(From left) Gabe Cipes

(From left) Gabe Cipes

La Dolce Vita: A pyramid scheme that works for everyone

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Drive up to Summerhill Pyramid Winery in Kelowna and your first impression might be that you are entering a theme park, or perhaps an alternate universe. A gigantic bottle of bubbly seems to float in the air as its contents pour perpetually into a huge champagne flute. A huge pyramid sits front and centre. In the owner’s words, “The Summerhill Pyramid is second only to the Great Pyramid of Egypt for alignment and precision.” Welcome to the weird and very wonderful world of Stephen Cipes.

In my experience, winery owners are mostly down-to-earth farm folks, deadly serious about their business, one that depends entirely on the land. Cipes, by contrast, is part New York hippie, part New Age guru and part extremely canny businessman. In a business world that encourages conformity, Cipes is an ethereal philosopher who sees the big picture, big in the way that astronaut Chris Hadfield saw it from his space station.

Behind the scenes in what Cipes and his family have built into Canada’s most visited winery is a leader in environmental responsibility. Organic certification in the vineyards was followed in 2007 by certification, Canada’s first, in the winery. That’s no mean feat because the winemaking process typically relies on things like fish bladders, gelatin, egg whites, milk and milk by-products, primarily to clarify wine.

In 2012 it also received biodynamic certification in the vineyards, an approach to growing that I’ll leave curious readers to research themselves. It led to the following message on the Summerhill website, “We were once asked whether our biodynamic practices are vegan friendly. Some biodynamic preparations are made by fermenting herbs in stag bladders and cow intestines. These animal parts are not in the wine or in any way touching the grapes. They are used as a medium to create beneficial soil bacteria that aid processes in the grapevine’s immune system. We must leave it to each individual vegan to decide whether the biodynamic preparations are a deal breaker or not.”

I developed a particular fondness for the Cipes family a few years ago when I was doing a story for a business magazine and scheduled a telephone interview with Stephen. He was gracious, articulate and generous with his time. As the interview was about to end, his son Gabe entered the room. Stephen put his phone on speaker mode and had Gabe explain about how Summerhill was embarking on biodynamics. He was as bright and genuine as his dad.

Over the years, Summerhill has built a great reputation with its sparkling wines — the reason Cipes got into the business in the first place — and has won head-to-head competitions against French Champagnes. But founding winemaker Eric von Krosigk, who recently returned to Summerhill, sets a high bar for all the wines produced.

I recently sampled two wines that will be of interest to consumers who want organic products, as well as those who have adverse reactions (headaches, stuffed nasal passages) to most wine.

Ezra Cipes, Gabe’s brother, who is CEO at Summerhill now, says that Alive, which is made in red and white versions, is a new line designed to fit in with a healthy lifestyle.

“One of the things that our most loyal customers tell us is that they choose Summerhill because when they drink organic, they don’t suffer certain reactions that they associate with conventional wine,” he says. “These are wines that will still love you in the morning (unless you abuse them, of course, but perhaps I’m taking the metaphor too far).”

The 2012 Alive white is a very satisfying blend of 70 per cent Pinot Gris, 15 per cent Pinot Blanc, five per cent Gewurztraminer, five per cent Viognier, three per cent Chardonnay and two per cent Muscat. With only 10.4 per cent alcohol content, this is a great introductory wine for people who think they don’t like wine. We drank our first glass on the patio after work one evening, then finished it off with baked ribs and mashed potatoes with asparagus. It has bursting with floral aromas, and has a lovely, full mouth feel with sufficient acidity to complement most any kind of food.

The 2012 Alive red is a blend I haven’t come across before, with 50 per cent Marechal Foch, 34 per cent Merlot and 15 per cent Syrah. With 24 months in French and American Oak barrels, this is a wine that will make a happy addition to grilled meats and vegetables, as well as anything with a tomato sauce. Expect notes of blackberry, black currant, leather and plum from this wine that clocks in with a 14.1 per cent alcohol content. Both Alive wines should be available at BC Liquor Stores.

The Summerhill Pyramid Winery story is, deservedly, now part of our provincial lore. It’s been a remarkable success on many levels and has help draw countless tourists to the Okanagan. And it has all been done by very nice people, to whom we should be grateful for choosing B.C. as their home.

Lorne Eckersley is publisher of the Creston Valley Advance. His website, www.lorneckersley.com, features a collection of columns, stories and photographs about wine, beer and spirits, food, travel and arts.