Val Tait credits a glass of Alsatian riesling as the tipping point that led her into the wine industry.
A glass of wine played a pivotal role in Val Tait’s route to becoming winemaker and general manager of Bench 1775.
At the time, she was studying plant biochemistry and molecular genetics at Simon Fraser University and working at the Summerland Research and Development Centre. That was when she discovered she didn’t like working in a lab.
What she did like was going to Okanagan wineries and collecting grape vine viruses. She also liked meeting with growers who thought they had viruses on their vines. She would go out, take a look and tell them, no, you don’t have a virus but yes, you do have sick vines struggling to grow because you’re not treating them properly.
When she had the glass of wine that was the tipping point for her, she admitted that she was drinking really cheap, super-sweet German wines.
It came thanks to Alex Nichol who was starting Nichol Vineyards, one of the first vineyards established on what has come to be known as Naramata Bench. He saw what she was drinking at a social event.
“He introduced me to a well-made Alsatian Riesling. It was like an epiphany. ‘Oh my god,’ I thought. ‘Why is this so much better?’ ”
She came to realize that the wine she had been drinking and the one Nichol introduced her to could very well have been the same kind of grapes from the same part of the world. The difference was how the grapes were grown and how the wine was made.
“I was so intrigued,” she said in a phone interview from Bench 1775, located on the southern shore of Lake Okanagan. “That’s what kick-started me in this whole path of learning and enjoying wine.”
A few years later, Tait went south to the University of California at Davis to study oenology and viticulture.
When she returned to B.C. in the early 1990s, there were about 21 licensed grape wineries in the province. Now there are 280.
“I came back with technical knowledge at a time when a lot of people were developing projects,” she said.
“I got to experiment and play and try a lot of different things with a lot of different people in a lot of different parts of the Okanagan Valley. It was an incredibly lucky opportunity for me.”
Tait said that wineries in the Okanagan are now more confident about making wines that express the region rather than trying to emulate iconic wines from elsewhere.
She’s such a big believer in that idea that’s she’s pushing it even further. She said she lets the fruit tell her “what wine is going to be made” from it.
Tait said Bench 1775 is part of the Vancouver International Wine Festival because she feels that it’s important to maintain a strong presence of B.C. wineries at the annual event.
Bench 1775 produced fewer than 1,000 cases for its first vintage in 2012. Now it’s up to 25,000 cases.
During that fast expansion, Bench 1775 has grown to include a team of women in several senior positions in the company including sales, marketing and export sales.
It’s unusual to have so many women in top positions in a industry where Tait estimates that 20 per cent of winemakers are women. Oddly enough, on Naramata Bench, the number increases to 80 per cent.
“Someone pointed out to me a few years ago that we do have a lot of women who are senior staff,” said Tait, now in her 28th year in the industry.
“It wasn’t done on purpose. It just happened. The people who joined our team I felt were a good fit with our culture. I hope in a short time that people won’t even notice that.”
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