– Story by David Wylie Photography by Darren Hull
Okanagan wine and food writer adds “winemaker” to list of achievements
Years of telling stories from the food and wine world has Jennifer Schell rooting local.
The Okanagan-based bestselling author and vintner wants people to know where their food comes from.
Buying local is central to her folklore-filled cookbook series: The Butcher, The Baker, The Wine and Cheese Maker. The first of the three books won a variety of international awards, including Best Local Cuisine cookbook in Canada at the Gourmand World Cookbooks Awards, referred to widely as the Oscars of food publishing.
She followed it up with two more installments under the same name — By the Sea and In the Okanagan.
“I’m fascinated by people and their passions. It really inspires me and ignites me. I get excited about what people are growing and making,” she said. “It’s really contagious.”
Jennifer encourages people to talk to farmers and winemakers, adding “everything I do revolves around that introduction.”
When her first book was published in 2012, a renaissance of the farmers’ market was occurring.
She had written and edited magazine stories on food and wine for years, earning a knowledgeable reputation in the food world throughout the Okanagan and beyond.
The book’s format featured recipes accompanied by profiles on people behind the recipes, such as the chef, farmer, baker or winemaker. Their passion for their craft is the thread that ties them together.
“They’re all doing what they love and it’s all benefiting humanity, and helping to feed our community,” she said.
The book featured 150 people. She insisted on big photos so people could see those behind the dish.
The follow-up, By the Sea, was published in 2015 and featured Vancouver and Vancouver Island. Jennifer, who also takes her own photos, toured the shorelines and farms, learning about things like diving for geoduck and gathering sea urchins.
“The people who I feature are all [oriented towards] sustainable, mostly organic [practices] and sharing a philosophy of protecting our land and waters,” she said. “The characters out there are amazing.”
Jennifer has a personal connection to local food producers. She was born into a farming family, multi-generational on both sides. They grew tree fruits, raised chickens and made wine at her family orchard in southeast Kelowna.
Her parents still live there.
“I grew up at a time when the farmer was not being recognized, when people were not worried about where their food came from,” she said. “I watched my dad and my grandfather lovingly tend their land. It’s a beautiful art.”
The price of land has fast become prohibitive for new farmers. Yet people find creative ways to grow their food with less space by backyard farming and leasing space.
The third book, In The Okanagan, was published in 2016.
“I just love shining the spotlight on these people,” she said.
Jennifer has been working on a new book called BC Wine Lovers’ Cookbook and it’s being published by Random House.
The book is a tapestry of the incredible diversity in the BC wine industry, she said. And it has recipes from all over the world including Israel, Italy, Spain and France.
Jennifer said some of the recipes she included were from old-school recipe cards complete with “grandma writing” on them.
“These are family recipes. A lot of them have a wonderful tradition attached — it’s the dish they make after harvest, or after the first crush at the winery,” she said. “It’s a very international flavour in a very local book. It paints a unique picture in international diversity. It’s an international melting pot of like-minded, passionate people.”
The book will be out in spring 2020.
Going above and beyond just writing about wine, Jennifer is now making it herself.
She and her brothers — Jonathan and Jamie — ventured into their own family wine business. They recruited minimal-intervention winemaker Rob Westbury and, in 2017, Schell Wines was launched.
Their first chardonnay used grapes grown down the road from their family farm. The second vintage used grapes from a friend’s farm in Naramata. They dubbed it Wren.
Even the logo design was kept in the family, with their niece, Hillary Schell, designing it.
They have also done a red blend, named Ruby, after an aunt who recently passed away.
“Wine is a local celebration. I wanted to get that really immersive experience into that world. Now I truly understand the undertaking and the investment,” Jennifer said.
Jennifer is passionate about small-batch wine. She’s one of the organizers of the Garagiste North Wine Festival, which started in 2015. The inaugural festival was listed in the London Financial Times as one of the top wine festivals in the world.
“The world of wine is very interested in the small producers, the small lot, the boutique, the hard to find,” she said, adding that it’s the winemakers or proprietors who are at the festival pouring their wines, not just company reps.
It’s part of an international garagiste movement. (Garagiste is defined as: “a small-scale entrepreneurial winemaker … especially one who does not adhere to the traditions of wine-making.”) The cost of buying a vineyard is unachievable for most, so the way to break into the industry is to find a winemaker, source grapes and do custom crushes.
“The crowd that comes to this festival are the wine lovers. It’s a passion-filled community. They’re wearing their heart on their sleeves, pouring their wine, building their dreams,” Jennifer said. “It’s the future of the wine industry.”
Asked about the most helpful tips she’s gleaned from years of writing about wine, Jennifer said she has discovered that the highest quality wines definitely depend on sourcing the highest quality grapes.
“The good wine is grown in the vineyard,” she said.
That means relationships with growers are important to develop.
“If you don’t have the relationships, you can’t buy the grapes and then you can’t make the good wine,” she said.
She can be found online at jenniferschell.com.