We were at “Summerhill Winery”, one of Kelowna’s largest wineries, well known for their pyramid. And today we were lucky enough to have gotten a personal tour of the property with Ezra Cipes, the CEO of Summerhill himself. It was such a treat to be able to experience the winery and his father’s legacy through his eyes. The following are the authentic highlights I captured.
“Summerhill” is an organic winery, priding themselves on their sustainable methods, disrupting as little of the land as possible while operating on it. They have 80 acres, yielding grapes on 42 of them. The property includes a large gully that serves as a wildlife preserve, and wetlands that empties out in to a creek. All waste water from their wine processing gets funnelled under ground to the wetlands, giving it nutrients to flourish. They also make their own compost, utilizing biodynamic farming techniques; which allows them to grow enough in their green house to serve garden fresh fruits and vegetables at their restaurant. (More on the restaurant later.)
The vineyard has been in place since 1940. The Cipes family took over in 1987. Back then it only grew table grapes and hybrid grapes, more suited to the old wine industry with “jug wine”. When they took over, Stephen Cipes introduced Riesling grapes, to prove that European grapes would grow in Canada. And when he was successful, they began replanting and rebooting the winery, specializing in sparkling wine, that the land was so well suited for.
And we would get a taste of this sparkling as our tour started at their indoor tasting room, where we sampled their “Cipes brut”. This is Canada’s most awarded wine, year after year it has won gold medals internationally. They use the same methods to make their sparkling as they do in France to make champagne, but with non traditional European grapes. At “Summerhill” their grape blend is Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. The result, a sparkling with a natural vibrancy, and an acidic freshness. Truthfully I am not a fan of sparkling wines for their fizziness, but the “Cipes Brut” is an exception. It was delicious and light, easy to drink without that soda feel.
With our glass in hand and its taste still on your lips, we explored the property, starting at the cellar. Normal tour groups get a look at these large vats behind a glass window, but we were able to walk amongst them. And here, our crash course on wine making began. (So excuse the abbreviated explanation).
Yeast eats sugar, and converts in to carbon dioxide with heat and alcohol. This juice will then become our wine. The crushed grape yeast that lives on the grape skins turns into wine or vinegar.
The equipment necessary for this process requires a lot of cleaning and sanitizing. It is very important that no bacteria exists to spoil the wine. And being an organic winery means they don’t use any harsh cleaners, instead they use steam to clean: ozone, which is an anti microbial. They are also constantly cleaning, as the wine process creates an environment for bacteria to naturally grow.
All reds are fermented in the large barrels. Whites spend their time in stainless steel, with a dimpled cooling jacket. This allows them to temperature control their environment.
And as for sparkling wine, making it is like doing things twice. You add more yeast and more sugars. It is then bottled and allowed to age in crates before it is clarified and they work to get all the solids out. The “Cipes Brut” we tried earlier is their youngest sparkling.
Once bottled all the sparkling wine gets slotted into a gyro-pallets. It rocks the bottles back and forth, shifting its axis steadily. It moves every three hours, until after 4 days it is turned fully upside down. This is so all the yeast and sediment settles in the cap.
Next comes the riddling, where all the bottles are submerged upside down, so that the neck of the bottle is in a solution that has a low freezing point. The result, the neck is frozen and the dead yeast is incased in a block of ice.
A very specific machine gets rid of the ice block, while simultaneously topping the bottle of wine up. The finished bottles go through a washer and quality control. The labels are checked, bottles are turned upside down to ensure there are no leaks; and the wine is inspected for clarity, to make sure all the sediment has been removed.
All completed cases then go to the pyramid to rest, like we would. They are aged for 15-18 months, and as long as 12 years. The first version of the pyramid was built in 1989, the current one is the second rendition, both were created for and used only as their wine cellar. They were built by Stephen Cipes, who studied and experimented with pyramids before embarking on building his own. He even went to Egypt to learn the architecture necessary. His inspiration came from a trip to Europe, when purchasing equipment and grapes for his own winery.
In Europe they age wine underground, traditionally in cellars lit with gas lamps. There, Cipes felt the energy of the space, and immediately recognized that it was an integral part of the wine making process. However, the ground composition of Europe versus Canada varied. And what was in place there, couldn’t be imitated here. So the next best thing was to mimic the limestone available underground in Europe, in his Canadian pyramid. A strong foundation with four pillars and capstone, all continuously fused with concrete and reinforced with fibre glass, using not a single nail. The Pyramid was built to represent the geometry of nature, with angles taken from nature, like the Fibonacci sequence; and set with an alignment to the stars. The sacred geometry of the room saw many using it to celebrate the moon and the stars. The community uses the pyramid as a gathering space to engage in group meditations during full moons and the equinox. These events are an open invitation, with admission being a vegetarian potluck item to share. Attendees eat, meditate, dance, and drum. Similar gatherings happen at their pit house as well. (More on that below.)
At the centre of the pyramid, surrounded by wine racks and palettes of packaged cases of wine, we were invited to disconnect and enjoy the space. To close our eyes, breath deep and take in the silence and harmony. I found the stillness of the space easy to relax in, and melt into.
During this part of the tour we didn’t close the push open doors behind us, and as a result visitors found themselves venturing in to the dark of the pyramid, un-accompanied. And instead of telling them that the space was closed to tourists, Ezra welcomed the family with two young children in, catching them up on what we were discussing prior to their entry. It was here that I was impressed by his customer service and learned how he fully represents and lives according to the principles of the winery. He embodies that welcoming energy. Similarly I witness him picking up trash off the property and pocketing it each time. He stated if he didn’t, who would. He had been speaking to the care he had for the land and here he showed it.
Next our tour took us to the above mentioned pit house. The “Makwala Memorial Kekuli” is a scared space built in respect and reverence for the ancestors of the land. For those who wish to enter they ask that there be no “idle talk”, alcohol or parties, and no ceremonies without permission. It is here the moon celebration potluck is held. Here, Ezra spoke to nature and the need to have a different mentality and relationship with the earth. A way to fill all ecosystems so that there is balance. For example when you use pesticides you dominate and control the environment, and dictate what you want to survive. At “Summerhill” everything coexists and the tent represents them being a part of nature.
I have visited “Summerhill” once before and when I look back at my time there, not only do I associate them with the pyramid, but also all of their unique photo ops and play things for children. See saws, putting practice, a overturn giant bottle of Sparkling pouring into a fountain. A stain glass pyramid, a hand carved door, and the ability to stand on top of the world. This makes them the most family friendly of all the wineries, giving plenty to keep both parents and kids occupied during their visit. This creative direction comes from a place of doing good. They want to welcome everyone, so that no one feels intimated, as you would be at other more stuffy wineries. Given all the kids running around today and all the laughter you hear, I can say that they are doing a great job in this regard.
Next we went back indoors to their tasting hall, to try another one of their sparkling wines. The 2012 “Cipes Blanc de Blanc” is the white of the whites. Its name refers to to traditional grapes of the champagne region that they use in this. Layering on 6 years before uncorking for a more classic bubble. A bone dry sparkling that is highly acidic with a sugar layer added. Ezra described this as having a “Creamier, finer bubble from that of traditional methods. A buttoned up version compared to the everyday Processco.”
Our tour eventually ended at their restaurant, where we fully enjoyed the fruit and labour of the land we were on. We naturally gravitated to their patio, overlooking their vineyard and event space set up with arch and rows of chairs, wedding ready. This was the ideal space to enjoy the freshness of the land and their mostly vegetarian menu. The following were what Ezra recommended, and the perfect wine to go with it.
The “Organic caperese salad” with garden tomatoes, herbed oil, garden basil, local bocconcini, and balsamic pearls. Normally their tomatoes are fresh from their own garden, although due to a smaller crop yield they have had to source their tomatoes locally, from neighbours. This was a beautiful salad, and as refreshing as it looks.
By comparison the “Organic vegan “calamari”” was a lot more denser, with deep fried tempura oysters mushroom and house made organic tzatziki. The crunch was good and the flavour amazing. A great one to share and nibble on as you drank.
Together our two plates were paired with their 2017 Summerhill Organic Vineyard, SV Riesling. It was sweet and bright with fruit, balancing everything out perfectly.
They also have a new secondary kitchen, operating out of a shipping container outside, adjacent to their outdoor tasting room. We missed getting a chance to taste their cuisine here, given it’s shorter operating hours. Here, they served up international fare, giving visitors a quicker meal option that they can pair with a glass of wine outside. It also cost less with snack items most child would like. Fish tacos, hummus and naan, sweet and sour pork, bratwurst and sauerkraut, butter chicken, crispy ribs, and chicken souvlaki to name a few. Everything ranged between $8-9 a plate.
In conclusion, I highly recommend taking the tour at “Summerhill”. You think you know a wine, but there is nothing like learning about the vision behind its winery. Throughout this experience, we grew a new found appreciation for “Summerhill”. And we certainly wouldn’t have felt that way if not for the informative tour, coupled with glasses of their trademark sparkling. What a great afternoon, in a great winery, enjoying an amazing product cultivated through looking at more than just the process and out come of the wine; but also considering the environmental responsibilities and the people behind the product. Creating the right conditions for something natural to happen, not making it happen. The tour and Ezra have made me a brand fan. A humble CEO with approachable staff. I will definitely be recommending and drinking more of their sparkling!
4870 Chute Lake Rd, Kelowna, BC V1W 4M3