Winemaker Bradley Cooper got started in the Okanagan wine business in the mid 1990’s by working in the tasting room of Hawthorne Mountain (now See Ya Later Ranch) where he eventually migrated into the cellar. After winemaking stints in Washington and New Zealand, Cooper returned to BC where he made the 2003 and 2004 vintages at Stags Hollow. Now, at Township 7, he is making his 8th vintage. He and his wife also make pinot noir under their own label, Black Cloud.
Cooper and I sat together on the Wine Bloggers Conference bus #8 on the way to Carlton, OR and, just before the local police busted our bus and forced us to evacuate to the nearest winery, I was able to catch up with him about Okanagan wine.
What kind of changes have you seen in the Okanagan Valley in the past decade?
The Okanagan is a slightly larger piece of pie but with a lot more cuts in it. People are competing after finally deciding you can’t sell just in BC. So as a consequence you see more of an export push across Canada and elsewhere.
What provoked that?
People just realized that with the recession, sales were a bit stagnant and their market wasn’t growing as fast as it had in the past, at least locally. Before, just by showing up you’re almost guaranteed a sale, but it’s not like that anymore. It’s getting more like other industries where you have to provide something outside of a good product. The difference is who knows how to get it into consumers hands in the most efficient and profitable manner.
Black Cloud ships anywhere in Canada. We’re only making 300 cases now, in two tiers of pinot noir, but we have plans to go into sparkling and white pinot, and another premium tier as well. Were at a point where we’re going to acquire more grapes. We’d prefer the Okanagan Falls area and Naramata Bench to source fruit, but we’ll buy from other places as well.
Have you seen an increase in grape production?
I think this year you’ll see grape production go to heights you’ve never seen before. In 2008 and 2009 we had rather difficult winters and planting was at a really fast pace then. The planting hasn’t abated too much; but those weather adverse situations didn’t allow the true potential or total volume that those vineyards could produce. So we’ve had several good seasons now and vineyards that were planted are finally reaching maturity levels. It’s a great growing year so you’re going to see a big and good crop.
I remember how the reds of the Okanagan used to taste green and leafy, and in the last couple years they’ve taken on a new deeper level. What has changed?
In a business where there is a creative influence in a product you’re always going to have these big variations. In this case your generalization is not particularly inaccurate, but its difficult to get hung up on that. 1994 and ‘95 and ‘98 were particularly great ripening vintages. In fact, in ‘98 we harvested and finished well before California. It was just the beginning of the hot years and since then there’s been a few more, notably 2009. What we’ve seen is a combination of things coming together to produce the wines were talking about, wines that have more character and depth and complexity on the red side.
Why is that?
What you’re seeing is vineyards that are being sourced repeatedly and getting more and more mature. You’re seeing cultural practices – that is, what grower what does on a regular basis – being honed and refined to a greater degree. And you’re also seeing styles being adopted that better reflect those traditions. I think it’s a natural maturation in the industry. You have to remember: the replant program began in 1988 and prior to that there would have been very little vinifera that would have been in the vineyards. So it’s taken the last 20 years to get up to this point of maturity and I think it’s really starting to pay off. The result is that wines are, on average, far better than they were years ago.
That’s great to hear. Uh-oh, the cops!