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New Winery Resort on Canadian Border

Winemakers have high hopes for Washington State's Okanogan Valley

by Peter Mitham
Veranda Beach
Veranda Beach display homes and vineyards: You can see Canada from the front porch. Photo: Peter Mitham
Oroville, Wash. -- Travelling north from Wenatchee, past the touristy bustle of Lake Chelan, America seems to drop off into a long-forgotten frontier. Highway 97 follows the valley of the Okanogan River north through a desolate, sparsely populated landscape to Canada, where civilization reappears. (Like many other words, the spelling of “Okanogan” differs depending on which side of the border you’re on.)

Canada, for its part, delights in this corner of its southern frontier. The shores of Lake Osoyoos are resort country, and locals proudly tell visitors the area is the northern tip of the Sonoran desert that stretches south to Mexico.

It’s also where some of the best red winegrapes in Canada are grown, but the land south of the international boundary has attracted few U.S. growers. While tree fruit growers in Canada have transformed orchards into vineyards, the orchards of Oroville, Wash., are hardly overwhelmed by the approximately 65 acres of vines planted here.

A cross-border partnership involving an ambitious real estate developer, a veteran Walla Walla vintner and the godfather of Okanagan viticulture may boost the area’s allure, however. Planted in 2008 under the guidance of Richard Cleave, the first Barbera grapes from a 10-acre vineyard planned by Legend Resorts Ltd. of Kelowna, B.C. as part of the Veranda Beach development, will be harvested this fall. Winemaker Rusty Figgins, brother to Gary Figgins of Walla Walla’s Leonetti Cellars and an accomplished winemaker in his own right, will oversee winemaking.

“They have some of the most extraordinary sites for growing grapes anywhere in the Northwest,” Cleave told Wines & Vines. While the Oroville area shares the light, sandy soils of Canada’s Okanagan Valley, the slope and aspect of the valley at the south end of Lake Osoyoos creates an environment allowing vines to develop five days ahead of those just a few miles north.

Good air drainage and the moderating effect of the lake boost the number of frost-free days, while the soils help with canopy management and deficit irrigation practices. While some other local vines are self-rooted, Cleave said the vines at Veranda Beach are grafted on 101-14 rootstock for earlier ripening and protection against nematodes.

The major challenge has been deer. Okanogan County has the largest mule deer population in the state, and the ruminants enjoy the young vines. Deer fencing and cattle-guards barely keep them away.

Oroville vineyards
Vines are thriving in Oroville vineyards, but the area is little known.

Wineries also want something unique, however, and Cleave believes Oroville offers it. Sangiovese and Riesling are two other varieties planted, while the Rhône varieties Syrah and Viognier will follow as the vineyard grows to upwards of 40 acres.

“I have high hopes for the vineyard, and I think we’re going to grow some really high-end wines there,” Cleave said. “It’s right at the northern extremes for Washington, and a lot of people in Washington will say you can’t grow those varieties -- you can’t grow grapes, even -- up there. … I think what we’re trying to do is prove that you can grow these kinds of grapes up there, and I think Washington might be very surprised at what can be produced there.” Cleave, who has overseen the planting of hundreds of acres of vineyard in the Okanagan and maintains his own vineyard on Black Sage Road opposite Oliver, should know.

So should Figgins, who is no stranger to the region’s terroir himself. He was consulting winemaker for Black Hills Winery, next door to Cleave’s property, when the winery was establishing itself in the late 1990s. Black Hills aimed to produce wines from grape varieties no one else was working with in B.C., and found gold with its now-signature Nota Bene red blend.

But the relative obscurity of the region in the U.S. and border hassles for visitors from Canada are problems for local wineries getting started.

Linda Colvin, who with her husband Steve operate Esther Bricques Winery just south of Oroville, said local growing conditions are on a par with those in Canada’s Okanagan Valley, but the area is far from a destination. The winery has nine acres of vines, yielding sufficient grapes for 500 to 700 cases per year.

“The population on the north side of the border has great potential, but on the American side, they’re still trying to figure out that there’s anything north of Chelan,” she said. Day-trippers from Canada can’t bring wine back without paying punishing duties, however, so Colvin said recreational properties such as Veranda Beach are important. Close to 75% of purchasers at Veranda Beach are from Canada, where a strong dollar and sales taxes make U.S. recreational properties especially attractive.

The more long-term visitors Oroville can attract from the north, Colvin said, the better the prospects for local wineries. The area is currently home to four wineries, half the total in Okanogan County. “(Visitors) are, hopefully, going to want to explore what else is here,” she said.

Rusty Figgins said he aims to work with other local wineries to frame an AVA proposal after harvest. It would include the Okanogan Valley from Parallel 49 south to Brewster, where the Okanogan River empties into the Columbia.

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