PENTICTON, British Columbia – It’s no secret in British Columbia, but Tightrope Winery deserves to be in the discussion when talking about the best young wineries in the Pacific Northwest.
There’s no debate among judges at the Cascadia Wine Competition. The international judging of Pacific Northwest wine staged in Hood River, Ore., at the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel awarded Tightrope Winery six gold medals during this year’s three-day event. The five-year-old winery produces just eight wines.
In 2015, the husband/wife team of Graham and Lyndsay O’Rourke won five gold medals at the competition. That makes 11 gold medals in two years.
Cascadia Wine Competition judges would agree that Graham and Lyndsay have achieved balance while walking the treacherous tightrope of grower/winemaker and husband/wife.
“I’ve tried to tell Lyndsay how to make wine. It doesn’t go over too well,” Graham said with a smile. “When we both live in the same house, we have to get along.”
Lyndsay chuckled, adding, “I think Graham likes the fact that I have a short-term memory. Things blow over very quickly.”
They view themselves two decades ago as “ski bums.” Now, they are among the most talented couples in the region’s wine industry.
Last month, we made a trip to the Naramata Bench to meet the O’Rourkes at their estate winery and 6-acre vineyard overlooking Okanagan Lake, about 10 minutes northeast of downtown Penticton.
Here’s the interview:
From the ski lift to The Bench
Graham’s passion for fishing and hunting led him cross-country from his native Ontario to Canada’s premier winter playground – Whistler. There he met Lyndsay, a graduate of the University of British Columbia. Graham’s interest in Lyndsay went well beyond puppy love.
“I had a new puppy and I had to go to the pet store and buy dog food for it, and she was working at the pet store,” he said.
They scratched out a living for the two of them until 2003, the year Whistler was awarded the 2010 Winter Olympics.
“We were both ski bums in Whistler for about 10 years,” Lyndsay said with a smirk. “After the birth of our first son, I decided I needed a real job. I didn’t want to do service-industry stuff any more.”
Their interest in wine began while living in Whistler, yet there wasn’t much in their backgrounds to suggest they would establish an award-winning estate winery within 10 years.
“For a small town of 15,000 people, Whistler has all of these amazing restaurants because it’s a tourist town,” she said. “That’s where I started to get that appreciation for wine. I don’t know that there was an ‘ah-hah moment,’ but I enjoy food, I enjoy wine and I enjoy science. It sounded like a great way to make a living.”
The Okanagan Valley was a place she already knew as a summer haven, and it would afford Lyndsay’s mother more time with her grandson.
“It was my Mum who suggested I look into grape growing and winemaking,” Lyndsay said. ”I had a science background in university, and I enjoyed chemistry and biology. There are farmers in my family. It seemed like a good fit, and I definitely didn’t want an office job.
“The idea of growing grapes, making wine, changing from year to year and doing something different all the time throughout the year was appealing.”
Graham said he didn’t think twice about moving to the Okanagan Valley.
“Lyndsay already told you – she was leaving Whistler, so I jumped in the car,” Graham said with a smile. “The more I learned, the more I enjoyed it, for sure. And at the end of the day there’s wine, right?”
So they moved to the Okanagan Valley and began taking viticulture and wine studies at Okanagan College in Penticton, However, friends and colleagues suggested the O’Rourkes immerse themselves into the wine industry as quickly as possible.
“It became clear that we should go offshore to make wine,” she said. “So we packed up our 2-year-old son and moved to New Zealand for two years.”
They received viticulture and enology degrees from Lincoln University, worked in the Kiwi wine industry and returned to the Okanagan Valley. The sun-drenched Naramata Bench, which overlooks Okanagan Lake, was well into its continuing transition from orchards to vineyards.
“I always loved Naramata, and at the time it was becoming an up-and-coming grape growing area, so that’s why we decided to settle here,” she said.
6 years of winemaking at Ruby Blues
Upon returning to the Okanagan Valley, Graham found work as a viticulturist at Canada’s most acclaimed winery – Mission Hill Family Estate. He spent six years at the Kelowna icon, and the wide-ranging experience also allowed him to develop a vineyard consulting business he maintains today.
Tightrope Winery’s debut vintage was 2012, and Lyndsay was never busier. However, she was near the end of her time as the original winemaker for nearby Ruby Blues and owner Prudence Maher, co-founder of Red Rooster Winery.
Prudence and Beat Maher helped put the Naramata Bench wine industry on the map when they created the eclectic and popular Red Rooster in 1990 and subsequently sold it in 2005 to Canadian giant Andrew Peller. Prudence hired Lyndsay as winemaker for their Ruby Blues project in 2009, and during her six years at there, O’Rourke produced two prestigious Lt. Governor’s awards, both for Viognier. It’s no coincidence she’s also achieved success with that Rhône white grape under her Tightrope brand.
“A few of our growers worked with Lyndsay in the past, so we knew the fruit, and there are some pretty spectacular sites around the Bench for sure,” he said.
In a touch of class, Maher allowed the O’Rourkes to make the first two vintages for Tightrope at Ruby Blues.
“I think she would have been happier if I had stayed,” Lyndsay said with a chuckle. “But Prudence has been very supportive of our whole venture, so it’s worked out well.”
Estate vineyards take root in 2007
Soon after returning from New Zealand, the O’Rourkes established their Glan Llyn Estate Vineyard, a two-year planting program near Fleet Road in glacial silt soil that now accounts for about 50 percent of the grapes used at Tightrope Winery. Those plantings surround a split-level building with the vinification facility downstairs while the upscale tasting room offers views of Okanagan Lake.
The vineyard yields Riesling, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Viognier and smaller plantings of Barbera and Cabernet Franc.
“We’re lucky on the Bench because it’s very undulating,” Graham said. “My Riesling is on a very western/southwestern facing slope. On the same block, a 100 meters away, I’ve got Pinot Gris facing directly east. I’ve been able to grow a lot different varieties on the same pad, but the whole Bench is like that.”
They don’t get to ski nearly as much as when they met at Whistler, but they are raising their two boys in an outdoors paradise. Lyndsay is a triathlete, while Graham drives his oldest to hockey practice, hunts, bikes and plays rugby. Working outdoors for 10 months of the year appeals to him, and a frigid day at Greata Ranch Vineyard soon after arriving in the Okanagan Valley didn’t discourage Graham.
“Pruning every day in the minus-4 degrees (Celsius) over the course of that winter really started to pique my interest,” he said. “I enjoy the science of it and the challenges of growing a new vine every year.”
Success in the U.S.
The climate on the Naramata Bench isn’t much different that Washington’s arid Columbia Valley. The O’Rourkes receive about 12 inches of precipitation per year, but only four of those inches come during the growing season, Graham said.
This year, their estate 2015 Riesling earned best of class at the Cascadia, while their 2014 Pinot Noir, 2015 Rosé and 2015 Tip-Toe – an aromatic blend of Gewürztraminer, Viognier, Riesling and Chardonnay – each received unanimous double gold awards. The Tightrope 2014 Syrah and 2014 estate Viognier merited gold medals.
The focus and precision of Lyndsay’s wines showed at the 2015 version of the Cascadia, where two vintages of Riesling – 2013 and 2012 – her 2014 Rosé and 2014 Tip-Toe each were awarded gold medals. And there was a double gold for 2013 Viognier.
“I take it halfway across the wire, and Lyndsay follows that path,” Graham said.
Measured growth for Tightrope Winery
The O’Rourkes produced 1,000 cases from each of their first two vintages, Lyndsay’s last two at Ruby Blues. They hit the 3,000-case mark from the 2015 harvest.
“We’ll hopefully creep up to about 4,500 over the next two years,” Graham said.
Lyndsay said, “That was always our plan. That seems to be a good number where you can kind of make a living but you can still be hands-on.
“Hopefully, we won’t be paper-pushers,” she added with a chuckle. “We don’t want it to be so big that you have a lot of employees and management. We still want it to be fun to do.”
Perhaps Lyndsay’s favorite grape variety vintage after vintage is Pinot Noir. They’ve planted eight clone/rootstock combinations in the same block, a practice Graham said he patterned after some of his favorite producers in Oregon. He manages the vines similarly and harvests them at the same time.
“I know what kind of wine Lyndsay wants to make so, stylistically, I can help guide the fruit to that approach,” he said.
His winemaker ferments the Pinot Noir together, relying on feral yeast, and barrel ages the Pinot Noir together.
“Pinot Noir is one of my babies, I guess,” she said. “Graham does a lot of work in the vineyard for the Pinot Noir, and it’s very lovingly cared for in the winery. And I have a soft spot for Riesling as well. I really like what this site is producing. There’s Viognier as well.”
Preserving the natural acidity is critical to the O’Rourkes.
“I’m not into big, alcoholic white wines,” she said. “I probably pick earlier than a lot of people around here.”
Her Pinot Noirs are built along the lines of Burgundy, wines of elegance. And she shows restraint with Syrah.
“Some people like to make the big, jammy California Syrahs, but this is a cool climate, and I want to showcase that,” Lyndsay said.
Last year, Graham began to bring in Pinot Gris for Lyndsay in early September. The first grapes to come in where Gewürztraminer from a young site nearby on Skaha Bluffs. Harvest wrapped up with Syrah and Viognier by Oct. 12 – Thanksgiving in Canada.
“I like the cooler falls because it makes the winemaking easier,” Lyndsay said. “In California and Australia, they harvest in the dead of night because that’s the coolest time. Here in the fall, it might be 10 degrees (Celsius), which is perfect. I like to cold-soak the reds for about five days, so if they are coming in hot, that makes that really difficult.”
And those with a fondness for bigger reds can reach for Tightrope Winery’s 2014 Vertigo – a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Barbera. Aside from that, the rest of their portfolio offers finesse and definition.
“I like our red wines to be fruit-forward with subtle oak,” she said. “Our Pinot Noir is only 30 percent new oak. The bigger red wines we’ll do a bit more oak.”
Tightrope Winery joins WineBCUSA.com
Visitors to Tightrope Winery should consider themselves fortunate if they meet either of the O’Rourkes. Graham stays busy in vineyard and meets with Lyndsay’s other growers, but there’s a better chance of chatting with the winemaker in the tasting room.
“They try to keep me out of there a lot of the time, I have to be honest,” Lyndsay chuckled. “I’m not always the best salesperson for my own wine, which is terrible, but I float around.”
At this point, their biggest markets are restaurants and liquor stores in Whistler and her hometown of Vancouver. Tightrope Winery is registered with WineBCUSA.com, which gives U.S. consumers the opportunity have wines from select British Columbia producers shipped to them.
“There will be four of our wines available down there,” Lyndsay said.
That gives Americans the chance to judge for themselves some of those award-winning Tightrope wines.