Friday, January 9, 2009

Meyer Family Vineyards buys Stone Mountain

Photo: JAK Meyer (r) and Janice Stephens

Meyer Family Vineyards, an Okanagan premium Chardonnay producer that launched a year ago with 650 cases of acclaimed wine, has just wrapped up a $2 million vineyard and winery deal that accelerates MFV's growth significantly.

In a recent court-supervised bankruptcy auction, MFV has purchased virtually all the assets (except wines) of Stone Mountain Vineyard in Okanagan Falls.

Stone Mountain, based on a producing 14-acre vineyard just five minutes east of Okanagan Falls, was started in 2005. The winery produced several vintages under the direction of consultant Brad Cooper, the winemaker at Township 7. Strangely, Stone Mountain never released any of the wines under its own label and never opened a tasting room. At the time of the bankruptcy sale, the wine inventory totalled 23,000 litres in bottle, barrels and tanks. An outside expert reported that the wines are good.

However, JAK Meyer, who owns MFV with his family, chose not to buy those wines because he prefers to make a "fresh start" with the Okanagan Falls property.

Stone Mountain was to be the first of three Okanagan wineries developed by a former Kelowna native, Gordon Pekrul, a builder of residential housing in Arizona. The collapse of the American housing market during the past two years appears to have pulled the financial support from Stone Mountain.

JAK Meyer, a Vernon-based developer, had just begun planning a winery for MFV on its Naramata Bench vineyard when he spotted the chance to buy Stone Mountain.

The Naramata Bench property, which Meyer bought in 2006, is planted exclusively with about four acres of Chardonnay. Most of the vines are about 15 years old. The site has stunning views across Okanagan Lake. Because of this, Meyer commissioned a showpiece winery design from Penticton architect Robert Mackenzie.

That has now been placed on the back burner (not indefinitely) while Meyer fits the Stone Mountain property into his super-premium approach to the Okanagan wine business.

When he decided to develop a winery of his own, Meyer enlisted the guidance of Vancouver wine educator James Cluer MW. In turn, they engaged Road 13's winemaker, Michael Bartier, to make MFV's vintages in 2006 and 2007. It was in inspired move: Bartier is a master of Chardonnay.

The first pair of Chardonnays released last February received great reviews, including this comment from British wine critic Stephen Spurrier: "the best dry white wines I have ever tasted from Canada." The 2007 Chardonnays are about to be released.

Last fall, MFV hired its own winemaker, Edmonton native Christopher Carson, 36. He developed his interest in wine while backpacking in New Zealand in 1996. Subsequently, he enrolled in the Lincoln University winemaking program and then worked for several New Zealand wineries. He has also done crushes and vineyard work in Burgundy and California, and in the Okanagan at Quails' Gate and Lake Breeze Vineyards.

Last summer, Chris and Jacqueline Kemp, his New Zealand-born wife, decided to move to Canada. Chris's resume landed on Meyer's desk and he was snapped up to do the 2008 vintage for MFV, using the winemaking facilities at Lake Breeze, not far from MFV's Naramata property.

While MFV is not really big enough to a fulltime winemaker, Meyer just could not pass up the talent that had landed on his doorstep. In New Zealand, Chris acquired experience not only with Chardonnay buy also with Pinot Noir. MFV bought Pinot Noir grapes in the 2008 vintage. This fall, it will have its own Pinot Noir from the Stone Mountain property.

JAK Meyer thinks he may have tumbled into a two-for-one deal on hiring Chris. Jacqueline Kemp is also a winemaker and, before the couple's son was born, she worked for a substantial winery there. Right now, she is a stay-at-home mom - which should make it pretty convenient for Chris to tap her expertise if needed.

The purchase of Stone Mountain should give MFV the production volume to justify a fulltime winemaker. The vineyard grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as Gewurztraminer, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Gamay and a Muscat variety. JAK Meyer is not planning to add either Gamay or Muscat to the MFV line. However, he will plant a few more acres at Stone Mountain, likely another Bordeaux variety to support a big red blend in the future.

The other importance of the Stone Mountain purchase is that the vineyard supports MFV's preferred strategy of making only estate-grown wines. "At the end of the day, you have to own the grapes," Meyer believes.


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