Denice Hagerman worked hard to fulfill her dream of learning how to grow grapes for wines. Now she is a passionate viticulturist and expert winemaker in her native Canada.
"I am up to my eyeballs in crush. Mother Nature is having her way as usual. She always does," declared my friend Denice when I asked her to divulge more of her grape-growing and winemaking knowledge. Seems like I remember her saying the same thing about the same time last year, and the year before that. The challenge is to know the optimal time for grape harvest, and it varies each year depending on temperatures, water and sun; so Denice has learned to work around Mother Nature's quirks from year to year. Now she is immersed (figuratively) in the crucial crush process so the yeast can start fermenting. But that's just the beginning of the winemaking process with which Denice and her husband Bruce produce their delicious wines.
I visited Denice and Bruce in Penticton, British Columbia this past July and got to see their most recent creation called This Is It Vineyard. We spent a few warm evenings sipping wine in the vineyard surrounded by cascades of vines with green grape clusters, overlooking Okanagan Lake, and getting caught up on our lives. Then, it was a waiting game - a wait for the grapes to ripen, but Denice does everything but wait. To bring the grapes to their ultimate best, she fights weeds and pests, observes how much rain Mother Nature delivers and irrigates the bases of the vines with just the right amount of water. Next is thinning. Long, lateral vine extensions reached into the open space between the rows. So, she rose at 5:00 a.m. to let the field workers through the gate to thin the vines to open up their canopies. Growing premium grapes that will be sold to the Okanagan Valley winemakers is not just an eight to five job. It's a job that requires knowledge of the rhythms of the seasons and the best care and nurturing of a crop for optimal growing. It's knowing about timing, efficiency, and avoiding waste. I admire my friend for her intimate understanding of this process.
Lifting a healthy green leaf from a long and sturdy trellis, Denice explains some leaf and grape differences in the varieties that she grows. Penticton viticulturists grow Pinot Noir, Riesling, Merlot, and Gewutruminer grapes. I had a lot of questions about grape culture, and find it fascinating all the considerations that go into growing good grapes. Denice told me that the "lake effect" is another ingredient in the grapes' success; there is a natural air flow between land and lake, which prevents frost.
I realized Denice loves her grape vines like the ecologist loves the nature of his land, and the gardener her garden. It's about nurturing and caring for the land and establishing a deep connection to it.
Okanagan Lake in Penticton, British Columbia
Optimal climate and geology/geography for growing wine grapes
Thinned vines - This Is It Vineyard
During the 25 years I have known her, Denice's pursuits usually involve a knowledge of and connection to the the land in which she lives, which these days is more often in Penticton. Our friendship began in the rugged and arid mountains that surround California's Coachella Valley. We walked mile upon mile together, along with other close friends. We explored almost every trail, trudging through sandy washes, walking up steep mountainsides, and rambling among the barrel and beavertail cacti of rocky mesas. "We've solved the world's problems!" Denice would say after each hike.
Then one day, Denice said that she was going to take courses in making wine. She and Bruce bought an apple orchard in Oliver, British Columbia in 2006, tore down the trees and raised rows of grape vines. "Oliver Twist" is what they named their winery, which still operates today selling excellent wines and now sparkling wine! Now Denice spends more time in her beloved Canada; I think she feels rooted there.
What a reward it must be to start with winter-dormant, bare vines and create the verdancy that will result in a fine wine enjoyed as a toast to friendship. From the ground to the glass - a centuries-old tradition.
We hiked in the hills overlooking blue Okanagan Lake and gazed down at vineyards with their long green rows of grapes marching toward the water. The hot, dry Penticton air brought back memories of hiking in California's Colorado desert. Gravel crunched under our boots as I listened to Denice's plans for her harvest and then we solved a few of the world's problems. Afterward, a celebration with a glass of Oliver Twist's fabulous Merlot.
Workers arrived at 5:00 a.m. to begin the process of thinning grape vines
Sue and Denice in Penticton, British Columbia - July 2018
Bruce Hagerman sailing on Okanagan Lake in his boat Windseeker
This Is It Vineyard - Penticton, British Columbia
Thinned grape vines
This Is It Vineyard