My Interview With Ezra Cipes at Summerhill – Being Biodynamic and More

This is my third interview with Ezra Cipes, CEO of Summerhill Pyramid Winery.  His family has a long history in the BC wine industry and has been leading in organic, and now biodynamic agriculture, in my opinion.  Ezra is also a director of the Canadian Vintners Association and Vice-Chair of the British Columbia Wine Institute.  I arranged this interview as it has been one year since the COVID shutdown in BC, and I would like to find out how this has affected Summerhill and maybe showed opportunities for the future.

My Interview with Ezra Cipes

Karl: What were you doing at the winery when we had the COVID 19 shut down in March 2020?

Ezra Cipes (Image courtesy Summerhill Pyramid Winery)

Ezra Cipes (Image courtesy Summerhill Pyramid Winery)

Ezra: It was hard to see coming as we had been through SARS and other scares.  It did not seem like it was going to happen.  At the time we put together what we called the Hunker Down Wine Care Pack a year ago.  We put it online and it is a good thing we did because as soon as everything shut down with one email to list, a new chapter of our e-commerce was activated. I am at the tail end of Gen X start of Millennials so I always grew up with the cultural understanding that the worst thing you could be was a sell-out. People could choose to buy your stuff or not, but you should not tell them to do it.  That was a generational ethic I grew up with.  So we only used our email list for brand building, telling stories, showing pictures of our biodynamic compost, etc, and all of a sudden the lockdown begins and we are suddenly digital marketers selling wine online.  I had to get over that mentality and learn how to sell.  It has been kind of fun, and since that day we have been doing that full-on.  Almost every week we send out a new email.  This is totally new for us.  All our e-commerce was a bonus that happened in the background, but now we are taking it seriously.

Do you see Summerhill doing more sales, tastings, or other events online after covid?  Do you want to go back to what you were doing pre-covid?

We are for sure going to keep marketing online.  Other wineries have been doing it for longer. I’ve seen really good digital marketers in our BC wine industry.  I’m on their lists and I’ve seen over the years how they have sold their wines. I never felt that it was me before, but now that is what we have to do and it is fun. I hope we are doing it in a way that is legitimate to who we are.  We had to learn.  I belong to some non- wine-related lists for my personal hobby which is audio engineering. I love getting their emails.  They try to sell me things.  I open their email daily cause I’m into it and like it. I don’t always buy but sometimes I do.  I look at it from that perspective.  That’s my hobby and I like getting those emails.  Other people are going to like getting our emails and if they don’t they will unsubscribe.

With the e-commerce you are now doing are you keeping the same number of staff or need extra people?

It is a whole new department.  Our warehouse manager and sales director used to do it off the side of their desk.  Now we have close to a full-time person shipping wine and an assistant, and we are looking for a new wine club manager as it is getting too large for our sales director to manage by herself.  We have 1.5 extra staff and looking for an extra full-time person.

The good and bad of the internet!

Trade wine tasting in Vancouver pre-COVID

Trade wine tasting in Vancouver pre-COVID

I think personally that things are going to go back to Real Normal.  People are going to be hugging each other again, going to concerts crowding shoulder to shoulder see bands play.  I think those experiences exist because that’s human nature, and they should exist. People need those experiences. I don’t think they will go away, but they will come back.  We are going to learn from this and improve.  I don’t think it will dramatically change the world.

After we are all vaccinated will you really enjoy again meeting with customers and trade in Kelowna, and back in Vancouver?

I enjoy it.  Yes.  The wine community is a great industry to be a part of. People who are into wine are generally interesting people.   Wine is about slowing down, taking one sip at a time, really tasting it, being in the moment, appreciating the beauty.  That is a nice thing to do with people.

Wine is nicer being shared.  I’ve been here for one-year drinking by myself.  Not as fun as sharing bottles with friends.

Have you done zoom tastings? 

I did a few zoom tastings, but now with the warm weather, the restaurants with patios, you can taste wine, but you need to set up your bubble of 10 people, so I will start doing that.  When the weather gets nicer with my safe 10.

We are going to do our 1st zoom tasting for our wine club members this week.  We have never done that before. In a way, it is cool and may live on past this pandemic era because it is a way for people to connect and ask questions and be together if they’re not in the same city.  I don’t think as much of it will live on.  I’ve done a bunch for corporate online tastings.  It’s fun enough, but it is just making do.  It is more fun being together.

Yes, being all together in the same room and talking together.

In 2012 I first interviewed you and the winery was getting into biodynamics. At that time you noted changes in the vineyard canopy, with them greening up more, compared to organic farming. Any further changes in the vineyard and the subsequent wines produced?

Yes, the biodynamic program has been a great teacher. Really focused us and our winemaking.  Many winemakers tell a similar story, and biodynamics is like getting the guide book. The certification documents are a brilliant read and a how-to manual of how to make the most authentic, pure real wine possible.  To me, it is the royal road to making authentic wine that really gives you terroir and beauty.  We started practicing biodynamics in 2005.  The first biodynamic certified wine we released was 2017, but the first we made was in 2013.  No yeast or nutrients.  Just crushed the grapes.  No so2 until bottling.  What it ends up being is a scorecard for the health of your vineyard. Because grapes don’t just need yeast to make wine, they need other nutrients for that transformation to be efficient.

Do you like natural wines?

Yes, I like biodynamic, organic, and natural wines.

I do too, I like natural wines that are a little edgy, but when we make biodynamic wines, even though it is really the same. You can call them natural wines, but we don’t because we don’t want to give the expectation that these wines are going to be funky, quirky wines, not tasting like wines, with traditional virtues of varietal or terroir. 

I think that that is how it was before but to me, the natural wines I am tasting lately don’t have the volatile acidity or other weirdness happening.  Maybe there has been some evolution with the people making natural wines?

I will tell you, from Summerhill’s experience, it is integrity and nutrient level in the grapes that give the wines the ability to transform from juice to wine and exhibit classic virtues, chard that tastes like chard.  I recall going to the Raw wine fair, and the wines smelled weird. Crazy aromas.  It is obvious to us that we have to do our job in the vineyard to make sure that the fruit has the integrity to have a clean good fermentation and be a beautiful wine. That is the development, the furthering of the vineyard.  Beautiful even growth, spacing in the internodes, and cane thickness.  Harmony in the vineyard that you can see.  Even when we were just organic we have not been healthier from a disease perspective, evenness of growth, fertility and then it shows up in the wine quality. Our terroir is different, BC, North Okanagan for wine growing.  We put out a biodynamic Pinot Noir that was 11.5 %, not a big brooding Pinot.  A light juicy Pinot Noir.  And it is so delicate and beautiful.  It is like drinking juice.  It is dry, but juicy and delicious.  The wines have such a mouthfeel and ease to drink. It is just fermented juice, the most natural thing in the world. That is what inspires and informs all of our winemaking.  Not all of our grapes are biodynamic and come from Summerhill.  We work with a dozen grape growers in the valley.  And this is what informs us.  It is how we can give direction and guidance to everyone we work with to make better wines throughout our portfolio.

With your 12 organic contract growers, I assume you are fermenting using yeasts from their vineyards?  Are you picking up different characters in those wines caused by the yeasts from their vineyards?

For a lot of our winemaking, we use organic freeze-dried yeasts that are cultured in a lab. We are not using natural yeast for all of our wines, because we don’t want to make weird natural wines. We want to make good wines, delicious that taste like the terroir they come from, from the Okanagan Valley.  Sometimes using yeast is the best way to do it. In our own vineyard that we have control over, and we know intimately, we are very comfortable doing uncontrolled fermentations.  We are also comfortable doing it with some of our growers. The most important thing is to make something real and delicious.  The delicious part is equally important as the real part. 

Would you consider, using your yeasts for other vineyards’ wines? 

I’m certain that the yeasts from other vineyards are good. It is more about the YAN.  It has something to do about nutrients and proteins in the grapes, not sugar.  That is the big thing.  The biggest challenge with going organic is nutrients.  The reason we went biodynamic is that we had a lack of nutrients.  It didn’t matter what we did, bringing in chicken manure, bone meal, fish fertilizer, glacial dust for trace minerals.  We were organic for 20+ years and farming is mining.  You are driving a tractor over the vineyard, taking tons of yield every year, water and sunshine, but also nutrients from the soil that you are mining.  With conventional vineyards, you can go to the store and buy fertility.  You can‘t do that organically.  So getting the YAN up in an organic system is more challenging which is why we introduced biodynamics to bring health back to our soil. We have an extensive composting program, and that is the key, the core.  Not all organic vineyards have that. It is a luxury we have with a big meadow with huge windrows, and the byproducts of our winemaking to put in there.  We have horse manure from our neighbour’s farm to put in there, we have our food wastes from the restaurant to put in there, our landscaping waste, and we make our biodynamic preparations. Not all of our growers can do that. The nutrient levels in fruit from our vineyard are great. Our soil has organic matter, it can hold nutrients and water, the roots can have a relationship with the soil and get nutrients into the grapes.  That is special.  I love those biodynamic wines.  When you add yeast to wine as I see it, it makes the wine taste more like wine. When you don’t, it is more pure.   

YAN background: Low soil nitrogen, you can cause low Yeast Assailable Nitrogen (YAN) which affects yeast during the fermentation process. According to Wikipedia, YAN is “…the combination of Free Amino Nitrogen (FAN), ammonia (NH3) and ammonium (NH4+) that is available for the wine yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to use during fermentation. Outside of the fermentable sugars glucose and fructose, nitrogen is the most important nutrient needed to carry out a successful fermentation that doesn’t end prior to the intended point of dryness or sees the development of off-odors and related wine faults…”.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yeast_assimilable_nitrogen) Winemakers want a higher YAN and may need to add diammonium phosphate in the winemaking process or nitrogen in the soil.  From The School of Cool Soil Smackdown at i4c

 Do you have any new wines, or types of wines, that you produced in 2020 or are in the plans for 2021?

Yes, actually in the biodynamic program we have 3 new releases, for the first time.  We have been producing Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, and Pinot Noir, biodynamically for a few years. From the 2020 vintage, we are introducing Chardonnay, Muscat, and Gewurztraminer wines, biodynamically done from our vineyard.  I’m excited about them. You get to taste those wines we know well, in a new way.  The goal of biodynamic winemaking is that when you put out a biodynamic wine it should taste like that vineyard, from that vintage, grown by that farmer.  All three of those things should be imprinted on the wine in a way that you can taste it.  It should taste unique.  I believe that is the case with these 3 wines.  I’m really proud of them.

Can you tell me how things are progressing with the 2020 Vision? With COVID hitting us and the shutdown in 2020, did you still reach your goal? (2020 Vision for an Organic Okanagan)

Organic Okanagan

Organic Okanagan

The good news is the Okanagan Valley, if it does not already, it will soon have the highest percentage of organic vineyards in the world.  If you reach for the stars and you get to the moon that is good. My dad’s vision for an organic Okanagan for 2020 goes beyond vineyards.  How does the city manage the roadsides and schoolyards?  How are people managing their lawns? It is a holistic vision for the way all of us interact with the earth. We are still pushing forward with this vision and trying to live a life that demonstrates that vision of being a part of our ecosystem.

We have an application just forwarded by the city to the Agricultural Land Commission for a non-farm use to build a Culinary College for Humanity at the winery, modeled after a leadership retreat, like Hollyhock on Cortes Island, where you go for seminars and workshops with a cohort of people that are interested in the same topic.  You learn together, make connections and grow together.  We would like to build that at Summerhill. Because our farm is a special place where there are nature preserves, food-producing gardens, and permaculture design in practice.  We have biodynamic composting, animals, bees, chickens.  Lots that we can share with the world and people can be inspired by being here.  We want that vision to grow.  It is clear that the way humans see themselves and how they interact with nature is not correct.  We have an incorrect relationship with nature.  We need to wake up and change that relationship.  The narrative, the story we tell ourselves about the meaning of life and our place in it has to change.  We have the story about being kicked out of the Garden of Eden, and God giving us dominion over the plants and animals.  That is my cultural heritage but I think that story is crazy.  We are nature.  We are dependent on nature. The animals and plants are our brothers and sisters.  We have to be humble before nature.  We don’t understand all the connections and relationships in the web of life and how it supports us.  We want to help change the narrative and change humanity’s story and our relationship with nature.

I saw on the news of a person having their home listed for sale, for purchase by Bitcoin only. Is Summerhill considering, or BC wineries in general considering, accepting Bitcoin for wine purchases?

It is not interesting to me.  I don’t understand it enough or trust it enough.  From what I see, some say technology is the answer and going to save us. I don’t think so.  I think what will save us will come from within.  And I don’t think a better society will be imposed by a new monetary system.  I don’t think it is going to help anything.  I’m not interested in it.  To me, betting on Bitcoin is like betting on the collapse of society and I am not interested in that. 

I’m not a bitcoin person either.  I read about Non Fungible Tokens, NFTs, but the amount of energy it takes to mint an NFT takes a lot of energy.  I read that a French artist determined that the amount of energy it took to mint an NFT for him equaled the amount of energy he used in his art studio for one year, so he decided against NFTs for his art. So I am concerned about all the coal and other non-renewable energy sources to mint these NFTs. 

Is there anything else that you would like my readers to know about Summerhill?

One other thing that is keeping us engaged, we have always been a winery that welcomed people from around the world. Last year and this year, this was not the case. Mostly west coast Canadians.  It has been a healthy thing to focus on.  It made us creative, and I don’t want to say too much right now, but I’m hoping we will be launching new creative vineyard experiences that are really going to connect people with the land more when they visit us.  Our facilities are beautiful and comfortable.  There is lots of room to taste food and wine.  But in a way that is the superficial part of Summerhill.  The real story is the land itself.  We will bring people deeper into the land that I am really excited about.

Thank you Ezra.

Drink Good Wine. That is my motto and I really want to help you drink good wine. What is good wine? That can be a different thing for each people. Food also loves wine so I also cover food and wine pairings, restaurant reviews, and world travel. Enjoy life with me. MyWinePal was started by Karl Kliparchuk, WSET. I spent many years with the South World Wine Society as the President and then cellar master. I love to travel around the world, visiting wine regions and sharing my passion for food & wine with you. Come live vicariously through me, and enjoy all my recommended wines.

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