Located on the fertile soils of the Fraser River bench, Fort Berens Estate Winery has always been somewhat removed from the winemaking hub of the Okanagan. But that evidently hasn't prevented wine lovers from taking notice of the Lillooet vineyard, which was the recipient of four Best of B.C. Wine Country Awards last week.
As voted on by the public, Fort Berens took home the hardware for Best B.C. White Wine, with its much-lauded Riesling; the Best B.C. Rosé; and the Best BC Winery Tasting Room, while The Kitchen at Fort Berens earned the nod for Best B.C. Winery Restaurant Showcasing Local Food.
"Sometimes it's easy to feel like we're so far separated from much of what goes on in the wine world in B.C., so the fact that we do get this recognition from the people who stop by and take the time—sometimes on a spur of the moment—to visit us, it's pretty thrilling," said sommelier Lesley Provost*, Fort Berens' director of hospitality.
Despite being a bit off the beaten path, Fort Berens is no stranger to industry accolades, including the 2014 Lieutenant Governor's Award for Excellence in B.C. Wines for its 2012 Riesling. That honour has undoubtedly helped garner exposure for the winery, but Provost believes the best form of word-of-mouth has come from the retail and restaurant sectors across the region.
"We won the Lieutenant Governor's Award for our Riesling in 2014, so that definitely put us into people's minds," she said. "But I will say, we actually have quite a remarkable number of independent wine stores and restaurants in the Whistler to Kamloops hub that consider us their local winery, and they're big fans. It's not uncommon for people to come into the winery for the first time ever ... saying they've had our wine in a restaurant or this person at the Save-On-Foods pushed our wine on them. It seems like somebody out there is proselytizing on our part."
As director of hospitality, Provost takes great pride in the awards honouring Fort Berens' tasting room, which offers breathtaking views overlooking the vineyard, and The Kitchen, which has, since opening, placed a significant emphasis on locally sourced ingredients from around the region.
"We're so privileged to be in this little spot that is really an exciting area for agriculture right now and the production of food," she said. "The ingredients that we get, it's absurd. I've worked in the restaurant business for a very, very long time and I've never seen salads where the greens have never been refrigerated, and that's often what we're serving, with that level of freshness."
Fort Berens, of course, has not been immune to challenges this year. Between road closures this summer to the fractious dispute earlier in the year between the governments of B.C. and Alberta, leading to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley halting all imports of B.C. wines, the winery has dealt with its fair share of curveballs.
Provost estimated that visitation to the winery was up slightly over last summer—when wildfires consumed much of the region and resulted in frequent road closures. But she's noticed the type of visitor coming through its doors has evolved.
"I think our visitorship was up a little bit, but it seems the people that were coming in were more interested and invested in having a good experience," she explained. "We don't get a lot of tour buses; we're just too small for that kind of thing, so it's not like we had a lot of that. But it just seemed the people that came in were less likely to come in to just use the bathroom, let's say that. There were more people actually interested in coming in and having lunch, tasting through our wines and staying for a period of time."
For the full list of 2018 Best of B.C. Wine Country Awards winners, visit winebc.com/bestof.
An earlier version of this article mispelled Fort Berens Estate Winery hospitality director Lesley Provost's last name. Pique apologizes for the error.