Hitting the high notes at B.C.’s rock and roll wineries
“Winemaking is like mastering a record,” says baseball-capped Tony Lewis as he pours some pinot grigio at a picnic table in his family’s sun-dappled Okanagan Valley vineyard. “You use tools to remove the bad parts and what you’re left with is the best result. After the mixing, comes the music.”
He should know. Originally a “skateboard punk rock kid,” Lewis was a songwriter, drummer and studio engineer, releasing 10 albums with band Storytyme and supporting Blind Melon on tour. But when marriage and kids beckoned, he came home to make wine, turning his creative skills to the vineyard started by his father.
The result was the Vibrant Vine, a funky, tongue-in-cheek operation with plenty of tasty parallels to the music biz. Bottles come with psychedelic labels created by artist brother Phil and many have handy music-pairing suggestions. “This wine has a lot of acid,” read one early label, “so it needs to be paired with Leonard Cohen.”
After our chat, I slide into the yellow-painted, wood-sided cottage that serves as a tasting room – lined with Phil’s neon artworks, it’s rocking with a soundtrack of Nirvana and the Smiths – and sample some dry, citrusy gewurtztraminer and a bold, strawberry-noted merlot. The mango-ish pinot grigio is the headliner, though, so I finish with a curtain call glass.
Back outside, I ask if Lewis misses the music scene. Instead, he gets his fix by scheduling live bands for the winery’s al fresco stage: visitors can catch acts for free on Saturday and Sunday afternoons throughout the summer. And if any musicians don’t show, he recently formed a new band – reggae-focused Chubby Sunshine – that’s ever-ready to perform.
But Lewis isn’t the only winemaking muso tapping his toes in the bucolic hills around Kelowna, the Okanagan capital that’s a one-hour plane hop from Vancouver.
Run by Stephen Cipes, Summerhill Pyramid Winery is well-known for its pioneering organic methods and the landmark walk-in pyramid it deploys to age some of its wines. But while Cipes senior was growing the operation into one of B.C.’s biggest destination vineyards, sons Gabe and Ezra were building music careers, touring and recording with rocker Bif Naked and indie favourites Tegan and Sarah.
Now returned to the family’s winemaking fold, music remains a big part of their lives. Over some sparkling Cipes Brut on Summerhill’s lake-view restaurant patio, they tell me about their new band, The Capers, which Ezra says is “more rock and roll than the psychedelic stuff I did before.” And they mention Residual Sugar, a secret project to unite Okanagan winemaking musicians on stage – including, Ezra suggests, Vibrant Vine’s Lewis on drums.
With a tangerine sunset now framing the lake, some lip-smacking organic riesling arrives as the conversation turns to the similarities between wine and music. Gabe believes the vineyard is an idyllic live venue – the Grapes of Wrath once played the pyramid and they’d love to see Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters perform there – while creativity remains at the heart of everything they do. “Making great wine is like making great music. It’s very much about soul and harmony,” says Ezra.
Next morning – rising at the distinctly un-rock and roll time of 8.30 a.m. – I prepare for my final musical winery. After a swift breakfast, I’m soon on the road and pushing through the heavy wooden door at Ex Nihilo Vineyards.
The small, Tuscan-style building isn’t home to any budding bands. But it has a connection to rock royalty that makes it an essential stop for many – especially those with a drinking penchant straight out of the Keith Richards’ songbook, circa 1975.
Ex Nihilo has an exclusive backstage pass at Rolling Stones concerts, producing Sympathy for the Devil riesling and pinot noir icewines labeled with the band’s red tongue and lips logo. Winery co-owner Jeff Harder – such a Glimmer Twins fan that he named his son Jagger – spent years lobbying the band to become their official winemaker.
“Once he eventually connected with the right people in their organization,” says winery manager Melissa Brown, “their main question was: ‘icewine? What in the hell is that stuff?’’’ Finally the band sampled the tipples and approved, ultimately contracting Ex Nihilo to also oversee production of its Napa Valley Satisfaction merlot. Now available to the band and their entourage at Stones’ gigs, the wines sell for a cool $125 a pop.
A sample of the sweet, amber-hued pinot variety – perhaps it should be renamed Brown Sugar – perks me up before I peruse the abstract artworks on the winery’s black walls and listen to the familiar back catalogue rumbling through the hidden speakers.
“Basically, anyone over 30 comes here for the Stones and their music,” says Brown as she pours a sample for a hulking man in a black leather jacket who looks as if he probably arrived on a large motorcycle. He downs it quickly then growls,” I’ll take two bottles.” Somewhere, not too far away, they’ll be a party tonight. And perhaps a band.
If you go (75 words)
The Vibrant Vine (3240 Pooley Road, Kelowna; www.thevibrantvine.com)
Summerhill Pyramid Winery (4870 Chute Road, Kelowna; www.summerhill.bc.ca)
Ex Nihilo Vineyards (1525 Camp Road, Lake Country; www.exnihilovineyards.com)
Line your stomach in Kelowna for some rock and roll drinking at:
Okanagan Street Food restaurant (812 Crowley Avenue; www.okanaganstreetfood.com)
Cabana Bar and Grille (3799 Lakeshore Road; www.cabanagrille.com)
Sleep off your winery hangover at these lakeside Kelowna hotels:
Manteo Resort (3762 Lakeshore Road, Kelowna; www.manteo.com)
Hotel Eldorado (500 Cook Road, Kelowna; www.hoteleldoradokelowna.com)