Vine Talk: Lyndsay and Graham O'Rourke of Tightrope Winery

lyndsay and graham o'rourke christine campbell
lyndsay and graham o'rourke christine campbell

All photos by Christine Campbell.

Tightrope Winery, located on the Naramata Bench in Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, has arrived on the wine scene with elegance and style, offering bright and refined wines along with a great consumer experience. It officially opened its doors in 2012 with their first vintage and owners Lyndsay and Graham O'Rourke's wine came out of the gate impressing people and gaining a loyal following.

After leaving service industry jobs in Whistler, British Columbia in 2003, the O’Rourkes made their way to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley after hearing about the growing wine industry there. Moving with a one-year-old son, the couple decided to plunge in and signed up for courses at the local Okanagan College for winemaking and viticulture. Lyndsay worked with Laughing Stock Vineyards, Cedar Creek Winery and Ruby Blues Winery before turning her attention to making wine full time for Tightrope. Graham enjoyed many seasons with the renowned Mission Hill Winery in the vineyards and is now Tightrope’s viticulturalist.

I had the opportunity to meet with Lyndsay and Graham O’Rourke on a stunningly hot July afternoon in their newly built and beautifully appointed tasting room. A few weeks earlier, I stopped by the winery on a recommendation. My first impression was exceptionally positive. I was a huge fan of their wines and enjoyed chatting with the knowledgable and friendly tasting room staff. I was eager to meet with and talk to the talented couple.

Christine Campbell: Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you both. How did Tightrope Winery come to be?

Lyndsay O'Rourke: Our plan was to do the two year transfer program here and then go to Brock University in Ontario, but that isn’t how it turned out. I grew up in Vancouver, but I have family in the Okanagan, so I spent many summers here. The Okanagan is the best place in Canada to do wine. We have familiarity with the Okanagan and growing up, when my family would go on drives, I just fell in love with Naramata. When we were in New Zealand, I knew I wanted to end up in Naramata.

CC: Was there a wine variety you enjoyed before getting into winemaking and viticulture?

tightrope 3 christine campbell
tightrope 3 christine campbell

Graham O'Rourke: I didn’t really know much about wine before we moved here in 2003. I drank wine at restaurants and I knew what I liked and what I didn’t.

LO: I liked Viognier and still do. I like playing with it and working with it. As far as reds go, I like Pinot Noir.

GO: I like Pinot Noir and Riesling.

CC: Lyndsay, what has changed for you from being a winemaker at other wineries to being an owner and winemaker here at your own?

LO: The main difference is that at other wineries, I was making wine for somebody else. I didn’t have any ego invested so I made the wines that I was asked to make. I had a few vintages already with other Okanagan wineries such as Cedar Creek, Tantalus and Laughing Stock, and learned a lot from those winemakers. I learned how to work with our fruit because we sold our white grapes to Ruby Blues.

GO: We planted our vineyard in 2007 and 2008. We sold our fruit to Joie Winery, Road 13, Foxtrot and Mission Hill. 2012 was the first year we kept the fruit and made it into our first vintage.

CC: What soil types do you have here on your vineyard?

GO: Pretty much the entire bench is all silt and calcareous clay with veins of sand.

CC: Talk to me about food and wine pairing. Is it important to you?

GO: I want foodies to like our wine and know that Tightrope wines can handle a variety and range of food. Food is a sensory thing. Who am I to tell someone what to pair with our wine? Eat what you like and drink what you like and they will more often than not go together.

LO: I am happy if people drink my wine! I don’t care if it is on its own or with food.

CC: Is there something you have been enjoying recently?

GO: I’m a carnivore and Lyndsay is a ‘veg-aquarian’ – we have fresh halibut or salmon with Riesling or Viognier, but most consistently together we have our rosé.

CC: If you could travel to another wine region anywhere in the world for a year, where would it be and why?

LO: For me, it would have to be South Africa. I want to understand the region more and explore the beautiful country that it is. I’d like to learn more about the winemaking there.

GO: It would have to be Alsace for its wine but also its proximity to Baden and the Mosel in Germany.

CC: Do the viticulture methods in Alsace appeal to you? Biodynamic? Organic?

GO: Not really, no. Organic is not 100% the way nor is biodynamic 100% the way. For me, sustainable farming is being responsible all the time. Doing everything for a reason not just doing it because you can label it ‘biodynamic’ or ‘organic.’ I can do a lot less in my vineyard and I believe I am leaving it better off for the next generation.

CC: Do you have a personal wine hero?

LO: There are so many people who have helped us along the way and we have a lot of respect for. A professor at school – Glen Creasy, the head of viticulture at Lincoln University in New Zealand, has been a great mentor.

GO: John Simes, winemaker at Mission Hill, was excellent to work for.  They run a spot on business and their wines are great.

CC: What are you excited about regarding the future or about upcoming season?

LO: This growing season has been crazy. I don’t know if I would call it exciting.

GO: It has been the hardest season for sure, the most challenging. We came into the year really dry because we didn’t have a lot of snow. Then it warmed right up so the plants are growing under dry conditions… it is hot, they are stressed. You need to give them water, which makes for a bigger canopy. It is a vicious cycle and the plants show a bit of stress right now but at the same time you can’t just keep giving them water. So, it has been challenging because you can’t just do what you did last year or the year before.

CC: So excited and nervous?

GO: Yes. For me, I’m a bit nervous about September because of the delicate whites. They are going to be ready and it may be still hot outside so we are lucky that we have our barrel cellar where we can go down to two or three degrees so we can pick and bring the bins in right away. The technology is in the building so we can deal with it.

LO: I am just thinking about the flavors, for delicate whites and our Pinot Noir, it is hot for Pinot Noir.

GO: The window is going to be narrow. This would be ideal for the Bordeaux varieties – but that isn’t what we have here. It is going to be an interesting struggle for everyone this year because the sugar levels may really soar. There might be 27 brix fruit with green seeds. You never know, the season might level off and we may get the cool nights that we get on this site. We’ll just have to wait and see.

LO: It will also be the earliest harvest ever.

Riesling vines at Tightrope
Riesling vines at Tightrope

CC: Well, I will keep my fingers crossed that it does level off. Speaking of cooler temperatures, would you ever consider doing a sparkling wine at Tightrope?

LO: I like sparkling. Maybe one day. To do it in the traditional manner ties up a lot of capital and have it tied up for a long time, so maybe something to work towards.

CC: What are you both proud of professionally and personally?

LO: I don’t know, I feel like the best is still to come. I am proud of us for getting this whole building up and still managing a decent vintage that we have received distinction from. Personally, I am proud that we are still married! It was a hard job building the winery and the building, but we did it and maintained our family with our two boys.

CC: Absolutely, you should be proud of that. I imagine it wasn’t easy at all.

GO: It was a piece of cake! No – but seriously, it is nice to have this part of it done. Now we can actually raise the bar on the wines. The headache of the building is now over so we can focus on the wines and creating the brand. I like that we can grow virtually anything here on the Naramata Bench with our microclimate.

CC: And you have a great team here.

LO: Yes, we really do.

GO: Heather is brilliant at what she does in marketing.

CC: Do you have help in the winery?

LO: Not really. I had a cellar hand in the fall, but for the most part it is just me.

CC: How many cases do you produce here? Are you putting a limit on the number?

LO: We will have 2,600 cases for 2015.

GO: We will go up to 4500. We want to stay with wines we do well.

LO: I don’t want a huge portfolio. I think we want to just do what we are doing and keep improving as best we can.

Check out Tightrope’s website at http://www.tightropewinery.ca