La Dolce Vita: Another use for waste

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When white grapes are pressed there is a fair amount of bulk that remains behind in the form of stems and seeds. The remains from red grapes are taken off after they have imparted their colour and tannins to the liquid. What happens to the waste?

Some wineries dump it straight into small trailers that are pulled through vineyard rows while the skins and seeds are spread behind them, thus putting nutrients straight back onto the land. Others take the extra time and effort to compost the waste, turning it into rich soil before putting it back onto the land or using it for other growing purposes. Still others ship it off to distilleries, where the pomace, as the dry muck is called, can be used to create more alcohol and become grappa.

In the central part of the province, Okanagan Spirits has earned a world-class reputation making grappa and an extraordinary range of products, including fruit brandies, liqueurs, Aquavit, gin and even absinthe. It’s a business that sprung up in Vernon because of the ready availability of fruit and pomace. Recently the company has added a second distillery and tasting room in Kelowna.

The Okanagan Spirits story is a simple one. Then-forestry engineer Frank Dieter was walking through an orchard, noticing apples lying on the ground. Like many, he wondered about how they could be put to better use. Unlike many, though, he pursued those thoughts. He left his job and went to Europe, learning about the art and science of distillation in Switzerland, Italy and Germany. A year later, in 2004, he started Okanagan Spirits with fermentation tanks, a wood-fired copper still and a passion for quality.

Distillation requires a close attention to detail and a good knowledge of science. You don’t have to go deeply into the lore of backwoods distilleries to learn that blindness is one of the bad tings that can happen when the process goes wrong. Craft distilleries thrive when the products are of high quality and are distinctly different from those produced in huge quantities for the mass market.

In only seven years, Dieter has acquired a reputation as a world-class craft distiller, winning awards at competitions in many countries. He’s turned his craft into high art, making products that celebrate the best of what is grown on BC farmland.

Sour cherries, apricots, pears, apples, pears, plums and even tomatoes are used to produce an ever-growing variety of distilled products. The lengthy on-line product list now includes nine eaus-de-vie, three grappas (from the pomace of Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir and Pinot Auxerrois), aquavit, absinthe (an anise-flavoured liquid that derives its flavours from wormwood), gin and eight different liqueurs.

Dieter is obviously an experimenter. He recently released a liqueur made from seabuckthorn, a plant that produces luxurious clusters of orange fruit and that is said to have numerous medicinal properties. On our last trip to Italy, one of my favourite photos was a close-up of one of these beautiful clusters in Pompei. I had no idea what the tree was until I read about Okanagan Spirits release of seabuckthorn liqueur. Live and learn.

It’s a badly kept secret that the best way to maximize the economic value of our farmland is to make products from the fruits and vegetables we grow. It’s best, too, to sell those products as close to where they are made as possible, reducing shipping costs and the resulting carbon footprint. Okanagan Spirits is a shining example of what can be done to increase the value of local produce and serve a market that is thirsty for innovation and flavours that go beyond what large producers can offer.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.