The vines are so close to the driveway I could pick grapes out the car window. A rooster runs by and I wonder if I’ve made a wrong turn. Then, a short distance ahead, I see other cars parked between a farmhouse and a small rustic wooden barn.
This is the Clos du Soleil winery, one of the Similkameen Valley’s secret treasures. Judging by the Thursday afternoon crowd buzzing around Tasting Room Manager Jesce Walker, its status as an undiscovered brand is already in jeopardy.
I’m at Clos du Soleil to find out a few things – like how a french style winery came to be in this remote southern BC valley; why the word ‘organic’ doesn’t appear on their labels or website; and what is their long-term vision for this upstart brand?
What ‘Clos du Soleil’ is French for.
The winery’s French roots come from owner Spencer Massie’s experiences in Europe.
“Spencer wanted to bring Bordeaux flavours to BC and infuse them with the terroir of the Similkameen,” Walker tells me as she pours, “A ‘clos’ is a rock wall, or enclosure traditionally found in French country yards, and ‘Soleil’ is the sun. The rock cliffs behind the winery absorb the sun’s heat and reflect it back, ‘enclosing’ the sun for the benefit of the vines. Clos du Soleil a microclimate within the microclimate of the Similkameen Valley.”
We begin the tasting with a black label Fumé Blanc. My palate is good enough to notice the grapefruit and pineapple tones, but I just nod knowingly when Jesce refers to notes of lemongrass and make a note to steal the term.
The wine label colours are a clue to their brand category. Black labels are the approachable everyday drink-right-away wines. Gold labels indicate collaborations with other vineyards and the white label Clos du Soleil wines are the ones you want to stock away in your cellar for a few years. A logical hierarchy, if perhaps a little mysterious to the consumer.
Is ‘organic’ a bad word?
I put this question directly to Jesce, wondering why it doesn’t appear on their labels or website. She assures me they are known for organic growing and people do feel good buying and drinking organically-grown wines, just as they do shopping for organic food. (Clos du Soleil does add sulfites, so even through the grapes are grown organically, the wines themselves are not certified organic)
“I think in the past, people got the idea that organic equaled poor age-ability,” says Jesce, “Now when I pour them our wines that are two or three years old, people are amazed at their richness and complexity.”
The tasting moves to a crisp rosé made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. This starts off with a classic rosé strawberry patch nose, but has a surprisingly earthy finish. Jesce tells me the Similkameen Valley has volcanic clay ash soil, similar to that in regions of France (and unlike the more glacial sandy soil of the Okanagan) That is what gives these wines more rich minerality.
Grapes first, brand later.
As we move into the reds, I delve deeper into the topic of brand vision.
“When Clos du Soleil started, the focus was purely on growing the grapes,” Jesce continues, “Our 10 acres of vines are certified organic, and we also work with the principles of Biodynamics.”
This approach to growing includes tending the vines with the phases of the moon and, in a delightfully pagan-sounding ritual, burying animal horns full of manure to re-energize the soil with its naturally occurring microbes. Another story that bears more fruitful telling.
“Now we are planning to build a new tasting room, and can concentrate more on getting customers involved with our brand,” Jesce says as she pours a rich merlot. “For example, we see more and more people in their 20’s here, looking to learn more about wine.”
I compare this to the burgeoning craft beer market, and ask if Clos du Soleil plans to compete in the creative name and label trend that has brought so many unique brands to the Okanagan.
“No, we want our look to stay more classic, with a sense of elegance.” Jesce pauses to check on the roosters outside who have recently fended off an unleashed dog. “It’s our vision one day to have a Clos du Soleil wine served in one fine restaurant in every country in the world.”
The wines certainly seem capable of standing on their own, and it helps that the Similkameen was recently named by enRoute Magazine as “one of the world’s 5 best wine regions you’ve never heard of”. But is French-style elegance enough?
Cellaring the brand.
I can’t help but think there is a more unique, rustic and and authentic brand story here. A story that somehow expands on the term ‘elegance’, to embrace everything from the volcanic rock cliffs to the kittens and roosters that prowl the farmhouse yard. Not to mention the warm, genuine hospitality.
And perhaps, properly told, the organically-grown and biodynamic story could open doors in many fine restaurants across the globe, too.
Whatever Clos du Soleil decides to do with their brand evolution, As I savour the raspberry reduction overtones of the Grower’s Series Guild Merlot, something tells me they are going to have to build a bigger parking lot.
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