Fort Berens Estate Winery is the first winery in Lillooet, BC. It is located on a sage-brush covered bench at the base of the Fraser Canyon’s snow-capped mountains. Where is Lillooet, you ask? It is about 300 hundred kilometres due west of BC’s best known wine region, the Okanagan Valley. The town of Lillooet is set on the banks of the Fraser River in an arid and often hot part of BC. This satellite view shows where the winery is situated – a green patch of grape vines surrounded by grassland and pine trees.
The winery has pushed the boundaries of BC wine by creating a new appellation in the Fraser Canyon. Lillooet has temperatures that rise as high as 40 degrees (100 F) during the summer months. We first became aware of Fort Berens when we noticed a promotional flyer a few summers back while stopping at a local museum in the nearby town of Lytton. Since then we’ve tasted their delicious wines, met the proprietors Rolf and Heleen, and have been watching their progress in creating a true estate winery out of this rugged new terroir.
It has been exciting to see them build a true destination winery in Lillooet, and now they have broken ground on a new tasting room facility. Here is the latest news from their team.
The Fort Berens Winery team furthered their plans to pioneer a new frontier by officially breaking ground for the building of the first winery in Lillooet. Rolf de Bruin, founder and one of the owners of Fort Berens, recalls the early days in 2009 when they first decided to plant vines on the property. “We hoped that day marked the first in a series of milestones for Fort Berens and Lillooet. We are pleased to be here together today to mark another major milestone.”
Rolf continued, “We are excited to break ground on this new building. It’s been a 3-year process. We needed to first prove the viability of the grape-growing from our vineyard, assemble our ownership team, get our financial and strategic plans in place, and consult with experts in the industry. The design of the building went through a number of iterations over the 3-year process. We talked to experts in this field to help us design the layout and to maximize space and efficiency.”
The new 9,500 square foot building will include a 1,100 square foot tasting room, overlooking the vineyards with a gorgeous view of the mountains in the background. It has been designed to allow visitors to watch the winemaking process and see the internal workings of the winery through the windows as they approach the tasting room. It will also feature a gravity fed fermentation room, barrel chambers, crush pad, wine bar and bistro.
Rolf’s wife and winery co-founder Heleen Pannekoek continued, “Each year, we have seen increased demand for our wine. We produced 4,000 cases in 2012, we estimate 5,000 cases this year and we are planning for 6,000 cases in 2014. Once the new building opens, we will have capability to fully process up to 12,000 cases onsite. This additional capacity will allow for our own future growth in coming years. We also very purposefully built in extra capacity to help facilitate the custom crushing of grapes from other growers in our area. We are very committed to working with others in Lillooet and facilitating more grape and wine production in this area.”
The new winery takes the committed investment into Fort Berens to $7.5 million. It was designed by collaborating architects David Agro from Toronto and Richard Newell from Vancouver and is being built by Okanagan-based Greyback Construction.
Like the importance of understanding the unique terroir in determining which grape varietals to plant, the architects leveraged locally sourced materials to reflect the local terroir. Agro explained, “We are using concrete manufactured in Lillooet and rough-cut Douglas Fir milled across the road from the new winery as primary structural materials. This combination of elemental materials and a spectacular view of Lillooet will provide a functional, warm and welcoming atmosphere in the tasting room. The concrete lower floor of the building will be sunk into the ground to help mitigate swings in temperature and humidity in the barrel rooms. The use of materials, the orientation of the building, and an overhanging roof will help make the building as efficient as possible and help manage ongoing energy costs.”
On hand at the milestone groundbreaking event were Fort Berens’ Toronto and Vancouver based co-owners, Hugh Agro, Sean Harvey and John McConnell. Hugh Agro, a pioneer spirit himself with a background in mining and exploration, first started visiting Lillooet in 1993 and immediately took a shine to the area.
In 2010, Hugh joined Rolf and Heleen and shortly after brought on fellow mining colleagues Sean Harvey, John McConnell and Jason Neal to round out the ownership team. “We believe in the long term prospects for agricultural land in British Columbia and we think that there is a bright future growing grapes and making quality wines in the Fraser Canyon”, said Agro. We’re committed to building a viable business of which the community of Lillooet, our peers in the British Columbia wine industry and we as owners can be proud”, he added.
Wine industry expert Harry McWatters has been a consultant to the Fort Berens team since the beginning. The thing that has inspired Harry the most about the growth of the winery is the way the local Lillooet community has embraced Fort Berens. “People in the community talk about this being ‘Lillooet’s winery’”, he said. “The way the land is situated in the valley, about 80% of Lillooet’s residents can see the vineyard, so the community is very supportive and interested in this project. It’s that very support that will help Fort Berens continue to make milestone moves like this for their community.”
Christ’l Roshard, former Mayor of Lillooet, was also on hand for the groundbreaking event. She has been championing Lillooet as a viable grape growing region for many years and is thrilled to see the evolution and growth of Fort Berens. She proclaimed, “It’s been a long time since we have had this kind of private capital investment in Lillooet. This investment will help provide sustainable employment for our region and provide a big boost to Lillooet’s growing wine and agri-tourism industry.”
Rolf, who wrapped up the ceremony with a tour of the site, laid out the timeline for the building plans, targeting a goal of the summer of 2014 to open the new tasting room. See their website for updates at www.fortberens.ca.