VOICE 149 - David Paterson, winemaking, and Felix Egerer, vineyard manager at Tantalus Vineyards
"We are traditionally a single vineyard estate with old-world ethics and beliefs. It is the representation of South East Kelowna slopes, and our wines speak to where they come from."
Some say good wines start right at the vineyard before they ever come into the winery. At Tantalus, that is how outstanding wines are born from the location of where each grape is grown. When the proprietor Eric Savics purchased this original property from the Dulik family in 2004, everything was planted here from Cabernet Sauvignon, Optima, and Gewürztraminer. "It was real Okanagan fruit salad" as they would call it. From that time on, a lot was pulled and replanted, and they focused on returning it to some of the core varieties that have been growing here since the 70s and the 80s, which are Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.In 2010, they became the first winery in B.C. to earn the Leadership in Environmental & Energy Design (LEED) certification, the most widely used green building system internationally. They are in partnership with nearby Arlo's Honey Farm to maintain a broad apiary on site, which helps support a healthy natural ecosystem and productivity of the crops. Tantalus is also a founding member of Sustainable Winegrowing B.C. (SWBC), and was among the first wineries to be certified by the organization in 2021. Under this rigorous new sustainable program, the wine businesses are audited, track their progress, and must continually improve to stay certified. The most recent in 2022 is their partnership with Vancouver-based SolShare Energy to install a 108-solar panel system. The system can produce 60,000kWh per year, which at peak times can offset 70-100% of Tantalus' electrical consumption.Be it regenerative farming or biodiversity, their commitment is not limited to the vineyards but goes far beyond and for future generations. The Riesling Lab project is one example which every year allows an opportunity for the harvest interns to take the reign of this wine under David’s supervision to experiment and express the potential of Rieslings. It is a limited-edition wine that surprises your palate, and nurtures young winemakers of the future.If only to use one word, Tantalus may be best described as progressive. They look to the future as much as they focus on the original state of being. They are in love with the land they farm and make wine on, and everything that comes with it. As more and more people are interested in the story of how the grapes are grown and who grows the grapes, the story of Tantalus is worth visiting. When you sit in a stunning contemporary gallery-style tasting room where art meets wine, just like in the old times, you see right before your eyes that a secret to exceptional wine is where land meets good stewardship.VOICE had a great pleasure meeting and talking with David and Felix one late summer afternoon as we sat on the patio overlooking the serene vineyard and the lake. It was an honour to hear the love story of a special place in South East Kelowna, and learn about what it takes to be a frontrunner in the sustainable wine business today.
VOICE(V): How did you get into the wine business?
David (D): "I got started being in restaurants in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Instead of staying in restaurants and working nuts all the time, I decided to get into the production of wine. I did a degree in viticulture and enology at Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand, and worked in a few different places around the world including Oregon, France, and Australia before I ended up at Tantalus in 2009 as a winemaker. This year will be my 14th vintage here."
Felix(F): "I grew up in Germany and got into wine by not getting into med school. I have always been interested in food and beverages, and Germany has one of the best schools in the world for wine. I ended up doing 2 schools at Geisenheim University in Germany and UC Davis in California. During and after my studies, I traveled and worked harvests in different places in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. I came to Tantalus first in 2016 to harvest and learn how to make Rieslings. The Canadian wine industry is still young and presents many opportunities for young people, so I stayed and eventually took over vineyard management in 2018."
V: What do you find to be the most challenging things in the wine industry today?
F: "Changing climates, especially the extremes, is one of the top challenges because we are working with perennial crops. I farm the way for the vineyard to survive for another 100 years. Just as some of the vineyards in California, Australia, and France are over 100 years old, but still producing phenomenal wines. Finding people to work in the vineyard will be hard work. You have to be outside whether it is hot or cold and sun or rain. Not many people want to do that anymore. I think consumer profiles are changing too. It will be interesting to see a transition from baby boomer generations to younger people with different styles and tastes as far as purchasing goes. Some wineries are adjusting, yet I think we are in the right spot because we have always been a lighter style of wine. It is more about an expression of the site, and always tying everything back to who makes it, who grows it, and how it's grown and how it's made in the cellar. The younger generations seem to like that transparency a lot. We get questions asked in the tasting room that we wouldn't have got five years ago.”
D: "It is a lovely place to make wine because of the natural acidity in the soil. We do not have to manipulate the juice much, but the challenges are the extremes. The whole industry has been beaten up for the last four years with severe heat and cold. Under 60-degree swings like we experienced last year, the vines survived surprisingly well. Smoke and climate changes are a constant reminder that we have to do our best on the groundwork.”
V: What makes Tantalus unique?
D: "I think many small things, but they are not necessarily unique from other wineries. The site really dictates what we can and can't do. There are a lot of variants in this vineyard because of its topography. I call it 'complexity through non-uniformity.' Every vine is not the same. Every block is not the same. It makes a very challenging site to farm but also rewarding.”
F: "The heat dome we experienced last summer, reached up to 48 degrees here. It was too hot for the vines as they usually shut down metabolism at about 30 degrees. Then it was minus 25 degrees last winter. We will have to figure out how to farm vinifera differently, and we pruned differently than we ever have this year. That has resulted in us getting quality fruits that we will see in a couple of weeks. We pay more attention to irrigation, how and what we spray, and how we fertilize. In a long run, building up resiliency, which I often talk about, is important so that vines themselves are strong enough even though they are hit with those extremes. They can bounce back strong because of us working with and respecting the natural systems. It doesn't matter whether you work in the vineyard, in the winery, in the tasting room, or ownership, we are all behind the commitment to making wines of the highest quality with as little impact as possible on the land and the surroundings. That makes us different from a lot of other places."
V: What sustainable practices do you apply to vineyards and winemaking?
D: "First of all, you must be financially sustainable. You can't do all of the other things if you don't have the resources to do so. Once you are making enough wines to be financially stable, you can start any other practices like biodiversity and regeneration in the vineyard. We are not certified organic, but we have been farming beyond organic in some ways with Felix's work on soil regeneration and so on. It makes better grapes and ultimately makes better wines, which is what we do. Then, when it comes to inside the rest of the business, you must look at many different factors like where your glass comes from. That has been a huge challenge for the entire industry lately. Global shipping is broken, there is no local glass production, and we need to consider recycling components; there are so many little factors.
Sustainability is not something you achieve, it is something you keep working at. Although a particular thing may be slightly contributing to sustainability, you have to take it into account and make financial or big-picture sense. So as far as sustainability goes, there are many many factors, always in flux and always room for improvement.”
F: "I personally dislike the word sustainable. No agricultural business is sustainable because we are always taking something and a lot of the systems that we work with are broken. All of this used to be forests at some point, and soils were in completely different conditions. There was a lot more wildlife going through. So, getting back to the previous soil condition or as close as we can go within our system should be a goal for every agricultural business. I try to focus not only on vineyards but being regenerative with everything around us. Even with myself, I can work 20 hours each day because I love what I do still at some point, you have to look after yourself as well as your family, too. Our seasonal workers from Mexico, who are thousands of kilometers away from their families work very hard for the eight months of the year, so we look after those guys and make sure they are doing ok. With the newest certification we’ve held since last year, Sustainable Winegrowing B.C., it took us almost a decade to help develop this whole provincial-specific program. We were the second winery to be certified last year. It is a program where every year takes us take another step, do a self-assessment, and build progress based on people, planet, and prosperity. It is one of the most rigorous sustainability standards in the world, especially in wine. Walk the talk is something Tantalus is very good at.”
V: What is the biggest joy of working in a winery?
D: "For me, when I can walk the vineyard right before picking, taste the grapes and taste all the hard work that has gone into it, then a moment of deciding when we are going to pick the grapes."
F: " I get paid to be outside! That is the best thing you could ever ask for. Working with plants throughout the year, seeing them grow from nothing, responding beautifully to changes we've taken, and bouncing back better. To me, the favourite time of the day is right before sunrise when I am out and everything is quiet. You only hear the birds, see everything as the day starts, and everything goes nuts!”
V: What is your current favorite wine, and how would you like to enjoy it?
D: "Currently, I really like 2020 Chardonnay. I like to have it with miso smoked corn risotto and scallops. A little bit of umami, a little acid, and a little creaminess! Overall, all the 2020 wines are really beautiful, ageable, and have good concentration. When they are 5 to 10 years old, they will turn into quite special wines.”
F: "I like 2019 100% Chardonnay, Blanc de Blancs. We have become good at making sparkling wines because we grow and make them sparkling with no afterthought. Chardonnay and I have a lot of love and hate relationships. It is hard to grow with thin skins and leaves, doesn't like moisture, and doesn't like any extremes, but it is so delightful to drink. I don't need an occasion for it. I drink when I want to drink sparkling on its own for breakfast, dinner, or in the middle of the night! If I pick something to pair it with, we are blessed with amazing seafood in this province, so any of the smaller oysters along the coast would be delightful.”