By Roslyne Buchanan
In joining the team at Crescent Hill Winery as winemaker and viticulturist, Erich Smith-Peter feels privileged to work with some of the oldest vines in the Okanagan.
“It’s a rare opportunity to have exceptional-quality grapes from vineyards around 50 years old,” says Smith-Peter. “Plus, there’s untouched land available to plant new vines. It’s a dream come true to add a creative side to my scientific background.”
Crescent Hill owner Teresa Murray notes Smith-Peter’s molecular biology master’s degree, combined with his winemaking and vineyard experience, is a valuable asset. “He brings a lot of technical know-how, practical experience and positive energy. We’re excited about this new phase for the winery as we move forward.”
Smith-Peter was born in Quebec and attended Sherbrooke University. With a father of German and Hungarian descent, he grew up making wine with his family, creating some 20 barrels––not a bad scale for a home operation! He came to BC to write his thesis after hearing about the Okanagan and Naramata particularly. He fell in love with the region and found himself working with iconic winemakers who helped shape his style and approach.
Among his mentors are: Jacq Kemp of Therapy Vineyards, previously with Moraine Estate Winery, now with Therapy Vineyards; Paul Gardner of Pentage Winery; and Dwight Sick of Moraine Estate Winery. Like Lock and Worth Winery and the Similkameen wineries, they instilled a low-intervention approach with respect to the grapes and their terroir.
On-the-job training of roughly five years reinforced to Smith-Peter that striving for sustainable practices is key. To make good wine, you need good grapes. “You need to work through the magic to produce quality grapes by cropping techniques, keeping the vines focussed––shoots, leaves and all aspects with climate dictating your actions.”
Notes Smith-Peter, “Minimal intervention is required at times. If you were guaranteed the grapes would be perfect every time, the winemaker would just drink wine.”
Personal Varietal Choices
In terms of grape varietals, Smith-Peter is excited to work with muscat, such as the Pearl of Csaba for which Crescent Hill is known, and the Gewürztraminer and Verdelet. “These grapes make it like working in European wineries with the privilege of old vines. It’s exciting to be making sparkling wine, too.”
He noted his interest in the Okanagan sub-regions and how the grape varietals that grow best are truly terroir-driven. He cited differences in Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay and Syrah, to name a few. To date, his favourite wine that he was instrumental in making is a 2018 vintage Private Reserve Chardonnay with time in neutral oak, blended and bottled.
His favourite wines that he hasn’t been involved in making are Italian wines. As for other alcohol-based beverages of choice, he favours tequila, mezcal and scotch whisky. Unlike many other winemakers who swear it takes a lot of beer to make wine, he declines to drink it because he is affected by celiac disease.
Trends and Challenges in the World of Wine
Smith-Peter is intrigued by the renewed interest in pairing wine with food. “The epicurean side of wine is fascinating. Experiencing the dynamics unfolding between different wine styles and different plates of food is enthralling.”
His favourite food/wine pairing is scallops and white wine, which can change dramatically depending on how the dish is prepared. “Take a huge scallop, add some lobster bits and black aioli and try it with a softly oaked Chardonnay, gentle on fruit complexity and balanced acidity.” While he admitted he has many favourites, another is osso bucco with a deep tomato sauce, paired with Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon oaked in respect for the fruit.
He says it’s an ongoing challenge for the BC and Canadian wine industries to educate people that wines go well beyond ice wine. Climate change is another huge issue, with warmer summers and the impact of forest fires and smoke. And for the smaller wineries, the pressure of the expansion of the bigger wineries can be an added challenge, although he sees opportunity for both types to excel in BC.
Crescent Hill Initiatives
Taking on Crescent Hill’s successful wine portfolio and growing it has Smith-Peter stoked. “Crescent Hill is expanding its winemaking facilities and wine shop. Typically, I’ll start in the vineyard and end inside with lab work and winemaking––a perfect balance.”
Watch for the evolution at crescenthillwinery.com.