Through fire and ice, the president of CedarCreek Estate Winery has persevered and he has big plans for the future of the winery—one of the pioneer wineries of the Okanagan.
Gordon Fitzpatrick says his first two vintages after he moved to work at his father’s Mission-area winery from his mining company, featured the worst weather and the most difficult harvest he’s ever seen.
Driving sleet made for miserable, icy conditions in the vineyard and on the crush pad in 1996, and 1997 wasn’t much better, he recalls.
Then, in 2003, only a miracle prevented the Fitzpatrick family home, winery and vineyards from evaporating in the firestorm that swept through the south slopes of Kelowna, destroying 35 homes and a neighbouring winery—though there were no fatalities.
“We cut a huge fire break and cleaned up all the pine needles and we watered well. Then, there was a shift in winds at a critical time, which saved us,” recalled Fitzpatrick.
“It was almost like a straight edge. Homes immediately south of Dad’s burned,” he added.
“But, you have to be resilient in this business,” he said.
Now, CedarCreek still holds a community barbecue each summer, just as they did immediately after the wildfire, just to give thanks.
Patience, says Fitzpatrick, is a vital virtue in the wine-making industry, just as it is in the mining industry.
“Our progress is measured in decades,” he explains.
And, this year, the Fitzpatrick family its celebrating its 25th anniversary since CedarCreek Estate Winery was formed. That was when Ross Fitzpatrick purchased Uniacke Cellars with its vineyard of hybrid grapes and an apple orchard on the south slopes overlooking Okanagan Lake.
It was only a few years later, in 1990, that the federal grape pull-out program forever changed the grape and wine industries in the Okanagan, and led to one which today competes on a world stage.
At CedarCreek, they removed 12 acres of Chasselas, DeChaunac and Okanagan Riesling hybrid wine grapes and embarked on a path to production of premium quality wines from vinifera wine grapes such as Pinot Noir and Merlot.
Those vines are now 20 years old and their fruit are beginning to produce some complex flavours in the bottle.
From that initial 50 acres in Mission, CedarCreek purchased the 40-acre Greata Ranch in 1995, then 25 acres at Desert Ridge further south in 2001 and in 2006, 35 acres at Haynes Creek.
“I believe we have the right varieties at the right sites now,” comments Fitzpatrick.
He’s not looking to put in any more vineyard or new varietals, although the winery still purchases some independently-grown grapes that amounts to perhaps 30 per cent of their production.
Difficult economic times in recent years have meant “We all have to work harder, and we have to spend more time in the marketplace. We’re in the tourism business—we’re trying to drive business to our cellar door,” he notes. The Vineyard Terrace restaurant, opened in 2002 as part of a re-design and re-build, and the sunset concert series are all geared toward driving visitors out Lakeshore Road for a scenic visit.
A couple of recognitions as Winery of the Year from the Canadian Wine Awards certainly didn’t harm the winery’s image, and there have been some significant awards for CedarCreek’s reds as well.
However, at this time of year, they’re releasing their aromatic whites, and a first Pinot Noir rose, all made by new winemaker Darryl Brooker, who hails from Australia, but most recently from the Ontario wine industry.
Brooker is emphasizing a total integration of the vineyards and cellars at CedarCreek, says Fitzpatrick, and he has been spending a lot of time with the winery’s vineyard managers.
He says Brooker has noticeably improved the winery’s whites and he’s looking forward to the release of his first reds this fall.
“We want to concentrate on the next level of quality,” he says, but he admits the quality of wine produced up to now has already surpassed all expectations—just in the first 25 years.