Plume Winery: Quails' Gate's Napa Valley winery
Photo: Daniel Zepponi (left) and Tony Stewart
In what is a first for an Okanagan wine producer, Quails’ Gate Estate Winery president Tony Stewart has launched a Napa winery in a joint venture with Daniel Zepponi, a member of a prominent California wine family.
The venture is called Plume Winery, a name meant to evoke the image of “a feather in your cap.” The first wine has just been released: a 2009 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon which is appearing in wine stores for $29.99 a bottle.
That vintage - 1,200 cases are being released – was made in a custom crush winery in the Napa Valley, as was the 2,200-case 2010 vintage (still in barrel) and as will be the 2011 vintage, which will be about 6,000 cases.
However, Stewart and Zepponi are close to buying property in Napa and building a stand-alone winery for Plume.
The Stewart family, which has been involved in Okanagan horticulture since the early 1900s, opened Quails’ Gate in 1989. It was managed originally by Ben Stewart, the older of the two Stewart brothers, who is now a member of the British Columbia legislature.
Tony Stewart was a commodities broker when he agreed to join the winery in 1992, first as a business manager and eventually as the president. Quails’ Gate has arguably been the most successful of the so-called farm gate wineries that opened around 1990. The winery, near West Kelowna, is based on a vineyard where Tony’s father, Richard, began planting grapes in 1963. He planted perhaps the first commercial Pinot Noir vines in Canada in 1975.
Today, Quails’ Gate produces about 50,000 cases year and is a leading Canadian Pinot Noir producer.
Several years ago, Tony Stewart began considering investing in a winery outside Canada, perhaps in Australia. Dan Zepponi persuaded him to invest in California, which is closer and which has a better domestic wine market.
In an interview last year with The Globe & Mail newspaper, Stewart explained the rationale for this investment. “It is strategic because Quails’ Gate has got to a certain size,” he said. “Having a U.S. operation of a similar size means there can be synergies in viticulture; and oenology team members can move back and forth. It provides the opportunity to gain access to the U.S. market. And we’re a partner in a wine distribution agency for Western Canada” which would get California wines for its portfolio.
Stewart and Zepponi knew each other because Zepponi spent two years (2007 to 2009) as president of Mission Hill Family Estate Winery and its holding company, Artisan Wine Company.
Zepponi’s family arrived from Italy to grow grapes in California about the same time that Stewart’s grandfather emigrated from Scotland to the Okanagan. Zepponi’s father partnered with the deLeuze family to open ZD Winery. Ultimately, the Zepponi family sold its interest in the winery but Dan and his siblings have continued in wine careers. Prior to coming to Mission Hill, Dan had been the senior vice-president for production at Beringer Estates.
“In California, I managed twice the Okanagan vineyard area,” he told me in a 2008 interview. “I crushed almost 300,000 tons, which is almost three times as much as they grow in the country of Canada.”
He brings that strong California background, with contacts throughout the industry, to Plume. The two partners only decided on the project about a month before the 2009 vintage. Even on short notice, Zepponi was able to pry choice grapes from his grower contacts throughout Napa for that first vintage. He also lined up a “well-known winemaker” whose name he cannot disclose.
“We want to focus on Cabernet Sauvignon and do it right,” Zepponi said this week. It is a variety that, as he puts it, “has found its terroir in the Napa.” Other varietals may be added in the future after the brand has been established with the Napa’s best-known varietal.
Plume Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 is a blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, fleshed out with Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Malbec and a dash of Merlot. The wine spent 18 months in barrel (most of them used barrels) and is structured to be accessible now with the ability to age for five or six more years. The aromas and fruit flavours (cherry, red plum) are bright and spicy. The wine shows the classically ripe flavours of Napa Cabernet. 90.