When you talk with visitors to the Okanagan, most will say they want to visit Summerhill Winery and see their pyramid, where they partially age all their wines. Some may say they also want to visit because it uses biodynamic farming methods. I sat down with Ezra Cipes, CEO of Summerhill, and son of the founder, Stephen Cipes, at a restaurant in downtown Vancouver to talk about his experiences at Summerhill, their wines, BC VQA, and more. Pour a glass of wine, sit in a comfy chair, and come along and enjoy this discussion vicariously.
MyWinePal Chats with Ezra Cipes
MyWinePal: How do BC VQA wines fit into Summerhill? I know that you are producing a boxed wine.
Ezra: My family was founding member of the BC VQA, and we are committed to BC VQA. Like anything, it has its problems, but the benefits outweigh the problems. The issue at hand is how to fit kegs and boxed wine into the program. There is a committee looking into it and hopeful it will be solved. BC VQA means more than 1 thing. Is it a minimum quality standard and an appellation of origin, or is it a brand with a perception to uphold? The perception of boxed wines and kegged wines is not the same as wine in bottle. The BC VQA committee will look if these alternative packages should be branded as BC VQA, or whether they should have an alternative designation that provides appellation of origin while maintaining the BC VQA brand.
MyWinePal: What changes in the vineyard have you seen as you converted from organic to biodynamic farming?
Ezra: We have been organic since the 1980s and have gone through personnel changes in the vineyard. Organic farming is not using synthetic herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizer. Biodynamic means that you are actively breeding microbiology in your composts, and creating healthy ecosystems. So the plants have their own ecosystem that they can use to fend for themselves and to get nutrition. You can see differences in the vineyard canopy. In traditional vineyard farming, you see a homogenous, green canopy. In organic farming, our canopy had different colours, from green to yellowish green. In biodynamic farming the leaves are greening up more. The yields are in harmony with the health of the vines.
MyWinePal: How does watering work at Summerhill? Do you use drip irrigation?
Ezra: Dry farming in Kelowna would not work. The plants need watering. We have sandy soil, with good drainage and it does not rain much. So we use drip irrigation. We have a test plot with UBC Okanagan, breeding drought resistant root stock. That would be wonderful if it is successful.
MyWinePal: I have tried many wonderful biodynamic wines. The wines are very vibrant tasting.
Ezra: I like to think of it as the royal road to real authentic terroir driven wine making. If that is your goal, this is the best way to go in my opinion.
MyWinePal: What are you most grateful from your father? He moved your family to the Okanagan.
Vision is the word. My dad is visionary. I would not have built this. I am more of a manager. He created a brand and an idea with lots of power. If you look at Europe and these old wine making families they have a brand that works. Wine making in the Okanagan is only 20 years old, but my father he gave us a foundation that can be built on over generations to form a brand that works.
MyWinePal: What is your favorite Summerhill wine? I see you are drinking the Cipes Brut.
Ezra: I like the Brut. It is my standby. Honestly now I am reaching for the 1998 Cipes Ariel, traditional cuvee, made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. It has been on it’s lees since 1999 and we are now disgorging 1 pallet at a time. There is no other way to make a product like this. You need the time in the bottle. The wine is extremely autolytic. You get some Vegemite and ginger, but also vibrant acidity and freshness, green apple, citrus, and orange zest that make it distinctly Okanagan. As much as the recipe and grapes are from the French tradition and the style of wine making is French, the wine does not taste like French Champagne. It tastes like Okanagan sparkling wine. I think there is something noble about that. It has it’s own identity.
MyWinePal: What type of wines do you like out of the Okanagan? We know that Pinots are talked about a lot.
Ezra: Some people say the Okanagan should focus 1 or 2 types of grapes. We do not have the acreage to focus and compete internationally in that way. We have some many distinct microclimates in the Valley and so many things we can do well. I think focusing on tourism and on small super-premium wines can be a focus. We have a lot of great wineries. During our spring wine festival where the wine makers judge each other’s wines in competition, the strongest wine flights in my opinion were the Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. The wine makers are tuned in and have those nailed and the wines have consistency.
MyWinePal: I like Okanagan Pinot Gris, but I know people talk about Pinot Blanc as signature grape.
Ezra: The Pinot Blancs were uniformly strong. They have good varietal character.
MyWinePal: What was the last wine that you drank, not including a Summerhill wine?
Ezra: An amazing wine from the Okanagan Valley was Hainle Vineyard’s 1983 Riesling ice wine. Wow. I just started to know Hainle’s style through our industry association. We taste each other wines. I got to know Walter Huber a little bit. I love his passion for the world of wine. He has a global perspective on wine quality. He has a very distinct style. The wines I’ve tasted that he inherited when he bought the winery are also very distinctive. The ice wine was oxidized early in the process. It said it would be nutty on the label. 17.5% alcohol on the label. This is very unusual for an ice wine. It was not very sweet, almost like cream sherry style. It was distinctive, unique, rare and beautiful.
MyWinePal: Didn’t the Peachland fire affect the Hainle vineyards?
Ezra: I heard it affected the original site and farmhouse and the abandoned vineyard.
MyWinePal: I was worried when I heard about the fire and it is the worst time of the year to happen.
Ezra: The last non-Okanagan wine I drank was the Krug Grand Cuvee which we used to introduce the Cipes Ariel. We had a small seminar in Vancouver and poured both wines side by side.
MyWinePal: What were the comments between the two wines?
Ezra: From feedback, I was told it was a slightly arrogant move to compare our wine against Krug. Ballsy and audacious were the words that were used. I would not say ours is as good, or better than Krug. I love the Grand Cuvee. It has that distinctly toasty Champagne character. I love the Grand Cuvee. It has toasty character, along with other French champagnes. I don’t know how they do it. Our sparkling wines do not have this same toasty character. It is a beautiful note. I used it because Krug has a super developed, slightly oxidized profile which is the same profile that the Ariel has. Ariel has a bright acid note and freshness that Krug does not have. They are very different wines but it has a basis to compare. I love the Ariel. It has rich creamy persistent bubbles. It illustrated to me the potential for sparkling wine making in the Okanagan and the uniqueness of the Okanagan valley.
MyWinePal: I know that your background is as a musician. Have you written a song for Summerhill?
Ezra: No, *laughing*. I have never had commercial instincts as a musician. My musical career, I can see it was amateurish and no jingles are on the way. My song writing will be a personal hobby to share with friends.
MyWinePal: Out of all the songs in the world would there be a song that best describes what Summerhill is?
Ezra: The first that came to my mind is Pachelbel’s Canon. it has a pure beauty and harmony and explores harmony in the whole spectrum of the major musical scale. Here is a link to Pachelbel’s Canon from Wikipedia.
MyWinePal: Are there other new and exciting wines from Summerhill you would like to tell us about?
Ezra: Yes, this year, 2012 we released our first Meritage, 2008, called OM (and standing for Organic Meritage). Cabernet Franc dominated with 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 9% Merlot. We released it in June and sold out in the first weeks of August. We are now blending the 2010 vintage, skipping 2009. I am excited to develop that brand. I think Cabernet Franc is special, especially in the central valley; Okanagan Falls, Kaleden, and Skaha areas. We have finer soils here than some parts of the south, the wines have more structure and acidity. I think the Cabernet Franc here is very special.
MyWinePal: Why was OM flying off the shelves? Was it from the Cabernet Francophiles, or word of mouth?
Ezra: It was the flavor of the wines. We didn’t promote it. We entered in 1 competition and it scored 93 points in Chicago. This wine sold over the counter in the wine shop.
MyWinePal: Do you like being rated on a point system?
Ezra: It is interesting that sometimes wines can be overlooked especially when they are in a lineup with 100 wines being rated in a day. For example our 2009 Riesling to me was very beautiful, delicate and light, high acid, a little unfermented residual sugar. A very classic, balanced Germanic style Riesling. It kept getting silver medals, 88 points. I think if someone rated it on its own it would have rated differently. It matters where u are in the lineup. Last year I still had 600-700 cases to sell, and was entering wines for the 2011 Okanagan Fall Wine Festival. Even though the 2010 vintage wasn’t released yet, I put in the 2010 because it is more showy than the 2009. It has higher sugar and acid and higher intensity. It won White Wine of the Year. Six months later before I ran out of 09, I decided to keep the last pallet. I sent out a 09 and 10 together to some critics to taste. I felt vindicated that the more delicate 2009 scored higher than the showier 2010 wine.
Many thanks to Ezra for sharing his time with me. I look forward to meeting with him again; this time hopefully at the Summerhill Winery in Kelowna. I hope you enjoyed the discussion. Please add your comments about visits you may have had to the winery this summer or other times.