Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Stag's Hollow releases icon wines for 15th anniversary

Photo: Larry Gerelus (left) and winemaker Dwight Sick

Stag’s Hollow Winery at Okanagan Falls is marking its 15th anniversary by releasing two icon wines, an elegant pair of red blends from winemaker Dwight Sick.

The wines also show the significant impact that Dwight has been making on Stag’s Hollow since joining the winery in 2008.

The winery was opened in 1996 by Larry Gerelus and Linda Pruegger on a vineyard they purchased in 1992. They were undertaking a major career switch from the corporate fast lane in Calgary. Trained as an actuary, Larry was an independent financial consultant while Linda worked in the marketing department of an oil company.

“We started with a lot of passion, naïve passion,” Larry said this week at the launch of Cachet Limited Edition No. 01 and Cachet Limited Edition No. 02, as the wines are called.

The estate vineyard, now eight acres, was then planted entirely to Chasselas and Vidal and was under contract to Mission Hill until 1994. Larry redeveloped the vineyard, grafting Chasselas and most of the Vidal to Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir and, inadvertently, a little Cabernet Sauvignon. He got Merlot cuttings from the Summerland research station, which mislabelled some Cabernet Sauvignon as Merlot.

When the winery’s Vidal table wine acquired a strong following, some of the grafts were reversed so that more Vidal could be made.

By grafting rather than replanting, Larry had the vineyard back into full production in a couple of years.

Larry recalls getting “bored” with his portfolio. He wanted to add another white but not Pinot Gris, which virtually everyone else in the Okanagan was doing. In 2002, he had the good luck to find a grower with Sauvignon Blanc, now one of the flagship white wines at Stag’s Hollow.

In 2005, when a new winery was built, an unused gulley in the vineyard was re-contoured for vines. Larry decided to plant Tempranillo because it was something different (there was only one other planting in the Okanagan at the time) and because it ripens early. Without intending it, he had planted a building block for one of the Cachet wines.

Over the years, a number of consulting winemakers have worked in the Stag’s Hollow cellar, including Bruce Ewart (now with his own winery in Nova Scotia), Jeff Martin (owner of La Frenz Winery), Michael Bartier (now starting his own winery), Brad Cooper (now at Township 7), Dave Frederick (recently at Mt. Boucherie and now in Ontario) and, since June, 2008, Dwight Sick.

Dwight arrived just after Larry and Linda had tried to sell the winery, a deal that died after the buyer’s financing fell apart. They regrouped, swept up, perhaps, by Dwight’s enthusiasm for Rhone grape varieties. Additional vineyards have been placed under contract so that volume could be increased to about 6,000 cases a year. And Dwight has been given the freedom to craft artisanal wines.

Winemaking is also a second career for Dwight. Now 45, Dwight was born in Alberta. After high school he became a flight attendant with Wardair, one of the carriers ultimately swallowed up by Air Canada. In 2005, after 19 years in aviation, he was among those offered a package to retire.

He decided to become a winemaker, having developed an interest in wine and wineries during his flying career. He started as a cellar hand with Michael Bartier, then at Township 7, and soon became assistant winemaker at Pentâge Winery where he worked until moving to Stag’s Hollow.

A natural talent, his professional skills are an eclectic mix of university science courses, University of California winemaking courses and training at Okanagan College. “I have only had time to take courses that I have felt were useful to my role as a winemaker but I would love to continue to take more in the future,” he says.

The Cachet program began in Dwight’s inaugural 2008 vintage at Stag’s Hollow, when the winery got its first harvest of Tempranillo. He put together a blend of 40% Tempranillo, 35% Merlot, 20% Syrah and five per cent Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery ordered American oak barrels from a Spanish cooper because in Spain, Tempranillo wines generally are aged in American oak.

Only 1,500 bottles of 2008 Cachet No. 01 have been released (each bottle individually number). It is a big, full-bodied red with flavours of pomegranate, red and black currants and spice. The ripe tannins give the wine an age-worthy structure. 92.

Dwight, who considers Grenache “one of the most underrated grapes in the world,” persuaded the winery in 2009 to buy the Grenache grown at the Kiln House Vineyard at Penticton. That may be one of the most northerly Grenache plantings in the world of this late-ripening Rhone variety.

Dwight co-fermented this Grenache (there is only a small planting) with Syrah, Viognier and Marsanne to produce 450 bottles of 2009 Cachet No. 02. The blend is half Grenache, 46% Syrah, plus tiny portions of the two whites. This bold, juicy wine has flavours of plum, fig and liquorice, with a hint of spice and pepper and with a long, satisfying finish. 93.

Future releases under the Cachet Limited Edition program, all of which will bear consecutive numbering, will be, as Larry says, “dictated by what nature gives us.”


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