Filling a wine industry need

Lack of local skilled viticulturalists an ingredient missing for Okanagan Valley wine producers.

Okanagan winery owners (from left) Ann Sperling

A key next step in the development of the Okanagan wine industry will focus on expanding the local talent pool of viticulture expertise, says a South Okanagan winery owner.

Sandra Oldfield, president and CEO of Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in Oliver, said the Okanagan is blessed with a natural environment able to produce a wide variety of red and white wines.

But managing that environment at the soil science level largely remains a skill set that requires bringing in experts from outside of B.C.

“We have a lot of positive things going for us with our wine industry, but one area of our business we are lacking in is soil science,” she said.

Oldfield was one of three women guest speakers at a panel discussion hosted by the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday at the Kelowna Yacht Club.

Moderated by long-time wine industry writer John Schreiner, the discussion focused on the winery business, the career opportunities it presents for women and the panel trio’s individual wine industry experiences.

Joining Oldfield were Ann Sperling, winemaker of Sperling Vineyards and Southbrook Winery in Kelowna along with being a winery start-up consultant, and Elaine Triggs, co-proprietor of Culmina Family Estate Winery in Oliver.

Oldfield said an agreement with Okanagan College to initiate a two-year viticulture program is hoped to be a significant step forward in filling that local skill level need.

The program will address the scientific principles underlying grape growing for the purpose of wine production, from learning about the various influences of wine production to vineyard management and equipment operation.

“People trained in this area bring a lot of added value to our industry. I am not looking for someone who can just do branch pruning, but people who share a passion for our industry, who can see potential problems that might be encountered in the grape growing process before they occur and what we can do to deal with them,” Oldfield said.

She says an effort is being made to provide a standardized wage scale for viticulturists to make clear what the financial expectations are for the profession.

“We don’t want people entering the college program thinking this is what they can make when they graduate, and then find out the jobs are paying 20 or 30 per cent less than what they originally thought,” she said.

Oldfield, a winemaker herself who learned her trade in California before moving to Canada 15 years ago, said those skills for most new winery owners or developers, the farming aspect of growing a successful grape crop, can be a difficult learning process.

While it may not have the draw of actually creating or marketing wine, she noted growing grapes is an arduous process that takes years and often faces destructive obstacles, from weather to fire to pest insurgency, created by Mother Nature.

Triggs noted when she and her husband purchased an apple orchard and converted it into grapes, they needed outside expertise for the agricultural use transition.

“I learned so much (about viticulture) going through that process and realized how important that aspect of our industry is,” Triggs said.

While winemaking tends to be the focus, she noted outside of two schools that offer viticulture programs in Ontario, the education in B.C. for that part of the industry was lacking.

“The winemaking skills are great but we also need that viticulture expertise as well. We need that training to help our industry grow which is why the college program will be an exciting opportunity,” Triggs said.