In a wine world full of stainless steel tanks and oak barrels, a concrete egg certainly is attention-getting. But after your curiosity subsides, you'll find there are (ahem) concrete reasons for using such a vessel in the production of wine. Which is why I turned to Christine Coletta, proprietor of Haywire Winery in British Columbia (along with husband Steve Lornie), to help me understand why they employ a concrete egg in their winemaking process. I also used this specific query as an excuse to pepper Christine with a few other questions about her background, and get a little education about the Okanagan Valley wine region. Please enjoy her thoughts about British Columbia wine, food and wine pairings and boxed wine:
How and why did you move from the business of marketing wine to making wine?
Our decision to make wine really came down to wanting to see the end result of all our hard work to establish our vines in a bottle of wine that was labeled a single vineyard designation – Switchback Vineyard. We knew that no one else would give it the care and attention that match our dedication as growers.
You have both a winery, Haywire, and the Okanagan Crush Pad, which provides a broad range of services from grape to bottle (and beyond). Why both?
Okanagan Crush Pad is where people who are trying to start a winery can come for help. Steve and I realized the need as we were hunting for a home for our “virtual” wine Haywire. There wasn’t a winery facility that was big enough and had the desire to add us into their cellar. We saw a market gap that we could fill.
What makes the Okanagan Valley a distinct area to grow grapes? Which ones do the best there? Which ones show promise?
Long hot days, cool, dry nights, low rain fall and an intense short growing season. This is winemaking on the fringe. Think “Patagonia” at the southern end of what is possible! And think “Okanagan” at the northern end. Our consulting winemaker Alberto Antonini makes wine in some very extreme landscapes. He is very excited by what he sees in the Okanagan. I don’t think we quite realized the potential of what we could do until he pointed it out to us. There are some inherent challenges here, but nothing that prudent research and planning, plus good farming and hard work can’t overcome.
The results are wines with crisp acidity, bright fruit flavours. Lively, fresh wines. We are far too young as a wine growing region to definitively lay out what should or should not be grown here. What is exciting is the 100 plus varietals that are planted and the level of experimentation that has taken place over the past 20 years. Now we need to dial it down and determine what we do best. Our consulting winemaker Alberto Antonini is keen to plant a virgin piece of land and start from the ground up to create a world class wine. We are currently GIS mapping a 300-plus acre parcel that we have bought with the goal of planting approximately 80 of those acres. Pedro Parra, a soil and terroir expert from Chile, will make his third trip to visit us in early October to determine the layout (orientation), varieties, clones and irrigation zones on the site. Extensive planning will go into determining what and how we plant. The goal is not to plant specific varietals, but to plant grapes that are best suited to the site and that will create a wine that is quintessential “Okanagan”. As a New World wine region we have been far too focused on varietal wines. It is time to switch that up and start growing wines that best showcase our region.
Is it comparable to any other wine regions in the world?
The valley is very arid with extreme high day time temperatures and cool nights – similar to central Washington, but with the unique difference of a 75 mile chain of lakes that provide a moderating effect. This is desert wine country at its finest. I have yet to meet a visiting journalist or wine buyer who isn’t completely overwhelmed by the ruggedness and sheer beauty of the area. It’s winemaking on the edge.
I received a sample bottle of the 2011 Haywire Pinot Gris from the Switchback Vineyard. I thought it was great but what intrigued me most was the phrase “Raised in Concrete” on the front label. What does it mean to “raise” a wine in concrete? Does it add something that oak or stainless steel does not? Is the wine in direct contact with the concrete and does it add flavor?
Concrete has been used in winemaking for centuries, but is making a comeback in the New World. We have six 2,000 litre concrete fermenting “eggs” from Sonoma Cast Stone in Napa and more will arrive from Italy this coming year. There is no lining in the “eggs” so the wine is in direct contact with pure concrete. The goal is to get our own native yeasts living in the porous internal surface of the tanks so that we do not need to use commercial yeast. Concrete tanks are more work to maintain and many wineries have put an epoxy liner in their tanks which to us defeats the purpose. We don’t view concrete as a sterile vessel like stainless steel, but a vessel like oak, which plays a role in defining the taste profile of a wine. Concrete is much more subtle. We notice a fuller, rounder, more complex mid-palate and a “minerality” to the wine that isn’t in our stainless steel fermented version.
Any wine that we ferment in concrete says “raised in concrete” on the front label. It’s part of our mission to create consumer awareness for concrete fermented wines. We let people know how and why concrete vessels are utilized, and the joy of using them.
How have people responded to your Bag in a Box wines? Is there still a stigma associated with this format? If I was the type to resist boxed wine, how would you convince me of the error of my ways?
We take great effort to let people know that the wine in our boxes is the same wine we put in our bottles. Consumers are really embracing boxed wines – not just ours but others from the Okanagan Valley such as Summerhill and Pentage. Boxes are lighter than glass, more convenient to store, easy to use – especially if you have a party or want to serve the wine as a bar house pour. The boxes are priced competitively to get people to give them a try. We are also kegging wine for use on taps at local restaurants.
As a marketer and winery owner, what message would you like to send to people about wines from the Okanagan Valley? And will we see more of them available in the United States anytime soon? There are precious few that make it across the border.
Wine from the Okanagan is still in its infancy. We are a tiny emerging wine region with great potential. The world has yet to see what we can truly do. There are a few producers who are making wine to world class standards, but the quantities are small and hard to get. BC and Alberta consumers are loyal fans of Okanagan wine and the best of what we have is quickly snapped up by locals. I think it will be another decade before we really branch out of our home market with our best wines. In the meanwhile, US wine lovers should do what BC’ers did 20 years ago. Hop in the car and be one of the first to discover what is happening here.
Since I’m writing for a site that beings with “food", what are some of your favorite local food pairings with your wines?
Vancouver, the market where most of our wines are sold, is a multicultural hot bed when it comes to food. You name it, we have it - Thai, Vietnamese, Italian, food wagon, BBQ house, French, Spanish cuisine – it is all here in abundance. Ingredients include seafood, shellfish, beef, bison, organic beets, goat’s cheese – to name a few. You could go to a different restaurant every day for ten years and still not fully discover what we have.
With our Pinot Gris I love spot prawns quickly marinated in cilantro, lime juice and then BBQ’ed with the shell on. Dip them in a very mild sweet red chili sauce.
With our Haywire Rosé I love fresh crab or crab cakes on a bed of fresh greens with a drizzle of balsamic and olive oil or Asian food of any kind. Anyone who loves food and who will be attending the wine bloggers conference in Penticton next year will discover some of our great local restaurants. But they should also consider a side trip to Vancouver to explore the food scene. It is where you will find the bulk of the Okanagan’s best wines proudly served.
For more on British Columbia wine, check out my interview with Luke Whittall of Wine Country BC.