You may not realize it but winemakers tend to travel across Canada and the world to make wines. In BC we do have winemakers from here, but there are many from New Zealand and also from the Niagara region in Ontario. I had a chance to interview Steve Latchford, one of the winemakers at Okanagan Crush Pad, during the Vancouver International Wine Festival 2020. Steve is originally from Ontario and has moved to the Okanagan to make wine. Let’s hear his story and experience with Okanagan Crush Pad.
My Interview with Steve Latchford
I was reading the Okanagan Crush Pad press release from 2018 that you born and raised in Prince Edward County (PEC) and went to Niagara College for your winemaking training. Then you moved to the Okanagan.
Yes, I moved in 2007.
Why did you move here?
Central Canada is gorgeous, can’t beat the leaves changing in the Fall, but I had to follow my passion of being a winemaker. I didn’t want to just work in a wine cellar anymore. I worked for a big commercial winery at the time. Jackson-Triggs, Inniskillin, and Le Clos Jordanne are where I cut my teeth. I decided if I want to do it, I have to take a risk so I packed everything and moved west and forged new ground.
Had you visited the Okanagan before?
Not at all. The luxury of Vincor at that time (now Arterra Wines Canada) is that they brought Okanagan wines back for us to try. So I tried some and knew where it was, so I got in my car and drove west. I made it in 3 days.
What drew you to wine?
It is kind of a funny thing. I didn’t want to be a dairy farmer. So through High School, I was saving my money to go into graphics arts where my passion was at the time. Working at a dairy farm you get up in the morning, milk the cows, go to school, come back and milk the cows in the evening. I didn’t want to do that. I decided to take graphic arts to make pamphlets and do promotions for example. At that time a woman from Niagara College came to my school and mentioned there was a new winemaking program that was just starting its first year. I took all the chemistry and science classes then applied for it.
I was accepted at three colleges for graphics arts. My fourth option was winemaking that I accepted. I did not tell my parents what I was doing. So I enrolled in the winemaking program. I showed up the first couple of weeks and had no idea what winemaking was. I didn’t tell my parents. But a couple of weeks in I had to tell my parents what I was actually doing.
Were you a wine drinker before?
Never. My mom said you don’t even like drinking wine, so why would you do this? I said you have to take a risk. To me, it was a natural progression going from an agricultural background into an agricultural industry.
Lots of people don’t realize that it is still farming.
Absolutely, it’s hospitality, tourism, manufacturing, sales, and it’s farming. So I got into the program and found my stride. I had a few good instructors, David Hulley took me under his wing at the time. He taught me how to taste wines and gave me my first chance.
Do you see some differences between winemakers in BC and Ontario?
Definitely from the corporate side in Ontario. More fruit and machinery and operations on the industry side in Ontario. It was good for me to see the whole industry, going from the vineyards to the cellar to the vineyards to the cellar.
In Ontario, you saw the bigger corporate side of winemaking and in BC you saw the smaller family-owned wineries?
Yes. I didn’t have a job lined up when I drove out. So I started in Osoyoos and worked my way up to Kelowna tasting wine in every winery over 2 weeks. Basically, if I liked the wines I asked to speak to the winemaker, and if I liked the winemaker and thought I had something to offer I left a resume. I got a call back from Sumac Ridge and from Red Rooster but they were more corporate. A small group of wineries, Holman Lang group contacted me and I took that position. They had 7-8 brands so worked for them for 8 months. And then I ran into Marcus Ansem, the winemaker at Therapy Vineyards at the time, at the Naramata pub one-day having lunch and I mentioned to him that he did not hire me when I applied for a job at Creekside Cellars in Niagara with him and that was a big mistake on his part, saying that as a cocky 24-year-old at the time. Eight months later after I moved to the Okanagan, Marcus approached me and said he wanted to fix his mistake and offered his job as winemaker at Therapy. I met and had dinner with him then took over the winemaker position for 10 years, till 2018.
Is there a red or white grape you really like to work with, in the Okanagan?
For red I really like Pinot Noir; everyone says that. It is one of those nuanced wines that shows every flaw from the vineyard and in your winemaking decisions. You are going to learn quickly on it.
I love Rieslings, it is where I cut my teeth in Niagara. So for Riesling the racier and more acidic the better. I like some Sauvignon Blancs from the Okanagan. I find sometimes they get too tropical if you thin them too much and flabby, so I prefer high acid.
I wrote a BC Pinot Noir and a BC Riesling Review about 5 years ago and I tasted 35 wines each. I found out which vineyard they came from, made tasting notes for each wine and tagged each wine on a map in a GIS (Geographic Information System), brought in soils data, and did an analysis looking at how latitude and soil type related to wine aromas and flavours. I determined that there is a correlation between soil types and flavours and aromas, for both types of grape, as well as a relationship when you go from the south and north.
I also like making Pinot Gris. It’s a versatile variety. You can do a lot with it. It’s not most glamourous but it is fun and easy drinking. You can make it complex with oak treatment, or you can use concrete like we do at Okanagan Crush Pad (OCP) with heavy lees contact and ageing to bring out more texture and vibrancy to the wines.
Is OCP the first winery where you worked with concrete?
Yes. It is a bit of a mind bend the first year of experiencing flavour profiles.
What is the difference between using stainless steel vs concrete?
Stainless steel is pretty predictable. You know where the wine is going pretty much after fermentation. You know what the aromas and flavours are going to be over the next 6 – 8 months. Oak is similar. You kind of know what is going to happen. Concrete is a porous material. So are oak barrels. You get 2-3mg/l per month of oxygen passing through oak while concrete is about 6mg/l per month. Concrete it is basically 2-3 times what a barrel is doing, so the flavours are evolving so much faster. You will taste it one day and you won’t like it (but the next day can change). Concrete teaches me to be a less heavy-handed winemaker. To stand back and let it do its thing; just leave it alone. If you intervene you are going to mess it up.
That was one of those things that Matt Dumayne (Chief winemaker for OCP) needed to teach me the 1st year with concrete. Just wait and it will come around. And there it is. Let’s pull it out of concrete, rack it, and bottle it.
Have you told anyone in Ontario to use concrete?
I tell Marco Piccoli, Senior Winemaker, at Arterra Wines Canada. He manages all the brands. I contact him a few times a year. I keep up with him and his family and tell him what we are doing. He has always been a big supporter of mine.
Concrete isn’t that experimental anymore. Are there any experiments that you are doing?
Christine Colletta, OCP owner, encourages us to do many experiment trials that we want. One of the first small batch experimental wines I was making was starting to go a little sideways I was getting worried. She pulled me aside and said, Steve, I will never fire you for spoiling a wine. I encourage you to do these things and if that’s what happens, that’s what happens. Go for it. Try some diff things. Break ground and do different things that nobody else in Canada is doing. She is very supportive of giving us artistic license in the cellar.
You ended up with some orange wines?
We had some orange wines, some full skin contact whites for 9 months, same with reds, in amphoras, in concrete.
I have a bottle of your Free Form Vin Gris 2017 wine but have not tried it yet.
That wine does not even skin contact. It is one of my favourites. It is a Pinot Noir. We sort the grapes then straight to press, no skin contact, then straight to concrete to ferment. Concrete is a unique vessel because of its porous nature, the side walls are very textured. With stainless steel tanks, the heavy sediments and proteins settle out really quickly, while with concrete it stays in suspension. If you were at the winery right now and poured a glass it will be cloudy and hazy. With that slow settling, you are getting protein stabilization. Typically stainless steel, since it settles quickly, you need to add a bentonite slurry, a negatively charged clay to bind to the positively charged protein, to fall out. The bentonite is never in the wine after. You can protein stabilize in concrete on its own and you can also cold stabilize without manipulating the temperature. In stainless, you turn the temperature down to -2 degrees and then in a week check the conductivity to see if the tartaric acid precipitated out. With concrete tanks we don’t chemical wash the concrete tanks; all we use is a tartaric acid rinse and that binds with the tartaric acid in the wine and pulls it out, so you can cold and protein stabilize the wine the longer you leave it in the tank.
All the stainless tanks I see are vertical but around 3-4 years ago at VanWineFest, Norm Hardy said he likes horizontal tanks with more surface area on the top.
We had charmat tanks like that. The logic would be like when you lay a champagne bottle on the side to get more yeast coverage, same with the charmat tank.
Any surprises in the 2019 vintage?
2019 was very similar to the 2013 vintage where we had lots of rain in the summer and then rain and frost in the early winter. Jan-Feb did a bit of winter damage. We had rain during the harvest in September 2013; It rained 18 of the 31 days. This year only 13 of 31 days was rain. So sour rot and Volatile Acidity (VA) coming in can be a problem, but not our fruit as we thin. Some of the growers were having struggles and problems in the valley in general. So a lot less Pinot Noir (due to thin skins) this year and more rose wines are being made.
What can you do with those affected grapes?
If you pick them early enough before the sour rot sets in you can make rose wine. A lot of times the inside of the cluster is expanding and the berries explode a bit. So get the VA on the inside. Depending on your level of shoot and cluster thinning, etc. in the vineyard, our clusters were pretty open. We don’t overwater which can cause mildew, we like to practice as much dry farming as possible.
You are on the still side. Is Lindsay Schatz at OCP still making sparkling wine?
No Lindsay has moved on.
So you are doing sparkling as well?
Yes, Matt and I do the sparkling wines. My primary responsibility is client services winemaking.
What would you rather be a sparkling or a still winemaker?
I like it all. It keeps the variety of life. You get to try everything. Sparkling is fun for January and February when it is slow. Tirage bottlings are put to bed and then you start working on whites for March-May for bottling. So you start filtrations at that point then move into Reds in the summer then onto harvest. Keeps us busy.
Do you have any gyropalettes?
Yes, we have 2 gyropalette machines and 13 cages that we keep in cycles. 2 days every month we disgorge the cages. I like doing sparkling wines. I did not do it at Therapy until I was leaving. We did a vintage. Again this is another skillset I get to polish up at Okanagan Crush Pad.
Are you getting to do any wine collaboration with anyone else in the Valley?
Not wines yet, but a couple of breweries we are friends with we will likely do some projects next year. Grape must is added to the beer then fermented to create some interesting products.
I’ve seen using wine barrels and letting the beer age.
Typically they (brewers) like to add Brett (Brettanomyces) that I don’t like in wine, but if they do it at their brewery that is OK. I don’t want Brett kicking around in my cellar (Karl: Brett adds a funky aroma which in higher concentrations is viewed as a flaw in a wine). We do a lot of stuff with a lot of clients. I’d say Coolshanaugh has been one of our biggest supporters. The owner is putting together a tirage bottling of Chardonnay and will have sparkling wine available in a couple of years.
Do they want a house style or blending different vintages or a single vintage?
A single vintage; whatever it is that year. We want to capture the expression of that vintage. The owner has 4 distinct blocks of Chardonnay on his property. We picked one block that makes the most sense for sparkling, we grow the grapes in the summer and pick in the fall, and keep the other blocks separate. We do 4-5 picks in the Fall press them separately, age separately, then blend back later on.
Thanks for spending time with me.