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Monte Creek Ranch Winery
Monte Creek Ranch Winery is investing an eye-popping $10 million to add a gravity-flow winery to its facilities east of Kamloops.This is one of the largest investments in a winery this year in British Columbia and it is being made in the Thompson River Valley, home to just four wineries in total. Monte Creek general manager Erik Fisher hopes that his winery’s spending will attract other winery investment to the valley. “We want others to come and develop the region so there are more than just the four wineries,” he says. “Hopefully, an investment of this scale is a good indication for others that there is good long-term potential here. We would love to see a few other wineries over the next few years.”
Monte Creek Ranch is spending $8 million on the new winery, including equipment, and $1.25 million on a new grape propagation greenhouse. Other infrastructure improvements bring the total spend to $10 million. The current winery, located beneath the Monte Creek wineshop and restaurant, will be retained, largely for white wine production. The new facility is designed primarily for the production of reds, notably Pinot Noir and Gamay, the winery’s signature varietals and the reason for adopting the gravity-flow design. “We have bought into that whole philosophy of gravity flow,” Erik says. “More gentle handling of red fruits has the potential to produce a higher quality product.”
The expanded winery will have the capacity of producing 50,000 cases of wine. Monte Creek plans to grow to that when all its vineyards are in full production. The winery currently has 75 acres in two vineyard blocks – one on either side of the Thompson River and the TransCanada Highway. These vineyards have been developed since 2010 and will be expanded further. Monte Creek also gets fruit from its property in the Similkameen Valley, just east of Keremeos. The land was acquired in 2018. The plan is to plant 90 acres of vines over several years. The major varietals are Pinot Noir and Gamay, along with smaller blocks of Chardonnay and Riesling. The latter produced a small quantity of fruit last fall.
The winery came about almost by chance. Gurjit Sidhu, the winery owner, is a major blueberry grower and nursery operator in the Fraser Valley. He bought a large tract of ranch land east of Kamloops in 2007 with the intention of growing blueberries there as well. Then he discovered that blueberries do not thrive in the hot and dry climate of the Thompson River Valley. When grape growing was suggested, Gurjit commissioned a study from John Vielvoye, the retired grape specialist with the provincial government. John recommended planting Minnesota hybrids, varieties with a track record for producing good wines in Minnesota and Quebec vineyards while tolerating winters colder than those of the Thompson River Valley. European wine grapes seldom survive -25ºC but these varieties can survive as hard a freeze as -35ºC. Taking the advice, Gurjit initially planted hardy varieties in the vineyards. Monte Creek grows five Minnesota hybrids: Frontenac and Marquette, a rosé called Frontenac Gris, and white varietals called Frontenac Blanc and La Crescent. The vineyards also have Maréchal Foch, a hardy French hybrid. The history of the Minnesota hybrids begins with Elmer Swenson, an American plant breeder who died in 2004. He began breeding winter-hardy wine grapes in 1943 at his farm in Osceola, Wisconsin (one of his varieties grown in a Monte Creek test plot is called Osceola). Later he moved to the University of Minnesota which took over his work. The varieties are grown in those northern states but also in Quebec, which accounts for the French names of some varieties.
Monte Creek also planted several somewhat more tender vinifera varietals in both of its original vineyards, including Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay. The winery has had to take measures to protect them against cold temperatures after a cold snap two winters ago caused about 50% loss of production from those vines (the Minnesota hybrids were unscathed). . “This year, we hilled up our vinifera,” Erik says. “We dropped all of our trellising down to about knee level, so that we could hill up essentially the whole vine. We think that will be a determining factor for the viability of some of the vinifera varieties.” After a mild winter, there were four days in mid-February this year with temperatures low enough to kill vinifera buds. “We had an effective inversion layer,” Erik says. “We used our wind machines effectively. Our vineyard manager thinks we might be relatively unscathed. It was just a couple of hours that it hit -22◦C and we were able to bring warm air down during that period. We are hopeful the damage will be minimal this year, with the burying of the vines and the effective use of the wind machines.” The other large winery nearby in the Thompson River Valley is Harper’s Trail Estate Winery, which opened in 2012, two years earlier than Monte Creek. The vineyard here - more than 25 acres is under vine and there is ample room for more – has succeeded with vinifera varietals and wind machines to move cold air to the valley bottom.
The record of these producers, along with Monte Creek’s current investment, should anchor this young wine region. Other than a diminished sales volume to restaurants during the pandemic, wineries have continued to do good business during the pandemic. “Our tasting room has been surprisingly consistent,” Erik notes. “We are on the TransCanada Highway and we are near a major centre, in Kamloops. Retail sales numbers are up a bit and direct-to-consumer is up a bit. All in all, we have been relatively unscathed.”
The Kamloops Wineries