Thursday, February 10, 2011

StompinGround - The Okanagan's newest label

The newest label from the Okanagan is StompinGround Winery, which has just released three wines to the VQA and other wine store channels.

It may not be new as you would think: the wines are all from the 2006 vintage. Of course, there is a story here.

The label belongs to a Vernon winery that is licensed as The Cellars at the Rise and is based on a vineyard that was planted in 2005 and 2006.

The winery initially was part of The Rise, an ambitious real estate, resort and golf course development launched by Okanagan Hills Development Corporation. In late 2008, courtesy of the global credit crunch, the project came under the protection of the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA). After a restructuring of its debts, the project emerged from CCAA late last year and the stalled winery is going ahead again.

During the years when The Rise was under CCAA, the grapes that the 17 ½ acre vineyard began producing - including Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewürztraminer – were sold to other Okanagan wineries, including JoieFarm and Intrigue Wines.

“The grapes coming off the site are really well regarded,” says Leona Snider, the proprietor of The Cellars at the Rise. “We’re going to be fermenting [a small volume] on site this year.”

The wines released to the market were made and finished by consulting winemakers. They were made at a time when the grand plans called for underground cellars, a Tuscan-style winery, with a capacity of 35,000 cases. The plans now are much more modest. Even the tasting room is on hold, at least until the response to the brand is assessed.

The site, just a few kilometres west of Vernon along Bella Vista Road, cries out for a grand winery. The vineyard is on a sun-bathed slope high above the north end of Okanagan Lake, with spectacular views, even by the Okanagan’s extravagant standards.

The vineyard’s aspect takes advantage of a special microclimate for growing grapes. The varieties planted here were chosen intelligently for the site, which has the potential to produce excellent Pinot Noir and Riesling. Indeed, the Riesling that Roger Wong makes at Intrigue from these grapes would rank among the top 10 Okanagan Rieslings.

This slope has a chequered history of winemaking. One vineyard here grew grapes successfully from about 1965. This vineyard became the base on which the Bella Vista Vineyards winery was opened in 1994 by a group of Vernon investors and hobbyists led by Larry Passmore, formerly the owner of a U-Brew store in Vernon.

Bella Vista struggled; its partners fell out among themselves, the vineyard was neglected and the winery closed in 2005. But it may rise again as Turtle Mountain Vineyards. Market gardener Sid Sidhu, whose family has operated nearby Bella Vista Farm Market since 1987, bought the vineyard. He has rehabilitated it and is reportedly planning to open a winery either this year or in 2012.

Sidhu is already the landlord for Planet Bee Honey Farm, which operates next door to the farm market. Ed Nowek, the owner of Planet Bee, now has a license for the first meadery in the north Okanagan. He was planning to start selling mead late last year but delayed that because, in his judgment, the mead was not yet ready.

Turtle Mountain, Planet Bee and now The Cellars at the Rise should transform Bella Vista Road into a destination attractive to wine tourists.

In releasing its wines, The Cellars chose to proceed not with a sedate label but with the whimsical StompinGround. It resonates with Leona Snider. “StompinGround comes from my Alberta cowgirl days,” she says. “Let’s go down to the old Stomping Ground, meaning the watering hole.”

Here are notes on the first wines.

StompinGround Crush Pad White 2006 ($12.95). This is a blend of 43% Pinot Gris, 46% Muscat and 11% Gewürztraminer. Sitting around for about four years did not do this wine any favours. It still has spicy aroma one expects from these varieties, along with guava and peach flavours but the acidity is soft. The wine is best well-chilled which brings back echoes of its youthful exuberance. 86.

StompinGround Pinot Noir Reserve 2006 ($19.95). This is also getting tired. It still has the cherry aromas and flavours of the variety, however. 84.

StompinGround Merlot Reserve 2006 ($19.95). Here is a variety that benefits from cellaring. The time in oak has given this wine vanilla aromas. It is full-bodied with flavours of currants and a touch of spice on the finish. Think of this wine with your next barbecue. 88.

These wines were made with purchased grapes. I look forward to what the winery can do with its own grapes, with a new winemaker (negotiations are under way) and with a wine release schedule not entangled with CCAA.


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