Photo: Gavin and Shana Miller
With 220 wineries in British Columbia, and counting, a new label
needs something to differentiate itself.
Gavin and Shana Miller should have a
winning formula at Upper Bench Estate Winery. He makes solid wines while Shana
makes seven different cheeses. And the winery’s summer market will also sell
fresh fruit from Naramata orchards. One-stop shopping for food and wine
Upper Bench is the new name for a Penticton winery that
opened originally in 2001 as Benchland Winery and then became Stonehill when it
was acquired by the Holman Lang group of wineries.
When Holman Lang went under in early 2011,
the Millers teamed up with pulp and paper executive Wayne Nystrom to make a
successful bid for the winery at the bankruptcy court.
The rest of 2011 was given over to
renovating the winery building, primarily to add a cheese-making room for
Shana, who had begun her cheese-making career several years earlier at the
Poplar Grove Winery.
The cheese there was (and is) legendary. It
is now evident in the Upper Bench tasting room that Shana, who is making
between 60 and 80 kilograms of cheese a week, has brought the same skill to
this winery. The seven cow milk cheeses all are priced at $5.50 for 100 grams.
Gavin, who was born in Britain in 1965
and formerly worked there as a sales manager, came to the Okanagan in 1995 on
vacation. He met Shana and that led to his decision to immigrate and then to
get into the wine industry. He was a winemaker at Poplar Grove from 2004 to
2008 and then spent two more vintages at Painted Rock. He had a hand in making
notable award-winning wines at both of those producers.
In addition to renovating the winery last
year, Gavin also whipped the Upper Bench vineyard into shape. The result is
evident from the 2011 wines released to date by Upper Bench, as well as from
barrel samples of upcoming reds that I was able to taste recently.
I won’t attempt to add tasting notes on the
cheeses, not being technically equipped as a cheese maker. But I did taste the
cheeses and they are very good. Here are notes on the wines.
Bench Pinot Gris 2011 ($19.90 for 284 cases). The
wine is crisply fresh, with aromas of citrus and apples and with flavours of
pears and stone fruit. The finish is dry – the winery’s own notes describe it
as steely but that descriptor is overly austere. 88.
Bench Pinot Blanc 2011 ($18.90 for 134 cases).
Again, the wine is crisply fresh and dry, with aromas of apples and flavours of
pineapple and stone fruit. 88.
Bench Riesling 2011 ($21.90 for 112 cases). This is
a juicy, savoury Riesling with the beginning of the classic hint of petrol on
the nose. On the palate, it delivers a tasty bowl of tropical fruit flavours.
The finish is long but also refreshing. 90.
Bench Chardonnay 2011 ($24.90 for 324 cases). Half
of this was fermented in stainless steel and half was fermented and aged in
barrel for five months. The oak lends an appealingly toasty note to the aroma
and flavour, along with citrus aromas. The flavours include citrus, mango and
tangerine and the texture is rich and satisfying. 89.
Bench Rosé 2011 ($18.90 for 174 cases). Made with
Zweigelt grapes, this is a good dry rosé with aromas and flavours of
strawberries, rhubarb and sour cherry. 88.
Bench Pinot Noir 2010 ($26.90 for 238 cases). This
is a wine that Gavin inherited but finished well, giving it 18 months in oak –
30% of it new barrels. While the texture is still firm, the wine displays
aromas and flavours of cherries and red berries. 88.
Bench Pinot Noir 2011 (barrel sample). This is
already full-bodied and generous on the palate, with aromas and flavours of
black cherries. This will mature to an elegant Pinot Noir.
Bench Merlot 2010 ($28.90 for 84 cases). This also
aged 18 months in oak, a quarter of which was new French barrels. It is a bold,
generous red, with vanilla and black currant aromas and flavours, along with
flavours of black cherry and figs. 90.
Bench Merlot 2011 (barrel sample). This youthful
red shows promise, with a muscular structure and spice currant aromas and
Bench Redemption (barrel sample). This is a
delicious blend built around the vineyard’s mature Zweigelt vines. There are
flavours of plum and blueberry, with hints of pepper and spice. 90.