotels.

"Our thought is that Lillooet does not have a harvest or fall festival, so we're literally throwing a festival for the town," said Colton.

For more information and further details (like on the create-a-grape-dish challenge) go to www.fortberens.ca.

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