From prairie farm boy to pro athlete to Wall Street lawyer to renegade winemaker—Tyler Harlton’s life path has been anything but conventional.
The owner of TH Wines, a small but celebrated winery in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, Harlton was raised on a wheat farm just south of Regina, Sask. Like many youngsters born into small-town prairie life, he actively looked beyond the farmstead to expand his horizons. Hockey was one of his outlets as a teenager, and he played well—so well, in fact, that the St. Louis Blues drafted him in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft. He went on to play four years of college hockey at Michigan State University and another four in the minor leagues before switching focus and heading to Montreal to attend law school.
While studying at McGill University, he took a sommelier course and moonlighted in restaurants to earn some spending money. The sommelier training brought his first wine epiphany when he tasted a well-crafted Alsatian white. “It was probably a Pinot Gris,” Harlton recalls, “and it gave me an interest in wine I’d never had from the mass-produced wines available to me growing up in Saskatchewan.”
A second “a-ha” moment came for Harlton when he spent a semester in Paris studying advanced competition law. “In France, I learned a new way of thinking about wine as food. I toured Alsace, Burgundy and Bordeaux; it shifted my perception of wine and got me thinking about it as an agricultural food product.”
“Old-world approaches allow me to finesse the grapes’ flavour rather than manipulate it.”
Harlton’s innate connection to agriculture also led him to spend time visiting Ethiopian grain farms and working on an organic farm in Colorado, before moving to New York City to practice law. But the NYC lifestyle wasn’t a fit, and, though he initially moved back to Canada to work at a B.C.-based law firm, the call of the land—and the lure of the vines—proved irresistible, so he retired his legal career in 2008 to live in the Okanagan Valley and self-direct his wine education.
For the next four years, Harlton worked in a variety of roles—farmer, field worker, vineyard manager, wine merchant—gleaning as much experience as possible. While apprenticing at Osoyoos Larose, he met winemaker William Adams and, together, they envisioned opening a winery where old-world winemaking practices would take centre stage.
In 2011, Harlton and Adams established TH Wines, a commercially designated winery that sources grapes from local growers, as the pair lacked the capital needed to buy their own vineyard. The winery is located in an industrial quadrant of the town of Summerland, allowing it to be part of the town’s entrepreneurial spirit. “It’s a healthy environment to build a small business, with a strong connection to earth,” says Harlton.
Not only does Harlton like the setup for his winery, he also likes purchasing his grapes from small-scale growers in the valley, because it allows him to be choosy; he gets to pick the best fruit available, retaining control over quality to create wine that is an authentic expression of the grapes’ terroir. He refers to his wines as made “by hand,” favouring a labour-intensive, artisanal approach over the use of machinery.
“Old-world approaches allow me to finesse the grapes’ flavour, rather than manipulate it. I’m in touch with every step of the process. It’s fun, and I enjoy the physical part. Plus, given the cost of high-tech winery equipment, part of it is out of necessity,” he says with a laugh.
With fewer than 2,000 cases produced annually, TH Wines sell out quickly. Viognier, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and others can be bought online or in select wine shops in B.C., Alberta and beyond. Visitors can also make their way to TH Wines’ sparse yet welcoming tasting room, where they’ll often find Harlton there to greet them—likely with a huge grin and grape-stained hands.
Tyler’s top three wines to try
“I made this one-barrel from the smallest Golden Mile vineyard, with minimal intervention to bring out the natural flavours in this organic fruit.”
Pinot Noir 2015
“This will be a fun wine to taste as it ages: a warm vintage like 2015 gives the wine depth, and now, almost two years later, the nuances characteristic of Pinot Noir are starting to show.”
“All the wines are made to match with food, and this 2016 vintage fares exceptionally well. Through fall and winter I’ll be exploring dishes to add to the Viognier’s already lengthy ‘perfect pairing’ list.”