Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Starling Lane stuns with its plan to close

Photo: Starling Lane's winery

Here is a stunner: the Saanich Peninsula’s Starling Lane Winery will close next year.

That is not due either to a lack of success or a lack of accolades. Starling Lane, which is virtually sold out for this season except for its blackberry port, has always made some of the best wines in British Columbia.

It is simply that the owners have decided that 10 years is enough for what was intended to be a five-year “retirement adventure.”

This was the announcement that the winery has just released to its customers:

“Next year we will be celebrating our tenth and final year as a winery. This was not an easy decision to make. We have taken great pride in producing high quality wines solely from our local vineyards but our initial "retirement adventure" was to last 5 years. That we are entering our 10th year of successful production speaks well of our partnership, but it is now time to re-evaluate our workload and have more time for life's other offerings.

“The most enjoyable part of the venture has been meeting so many wonderful people: our loyal customers and the many visitors to our tasting room, local chefs and restaurant workers, staff at local wine shops, sommeliers and wine enthusiasts, tour group directors, and the many devoted grape growers and vintners in the Island wine industry. We thank you all for the joy you have brought us.

“Please note that Heritage Farm, site of Starling Lane Winery, will continue booking weddings, tours and related agri-tourism events. Contact Jackie Wrinch for more information.

“We look forward to having you join us in celebrating our final year, which will begin with our spring opening on Mother's Day weekend in May 2013.”

As understandable as the decision is, it is a big loss for wine lovers. The three partners were exceptional grape growers and John Wrinch brought the precision of a diamond cutter to making the wines.

Photo: Vineyard at Heritage Farm

Here is the Starling Lane profile from the 2009 edition of my book, The Wineries of British Columbia.

The six partners at Starling Lane initially considered calling it the Hanging Judge Winery because the winery is on a farm once owned by Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie. British Columbia’s first chief justice, he was unfairly dubbed the hanging judge after his death in 1894 even though he did not hand out an unusual number of death sentences for the times, and even commuted some. Starling Lane’s partners decided against using the judge’s nickname, prudently perhaps. “We started thinking that some of the victims may have relatives in the area,” Jerry Mussio quips.

The partners were among those pioneering Saanich Peninsula vineyards in the early 1990s. Jerry, an educational consultant, and his California-born wife Sherry bought their farm in 1993 and, in addition to raising sheep, planted a test plot of Ortega. Jerry was born in Trail in 1944, the son of Italian immigrants, and he was a home vintner. Planting vines on the farm’s rugged soil expressed his Italian heritage. Ultimately, the couple expanded to just under a hectare (two acres) of Ortega, Pinot Gris and Maréchal Foch. Sherry, a former teacher, is an artist and the designer of Starling Lane’s folksy but smart labels.

The second couple in the partnership are John and Jacqueline Wrinch, whose Heritage Farm is the original Begbie property. John saw the Mussio vineyard while buying one of their lambs and soon began developing a similar-sized planting, with eight varieties dominated by Ortega, Foch and Pinot Noir. A Victoria radiologist, John had begun making award-winning home wines when he practised in Kamloops. When Starling Lane was born, he was tapped as the winemaker because of his scientific training.  Jacqueline, experienced as an event planner (the farm is a favourite wedding venue), became the tasting room manager.

The third couple, Sue and Ken Houston, met their partners at early meetings of the island’s grape growers association. They also have just under a hectare of vines at their Hummingbird Vineyard, growing Foch, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer. They are both Victoria natives and former owners of a heating contracting business. Sue transferred her accounting skills to running the winery’s books while Ken managed the renovations that turned the Heritage Farm barn into an attractive winery.

Many of the small vineyards that sprang up in the Saanich Peninsula in the 1990s intended to sell grapes to Victoria Estate Winery which opened in 2002. However, the new winery’s offering prices were less than the growers expected, and then that market evaporated as Victoria Estate slid toward receivership. The Starling Lane partners decided to pool their grapes, their talents and their resources to create a boutique winery making between 6,000 and 8,000 bottles a year from their own vines and from a contracted two-hectare (five-acre) Cowichan Valley vineyard.

“Each of us was thinking about starting our own winery but we realized that, with two acres of grapes each, none of us would have much supply,” Jerry says. “But if we got together, we would have six acres of grapes – a reasonable size to support a small winery. All of us have some sort of history in winemaking. The other thing is that we are similar in age. We were looking at the transition from professional careers and had a desire to spend a little more time growing grapes and drinking wine.” 

The winery works because the partners have talents that support each other and a shared passion for growing good grapes. That calls for unusual commitment, given the somewhat marginal growing conditions of the cool and sometimes rainy Saanich Peninsula. The most difficult grape to ripen among the varieties they grow is Pinot Noir (Jerry and Sherry pulled out the few vines they had). Yet, at the Northwest Wine Summit in Oregon, the winery won a gold medal for its 2005 Pinot Noir and a bronze for the 2006 vintage.

The secret, they have found, is to carry only a small crop on the Pinot Noir vines so that the grapes ripen well. “And when we pick Pinot Noir, we selectively pick only the best bunches,” Jerry says. “In a poor year like 2007, we pick the Pinot Noir early, combine it with Chardonnay and produce a traditionally-made sparkling wine.” And the winery wins awards with this wine as well. Like the Pinot Noir, all of the wines are hand-crafted, starting with good vineyard management.

With limited production and brisk sales, Starling Lane only opens its tasting room on weekends in summer. Even when only one or two wines are available, the winery is worth the visit. The Wrinches have taken pains to retain features at Heritage Farm with a 19th Century feel. The spirit of Judge Baillie remains in residence.


At August 19, 2012 at 3:31 PM , Blogger Max Wedges said...

LOVELY ENTRY JOHN. It turned out that Linda and I were at SYMPHONY, for a Cuban Trio Concert "Fuego de Cuba", visiting Lamont and Pat.

As we hinted to you earlier, their GEWURST is spendid. Imagine Gewurtz ripening in Victoria: it takes winegrower skill, and fidelity to Terroir, to make a Noble Wine like that.

(ok, ok, Gewurtz is not a Noble Vine, strictly speaking, but the wine sure has the FINESSE!)

We just tasted the new LEON MILOT. It certainly has LEGS (literally). Unfortunately I could only get 1/2 a case... and that was the only fault I found with it.

Mark my words, Lamont will fill the shoes of John Wrich, of Starling Lane, whose Foch (with some L.M. spice) remains my favorite Island red: it has moxie!

John 'tapped' Lamont and Pat, who will take over his section of Starling Lane vineyard next year, so Linda and I will remain their devoted Fans.




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