How to Start a Winery from Scratch
First, you start with a llama farm.
“Hey Sarah, look at this,” my husband Murray called one drizzly November morning. His Mac displayed a Google Earth image of a green, sloping plot of land with a small structure on it, surrounded by orchards and vineyards.
My first reaction was: “What’s wrong with it?” Surely it was a former toxic waste dump or sacred burial site. Since when has there been five acres of virgin land in the South Okanagan just sitting there?
But fast forward a month, and there’s Murray in the Penticton courthouse with a sealed envelope. $507,000 was the magic (albeit somewhat random) bid suggested to us by a trusted friend in real estate for this foreclosed llama farm. To make a stressful situation even more so, there were two other groups, envelopes in hand and both like us: in their mid-40s and starry-eyed with anticipation.
As it turned out, our envelope was the fattest and our bid was accepted by the bank on December 31, 2015, getting it off their books by year end. We popped a bottle (or two) of Blue Mountain bubbly that New Year’s Eve, half incredulous at what we’d done and feeling a serious case of “Now what?”
First thing: relocate the llamas. And in March, once the ground thawed, we set to work designing and building a vineyard with a local management team. Because of the site and the soil (and because it’s our favourite), Murray selected pinot noir Dijon clones, and had the vines shipped from Ontario and Oregon. Meanwhile, we gutted and rebuilt the 1968 A-frame that came with the property into what we hoped would be an Instagram-worthy vacation rental. The eclectic cast of characters in these endeavours was pure reality TV. Kevin, our trilingual Belgian vineyard manager, moonlighted as Kaptain K, a wedding DJ. Then there were the Kens: Neighbour Ken was grumpy and shot golf balls onto our property; Cowboy Ken was a wealthy landowner in a Stetson who had a knack for carpentry and installing Moroccan tiles.
If you told me 10 years ago that we’d be grape farmers, I’m not sure I’d have believed it. But that April I resigned from my job as president of a digital media company to manage the project. Murray juggled his work as a culinary consultant in Vancouver with other important tasks, such as chasing bucks out of the vineyard with a rake (the kind with antlers, although to get rid of them we forked out $15,000 of the other kind of bucks for deer fencing and an automatic gate). Labour was (and still is) in such short supply that we hired crews of local teenagers to dismantle the old wire animal fencing. An army of seasonal workers from Mexico and Quebec worked through the heat of the summer to get the wires, metal posts and irrigation installed. We bulldozed animal shelters, cut down and hauled out dozens of trees to protect the vineyard from birds, and cleaned out the barn. Murray swears he still has llama shit in the tread of his hiking boots.
There were other challenges—like selling a Vancouver condo quickly for cash flow—and other pests. A woodpecker’s dime-sized hole in our roof opened up living quarters for a family of bats that would dive-bomb us on the porch; the moles (or was it voles?) would not be evicted from the lawn.
On the more technical side, since we committed to organic farming (i.e., no chemical pesticides or herbicides) we were almost always, literally, in the weeds. Everyone told us to spray Roundup for a few years, then convert to organic. But we resisted, and because the young vines were too fragile for machinery, we bought a Dutch hoe and took shifts like people from some Millet painting.
Right around the time of our third leaf (vineyard parlance for established years) we launched a splash page, and Birch Block Vineyard was officially born, named for the stand of white birch on the top block. This year, we bottled our first vintage of rosé, called Été Sans Fin (Endless Summer) in magnum format for Cactus Club, and a Pop-Up Chard for Wildebeest with grapes from a neighbour. We made around 120 cases in total, which we hope to double by next year, when the vines are more mature. If we can round up the labour and scurry up some cash we’ll plant another three-quarter acre this year and, hopefully, within five years we’ll be at 800 cases (including a pinot noir and pét-nat in the mix).
It’s been exhilarating, it’s been expensive, it’s been rewarding—in that order. We’ve now met like-minded, small-batch winemakers committed to organic farming and natural winemaking from Cawston to Summerland, and they’ve been generous with their time, equipment and expertise. We’ve learned that there’s no beginning or end to building a vineyard; it’s an ongoing investment financially, physically and emotionally.
But now, when we kick off our boots at the end of the day and watch the wild horses on the hills behind us, the sun setting over Skaha Lake before us and the vines flitting in the cool breeze, we toast to Mother Earth, no computer needed.