Even in the crush that is CRUSH, Cornucopia's marquee tasting event, it was easy to notice the even denser crowd surrounding the Fort Berens Estate Winery booth. Notoriety, awards galore, and some tasty vintages have the Whistler and Vancouver sommelieratti talking — and sipping — over the notion that such sublime viticulture has materialized, seemingly unheralded, under their ever-twitching noses. Even the winemaker for well-known Okanagan stalwart Quail's Gate, showcasing her own gold-medal chardonnay several aisles over, expressed what can only be described as literal shock at discovering, while driving past it, that 1) Fort Berens even existed, and 2) it was good; damn good. And here she was again, crowding into the booth with the hoi polloi for another palate-popping taste. Lillooet. In our own backyard. Who knew?
Some, apparently, but we'll get to that.
After years of enjoying their product, I'd recently made my own first visit to the winery, which like so many other folks, I'd watched develop in halting fashion while variously en route to Kamloops, Revelstoke or Quesnel. I'd ultimately stopped in as part of a grand Thanksgiving weekend circuit that points the way to how highlights of this mountainous gold-rush region might ultimately be tied together, and even perhaps anchored, by a new industry that will revive, yet again, the fortunes of boom-and-bust Lillooet.
A group of us made the drive from Whistler through Pemberton, over the Hurley Pass and just past Goldbridge to spend Thanksgiving paddling around Tyaughton Lake out of venerable Tyax Wilderness Resort (a.k.a. Tyax Lodge), a route limned in autumn colours and misty mountain vistas. Beyond sightseeing, however, the descent into the Bridge River Valley is a chance to develop a mental map of the gold-mining heritage responsible for one of Lillooet's several upswings. (In the so-called "Great Years," 1933-1941, hard rock goldmines around Bralorne comprised one of Canada's economic bright spots during the gloom of the Great Depression.) But when we left Tyax after an awesome few days, rather than retrace our steps, we headed east, hugging the 50-kilometre expanse of Carpenter Lake (largest of the three reservoirs comprising the Bridge River Power Project, another of Lillooet's positive economic chapters), and shadowed the lower Bridge River to where it famously joins the Fraser. We then flowed south alongside it to Cayoosh Flats (Lillooet's former, unflattering name from the 1858 gold rush that got the town started). All signs for the past few hours had been of a vastly different climate, a sagebrush Coyote-Roadrunneresque landscape quite unlike the Coast — or even the transition zone around Goldbridge.
Across the Fraser on Highway 99, at the T-intersection with the Lytton-Lillooet highway, resides Fort Berens' modest acreage and its new tasting room. For the moment the winery stands alone, both physically and through its rising profile, in the industry. But with at least three other acreages in the area currently planted in hopes of viticulture development, a gold rush of a different kind suggests Lillooet is poised to centre B.C.'s next boutique wine region. And while this seems to come out of the blue for some, there's actually a history to it.
People have been growing grapes (largely the table variety, Vitis labrusca) in gardens throughout the Lillooet-Lytton corridor going back to at least the 1940s. The region's winemaking potential was championed early on by an Italian named Savona who planted vines in the area of Fountain (about 16 km north of Lillooet), but the first known attempt to formally evaluate varieties of wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) in Lillooet for commercial use occurred in the mid-1960s at Riverland Irrigated Farms, a BC Hydro demonstration farm. The small planting was severely damaged by the 1968-69 winter, and the farm closed shortly thereafter. Although no records of that trial remain, the farm's former manager, Robert Roshard, planted some of the Foch varietal on his home property at the south end of Lillooet. They took well enough to produce fruit for home winemaking ever since. But not without requisite attention.
Lillooet is somewhat handicapped by its dry climate: only 329.5 mm of precipitation are recorded annually (average annual snowfall of 26.5 cm makes it the least snowy place in the Interior). On the plus side, the region's long growing season was once exploited by extensive market gardens and orchards, and it's well-known as a provincial hotspot (temperatures often top 40°C). These data meant a possible thumbs-up for heat-loving grapes, but also the need for careful and timely irrigation. In 2004 a project was initiated to empirically evaluate the area's climate and potential with nine red and nine white varieties of the most important grapes in demand by B.C.'s commercial wine industry. Local interests provided land, labour and materials for fruit quality analysis and vineyard monitoring via data loggers and weather stations (following on her family's earlier efforts, this included former mayor and long-time resident, Christ'l Roshard and husband Doug Robson). Funding and other support came via several B.C. provincial ministries, the Forum for Research and Extension in Natural Resources (FORREX), Fraser Basin Council, Agriculture and Agri Food Canada, District of Lillooet, Village of Lytton, Investment Agriculture Foundation of British Columbia, British Columbia Grapegrowers Association and private consultants. Volunteers produced solar-radiation maps for the area.
The test program was deemed a success early on but ran until 2012 to gather more information. Nevertheless, in the spring of 2009, the regional dream was realized when Rolf de Bruin and Heleen Pannekoek, who'd emigrated from Holland with their young family, planted their first 20 acres at Fort Berens, including Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinto Noir. Megan DeVilliers, vineyard manager and viticulturist, works together with winemaker Danny Hattingh, who has degrees in Viticulture and Oenology from South Africa and worked at vineyards there, in Washington state and elsewhere in B.C. The small-lot production currently allows for a focus on detail, fastidious testing, and, as can be seen already in their award-winning wines, expressing the terroir of this new region.
A tasting session couldn't help but inspire some purchases, and we finished the grand tour by stopping at Airport Gardens (another overlooked agricultural gem of our region) to gather crates of the last tomatoes of the season before busting back over the Duffey to Pemberton and Whistler, feeling like the cat that just ate the canary. Other wineries will soon be in production, and as the region grows and the focus goes back to the Fraser's broader agricultural potential, this gold-rush circuit is going to become a popular harvest-time activity.
Lillooet—who knew? Well, you do now.
There is a Fort Berens winemakers' dinner on Friday, Nov.14 as part of Cornucopia at Sidecut at the Four Seasons in Whistler.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.