Forbidden Fruit wins big
By Tom Walker
By Tom Walker
Forbidden Fruit Winery winds along the Similkameen River, the southern-most property in the valley, located just before the river crosses the Canada-US border. Photo by Contributed
This past winter, Forbidden Fruit Winery in Cawston, BC, became the first winery in the Pacific Northwest to win top honours in both fruit wine and grape wine categories in the same competition. Wine Press Northwest magazine held it’s 15th annual Best of the Best competition, which only accepts entries that have won other awards. Forbidden Fruit received double platinum for its 2013 apricot-based Caught Mistelle and its 2011 Earth Series Merlot.
Winery owners Steve Venables and Kim Brind’Amour are no strangers to the podium. The fruit and grape wines they’ve been making for 10 years are multiple award winners. But it’s the organic fruit they’ve been growing for nearly 40 years that brings them the most satisfaction.
“It’s always been about growing food,” says Steve. “I am proud that we started as food producers and we still are food producers.”
The winery takes in only 10 per cent of the Ven ‘Amour Farm crop, while the remaining 90 per cent is sold fresh.
Sumac Road winds down along the Similkameen River, the last turn before Highway 3 begins to climb over Richter Pass to that “other” B.C. fruit-growing valley, the Okanagan. A self described “pony-tailed fruit picker” Steve had been working summers in the valley for five years, pruning and picking, while he searched for the perfect piece of land. His 142-acre farm, plus the adjacent 150-acre parcel he later leased and purchased, is the southern-most property in the valley, located just before the river crosses the Canada-US border.
“There was nothing here but sage brush,” recalls Steve. “I moved down in the spring of 1977 and we grew lots of squash and tomatoes. We started planting an orchard and when we got the well in, we began expanding down the road and up the hillside.”
Kim joined him in 1981 and they’ve worked as a team ever since. The farm is now a series of southwest facing terraces that climb up from the river.
“It was organic from day one, absolutely,” Steve says. “It was our lifestyle.”
He adds: “Early Sterile Insect Release trials in 1979 helped organic growers get a foothold. Prior to that, we were loosing 60 per cent of our crop to coddling moth.”
The original pilot program totally eradicated the moth for two to three years and allowed a lot of organic growers to get into apples and pears.
Some of the conventional growers looked askance at this Forbidden Fruit that came from organic methods.
“But in the early 80s, we saw a lot of commercial growers going ‘Huh, he’s getting $800 a bin and I’m getting two. Hmm … I can do that,’” Steve recalls. “By the time the late 90s rolled around, that $800 bin was down to $250, $300, which is where it’s at now.”
His friends call him a “variety hound” with 60 different tree fruits and six varieties of grapes.
“The model we’ve built, both with stores and our own sales, is to have something different consistently through the whole season, right into the fall. We are full on with Rainer cherries by the 20th of June. People are so happy for something fresh.”
Vista Bella, Williams Pride and Sansa get the apple market going. Steve was the first grower in the valley to bring in white peaches and is known for his Asian pears.
“We are as far south here as you can go. I can get a ripe peach the end of the first week of July and we ship them all out, even though the farmer’s markets are clamoring for them.”
Steve’s favourite apple right now is Tsugaru, the number two selling variety in Japan, after Fuji.
“I’ve been cropping it for four years and it’s huge and dark and sweet. All I have to say is ‘Tsugaru’ and they say ‘Send me all you’ve got.’”
Early wholesales went to Calgary stores.
“Calgarians were right there at the door,” Steve says.
They also supply the Kootenay Coop in Nelson, retail outlets in the Okanagan Valley and have just picked up a distributor on Vancouver Island.
When returns on their fruit flattened, they added a guesthouse for agri-tourism. But they were looking for more diversification.
“We would sit in the guesthouse hot tub during the winter and ask ourselves: ‘What else are we going to do? Did we want to start taking our fruit to the coast to sell at farmers markets?’ We didn’t want that, we wanted to be at home, so we started making wine.
“It’s really a value added product,” Steve says. “It’s got good cash flow, and it works because we already have the fruit.” And those multiple varieties pay off.
“We can offer something a bit more exotic than the regular cherry or apple wines. We make a lovely Pear-suasion from our Asian pears and the Japanese plums go into our Plum Noir.”
The family brought in fruit wine specialist Dominic Rivard, now with Muwin Estate Winery in Nova Scotia, who helped them get up to the next level with their wine.
Keeping visitors happy was part of the reason behind grape wines.
“You can see them at the shows,” says Steve. “They make a wide arch around our table. I like the idea that people will drive down off the highway to visit us.”
Sauvignon Blanc, Vidal, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and a small plot of Tannat make up their grape plantings.
“I want to put in more of the Cabs up against the bank,” says Steve. “The heat really develops the sugars, but it is a waiting game in the fall before the acids will drop because of our cooler nights. I end up with a bit more alcohol content in the wine.”
Steve and Kim’s children have been involved with the wine from the very beginning. Son Nathan is now the viticulturist and wine maker after attending Okanagan College. His red seal carpenter certification comes in handy around the farm and family houses as well. Daughter Tesha is the social media person and is farming small-scale crops, such as asparagus (for which the valley was noted 30 years ago) on river bottom soil up the valley.
Forbidden Fruit produces around 2,000 cases a year, ranging from about 30 for a Tannat-Malbec blend, up to about 300 cases of Sauvignon Blanc. Most other varieties range between 150 to 200 cases.
“We are noticing that there is a lot of competition out there (299 wine licenses says the BC Wine Institute) and you need to be on the ground in Vancouver and Victoria. We do have an agent and we do pound the pavement, but I like to go more grass roots.”
Steve favours Rotary wine festivals across the province.
“I can tell people our story, pour our wines and tell them where they can buy them.”
These are the people who will stop on their way through the valley, or will make a special trip over from the southern Okanagan. However, he does admit that 35 wine shows last year were not keeping him at home.
Last summer, a change in BC liquor laws opened up wine sales at farmers markets and they have been pouring and selling wine, along with their fruit, in Penticton.
“We’re pretty lucky with pests,” says Steve. “We don’t get much mildew, we don’t have scab, and we don’t have brown rot, which the Okanagan can have with its higher humidity. The river is always moving here and we get lots of wind.
“I’m what you call a low impact organic grower. I’m still back in the 70s.”
Steve will put out oil if he has a really bad outbreak of scale and perhaps BT for twig borer and he finds it important to apply sulphur to the grapes.
“But if it’s not kicking me economically, I live with it. I’ve got to the point in my business where I can deal with challenged fruit, either in the winery or seconds for the canning market.”
His biggest problem is poison ivy. Although it doesn’t affect the fruit, it is hard on the workers and impossible to control organically.
“We have to dig it out with a mini excavator, but that only works when we are replanting.”
A new sweeper allows them to clean up the ground before harvest.
For the time being, they are staying out of the VQA program.
“They don’t recognize fruit wines and we kind of left it that way,” says Steve. “For me, what’s better than VQA is 100 per cent BC certified organic. We list in private and government liquor stores, but we are kept out of the 15 or so VQA stores.”
Future crops include the Wendy strawberry from Nova Scotia.
“We would be able to get it out of the way before the cherries.” Steve says. “I’m interested in planting some of the Austrian Gruner Veltliner, and I’m also tempted by Tempranillo. But sometimes Kim tells me I bring too much stuff home.”