Penelope Roche is a fifth generation viticulturist and wine maker out of Bordeaux, France.
Viticulture is in her blood. It’s also made its mark on her hands, which aren’t impractically manicured like those who merely sip on the fruits of her labours.
As she moved through rows of grape vines at La Frenz winery on the Naramata Bench Friday, those hands showed a wealth of understanding and strength, continually snapping off errant shoots from vines or digging into the soil as a means to intuit the health of the entire vineyard.
“See, this clay, this is good,” she said, unclamping her hand to reveal a chunk of earth with her finger impressions intact to a group of aspiring oenophiles.
They’d gathered for day one of an Okanagan College, three-part intensive course aimed at teaching more about B.C.’s wine industry and it was Roche’s job to teach them how it worked, from the ground up.
Roche, who’s been a consultant in the valley for two years, is one of the local industry experts who have signed on to teach for the Food and Wine Tourism program at the college, which is growing into its new digs, the state of the art B.C. Wine Information Centre.
She brings to the table a family history in wine deeper than the entirety of B.C.’s industry. But it’s clear when she interacts with the peers who have assembled to teach the program, Roche is as eager as them to ride the wave of innovation born from the wilds of the Okanagan Valley.
“It’s very exciting,” she said of what’s being done in the industry. It’s a major departure from what she knew in Bordeaux, but change is good.
And Roche said that there are a number of ways in which she’s been impressed. For example, some B.C. vines can grow without being grafted to a root system, a quirk of grape farming born from the era of colonization that’s pretty much the standard worldwide.
She said she also likes the way a number of winery owners are farming their land and experimenting with practices that have never been touched by European wine-making forefathers.
Jeff Martin, the Aussie behind the award winning La Frenz winery has 40 years of trial and error under his belt, and he is one of those who’s bottled what Roche values.
Call it biodynamic or organic — which he doesn’t, officially — he says he’s about “working with Mother Nature, not against her.”
Weeds grow more freely than the vines above them, and to Martin that’s a sign of good health in the earth below. Apparently, he can even smell it.
After a thorough reckoning of the vineyard, Roche and Martin led students from the field to a table where they dined on simple charcuterie paired with any number of vintages from that winery and a couple from other locations.
Martin answered questions from students about the wine making process, but the real value of the lunch was listening to the two experts chat freely and excitedly about everything from farming, to wines they like and awards won. And listening to those discussions with a new artillery of vocabulary was an immense benefit.
The program blends classroom lessons of terminology, history and tasting technique with whirlwind tours through wineries, vineyards, bottling rooms and even foodie hotspots.
Kelly Korpisto leads the classroom part of the program, and shares inside knowledge of the industry gleaned from a combination of marketing and wine making experience.
In addition to Roche, chef and winemaker Jay Drysdale took participants to various stops in the valley that highlighted the array of practices in local vineyards and wine shops.
Drysdale also knows food, and whipped up meals that paired perfectly with wines, taught some cheese-making and talked about what he’s most passionate about —Okanagan food and wine.
All over these hills, small restaurants that specialize in locally grown ingredients have blossomed, he explained.
Alongside a first-rate selection of wines at restaurants and shops, many from small vignerons, they demonstrate a clear understanding that wine is just one more ingredient on the table, subject to the same standards of production and purity as food.
His dream, however, is to see the industry mature and grow. And, the expanding slate of courses at the college are a big piece of that dream.
“That’s why I did this,” he told the class.
It’s time, he believes, to create a B.C. identity on a world stage. Certainly, he said, the region’s profile has risen, but when it comes to creating an identity that’s a ways in the future.
That identity may be born out of a slimming down of wines offered in the valley, or the creation of more distinct wine regions.
Regardless, his big goal is to have someone taste a local wine and say, “that’s so B.C.”
For more information on the programming for food and wine tourism at Okanagan College, go to www.okanagan.bc.ca/Programs/Areas_of_Study/fwt.html.
Everything from cheesemaking to beer tasting is offered these days, as well as a free B.C. wine serving course that highlights the history of the region.