Tyler Harlton: A farmer's approach to winemaking

Photo: contributed

I came across Tyler Harlton's wines about 10 years ago while working as a wine rep in Calgary. At that point in time, BC had a convoluted reputation. The widely held belief of "overpriced" was an all too common trope, affirmed by sparse representation on retail shelves.

I'd never heard of Tyler before, and was pleasantly surprised to come across such a great example of Pinot Noir, and from Summerland no less. From that point on, Tyler remained on my radar. Tyler was quietly shifting the perception of BC wine: honestly made with an extreme focus on farming, high quality and affordable.

When I moved back to the Okanagan in 2016, it didn't take long for me to cross paths with Tyler. The wine community is small, which is alluded to in our interview below.

The industry collectively experienced a palpable sadness and shock upon learning 2019 would be his last vintage. However, the mark he's made in his short stint will not be forgotten.

LM: Why did you settle on making wine in Summerland - is there something particularly special or magnetic about it? 

TH: I've lived throughout the valley - Osoyoos, Oliver and Penticton - and Summerland was the place that had the best family feel. It also made sense when looking for an industrial space to rent. My landlords Carsten and Val are the reason I'm still a renter.

LM: You may have seen the recent article that came out in Quench, calling out the overall caliber of BC wine and a need for far superior quality. In some ways, I tend to agree as the producers setting the bar are pretty niche. What would your rebuttal be to that observation?

I read Gurvinder's quote in the context of tasting BC wine as a judge. I'm not in the habit of entering wines in a competition, and I'm not sure they represent BC wine. However, a nudge in the direction of quality from the industry is good.

LM: You announced recently that you're going to be closing your doors. Can you go into a little more detail as to why you made that decision? 

TH: As a winemaker, I think I've taken the craft as far as I can go in terms of making an honest wine that tastes good. The path has been difficult, and I'm ready to craft the next path and keep challenging myself. Part of the process involves pulling myself out of the bubble.

Photo: contributed

LM: What's in your glass these days?

TH: Speaking of bubble: Lightning Rock sparkling. Also Loire white.

LM: You've worked in a number of industries - what's next? Do you think you'll always crave change to some extent?

TH: I crave growth. It was necessary to by hyper-focused to be successful as a winemaker, but it also meant I worked in a silo. It's time to create space.

LM: A lot of the wines I drink taste like the people who make them. Assuming that sentiment is true - how would you describe your style? Do you think it reflects you?

TH: A wine, a restaurant experience, a book. If they're good, they should have an energy, they should be living. That's what I've tried to achieve. I'm not sure if that gets reflected in taste.

LM: There's a great video series I love to follow called Terroir Squad. A statement that resonated with me recently touched on mainstream winemaking school and that it should mostly be ignored since what is taught is mostly from a commercial context, not wines of depth or character. Do you agree? Why or why not?

TH: I'm not sure where I fit. My background is farming, and I've worked in many facets of agriculture. I take a farmer's approach to winemaking. You set the process in motion, you prepare the soil and plant the seed, but at no point do you assume mastery over the end result. Commercial industrial winemaking requires mastery, this is where the depth and character gets lost. I think anyone challenging and stripping away the industrial washing from their process is doing a good thing.

Photo: contributed

LM: Having traveled quite a bit to wine regions around the world, I've encountered myriad styles and people - when I share my passion for Canadian wine, I've been met with suspect views like "are the wines actually natural from Canada? If it's so challenging to grow grapes there, why do it?" What's your stance on these types of opinions?

TH: Grapevines are weeds, they'll grow anywhere. There's probably good reason to be focusing on the grapes that are popular in certain European regions. But it doesn't mean that hybrid being developed in Minnesota right now won't produce North America's best tasting wine in 100 years. We shouldn't be so presumptuous.

LM: What do you think needs to change in the wine industry? 

TH: I think any industry can benefit from being less insular. I turn to my brewery and cidery friends in the local community for support in all aspects of my business, they tend to bring a different approach. Fresh ideas come from those who have to struggle and adapt, which describes the brewery and cidery community well.

LM: Tell me your three (or more) death row wines. 

TH: 2009 Merlot made in the basement of the picker shack in Oliver with William Adams and Ryan Corrigan, 2019 Method Traditional beer made with Nate at Detonate brewing in March of that year, wine-like in a lot of ways, and Irish whiskey passed to me from kin after they've taken a sip. Not wine, but this is death row.

Thank you Tyler for taking the time to speak with me. You can follow Tyler on Instagram @thwines. Learn more about his ethos and to purchase wine here: www.thwines.com


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