The philosophy of our vineyard was fairly easy to define as Laurent and I hold strong convictions regarding our responsibility to respect the environment and ensure our land is treated in a sustainable manner. We also hold great admiration for those winemakers who follow the philosophy of ‘terroir’, an approach to wine that encompasses all the factors that play a role in differentiating one vineyard site from another and allowing the uniqueness of each piece of land to shine through the wine. These factors include the soil where the grapes are grown, the climate of the vineyard and its region, and the choice of which grape variety to plant, among others. In other words, terroir emphasizes that wine is made in the vineyard, not in a winery. It is this partnership of the environment and human skills that are required to bring a unique character and taste to wines, resulting in remarkably individual wine personalities. Our aim is to put this ‘puzzle’ together, using the best possible combination of factors to create honest, unique, yet amazing wines.
With this in mind, we knew that our climate would dictate which variety of vines we would grow. Unfortunately, grape growing is fairly new to the Fraser Valley and so there is relatively little knowledge regarding which varieties grow well, and which do not. So, after some research regarding the hours of sunlight we receive, the average monthly temperatures, average amount of rainfall, when first frosts generally occur, the type of soil we have, which vine diseases and pests would most likely be a threat, we were able to determine which grape varieties would be most suitable (for example, early ripening varieties). With that list, we researched further and looked to local grape growers to learn from them which varieties they found to be successful, and which ones were not. Although we are not planning to pursue Canada’s official organic certification, we intend to be as organic we possibly can be. So choosing a variety that will not be susceptible to mildew and other associated diseases is very important in order to decrease our risks and need to use chemical sprays.
Resulting from all our research, we finally decided to plant five different varieties in order to leave some room for experiment and see which varieties will fare well and make good wines, and which will not (Our fingers are crossed!!). The varieties we decided on are: 1) Pinot Gris; 2) L’Acadie Blanc; 3) Seyval Blanc; 4) Epicure, and; 5) Cabernet Libre. The last two listed, Epicure and Cabernet Libre are Blattner varieties, which are hybrids that are well suited for our west coast climate; however, they are so new that there is almost no information about them! But, we decided, why not give them a try? In addition to these varieties, which will make white wines, we also hope to buy grapes from growers in the Okanogan in order to add a few red wines to our selection. Overall, we hope to create white wines that are elegant, unique, and reflective of our terroir. Carrying on from this theme, the style of our reds will also be subtle and elegant and hopefully one day (with the development of an Okanogan wine grower partnership… again fingers crossed!!) reflective of the terroir of a single vineyard plot in this warmer BC region.
Stemming from this, we knew that it was important for the name of our winery to reflect our vineyard philosophy, the style of wines we intend to make, and integrate the place (my grandfather’s horse ranch) where our winery will be developed. In the end, we decided on: Whispering Horse Winery. The name was inspired by one of my grandfather’s first horses, Whispering Sandy, which denotes a more personal family meaning. It is also reflective of the subtle yet elegant style of wines we intend to make.
Now that our philosophy and name have been defined… the time has come to get our hands dirty!
Comically, it was all sparked by a joke on an evening when Laurent and I were hosting a wine-tasting dinner for a group of family and friends back in November, 2010. We had all just eaten our way through six courses and tasted our way through 12 wines. Our wine-tasting dinners have become quite the annual event. Prior to serving each dinner course, Laurent provides a fun lesson on the style of wine we will be drinking, followed by a blind tasting of two wines. The wines are then revealed, the food is served, and we taste, enjoy, and compare the pairings while finishing the opened bottles. As you can imagine, we have a lot of fun and by the end of the evening, spirits are high. By the end of this particular evening, the conversation shifted towards encouraging Laurent and I to host more dinners, suggesting “why not start your own business?”
Laughing, we began to share that our ‘dream’ was actually to run our own vineyard one day, where we could of course host such events on a more regular basis. We laughed because we knew that everyone dreams of owning their own vineyard one day, and not being millionaires, we were VERY aware of how farfetched our dream was. Especially for a couple who were still renting a one bedroom apartment in Vancouver and had almost no vineyard management experience (expect Laurent’s WOOFING experience in Montalcino). Then, someone jokingly suggested: “What about J-Bar Vineyards?” Well, we all burst into laughter because J-Bar is my grandfather’s horse ranch, which is located in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia; a place more closely resembling a rainforest than any sunny, dry landscape you picture of typical wine regions.
However, J-Bar was also suggested because my grandfather (John Giesbrecht), now at 86 years old, has reached an age where his body can no longer keep up with his physical ambitions. Admirably, he still cares for his two horses and rides ritualistically every Saturday, but is simply unable to maintain the vast 16 acre property and 60 x 200 foot indoor arena he constructed back in 1964. Sadly, after 40 years of passion, dedication, and hard work, my grandfather has had to face the difficult question of: “What will happen to the ranch?” To our family, J-Bar ranch has become synonymous with my grandfather and over the years this special place has become powerfully infused with meaning and memories. So, the wrenching question of what to do with his ranch had also been hovering over our family these past few years.
But, the idea had been sparked! Laurent and I were aware that wineries had become established just south of us in Washington State, which has a similar climate and landscape as the Fraser Valley. But researching further we found that a few wineries existed right here in Langely (e.g., Domaine de Chaberton; Vista D’Oro) and even in Abbotsford (Mt Lehman Winery), which is less than 30-45km from J-Bar ranch. After visiting these wineries, and tasting their wines, we began to realize that a vineyard in the Fraser Valley may actually be a possibility.
Over the Christmas holidays of 2010, Laurent and I considered the potential of transforming J-Bar ranch into a vineyard and discussed this possibility with my parents. We were well aware that, to make this dream a reality, we would need them to embark on this adventure with us – as a team. Rather than responding with laughter and eye rolling – which was our expected reaction – they were intrigued. As it turns out, my father (Barry Giesbrecht) had already contemplated buying the ranch to keep a piece of my grandfather’s heritage in the family. But, he didn’t know what to do with the 16 acres of land and maintaining the property alone was more responsibility, work, and energy than he was willing give at this point in life.
Amazingly, this just seemed to be the right idea, at the right place, at the right time.
With incredible faith, encouragement, and support from my parents and the result of further research and numerous discussions regarding the the pros and cons, costs and benefits, roles and expectations, requirements and legalities, my parents, Laurent and I took the plunge! Fed by our common enthusiasm and love for wine, my parents extraordinary faith and support, Laurent’s passion for turning dreams into reality, and my Father’s practical hands-on knowledge, we decided as a team to buy J-Bar ranch and transform it into a family run boutique winery.
Life can be funny sometimes. We were on the other side of the world, about 15 days in to our Camino de Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage when I first suggested: “what about wine?” The Camino was one of the things we had both dreamed of doing, not necessarily to bypass purgatory as the Catholics would believe, but for the mystical experience of walking the footsteps of history. For over 1000 years people have been walking hundreds of kilometres, beginning as far as Portugal or France, across the entire country of Spain to reach Santiago de Compostella Cathedral where the relics of St. James are enshrined. Also, Laurent and I are fanatical lovers of food, wine, and culture and we thought what better way to experience what Spain had to offer than to walk 300km of the Via de la Plata.
But first, lets go back to the week before we were leaving, in July, 2009. Laurent, as a new citizen of Canada, had been given the news that despite 10 years of experience teaching in Belgium, Africa, Mexico, and Canada, he was not eligible for certification as a teacher in British Columbia. This came as quite the blow, especially when learning that his current position as a high school French teacher in Vancouver would not be renewed when school commenced again in September. We were leaving for Spain and Laurent was officially unemployed. What we didn’t know then, was that this was the catalyst for a whole other kind of adventure.
It was during our walk of the Camino, after a few evenings of rewarding ourselves with some beautiful bottles of Rioja, that the ‘wine talk’ began. Our days had been spent meditatively walking, following yellow arrows across the country of Spain, Laurent searching for what to do professionally, and both of us questioning whether we should stay in Canada, or move to Italy, France, or Belgium, or somewhere. Eventually, the discussion led to Laurent’s passion for wine and with his knowledge of French, Italian, and Spanish languages, I suggested “why not see what the world of wine has to offer?” The ‘aha moment’ was there.
Upon our return to Vancouver, Laurent’s passion for the art of wine only grew. He enrolled in wine courses and eventually achieved his WSET certificate. Needless to say I happily embarked on this journey with him, only in a much more informal way. Together we began trying all kinds of wines… tasting, taking notes, tasting, reading, and tasting some more. In September of 2010, Laurent’s passion for the creative process of wine making brought him to an organic vineyard in Montalcino, Italy (Casa Raia), where he gained the valuable opportunity to work for one month and learn hands-on about vineyard management and the wine making process. Leaving Italy, Laurent was certain this was the direction he wanted to go. Yet two major questions remained: Where and how?