Monday, February 22, 2010

CedarCreek and Holman Lang both lose winemakers

Photos: Tom DiBello (top) and Bernhard Schirrmeister (bottom)

In a surprising coincidence, two senior Okanagan winemakers have stepped down at the same time.

CedarCreek Estate Winery announced the departure of Tom DiBello, the senior winemaker there for 10 years.

Concurrently, Bernhard Schirrmeister announced that he is no longer associated with the Holman Lang group of wineries.

The tone of both announcements leads one to think that neither departure was exactly friendly.

CedarCreek’s statement said that DiBello was “leaving to pursue other oenological opportunities.”

DiBello, who resigned, is setting up his own consulting company in the Okanagan. He has already been retained by four wineries.

In his announcement, Schirrmeister said only: “Due to changes at Holman Lang Wineries, I’m no longer responsible for their winemaking.” Neither he nor Holman Lang elaborated.

At CedarCreek, president Gordon Fitzpatrick said that the winery has begun the search for a successor to DiBello. In the meantime, assistant winemaker Bill Pierson is running the cellar.

“Tom has been a big part of our success and we would like to thank him for his many contributions to crafting quality wines on behalf of CedarCreek,” Fitzpatrick added.

Tom has one of the more impressive résumés in Okanagan winemaking. In the past decade, CedarCreek has been Canada’s winery of the year twice in a major national wine competition. His peers regard him as a master with both Pinot Noir and with Bordeaux grape varieties. And everybody thinks that, under his hand, CedarCreek’s Ehrenfelser became arguably the world’s best Ehrenfelser.

This is from a man who grew up surfing in Newport Beach and vacillated between medicine and business before enrolling in the wine program at the University of California in Davis.

Most Davis winemaking students get hands-on experience during their studies by working at a producing winery during vintage. DiBello was assigned to one of Napa’s top wineries, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Its owner, Warren Winiarski, has been renowned ever since his wines outscored top Bordeaux wines during at a 1976 Paris tasting.

“Warren Winiarski is a tough taskmaster,” DiBello discovered when he returned there after graduation in 1983. “He’s a demanding perfectionist.” DiBello rose to become director of cellar operations, effectively the assistant winemaker, before going to Australia in 1987 where he had the pick among several choice winemaker jobs. He went to Cape Mentelle, a highly-regarded producer at Margaret River in Western Australia. “It’s right on the beach,” DiBello told me. “Margaret River has one of the best surfing beaches in the world and that’s what I looked on from my house there.”

He came back to California a year later (for economic and romantic reasons) and spent two years as a wine salesman. In 1989 he joined a small new winery at Temecula in southern California, Clos de Muriel, which won medals for its wines but was under-financed and closed after the 1992 vintage.

He went from there to do a vintage in Virginia and then spent four years with a winery in Arizona. In 1996 he joined Claar Cellars, a new Washington State winery. He made two vintages there and another two at a winery called Washington Hills before being recruited by CedarCreek. He came to the Okanagan in the summer of 2000.

Tom's current plan is to remain in the Okanagan which he has come to regard as one of the best places in the world for growing top quality wine. It would not be surprising, however, if he were soon wooed by wineries on the American west coast. If he now returns to the United States, it will be a big loss for Canadian winemaking.

Bernhard Schirrmeister was born in Germany in 1965 and trained at Geisenheim. He gained extensive winery experience there with large and small producers and with sparkling wine, Riesling and Pinot Noir.

He became aware of the Okanagan during a vacation to the valley and was recruited by Günther Lang to take over winemaking at Lang Vineyards when Ross Mirko went to New Zealand in 2005. Shortly after, Keith Holman bought Lang Vineyards (Günther has now retired from the wine business).

The winemaking task at Holman Lang has expanded considerably over the five years. The group’s seven wineries now include Lang, Soaring Eagle, Zero Balance, Spiller, Mistral, Stonegate and K Mountain. Of these, only Stonegate (which is being sold) has its own winemaker.

Both of these men leave big shoes to fill.


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