Saturday, September 22, 2012

Sumac Ridge spins off two iconic brands

Photo: Black Sage Vineyard winemaker Jason James

At 32 years, the Sumac Ridge Estate Winery brand needs some renewing.

At least, that is the conclusion of Constellation Brands Canada, Sumac Ridge’s parent company. Yesterday, Constellation president Eric Morham and his team carved two new brands from Sumac Ridge.

Steller’s Jay, the sparkling wine that Sumac Ridge has made since 1987, now will be a stand-alone brand, releasing between 4,000 and 6,000 cases a year. The logic is that leading sparkling wine houses around the world do not also have a long portfolio of table wines. In a few years, the Sumac Ridge name will disappear from the Steller’s Jay labels.

And Black Sage Vineyard becomes the new brand for reds made from the vineyard of the same name on Black Sage Road, south of Oliver.

The vineyard, originally about 115 acres, was planted in 1993 and 1994 by Sumac Ridge founder Harry McWatters. It was then the single largest block of Bordeaux varietals planted in Canada. That was seen as risky until the grapes enabled the winery to make award-winning wines. Those wines were generally released with the vineyard name on the label, selling at a premium compared to the other wines in the extensive Sumac Ridge portfolio.

McWatters sold Sumac Ridge in 2000 to Vincor, which was subsequently taken over by Constellation Brands, the largest wine company in the world.

The vineyard, however, was owned 50% by McWatters and 50% by Constellation, which also owns the Black Sage Vineyard name.

A few years ago, after McWatters retired from Constellation, the vineyard was divided between the partners. The McWatters half is now called the Sundial Vineyard. Some of the grapes support his new McWatters Collection brand, with additional tonnages sold to other wineries. His obligation to sell to Constellation ended last year.

On its Black Sage Vineyard, Constellation continues to grow Bordeaux reds. The acreage of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc is being grafted over or replanted with more red varieties and with Syrah, supporting the mandate of new label and winemaker Jason James to produce big reds. Potential production is about 5,000 cases a year.

The wines will continue to be made at Sumac Ridge’s Summerland winery. The Sumac Ridge brand will continue to be about 50,000 cases a year, primarily of popularly-priced wines ($12-$20 a bottle). The Black Sage Vineyard wines are priced above that, but not that far above.

The rationale is laid out in the new brand’s literature. “Black Sage Vineyard and wines it creates have always been special,” the brochure explains. “People always remembered the Black Sage Vineyard wines AFTER they tasted them. Consumer research told us that customers were confused by Sumac Ridge’s multiple tiers and many products. Black Sage Vineyard wines were deemed a lesser quality mostly due to the complexity of the portfolio. We believe that Black Sage Vineyard wines are some of the best out there.”

I get the logic. I knew from regular tastings of Sumac Ridge wines that the wines from that vineyard had more flavour and more finesse than similar wines in lower tiers made from purchased grapes. The difference often was dramatic if you tasted the wines side by side.

“To better communicate this to consumers, we have reinvented the Black Sage Vineyard brand with a focus on the merits of the vineyard and the bold winemaking style,” the brochure adds. “… These are premium wines from a premium vineyard.”

In an ideal world, Constellation Brands should build a boutique winery on the Black Sage Vineyard. A small problem is that the Sundial Vineyard has the best frontage on Black Sage Road and McWatters has plans to build a winery.

The new Black Sage Vineyard brand is launching with three red table wines – Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc – from the 2010 vintage. The wines show a youthful vivacity and will benefit from a couple of years of cellaring. James, the winemaker, remarked that his favourite is the Cabernet Franc. I quite agree: the brambly flavours are delicious. It is a 90 pointer for me.

The fourth wine in the Black Sage Vineyard portfolio is 2007 Pipe, the fortified Port-style wine that Sumac Ridge has made for many years with the ripest grapes from the vineyard.

There is also a significant casualty of the restructuring of the portfolio. The production of Pinnacle has ceased. This was the first $50 red icon blend released by any Okanagan winery. It always sold slowly but it served the useful purpose of reducing the price resistance that the winery’s $25 Meritage once encountered.

James says that a Meritage blend is being considered under the Black Sage Vineyard label.


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