Recline Ridge in British Columbia Battles Bears, Birds and the Cold (November 17, 2005)
(This article appeared in The Wine Spectator (November 15th, 2005). The opening paragraph was changed by the editors. This is my original version.)
One hundred and ninety miles north-east of Seattle is a small family-run winery named Recline Ridge. It's located near the town of Salmon Arm (population 15,120) three miles up off the Trans-Canada Highway in rural British Columbia.
In true self-effacing Canadian fashion the owners, Michael and Sue Smith, describe the property on their back label as follows: "Considered to be one of the most northern, land-based wineries in the world..." When you finally get there by driving north beyond the Okanagan Valley into the Shuswap Lake farming area called Tappen, you would probably concur, because you've just reached a latitude farther north than the Rheingau in Germany.
On a number of occasions Mike and Sue have asked, "Whose big, bright idea was this anyway?" They point the finger at each other, shake their heads and laugh. What else can you do when the cutworms eat all the first leaves off the baby vines, the bears eat your first crop of white grapes, the birds devour your first crop of red grapes and the Optima decides it's very, very cold and is only going to provide a full crop every second year or so?
But the area has its compensations: it's lush with huge cedar and fir forests, against a backdrop of Mt. Tappen, or as the locals call it, Granite Mountain. Beautiful green fields of forage crops adorn the valley floor, with Tappen Creek running along the bottom of the mountain. The fields are speckled with Holstein dairy and Hereford and Black Angus beef cattle, sharing the space with white-tail deer and hunting coyotes. Pheasants hide in the underbrush of wild rose. The odd colony of magpies inhabits the roadside Saskatoon berry bushes; the bears gorge themselves in the corn fields and on wild apples as well as domestic plum trees and, now, thanks to the Smiths, something new on the menu: grapes! This is the spring, summer and fall scene.
At Recline Ridge, vineyard temperatures in July and August can soar to 102° Fahrenheit; even in September they can reach 86°F. But it's the winter that's the problem. The mercury can drop as low as minus 28°F in some winters and it went to minus 16.6° F in October 1993, the year before the Smiths decided to plant their vineyard.
It took a gigantic leap of faith in what they perceived to be a favourable microclimate compared to the surrounding area; a leap of faith to confound the naysayers (including their teenaged sons, Brody and Jaret) and proceed with the project with Mother Nature shaking her head. But the Smiths are used to cold weather, having grown up in Ottawa, Ontario, marrying and moving to Calgary, Alberta, and even closer to the Arctic Circle when they were based at Prince George, British Columbia, some 500 miles north of the Washington State border.
It was in that remote logging country working for the cablevision company that they first began their home winemaking, sharing trucked-in loads of Californian Zinfandel and Muscatel grapes with the local Italian community. A friend had been making wine from those grapes for a number of years and, with his guidance and a copy of The Art of Making Wine by Stanley F. Anderson with Raymond Huil in hand, it all began.
After the move to Salmon Arm to build and manage a small independent cable company in 1984, Mike Smith realized that as GM he'd be the first to go if the business was acquired by a larger company. So he hedged his bets in 1990 and bought ten acres of land at Tappen, near Salmon Arm. His idea was to clear it for horse pasture and against all advice he was determined to plant an acre of vines so that he and Sue could continue their home winemaking activities. The Smiths had joined the Salmon Arm Wine Guild and competed regularly with much success in local amateur competitions using grapes purchased from further south in the Okanagan Valley.
As luck would have it, when they were ready to plant their vines the British Columbia government loosened the regulations to allow small grape growers to apply for farmgate winery licenses. Larch Hills, the nearest winery south of Recline Ridge, at the northern end of the Okanagan Valley, had planted a vineyard and was hoping the vines would survive and that they would eventually be able to obtain a winery license. This gave the couple the encouragement and moral support they needed to see the project through. "One year after we had the pasture and set a plot aside for vines for our own use," says Mike Smith, "we decided to go the whole nine yards and plant four acres of vines in the hope of achieving 'farmgate'winery licensing."
They were a little discouraged at the time because the Department of Agriculture had suggested to their colleagues at Larch Hills that at best it would be an ambitious hobby and they weren't really in support of the northern location as a commercial venture. The Smiths had the Federal Grape Agrologist visit their site. He pointed to a cherry tree on the property and asked if the cherries ever got ripe. They said they did. Unconvinced, the specialist said he'd really like to see that peaches could ripen here before he could give any assurance that wine grapes could be grown in Tappen.
That same Agrologist visited again after the two vintages were in the bottle and winning medals, noting he had to eat his words. Sue told him she was now so encouraged she was actually going to plant a peach tree!
The Smiths had their own ideas as to what cultivars would work in their demanding environment. While their growing season begins in mid-March, there is the ever-present danger of a killing frost in spring or one in late summer as in 2002, when the temperature dropped to 28.4°F on September 21st.
Using Germany as their model, they planted winter-hardy, early-ripening crossings such as Ortega, Siegerrebe, Optima, Madeleine Angevine and Madeleine Sylvaner. Not the poster grapes of wine collectors, but rugged enough to withstand the Canadian winter.
The Smiths would have had their first test crop from three-year-old vines of two tons in 1997 had it not been eaten by black bears. So they built an eight-foot-high electrified fence around the entire property to keep out the bears and other wildlife. Their first real vintage was 1998 and that, too, almost ended in disaster.
They had produced some 500 cases of wine from their own as well as purchased grapes and were ready to open their doors to the public in July 1999. On the day of their official opening, the local health inspector descended on the winery and informed them they were missing one piece in the licensing puzzle his approval and that he was going to confiscate their entire production. "The local health inspectors believed we had manufactured the wine without the proper health certification," Mike recalls, "and they were treating it more as a foodstuff."
The telephone lines between Tappen, Salmon Arm and the provincial capital of Victoria on Vancouver Island were burning up all day between the local and then Provincial Ministry of Health and the Provincial Liquor Licensing Branch as Mike Smith fought to save his wines. Towards the end of the day the Health Department bureaucrats realized that the regulating of wine production was not within their jurisdiction and, unbeknownst to their department, there is no water in wine. So a face-saving solution was worked out. Mike explains ruefully, "We didn't have certification for our water supply so we had to post signs in the washroom stating that our water was unsafe to drink. That hurt. And we agreed to put in bottled water for our customers if they chose to drink it until such time as we had established a water treatment plant. Our water comes from Tappen Creek which flows from an underground aquifer a mile up Skimikin Valley. It is one of a few creeks in the Province whose flow and temperature never change but because it is surface water for a mile before we draw on it, the regulations apply."
But that was not the end of the problems. Last year, birds cleaned the vineyard out of the first harvest of Marechal Foch, their only red grape. The culprits: not starlings, but red-breasted robins. Big, fat, chirruping extended families of them. The Smiths, mindful of the hazard, had ordered netting to cover the vines, but a shipping error had sent the consignment to Saanich on Vancouver Island rather than to Salmon Arm an order desk bungle that cost the couple $5000 in grapes and their first estate-grown vintage of Marechal Foch.
The actual name of the winery harkens back to an earlier time; it commemorates a side hill on a mountain that Mike Smith and his hunting buddies had nicknamed Recline Ridge. "We'd be elk hunting in the Kootenays (in the Canadian Rockies) and we had one slope where we'd rest in the sun for an hour before heading back to camp after the morning hunt. That became known as Recline Ridge. We actually used that name on our home winemaking labels when we lived in town and then when we finished doing the land clearing here and you could view the surrounding vistas, we were surprised to find in the valley facing west there's a land formation that looks just like Alfred Hitchcock lying on his back having a snooze. The silhouette is of a very distinct head and portly, double-chinned man with a big tummy and his arms crossed. That has become Recline Ridge."
The Smiths live on the property adjacent to the winery in a traditional log home. They wanted to carry that style through to their winery building, but the cost of setting up the vineyard and buying winery equipment had drained them of their resources. Mike tells the story of how he lucked into "a sweet deal" that resulted in the acquisition of the present building. "We're coming to the crunch about making a decision on the winery building. On my drive home from work there was a log home building site. They do post-and-beam houses as well as traditional log homes. Sitting in a field was the framework of a building which had probably been there for a year or two. One day I decided to go in and ask about it, because it looked like it had some potential. They were happy to get it off the property because it was encumbering their work area."
The structure had been designed and built for a Japanese family and then dismantled and exported in pieces to be reconstructed once it arrived in Japan. The container ship that carried the logs met with a fierce storm in the Pacific and the container spilled, causing damage to some of the logs. When the ship arrived in Japan, the buyers inspected the modules and refused to take delivery of the house. The upshot was that the builder took back the logs and shipped another identical house to Japan.
Mike Smith had the design modified for his use as a two-storey winery, which he had set up over a 12-foot concrete cellar. With its steeply raked roof, rounded beams and curved woodwork, the 3,300-square-foot facility lends an oriental touch to the craggy scenery of Mount Tappen and the Tappen and Skimikin Valleys.
The Japanese motif is carried through to Recline Ridge's label with its dominant red logo an ideogram that not only strongly resembles the front of the building but is recognized in a number of Asian languages as a symbol meaning "to meet, to match or to bring together," a felicitous concept for wine.
Currently they produce between 2000 and 2500 cases a year from their non-irrigated vineyard and, with the new additional plantings, their goal is to reach and stay at 3000 cases. To meet their needs they buy in additional Ortega (a Müller-Thurgau/Siegerrebe cross) and Marechal Foch from Jim and Dianna Wright of Ashby Point Vineyards, another adventurous couple with a four-acre vineyard six miles away on Shuswap Lake. The Merlot for their Foch-Merlot blend comes from the southern Okanagan, as do other grape varietals they can't grow on their site but purchase from time to time.
After 31 years in the cable television industry, Mike retired two years ago to work at the winery. Sue still works full time with Salmon Arm's municipal planning department, manages Recline Ridge's wine store and helps with the finishing of the white wines. "Sue has an acute nose and taste," says Mike. "She is the critic on the winemaking side."
"I taste the wine when we're getting ready to bottle and help decide on the balancing," says Sue. "My favourite is the Siegerrebe and running a close second is the Ortega, although the Cuvee Madeleine is my favourite blend. If I had to describe the style of our wines I'd say they are clean and crisp and fruity."
The Smiths still keep horses on the property: two American Quarterhorses (Sue was active in gymkhana and team cattle penning) and a pony for their grandson, as well as a little tiny pony rescued from the jaws of the meatpackers, just because. Mike still has a light plane that he flies whenever there's a spare afternoon and the weather is right. Gone, though, are the cottage on the lake and the boat, the snowmobiles, the horse trailer and the RRSPs (registered retirement savings plan funds).
The Smiths' two grown sons finally believe their parents aren't crazy after all as they enjoy the accolades they hear around town about the wines and the success of the winery. They've even stopped complaining about the sale of the cottage and continue to help out with the crush and occasionally with the bottling on their weekends off work. Even Mike and Sue's grandson, Riley, pitches in his favourite job is operating the corking machine. But don't lag on the button, son, or you'll get two!
There are a few other wineries south of Recline Ridge and north of Kelowna, but they are in the Okanagan Valley desert area and are fully irrigated.
Who knows, with global warming, Recline Ridge may soon be planting Chardonnay and Viognier and will actually use the irrigation licence they were finally granted nine years after planting and harvesting the fruit of their vines.
Recline Ridge, 2640 Skimikin Road, Tappen, British Columbia V0E 2X0