Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Chaberton: The Fraser Valley's anchor winery

Photo: Winemaker Andrea Lee 

In July 2015,  Andrea Lee returned as chief winemaker at Langley’s Chaberton Estate Winery where she once had been a cellar hand.

It was a bit of a rush for the petite Summerland native. The 2015 vintage was one of the earliest in British Columbia. It was a scramble to get ready to receive the 600 tons of grapes that the winery processed last fall. 

“It has been a roller coaster ride,” she said in November. “As soon as I came, wines had to be cold stabilized. Then I had to put them to sleep in the finished products cellar. And I also had to bottle 100,000 litres to make room, to get the capacity for harvest. It was just full on since July.”

 She also arrived at a time when the winery, which opened 25 years ago as Domaine de Chaberton, was streamlining its image.

The winery dropped “Domaine de” from its labels. The original owners of the winery, the first in the Fraser Valley, had emigrated from France. The family of founder Claude Violet once had a property there called Domaine de Chaberton and the name had resonance.

Vancouver lawyer Eugene Kwan and Hong Kong businessman Anthony Cheng, who bought the winery in 2004, retained the name in respect for the founders. But after eleven years, they decided that a little updating was in order.

They also reduced a confusing array of labels. Canoe Cove and North Bluff, which they had created after buying the winery, have now been dropped. The Chaberton wines now come primarily in three tiers: the House Wine tier, the Valley tier and the Reserve tier.

On top of that, there is a super-reserve tier called AC for the pricey, limited release reds that Anthony Cheng and the Chaberton winemakers blended in several vintages since 2008. Andrea had a hand in making some of the blending components during her first stint at Chaberton. She was a cellar hand here during four vintages from 2007 through 2010.

Born in Hong Kong, she was nine years old when her parents immigrated to Summerland and opened a Chinese family restaurant.

Andrea did not set out on a wine career when she enrolled at Simon Fraser University to study molecular biology and biochemistry (something “very boring,” she says now). On graduating in 2006, she took a research internship with a pharmaceutical firm until the company, amid a business downturn, laid off staff.

She took the opportunity to travel, ending up in New Zealand until a car accident prevented here from continuing in a vineyard job. She came back to Summerland and, after recuperating, went to work in the wine shop at Sumac Ridge Estate Winery and then at Chaberton. To upgrade her wine skills,  she enrolled at the University of Adelaide in Australia for a master’s degree in enology.

On graduating in 2012 she turbocharged her career by making wine in both hemispheres. She worked with three different Australian wineries, including Josef Chromy Wines, a distinguished producer in Tasmania. Back in the Okanagan, she made the 2014 wines for two Summerland wineries, Sage Hills Winery and Saxon Winery.

She returned to Chaberton in 2015 when her predecessor there, Barbara Hall, moved to Burrowing Owl Estate Winery in the south Okanagan.

The current releases from Chaberton have Barbara’s capable fingers on them even if Andrea finished some of the 2014s.

If Andrea joined just in time for a rushed and hectic vintage, she also came in a very good vintage, especially for the Fraser Valley. While Chaberton sources grapes from both the Okanagan and the Similkameen, it also has a 40-acre estate vineyard, by far the single largest vineyard in the Fraser Valley.

And it happens that Andrea is something of a Fraser Valley booster.

“That is the beauty of the Fraser Valley,” she says while pouring a glass of Chaberton’s superb Dry Bacchus Reserve. “The sugars do not usually reach more than 20 brix, but it is such a delicate aromatic wine. The acid is still preserved because we do not get that many heat degree days. I am very happy that the Fraser Valley has this flagship grape. I have to say that the Fraser Valley has not been praised like the Okanagan. It is still up and coming. It is a good grape variety and it is suitable to growing here, versus the Okanagan.”

Here are notes on the wines.

Chaberton Siegerrebe Reserve 2014 ($15.95). As white wines go, this is the thespian wine that steals the scene with dramatic aromas and flavours: lychee, lime and grapefruit. It is balanced to finish dry. The blend is 95% Siegerrebe, 3% Gewürztraminer and 2% Viognier. 90.

Chaberton Dry Bacchus Reserve 2014 ($15.00). Made from Fraser Valley grapes, this wine is crisply dry on the palate, with intense flavours of lime and lemon. The tangy finish is refreshing. 90.

Chaberton Bacchus Reserve 2014 ($15.00). This is the off-dry version, with just a touch of residual sugar still well balanced with fresh acidity. It has aromas and flavours of grapefruit. 89.

Chaberton Gewürztraminer Reserve 2014 ($15.95). The wine has rich aromas of spice and orange peel, leading to a rich palate, with flavours of tangerine, peach and apricot. The finish is slightly off-dry. 89. 

Chaberton Riesling Reserve 2014 ($15.95). The winery changed the style from the previous vintage when the Riesling was off-dry. This is dry although the fruit concentration on the palate has a pleasing sweetness. The wine has floral aromas and flavours of citrus and peach. 90.

Chaberton Pinot Gris Reserve 2014 ($15.95). Made with Similkameen grapes, this fleshy wine begins with fruity aromas that lead to flavours of apple and peach. 89.

Chaberton Valley Chardonnay 2013 ($13.30). This unoaked white is 86% Chardonnay, 14% Viognier. It has aromas of pear and citrus, leading to flavours of apple, tangerine and vanilla. 89.

Chaberton Valley Gamay 2013 ($14.75). The blend here is 85% Gamay Noir, 7% Merlot and 8% Syrah. It is a delicious wine with aromas and flavours of cherry, strawberry jam and spice. 90.

Chaberton Valley Cab 2013 ($15.95). This is 85% Cabernet Franc, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a quaffable wine with a soft, juicy texture. It has aromas and flavours of cherry and blackberry. 88.

Chaberton Valley Red 2014 ($13.30). Another quaffable medium-bodied red with a fruity aroma, this wine delivers flavours of black cherry and liquorice.  88.

Chaberton Reserve Merlot 2012 ($22.60).  This wine has an elegant, seamless texture. It has aromas and flavours of cassis and blueberries, with a lingering spicy finish.  90.

Chaberton Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($21.99). This wine, a blend of Naramata and Oliver grapes, was aged 27 months in French oak. This wine is svelte and elegant in structure. It begins with aromas of cassis and vanilla and delivers flavours of black cherry, fig, plum and vanilla. The wine benefits from decanting and will also benefit from another four or five years of cellaring. 91.

Chaberton Reserve Syrah 2011 ($27). Dark in colour, the wine begins with meaty aromas incorporating red berries and pepper. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry and blackberry crisply wrapped up with notes of black pepper and vanilla on the finish. The texture is medium to full-bodied, with a  long finish. 90.

 Chaberton Reserve Meritage 2013 ($24.30). The blend is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc. The wine, which was aged 16 months in oak, begins with bold, ripe aromas of red fruit. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry, plum and cassis with notes of cassis on the lingering finish. 91.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Adega on 45th raises profile

 Photo: Adega on 45th Estate Winery

Adega on 45th Estate Winery in Osoyoos has had too low a profile since opening in 2011. Perhaps that reflects the most personalities of the owners who are farmers first and promoters of their winery second.

Since quality wines begin in the vineyard, that is an appropriate priority. However, I expect the profile to rise because the winery last year became part of the portfolio represented by Vancouver wine agent Tim Wispinski, president of The Wine List. Other wineries that he also represents include Chaberton Estate, Harper’s Trail, Hillside, Time and McWatters, Wild Goose – and the producer of the Okanagan’s most expensive red wine, One Faith Vineyards.

To help raise the profile, here is the text of my profile of Adega on 45th from the fifth edition of John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide.

Ringing the church bells to communicate important village events was an art that Alex Nunes learned one summer in his native Portugal. He was 13 and home from a stint in the seminary. While he emigrated to Canada two years later, the memory of the two big bells in that village church inspired the addition of a bell tower to the winery’s façade when it was built in 2011. Alex intends to add a bell. “It is either buy one, or go back to my hometown and steal one at midnight,” he jokes.

The winery, whose warm butterscotch tones blend with the desert landscape of Osoyoos, was designed by Alex and his brother-in-law, Fred Farinha, who own the winery with their wives, Maria and Pamela. The winery sits high on the vineyard’s west-facing slope. The tasting room windows offer a grand view over the town and the lake. The 557 square meter (6,000 square foot) winery has thick concrete walls and a naturally-cooled cellar for 400 barrels buried against the hillside. The interior’s public areas acquired the instant patina of age by having walls finished with Italian clay and tiles on the floor.

The winery’s European ambiance reflects their Portuguese heritage (Adega is Portuguese for cellar). Alex was born in Portugal in 1950 while Fred was born in Penticton in 1966. Their families were among the many Portuguese immigrants who came to Osoyoos at that time as tree fruit growers. Both Alex and Fred operated orchards until about 2005 when vanishing returns from tree fruits left them with a stark choice: sell the land or plant grapes. “We decided to keep the land and build a winery,” Alex says.

They planted three vineyards totalling 15.4 hectares (38 acres), supporting 5,000 cases a year, with extra grapes for sale to other wineries. “Create our own future, you could call it,” Alex says. Wine is in their blood. “We had wine on our tables and in our homes, always, since we were born,” Alex remembers. “Your mom would ask to you go to the tavern in the village to get a litre of wine. It did not matter if you were five years old or ten years old. You would just go and get it.”  While they use a consulting winemaker, Alex and Fred, with years of experience as home winemakers, do almost everything themselves. “We are hands on,” Fred says. “We are in the field and we are also in here.”

They grow no Portuguese grape varieties because they doubt the vines could survive Okanagan winters. But that has not stopped them from making Portuguese-inspired wines.  Merlot stands in for Touriga Nacional to make a port-style wine.

Here are notes wines currently available from Adega on 45th.

Adega on 45th  Felicidade 2014 ($17). The label does not specify the grapes in this white blend. The spicy and herbal aromas and the gooseberry flavours suggest some Sauvignon Blanc while the anise on the finish suggests Pinot Gris. This is an austere and powerful white which responds well to being decanted. 88.

Adega on 45th  Chardonnay 2014 ($21). This is a full-bodied Chardonnay with honeyed aromas and flavours of apple, tangerine and melon. The soft acidity gives the wine a rich, fleshy texture while the 14.8% alcohol adds to the swaggering personality. 88.

Adega on 45th  Viognier 2013 ($20). Here is another bold, ripe white (alcohol of 14.9%) with aromas of apricots and flavours of apricots and almonds. The tannin that comes from the skins of the Viognier gives backbone to the structure. In the glass, it presents with a golden hue. 89.

Adega on 45th  Cabernet Franc 2011 ($17). This begins with aromas of raspberry, cherry and vanilla. On the palate, the brambleberry flavours are bright and the wine is lively. 89

 Adega on 45th  Merlot 2011 ($20). A typical wine of the vintage, this is lean and bright with aromas and flavours of cherry, raspberry and blueberry. 89.

Adega on 45th  Manuel NV ($20). The winery does not specify the blend in this red but does say the objective was to make a fruit-forward wine while including a portion aged in French oak to “up the sophistication.” The wine has ripe aromas of black cherry. The flavours are generous, with notes of black cherry, cassis, vanilla, chocolate and liquorice.  90.

Adega on 45th  Malbec 2012 ($24). This is a big, generous red with spicy aromas of plum, cherry, black currant and vanilla which are echoed in the flavours. There is an intriguing touch of pepper on the finish. 90.

Adega on 45th Syrah 2011 ($24). This wine begins with aromas of vanilla and black cherry with a touch of pepper. On the palate, there is a medley of black fruit and earthy, gamy notes. The wine benefits from decanting which allows it to show a chewy texture. 88.

Adega on 45th  Quarteto Tinto 2012 ($28). The blend is 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot and 2 ½ % each of Cabernet Franc and Malbec. This is a bold wine that begins with aromas of spice, black currant and black cherry, followed by flavours of black currant and chocolate. The texture is concentrated and rich. 92.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Bordeaux brigade in Vancouver

Photo: Bordeaux vintner Lillian Barton-Sartorious

A recent Vancouver visit of 40 producers from the Union Des Grands Crus de Bordeaux was likely the single largest contingent of Bordeaux producers here at the same time.

The visit was part of an ambitious North American “mission” of a sort that has not been seen in some time.

The mission’s itinerary included St John's on January 21, Toronto on January 22, Montreal on January 23, New York on January 25, Chicago on January 27, Phoenix and Vancouver on January 28 (the delegation split), Los Angeles on January 29, San Francisco on January 30 and Washington DC on January 31.

That is the unbelievable sort travel schedule that I would have thought could be designed only by the National Hockey League.

It tells us that Bordeaux wines have become a little harder to sell. A Vancouver agent who goes to Bordeaux auctions regularly has been struck by the drop in the number of Chinese buyers he sees. That is probably one reason that the producers are working the North American market more aggressively.

The other reason is that it will be harder to sell the red wines of the 2013 vintage, which is what most producers were showing.

According to the vintage table published by the International Wine & Food Society, the 2013 Bordeaux reds score three out of seven – seven being the top score for a vintage. The only other vintage since 1990 to score three across the board was 2002.

The 2013 vintage was judged better for whites and for Sauternes, which the IWFS rated six.

The whites and Sauternes that I tasted were indeed impressive. A barrel sample of the 2013 Château De Fargues Sauternes got 93 points in my note book. That winery’s 2010 Sauternes – a top vintage – is listed in British Columbia at $86.99 a bottle. I also had high points for Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey 2013 and Château Suduiraut 2013. The latter producer has a 2001 vintage Sauternes (another top vintage) listed here for $329.99 a bottle. 

Vancouver has long been a good Bordeaux market. The Bordeaux’s region’s most elite tasting fraternity, the Commanderie de Bordeaux, has had a Vancouver chapter since 1975.

Currently, the BC Liquor Distribution Branch lists more than 250 products from Bordeaux, starting at $15 and reaching to the stratosphere that only the great Bordeaux reds command.  For example, Château Mouton Rothschild ranges between $900 and $1,600 a bottle, depending on the vintage.

The prices of the top Bordeaux reds reflect the reputation and the heritage of the chateaux. One of the presenters in Vancouver was Lillian Barton-Sartorius, one of the owners of two grand cru wineries: Château Langoa-Barton and Château Léoville-Barton. The wineries have been owned by the Barton family (Hugh Johnson calls them Irish) since 1821.

The wines of both are made in the Langoa-Barton winery. The grapes are from different vineyards, with Léoville-Barton classified a second growth and Langoa-Barton is a third growth.

Over those years, there have been many times when the business was challenging. There was not a lot of prosperity in Bordeaux in the 1950s after the damage of the war on top of the Depression and weak vintages of the 1930s. Lillian remembers her parents positioning buckets around the chateau because the roof leaked.

The Bordeaux wine economy had turned the corner by 1970 (a legendary vintage). The years since have been a long golden age for Bordeaux wines, with international demand and Robert Parker ratings generating high prices and with many châteaux changing hands. There are not many great properties still owned by the same family since 1821.

A lot of new technology has been applied in both the vineyards and the châteaux over the last decade of two. Anne Cuvelier, the presenter for Château  Léoville-Poyferré, spoke glowingly about the optical grape sorter that has replaced human sorters on that winery’s crush pad. The result, she says, has been significantly better screening of grapes before they go into the crusher.

Yet when I asked Lillian about new technology at the Barton estates, she replied: “We quite like traditional methods … Bordeaux must keep its Bordeaux.”

Perhaps this blend of new ideas and traditional ideas is what makes the wines of Bordeaux so interesting.

Judging from the wines I tasted, I would not get too bent out of shape that the 2013 vintage is, as one person said to me, “the weakest in a decade.” I thought the reds were still quite interesting.

I gave 90 points both to the Léoville-Barton 2013 and to the Léoville-Poyferré 2013. Currently, the Léoville- Barton 2012 is listed here for $138 a bottle and the Léoville-Poyferré 2012 is listed for $128. The 2012 vintage was rated four out of seven by the IWFS.

Of course, vintages matter – up to a point. The stronger Bordeaux vintages are the ones that will age the longest. But a true collector of Bordeaux reds considers the 2012 and 2013 wines to ones to drink while the 2009 and 2010 vintages are developing in the cellar.

The prices of Bordeaux wines give me a lot more pause than the vintages … but I recognize that, like race horses, one has to pay for good blood lines.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

SIP VQA wines store closes in March

Photo: The wines for SIP's 2015 Iconic Reds tasting

The attrition of VQA wine stores continues with the surprising announcement from Simon Wosk that he is closing his SIP Wines stores on March 5, 2016, after 12 years in business.

His explanation is cryptic: “There are a number of considerations, both business and personal, that have contributed to this decision. The decision was not easy to make.  I wanted to operate Sip Wines for another 15 to 20 years.  But things change and this decision is the correct one for my family and me in light of events taking place in the BC wine industry.”

The “events” refers to Jim Pattison’s Overwaitea Food Group taking over an increasing number of VQA stores. This is happening with the active co-operation of the BC Wine Institute, which owns the 21 active VQA store licenses.

Overwaitea “is acquiring our interest in the Operating Agreement with the BC Wine Institute who holds the licence,” Simon says.

The grocery store path was opened last spring when the British Columbia government’s liquor policy changes allowed the sale of B.C. VQA wine – and only VQA wine – in grocery stores.

Overwaitea began selling wine on April 1, 2015, in the Save-On-Foods store at South Point in Surrey.

Since then, the grocery chain has added wines at a second Surrey store and at stores in Tsawwassen and in Langley. The chain is currently preparing to add wine to a grocery store on Lakeshore Road in Kelowna after having acquired the business of two Discover Wines stores “Kelowna and Kamloops” and of the VQA store at the BC Wine Museum in downtown Kelowna. It is reported that the grocer is considering adding wine to a store in West Kelowna.

Kensington Square VQA Wine Store in Burnaby and the BC Wineguys in Cadboro Bay on Vancouver Island will close in February after selling their businesses to the grocery chain.  

Edgemont Village VQA store in North Vancouver sold its business to Overwaitea in September 2015 after 17 years. The presumed relocation to a Save-On-Foods store in North Vancouver has not yet happened.

The accelerating migration of VQA outlets has been controversial among some in the industry. Last September, a coalition of wineries – the B.C. Alliance for Smart Liquor Retail Choices – asked for a six-month moratorium on wine sales in grocery stores.

Church & State Winery president Kim Pullen, one spokesman for the group, was quoted as saying: “Grocery stores are just starting wine sales in B.C. If the model expands, small B.C. wineries will be in trouble.”

The fear is two-fold. Grocery stores are expected to sell more low-priced high volume wines which favour the largest producers. Secondly, international wineries have threatened action under trade agreements to blast the grocery store market wide open.

The issue could become more inflamed this year. There still are 24 dormant wine store licenses (so-called Bill 22 licenses) set to be auctioned this year. These are generic licenses, not BCWI licenses, but are also expected to be taken up by grocery chains.

The BC Wine Institute has strongly supported the migration of VQA licenses to grocery stores, believing that grocery stores will sell a lot more wine and that will benefit all VQA wineries.

In a statement last September, BCWI chair Shaun Everest said: “The principles guiding these changes include the objective of maximizing the sale of BC VQA wines through the BCWI licences for the benefit of our producers and operators, maintaining and enhancing the high quality reputation of BC VQA wines, and securing fair and equitable access to this unique sales channel by putting them on an equal footing with the Bill 22 licences.”

In November 2015, BCWI president Miles Prodan expressed satisfaction at sales trends so far in the grocery channel.

It's been 6 months since the first BC VQA wine store-in-grocery opened at Wines of British Columbia Save-On-Foods South Point, so I thought it would be helpful to quickly summarize some results,” he wrote in a statement.

Currently, both BC VQA wine stores-in-grocery carry more than 900 different BC VQA wines (SKUs) from over 150 different wineries with the Fleetwood location having  capacity to shelve two facings of as many as 1800 SKUs;
  • The vast majority of these 900 + wines are not currently available in either private or government liquor stores;
  • South Point store has 20,000 - 22,000 customers through the store each week with 12,000 unique wine purchasers;
  • 70% of current display price is between $17.39 and $24.29 (tax in).
Since opening in April, South Point's weighted average sold price/bottle is $18.06 (tax in) with 76% of all wine sold >$15.00 (tax in).

Clearly, BCWI thinks the model is working even if a number of VQA store owners have decided to bail out.

It remains to be seen whether the grocery store staff will be as effective at wine education as the owners and the staff in the VQA stores. Owners like Tracy Gray of Discover Wines and Simon Wosk of SIP were knowledgeable and passionate about the wines in their stores.

The closure of SIP Wines is a particular loss. This was the store that organized the annual Icon wine tastings that supported the super-premium or collector category of VQA reds.

Simon Wosk says: “This is one event that has a life of its own and I do intend to investigate the possibility of its continuance in some form.”

Monday, January 25, 2016

Lake Breeze scoops peers with 2015 wines

 Photo: Lake Breeze winemaker Garron Elmes (courtesy of Lake Breeze)

Garron Elmes, the president and winemaker at Lake Breeze Vineyards on the Naramata Bench, has scooped his peers by releasing the first wines from the 2015 vintage.

The two white wines, a Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot Gris, were released on December 10, 2015, just a few months after the harvest.

“As a result of the 2015 harvest ending a full month ahead of usual, we have been able to finish and bottle a few of our customer’s favourite wines well ahead of schedule and in time for the holidays,” he announced via the Internet.

When I wrote this, I was not aware of any other winery releasing its 2015 wines yet. Derek Kontkanen, the winemaker at Inniskillin Okanagan, contacted me to say that wineries in the Constellation group  released a Sauvignon Blanc in November and a Pinot Blanc in December. Because the vintage was usually early, the flood of 2015 whites should begin in February. Many wineries were busy bottling in January.

With the exception of Beaujolais Nouveau, wines are rarely released in the same calendar year as the vintage.

Beaujolais Nouveau is an old French tradition. Here is a succinct account from “Beaujolais Nouveau began as a local phenomenon in the local bars, cafes, and bistros of Beaujolais and Lyons. Each fall the new Beaujolais would arrive with much fanfare. In pitchers filled from the growers’ barrels, wine was drunk by an eager population. It was wine made fast to drink while the better Beaujolais was taking a more leisurely course. Eventually, the government stepped into regulate the sale of all this quickly transported, free-flowing wine.

“In 1938 regulations and restrictions were put in place to restrict the where, when, and how of all this carrying on. After the war years, in 1951, these regulations were revoked by the region's governing body, the Union Interprofessional des Vins de Beaujolais (UIVB), and the Beaujolais Nouveau was officially recognized. The official release date was set for November 15th. Beaujolais Nouveau was officially born.

“By this time, what was just a local tradition had gained so much popularity that the news of it reached Paris. The race was born. It wasn't long thereafter that the word spilled out of France and around the world. In 1985, the date was again changed, this time to the third Thursday of November, tying it to a weekend and making the celebration complete. But wherever the new Beaujolais went, importers had to agree not to sell it before midnight on the third Thursday of November.”

Beaujolais Nouveau peaked in this market in the mid-1980s. One year the Liquor Distribution Branch listed eight brands – and still was trying to sell the stock at Easter. Several Okanagan wineries, including Mission Hill and Calona Vineyards, also got on board with Foch Nouveau.

Given the early harvest on the Okanagan in 2015, it is surprising that no producer revisited the idea to roll out a Gamay Nouveau here in late November.

Hats off to Garron Elmes. Lake Breeze does not grow Gamay but it does have several excellent white varietals, including one of the Okanagan’s mature blocks of Pinot Gris

His two releases give consumers an early look at the quality of the 2015 wines. These wines tell me that 2015 was a very good year when the winemaker in question got on top of the challenges of a hot vintage. It was a very hot year. Grapes left on the vines too long would have had too much sugar (high potential alcohol) and not enough acidity.

At Lake Breeze, Garron lined up all his ducks. Both of these whites have an acceptable 13.5% alcohol and refreshing natural acidity. They are delicious to drink now and have the structure to hold up through the year. That probably is a moot point: the wines will be sold out by midyear.

Here are notes:

Lake Breeze  Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($22 for 700 cases). The aromas of lime and herbs are echoed in the luscious tropical fruit flavours. The wine has very good weight, a kiss of minerality and refreshing acidity. 91.

Lake Breeze Pinot Gris 2015 ($20 for 1,600 cases). This wine, which begins with aromas of peach and apple, is bursting with fruit flavours, including apple and citrus. The touch of residual sugar, which is very nicely balanced with acidity, adds flesh to the texture. The finish is refreshing. 91.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Quails' Gate increases exposure to U.S. wine market

Photo: Tony Stewart of Quails' Gate and Bacas Family Estates (photo courtesy of Quails' Gate) 

The strong U.S. dollar and wine marketing trends in the United States have triggered several strategic moves by Bacas Family Estates, the Stewart family holding company for Quails’ Gate Estate Winery.

These include:

  • Bacas chief executive Tony Stewart recently announced the acquisition of Envolve Winery, a 2,000-case producer with a tasting room in Sonoma. This is the company’s second Sonoma winery. In 2012 it acquired the 40,000-case Valley of the Moon winery in Glen Ellen. It was been restructured; now operating as Madrone Estate Winery, it produces three labels including Lake Sonoma and will produce the Envolve wines.
  • Bacas is winding up Plume Wines, a 2010 joint venture with Dan Zepponi to produce primarily Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and sell it in Canada. The dramatic change in the Canada/U.S. exchange rate virtually wiped out the profitability of exporting the wine to Canada.
  • Exporting Quails’ Gate wine to the United States is now “a definite consideration” with the Canadian dollar at 70 cents U.S. “We only sell a little bit now through Washington and Oregon, and a bit through the Earl’s Restaurants,” Stewart says. But he has been getting more and more inquiries about Quails’ Gate wine from American wine retailers.

 The Quails’ Gate wine strategy both in Canada and with its Sonoma production is pegged to the premium segment, or sweet spot, of the market.

According to the Silicon Valley Bank’s recent State of the Industry report, this segment is healthy and is forecast to grow between nine and 13% this year. Bottle prices will rise four to eight percent in 2016 for wine selling for more than $10 a bottle, while volumes and prices will drop at lower price points.

A summary of the bank’s findings says: “Bottled fine wine imports will begin to take a larger market share this year, while bulk foreign wine loses market share. A strong and strengthening U.S. dollar, available foreign supply and willing millennials will encourage imports at all premium price levels.”

Tony Stewart is picking up those signals when considering exporting more Quails’ Gate wines. The winery’s current production is about 55,000 cases a year.

“I don’t see it has a huge market,” he said in a recent interview. “Maybe it is 2,500 cases annually, which could be a good thing for Quails’ Gate. And there is a question of Icewine. With Quails’ Gate, we have an opportunity. Canadian wines are not well known. You are looking at a very select buyer. You set your pricing parameters at what works for you and you sell without a need to sell large volumes. I have spoken with wine store people who say to let them know if we ever get our wines into the market. They say they have customers coming in and looking for different things.”

Envolve Winery was founded in 2008 by members of the Benziger family with a partner. It was acquired by Bacas primarily for its Sonoma tasting room.

“We were looking for a place to be able to have Lake Sonoma wines tasted and poured, a direct to consumer experience,” Stewart says.

Bacas bought Valley of the Moon and Lake Sonoma Winery in 2012 from F. Korbel & Sons. Both are among the oldest brands in Sonoma (Valley of the Moon was established in 1863). The Stewart family completed a renovation of the historic Madrone Vineyards Estate at the former Valley of the Moon Winery in the fall of 2014, adding a small-lot winery within the original barrel cellar built in 1887. The winery’s hospitality center at Glen Ellen also was remodelled.

Lake Sonoma formerly had a tasting room in Healdsburg but that has closed several years earlier, with a devastating impact on the membership of the Valley of the Moon and Lake Sonoma wine clubs. Membership had collapsed to 200 from 5,000.

“We are reaching out to those 5,000 names that we have on file and saying we are back,” Stewart says. “We hope that we could finish this year with Lake Sonoma having 1,000 club members. That is the goal. If we can get it to 2,000, that is fantastic.”

A healthy wine club is key to selling directly to consumers rather than being squeezed by distributors in the ultra-competitive wholesale wine market in the United States.

“Without a physical presence, our ability to grow the Lake Sonoma wine club was very minimal,” Stewart says. “Now they can come to the shop. They can taste the wines. They can be talked to about the club. They will be reciprocal benefits at Madrone and Quails’ Gate. That is not so big for people that don’t travel to Canada; but for our club members in Canada, they find it interesting when they go to the U.S. and they get the club discount and free tastings.”

Valley of the Moon was renamed Madrone Estate Winery (another historic Sonoma name) after the Stewart family bought it in 2012. Now, Valley of the Moon is commercial tier of wines under the Madrone umbrella. The winery also produces two premium tiers, including an upper end reserve tier.

The Envolve wines become a premium tier in the Lake Sonoma range. “They are right where we are, in the $20 to $45 range,” Stewart says. “They had a few wines that were $60; mainly small lots. They did varieties like Malbec, Pinot Noir, a Bordeaux blend and Chardonnay. We will carry on with a few of those.”

Envolve also has an 800-member wine club; that was another of its attractions.

There has been positive synergy between the Sonoma wineries and Quails’ Gate. “We have gained a lot of intellectual capital,” Stewart says. “Our knowledge of markets in the U.S. has made us much more aware of how the changes in British Columbia may affect us, with grocery stores coming into play. Every year we get together as a leadership team, meeting winemakers and management from both wineries. We communicate how we are handling club business, the wine shops and production issues. There are lots of advances in Canada on viticulture that we can employ down south. So we are working on that.”

The wine club business has been illuminating, even though Quails’ Gate has a thriving wine club with about 1,400 members.

“The club business in the U.S. is much more developed than Canada, so that has been a huge eye-opener to us as to what we have to try and do at Quails’ Gate in order to keep up with the consumer who is looking for something more than the club that offers discounts,” Stewart says. “They want some unique attributes to the club. Membership has privileges. We are adding a whole bunch of things at the Quails’ Gate wine club to take us to the next level.”

For both Quails’ Gate and the Sonoma wineries, the wine clubs and the tasting rooms are fundamental for profitable direct-to-consumer sales.

“The only way to be effective is to develop a solid DTC market,” Stewart says. “Twenty-five percent of Quails’ Gate sales are at the estate. That strong business at the estate helps us. When we go across Canada, we are not beholden to price incentives. We go in and we make no qualms about it. Our wines are going to be over $20 across Canada.”

The Madrone and Lake Sonoma wines also sell primarily the DTC channels and to restaurants.

Bacas has plans to distribute some of those wines in Canada despite the exchange rate. “Madrone is strictly high-end direct-to-consumer wines,” Stewart says. “We will start to see the first Madrone wines come into Canada in about a year’s time. They will be limited to a few hundred cases.”

To conclude, here are notes on recent wines released by Quails’ Gate in the Canadian market.

Quails’ Gate Chardonnay 2014 ($20.49). This crisp and refreshing Chardonnay begins with aromas of tangerine, apple and peach with a hint of butterscotch. On the palate, the wine has flavours of citrus, melon and apple with a very subtle toasty note. The flavours are bright, with a vivid, clean focus. The finish lingers. 91.

Quails’ Gate Merlot 2013 ($21.79 for 3,865 cases).  Dark in hue, the wine has appealing aromas of cassis, blueberry and blackberry. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry, black currants and vanilla. The texture is firm and concentrated. There is a spicy finish, with notes of chocolate and cedar. 91.

Quails’ Gate Pinot Noir 2013 ($24.39 for 4,345 cases).  The wine begins with aromas of cherry, along with the earthy notes that aficionados call forest floor. The flavours are rich with layers of dark fruit and spice on the finish. The texture is still youthfully firm. This wine benefits from decanting or from cellaring. 90.

Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch Reserve 2013 ($34.79 for 1,345 six packs). This has been something of a cult wine since the first vintage in 1994. It is a bold wine, almost black in colour and boldly oaked. It delivers a huge spoon of sweet fruit (black cherry, plum) and chocolate to the palate. The oak tannins give the wine a firm structure. A take-no-prisoners wine like this can handle strong flavoured meats, such as lamb or venison. 92.

Quails’ Gate Fortified Vintage Foch 2013 ($18.17 for 420 cases of 750 ml). The wine begins with aromas of plum and liquorice. It is big and fleshy on the palate, with flavours of plum and fig that mingle with chocolate on the spicy finish. 90.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

SpierHead trio of 2014 Pinot Noirs

Photo: SpierHead proprietor Bill Knutson

SpierHead Winery president Bill Knutson accompanied the winery’s latest release of three Pinot Noirs with his usual informative note on what is happening in the SpierHead vineyard.

“The Kelowna area is emerging, or perhaps has emerged, as one of the most suitable regions in British Columbia for the production of Pinot Noir,” he wrote. 

By coincidence, I recently learned that Quails’ Gate Estate Winery has just purchased about 100 acres of vineyard land in East Kelowna, to be planted during the next five or six years. About 40 acres will be planted with Pinot Noir.

That is confirmation from a leading Pinot Noir producer that Bill is correct.

“At SpierHead,” he writes, “our plan is to offer a portfolio of Pinot Noir bottlings; differentiating on the basis of specific vineyard origins and clonal content.”

The winery currently grows Dijon clones 115, 667, 777 and 828, as well as the Pommard clone.

“We recently planted five or six acres of Pinot Noir,” he wrote. “That includes a half acre each of two California heritage clones: Mt. Eden and Swan. When those plants begin producing, we’ll increase our options to create small, unique bottlings of Pinot Noir. SpierHead is never going to be a big volume producer, but I am hopeful that we can establish a niche as a high quality producer of Pinot Noir known for its site and clone specific bottlings.”

The SpierHead Pinot Noir that keeps the lights on its white label Okanagan Valley appellation Pinot Noir. In the 2014 vintage, the winery produced 900 cases, which is about 60% of the winery’s production.

“This is our fifth vintage of Pinot Noir and we are hoping to achieve a house style that is new world, but with some Burgundian restraint and finesse,” Bill writes. “We are not looking to have our Pinot Noir mistaken for a Californian wine. Rather, we are trying to produce a wine with the body and aromas that would be closer to an Oregon Pinot Noir in style.”

The trio of 2014 releases includes a vineyard-designated Pinot Noir: Gentleman Farmer Vineyard Saddle Block. Gentleman Farmer is the name of the vineyard where SpierHead planted its original four acres of Pinot Noir in a site contoured like a saddle.

Part of SpierHead’s strategy is to develop a small group of vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs. A second was made in 2014, but not yet released, from the Golden Retreat Vineyard in Summerland.

The third wine in this release package is the winery’s second vintage designated as Pinot Noir Cuvée, a selection of the best barrels in the cellar.

“We produce the Cuvée in small quantity with the goal of creating a wine that will be worthy of mention along side the top Pinot Noirs in B.C.,” Bill writes.

I would say SpierHead has succeeded in that objective.

Here are notes on the three wines.

SpierHead Pinot Noir 2014 ($23 for 900 cases). This is clones 115, 667 and Pommard, barrel-aged for 10 months in French oak. The wine begins with aromas of cherry and raspberry. There are bright and vibrant red fruit flavours on the palate, with a hint of oak. The texture is still firm, a signature of a youthful Pinot Noir that can be aged for several years. 88.

SpierHead Pinot Noir 2014 GFV Saddle Block ($27 for 211 cases). This is 34% clone 115, 33% clone 777 and 33% clone 828, also aged 10 months in French oak. This dark-hued wine has good concentration and weight. It begins with aromas of cherries. This is echoed on the palate, along with plum and mocha. Decanting fleshed out the texture; this is definitely a wine to cellar for several years. 91.

SpierHead Pinot Noir Cuvée 2014 ($32 for 274 cases). The winery also bottled 48 Magnums and 12 Double Magnums. This is 46% clone 115, 21% clone 777. 17% clone 828 and eight percent each of clone 667 and Pommard clone, aged 10 months in French oak. The wine’s rich colour is immediately inviting, as are the complex aromas of cherry, strawberry and raspberry that are echoed in the flavours. The wine is concentrated and the texture is seductive, as it should in a fine Pinot Noir. There is a lingering finish with notes of spice, red fruit and mocha. The wine will cellar for seven years; the large format bottle even longer. 92.