Rob Van Westen smiles, as he does often, and his white teeth break through the sunburned, leathered and creased face. His weathered appearance reveals his background as a long-time, third-generation farmer. With a brown cheroot dangling from the side of his mouth and his size-13 boots steadying his 6’ 7” frame, he looks like part of the earth itself, an Okanagan wine cowboy if ever there was one.
The Van Westens first planted vineyards in 1999 to diversify their orchard business. Before making their first wine in 2003, they sold grapes to top wineries such as Poplar Grove, CedarCreek, and Lake Breeze. The transformation from grower to winemaker hasn’t always been easy for him. His father, a long-time farmer himself, thought Rob had gone crazy, thinning 60 per cent of his grapes to lower the yield of his cabernet franc to create riper, higher-quality grapes. Now, his father boasts of this to friends as he sips on the resulting wine. And, while working in the vineyard in 2006, Van Westen rolled his tractor; he conducted the next vintage from a wheelchair.
Van Westen has taken a unique approach to marketing that is a true reflection of his character. Instead of flashy websites, mail-outs and marketing campaigns, the Van Westens keep you informed with a simple e-mail, letting you know how the family is doing, what is happening in the cellar and vineyard, and the general trials and tribulations of owning and running a winery. It is as honest and refreshing as a tasting with Van Westen, usually under the cherry tree outside his house. The only gimmick is that all of the wine names start with the family V—Vino Grigio, Vivacious, Viognier, and Voluptuous.
After graduating from the Okanagan College Viticulture Program in 2001 and the Winery Assistant Program in 2005, he has continually experimented with trellising techniques, soil and irrigation management, netting to keep out bandit birds, and other methods to make the most intensely flavoured grapes and wine. Van Westen is fond of his vineyards and talks passionately about every block and what makes it unique. He keeps his winemaking simple, wanting to highlight the terroir rather than the winemaker’s hand.
One of his most highly sought-after wines, made in a minute quantity of just 125 cases a year, is the viognier. He likes to tell the story of waiting for the viognier to ripen properly, not an experience for the faint of heart. “When you think it is ready, you need to wait another 10 days to get the richness and amazing apricot flavours,” says Van Westen. “The fruit is often desiccated and on the verge of rotting when it goes to the press.” It is this kind of courageous grape-growing that has led to Van Westen’s reputation for quality. There is the passion to always get better, to ask questions, to experiment. And for Van Westen Vineyards, and all of us really, this is resulting in better wines year after year.
Photos: Van Westen Vineyards.