"Ever since attending a series of wine classes in Calgary less than two decades ago it’s been a bit of a storybook journey for the Tolley family, owners of Moon Curser Vineyards in the south Okanagan.
Today the hardworking, modest couple (Chris Tolley is a farmer/winemaker; Beata Tolley is the winery manager) find themselves Best Performing Small Winery in Canada awarded at the 2019 WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada for a winery producing 10,000 cases or less.
After those initial wine classes, the Tolleys quickly concluded that owning a winery was something they wanted to explore so they gave up their jobs in Calgary and headed for Lincoln University in New Zealand where they both took the one-year diplomas in viticulture and oenology.
In those early days, they did a fair amount of research by visiting wineries in New Zealand and quickly noticed a sameness in tasting room experiences. Visits to Australia proved more fruitful because many were exploring lesser-known varieties better suited to the warming climate. What they took away from those visits was that it was the odd wines like Viognier that captured their interest and became talking points after they left the winery.
The seed was planted, and when they got back to British Columbia in 2004, they bought an old cherry orchard on the east Osoyoos Bench in the south Okanagan Valley. Quickly they began to explore grape varieties that were decidedly different from the Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Merlot crowd.
Most of what they planted would send the everyday wine drinker running for Jancis Robinson’s famous Guide to Wine Grapes — and it is a strategy that has proven to be uber-successful. The list of non-stream varietal wines changing minds includes Touriga Nacional (Portugal), Carménère (Chile), Tannat (Uruguay), Arneis and Dolcetto (Italy), Tempranillo (Spain) — the list goes on.
Moon Curser began its life as Twisted Tree, a somewhat conservative winery name, that was dropped after a 2011 marketing overhaul. The Moon Curser name embodied the rich history of the South Okanagan, where gold smugglers would regularly cross the nearby U.S. border during the night. As historical as the name is, the winery is hardly tradition-bound. One could argue it may be the most experimental producer in the country.
Certainly planting avant-garde varieties has set the winery apart and in some ways could be instrumental in it moving forward if temperatures continue to rise in the Okanagan.
That said, not everything has worked. Early on, love for Italian varietals led to planting Corvina, a grape widely planted in Valpolicella in the Veneto, northern Italy. It never ripened. On the other hand, Arneis is thriving and is a fabulous addition to B.C.’s growing grape repertoire.
Much of Moon Curser’s recent success stems from old-fashioned, hard work. Now 15 years down the road, the vineyards and the knowledge to look after them seem to have meshed. You can’t teach experience, but you can earn it one year at a time, which is the real story of this small, hillside estate winery and one of the most exciting wine lineups in Canada.
At the end of the competition, the winery walked away with several medals led by a platinum for its remarkable ode to the Douro Valley, the 2017 Touriga Nacional ($40). They followed that up with six gold medals for a 2015 Tannat ($40); 2018 Dolcetto ($25), 2017 Malbec ($31), 2017 Tempranillo ($31), 2017 Petit Verdot ($40) and 2017 Dead of Night ($40), a blend of Syrah and Tannat.
All that is left for you to do is try the wine and eventually visit the winery on the Osoyoos West Bench and experience what the Tolleys did when they first got into the business — something new, intriguing and, most of all, different."
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