Wineries take root in region

When the Heinecke family moved to Canada from Germany in 1998 and purchased the three-year-old Crowsnest Vineyards in Cawston, they were only one of two wineries in the Similkameen Valley.

But Sascha Heinecke said his family was confident in their choice because, even at that time, people were saying the Okanagan Valley had reached its peak — about 40 wineries.

“Nobody ever thought it would keep growing,” he said with a laugh, noting the more than 100 wineries in the Okanagan today.

At the time, the Similkameen was largely undiscovered by the wine industry — their vineyard and St. Lazslo’s stood out among the fields of hay and orchards lining the valley. Fast forward 10 years and that picture has changed.

Today, hundreds of acres in the valley have been planted with grapes. Hay fields and orchards have become viable vineyards and wineries.

This weekend the Similkameen hosted its first ever wine festival, the Similkameen Soirée, showcasing seven of the nine wineries that have opened in the valley.

Much of the growth of the Similkameen wine region has taken place in the last five years, said Heinecke, pointing to the high land values and decreasing land availability in the Okanagan are reasons for the discovery.

George Hansen, the regional district representative for the Cawston, the area where the majority of the new wineries are concentrated, and proprietor of Seven Stones Winery, agreed.

For many years Hansen said the Similkameen was the best kept secret as far as grape growing regions. Now, he said the secret is out.

“When I first moved here, there was belief that there was probably no future in grapes and people couldn’t see the potential future. Now there is a real future for it,” he said.

While there may be some challenges with a burgeoning wine region — such as loss of orchard land and labour shortages — Hanson said recent growth has created a cycle of economic revitalization in a region that had been struggling to maintain its footing in an unstable fruit market.

“It’s a very positive outlook for the Similkameen,” he said.

“The wine industry has been sort of a catalyst for rejuvenation.”

Next year, for example, Hanson said 400 acres of grapes will be planted in the Similkameen, adding to the hundreds planted this year.

He said the Lower Similkameen Indian Band is also getting on board and is expected to plant up to 80 acres.

While this increased interest is pushing real estate values up, Heinecke said compared with the Okanagan, the Similkameen remains very affordable.

“It’s still reasonable to buy land,” he said. “What you could do in Naramata 15 years ago you can do now in the Similkameen.”

It was for this reason that Holman Lang decided to open a winery in the Similkameen this year.

The company now owns eight wineries, most on the Naramata Bench, with K Mountain being the first in the Similkameen.

Owner Keith Holman said they chose the Similkameen Valley because he can also foresee the potential for the region.

“I just think that it’s the last great wine growing region available,” he said, adding that the terroir (the environment and growing conditions for wine) is multi-dimensional. “The terroir is just going to rock.”

While he doesn’t think the Similkameen will see the same traffic as the Naramata Bench and the Okanagan region right away, he predicts it could gain that kind of notoriety in the next seven or eight years.

But those who have been in the valley for many years, like the Heinecke family, have already started to see that growth take hold.

When Crowsnest first opened, Heinecke said people would stop at his winery on the way to Osoyoos or Penticton, and only stay for an hour or two.

Now, he said there are enough wineries that people spend one or two full days touring the Similkameen.

And, as wine enthusiasts continue to flock to the area, more amenities will have to be created to serve their needs, said Hansen.

“There is such a spin-off effect from the wine tourism,” he said.

“First the come wineries. Then the high quality culinary experience develops. Then the hotel industry comes behind it.”

With the Similkameen wineries getting attention for their product on a grander scale — garnering 13 awards at the All Canadian Wine Championships this year for example — it will continue to push the spotlight onto the area once known for its fruit stands.

Sascha Heinecke of Crowsnest Vineyards in Cawston said his family has seen the wine industry in the Similkameen grow up around them over the last decade. This weekend the valley held its very first Similkameen wine festival celebrating this continued growth in the valley once known for its tree fruit.