Friday, February 4, 2011

Hester Creek unveils new labels, new wines

Photo: Hester Creek winemaker Rob Summers

Hester Creek Estate Winery is rolling out its wines this spring, including a red icon wine called The Judge, under sophisticated new labels, drawing attention to the magnificent turnaround here over the past several years.

The potential of one of the best, and oldest, vineyards on the Golden Mile is finally being realized in the wines that winemaker Rob Summers has been making here since arriving from Ontario in June, 2008.

The new labels, clean and uncluttered, will be on wines that Hester Creek is introducing at the Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival at the end of March. The $15.99 wines, in fact, are in the market now under the old labels. The winery held back a portion of those to be released with the new labels. It should give consumers a rare opportunity of watching a winery brand as it is in transition.

The old labels have the winery’s name in surprisingly small type, almost as if the owners were a bit embarrassed. The new labels feature the winery’s name boldly, telegraphing the new pride and confidence among the people behind this brand. Some of the labels also include a button with the date, 1968, on it. Hester Creek wants consumers to know that it has what is almost certainly the oldest vinifera in the Okanagan.

The vineyard was planted by an Italian immigrant, Joe Busnardo. In the 1960s, everyone else was planting French hybrids in the belief that the Okanagan was too cold for vinifera. Joe wanted a premium for his grapes, rightly so, but no winery was willing to pay it. So for several years, he let the birds eat the fruit. Finally, he had to open his own winery, Divino, in 1983.

He relocated Divino to the Cowichan Valley in 1996 after selling the Okanagan winery. The new owners, including the legendary winemaker, Frank Supernak, renamed it Hester Creek after a creek flowing down from a nearby mountain. It was apparently named for a young woman who may or may not have swum in it: both the old and the new labels incorporate a female swimming behind a fish.

Supernak left in 2002, fed up with the increasing chaotic way Hester Creek was being managed. Tragically, he died in an accident at another winery that fall, spared from the spectacle of Hester Creek sliding into receivership.

The winery’s fortunes turned around when Curt Garland, a Prince George trucking executive, bought the rundown winery in 2004 in a court-ordered auction. The transformation of Hester Creek since Garland took over has been nothing short of astonishing.

In 2008, he recruited Rob Summers, a winemaker whose 23 years of experience included being the national winemaker at Andrew Peller Ltd.

Rob already knew that the Hester Creek vineyard could produce great grapes. He had been buying some for the Peller winery in British Columbia. He even considered bidding on Hester Creek himself until concluding it was beyond his means. Curt Garland paid over $5 million, which included paying off all of the winery’s creditors. He has probably spent as much on it again.

Blueprints had already been drawn for a new winery when Rob arrived. “Can we make some changes?” Rob asked. Garland asked what he had in mind. “Can we start over?” And his employer agreed. Rob had the rare experience of designing a winery from scratch and buying state of the art equipment for it.

The winery that opened in the fall of 2009 is one of the reasons for the noticeable rise in the quality of Hester Creek’s wines. The ramshackle original winery, now gone, had all sorts of issues that mitigated against good wines, including a resident population of brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast that, if it gets out of hand, yields pretty rustic wines. Rob had it under control in the old winery. He does not have it in new winery, which is designed with sanitation in mind.

Thanks to the deep pockets of the winery’s owner, Rob has been able to buy eight Italian fermenting tanks – no other Okanagan winery has yet ordered them – that are much more effective at extracting color and flavour from red grapes without harsh tannins. The winery’s juicy, approachable 2009 Cabernet Merlot, an absolute steal at $15.99 a bottle, illustrates why the new fermenters are worth having.

Last year Garland also recruited a general manager. Mark Sheridan, an Australian-trained viticulturist, came to the Okanagan in 1999 and managed the Vincor vineyards for about 10 years. His background enables Hester Creek, which already has an experienced vineyard manager, to take the viticulture on its 70 acres of mostly mature vines to the next level. The vineyard has already been converted to drip irrigation, both for better water use and for more efficient vine management.

With the new winery and the six luxury villas on the hill above the winery, Hester Creek has become a destination. It has an elegant wine shop and a demonstration kitchen where visiting chefs run cooking schools all summer long. This spring, Hester Creek’s former tasting room will reopen as a restaurant.

Several new wines are also going to be released in late March. Under the Characters label, there is a white blend and a red blend, both selling for $19.95.

The $45 icon red is The Judge 2007 (220 cases), a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon with about two years of barrel age and more than a year of bottle aging before release. It still has five to ten years of aging ahead of it. It is a big wine with firm tannins, with mint, vanilla and black currants on the nose and with a complex flavour profile – currants, black pepper, figs, with a hint of liquorice on the finish. 92.

Here are the other new releases, all made totally by Rob.

Hester Creek Pinot Blanc 2009 ($15.99). The vineyard includes 18 acres of Pinot Blanc, a good deal of which was planted in the 1970s. That makes for intense flavours and a mineral backbone in the wine. It begins with aromas of sage and apples, has flavours of apples and melon and has bright acidity. This is a finely focussed and very refreshing white. The winery released 2,400 cases. 90.

Hester Creek Sémillon Chardonnay 2009 ($15.99). There are 1,200 cases of this wine which is roughly a 50/50 blend of the two varieties. The Sémillon brings a refreshing note of citrus and pineapple to complement the apple and melon of the Chardonnay. The wine is done all in stainless steel to preserve its bright and appealing fruit. 90.

Hester Creek Cabernet Merlot 2009 ($15.99). The winery has released 4,500 cases of this wine, a blend built around Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It is a very quaffable wine, with aromas of plums, cherries and vanilla and with lovely fruit flavours, including lingonberry and black currant. There is spice on the finish. 89.

Hester Creek Reserve Merlot 2008 ($25.99). The winery is releasing 1,100 cases of this wine. It is a pretty, perhaps feminine, interpretation of this variety, soft and full in texture with a hint of blueberry on the palate and with a lingering finish of spice and red fruit. 91.

Hester Creek Reserve Cabernet Franc 2008 ($25.99). The winery is releasing 950 cases of what it calls, rightly so, “a rustic wine for hearty food.” In this context, rustic is a positive descriptor that often comes to mind with this variety because of its brambleberry flavours. The wine has notes of cherry and raspberry and pepper with enough ripe tannin to provide the grip needed for the foods it cries out for. Think venison. 91.

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