EAT’s Wine Chain: Kettle Valley Winery

Kettle Valley winery, one of British Columbia’s founding wineries, began with two good friends; Bob Ferguson and Tim Watts, a passion for wine, very supportive wives (who happened to be sisters) and the belief that the soil of the Okanagan could produce good wine.

Their foray into winemaking started as a hobby, making wine in Tim and Janet’s rental apartment. When their homemade wine wasn’t making the grade, they reached the conclusion that the quality of the grapes was the problem and with too many wine stains that wouldn’t come out of the carpet, it was time to move and start growing their own grapes. In 1987, Bob and Tim hand-planted their first vineyard with pinot noir and chardonnay and when harvest came and wine-making supplies couldn’t be found in British Columbia, two Canucks hell-bent on making good wine on Friday night jumped into their propane pick-up truck and headed across the border down to Sacramento to pick up barrels, yeast and other supplies. They managed to get back on time for their day jobs as an accountant and geologist on Monday morning. After all, winemaking was just their passion.

When the BC grape growers lobbied the provincial government for legislation to allow small winery operations, and with the thought “well, we’ll never be able to drink all this wine ourselves”, Kettle Valley Winery was born, named after the historic railway the friends could see from their house, and theirs was the third license granted on the Naramata Bench in 1991. For these Canuck winemakers, sales literally started out of the trunk of their car. In 1992, after a drive down to Vancouver with cases from their first official vintage in the trunk, Bob opened a bottle of the Kettle Valley 1992 Pinot Noir and left it for tastings at Bishop’s Restaurant. The rest is now history – including how John Bishop chased Bob down the street and bought a case,  becoming their first official customer. Also part of Kettle Valley lore is how John E. Levine (the founder of the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival), who after tasting their wine and discovering that they had no idea how to sell their wine other than out of their car, made a few phone calls and Kettle Valley wine was launched into some of BC’s finest restaurants, such as the Empress Hotel and the Sooke Harbour House.

Twenty years later, not much has changed. Bob and Tim still make their own wine and sell it out of the same garage. Unless you are a long-time customer, often the only place to find their small production releases is at one of BC’s finer restaurants. Serious wine drinkers can rejoice that many tourists drive up to the winery, see the garage and head out before even trying the wine.

In honor of their 20th Anniversary, EAT magazine has chosen Kettle Valley as the subject for the inaugural edition of the Wine Chain. In this new column, we will sit down with the winemaker and ask questions ending with the winemaker having to choose another wine made by a BC winemaker. EAT magazine then asks that winemaker a series of questions and to choose another BC wine and on goes chain. As Kettle Valley has two winemakers, the chain starts with winemaker Bob Ferguson. Tim Watts will be the back-up in case the chain ever gets broken. Welcome to the EAT Wine Chain!

As answered by Bob Ferguson:

First BC wine?

Sumac Ridge Chancellor where back in the early eighties the quality of the wine actually varied not by vintage but bottle by bottle. In fact, there are still a few bottles along with the Sumac Ridge Verdelet in my cellar.

Epiphany wine?

1959 Chateau Palmer- enjoyed on three different occasions.

As of today what is your favorite grape varietal?

Pinot Noir.

Favorite wine region outside of Canada?

Wines from around the world and each area for a different varietal. For Pinot Noir, Burgundy but the wines are hit and miss-some are exceptional but others marginal especially at that price point, for consistent value New Zealand, California and colder regions in Australia.

What restaurants outside of the Okanagan have you recently eaten at?

In Victoria, Lure Restaurant and Lounge and Camille’s is a family tradition . In Vancouver, Gastown’s Boneta Restaurant

What were the last three Okanagan restaurants you ate at?

The BenchNaramata Heritage Inn and The Vanilla Pod

Best thing about living in the Okanagan?

Naramata has wonderful weather to grow grapes- the cold winter kills bugs and the dry summers limit issues with mildew and fungus. It’s a wonderful place to raise a family and although many people say it’s changed, really the shift has been from growing tree-fruits to growing grapes. It is still a farming community that has maintained a rural, slower pace lifestyle. And the beauty of Naramata, nobody comes here unless they choose to.

What beer is currently in your fridge?

Nelson Brewing IPA, Cannery Brewing’s Naramata Nut Brown Ale, Tree Brewings IPA, and my special Rochefort Belgium Beer. I find that the IPA beers really cleanse the palate.

Special wine memory?

During the fire of 2003, when we had to evacuate and really thought we might lose everything, we took a bottle of Penfolds Grange and Chateau Petrus from the cellar. We went up to the top of the hill and drank the bottles while we watched the fire.

Favorite home-cooked meal and wine pairing?

BBQ Salmon with a maple soy marinade and black pepper, flipped on both sides for two to three minutes on the BBQ, with a glass of Kettle Valley Pinot Gris and I refer to the color of our Pinot Gris as “salmon” not pink.

Dead man walking-last meal and wine request?

Rare BBQ’d beef tenderloin with a wine cherry reduction sauce and either a Bottle of Penfolds Grange or Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

Which of your wines are you currently enjoying and how has growing conditions changed that selection?

Kettle Valley Semillon Sauvignon Blanc from 2009. It was a really good year for ripening semillon and as it is a 50/50 blend, the Semillon really shines through with the correct varietal notes. Sometimes with winemaking, you know why a certain varietal stands out from the others but sometimes it really is a surprise and I find that interesting. Why in normal growing conditions and where the weather has been consistent and nothing was done differently than in previous growing seasons does one varietal stand out? For us in 2009, it was our Semillon.

How would you compare the varietal characteristic of a BC grape versus another area?

BC Malbec – our 2008 Kettle Valley Malbec has wonderful soft notes of blueberry. I find that BC Malbec consistently show notes of blueberry and this is not found in Malbecs from other areas. The hot days combined with colder night time temperatures in the Okanagan really allows the fruit flavors to develop and stand out. Our first crop was in 2000, and Sandhill also made a Malbec that year. Cedar Creek has a good Malbec and Laughing Stock is using Malbec in one of their blends. Malbec is a grape well suited for BC, unlike Petit Verdot which is fun to grow but is not economically viable because of the late ripening.

Anything new?

We are fermenting Zinfandel for the first time this year from our vineyard in Cawston. We plan to release just over 100 cases in 2013.

Your favourite Kettle Valley Wine?

Hayman Pinot Gris is for me very special because we only make 88 cases and it comes from the grapes grown around our house.

BC wine/winemaker that you are currently taking note of?

As he mentioned 4 winemakers in the first sentence , we made him stop and decided to give honorable mentions to Kathy Malone at Hillside Winery who is doing great things, Jeff Martin at La Frenz for both his “fresh peaches” Viognier and “buttery popcorn” Chardonnay and Ross Hackworth at Nichol for his Syrah, but decided that the wine chain recipient would be the winemaker that Bob mentioned first.

To be continued next week with our new wine chain winemaker…

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