Friday, February 1, 2013

Donald and Elaine Triggs announce their new winery

Culmina's Elaine and Donald Triggs

Donald Triggs, the former chief executive of Vincor International Ltd., is back in the wine business with the launch of Culmina Family Estate Winery in the Okanagan.

This is his third career in the Canadian wine business and the second time that he and Elaine, his wife, have sunk their life’s savings into the business. This time, they are doing it at an age when most people retire.

“Retirement to me is a nasty word because it implies stopping,” says Don, who was born in 1944. “I don’t think life is about stopping. It is about continuing and doing what you love.”

Vincor was the 14th largest wine company in the world when Constellation Brands took it over in mid-2006 for $1.6 billion. As a significant shareholder in a publicly-traded company, Don emerged from that transaction well fixed for life. But he and Elaine, who had run a premium Niagara vineyard for Vincor, only took a few months off before looking for land in the Okanagan for a new vineyard and winery.

That decision firmed up when Sara Triggs, the youngest of their three daughters and with a master’s in wine business from the University of Adelaide, agreed to join her parents in a family winery. Culmina, named from the Latin word for peak, is not just another Okanagan winery: it is a legacy project for the Triggs family.                              

Culmina, a no-expenses spared project, has scheduled its grand opening for August 2013.

Photo: Culmina Winery (south side)

The project’s new gravity-flow winery, with a capacity to produce 6,000 to 8,000 cases a year, was built last year, surrounded by vineyards on the Golden Mile, on western flank of the south Okanagan Valley. One of the vineyards, with an elevation touching almost 600 meters, is the highest vineyard in the Okanagan.

Don is well known in the wine industry: he and former partner Alan Jackson gave their surnames to Jackson-Triggs when that became the new name for Brights Wines in 1994.

Both he and Elaine grew up on farms in Manitoba. After getting degrees in agriculture and business administration, Don spent several years in marketing with Colgate-Palmolive before joining the winery arm of John Labatt Ltd. in 1972. Four years later, he was sent to turn around Labatt’s money-losing winery in California.

His performance there caught the eye of headhunters. In 1982, he was recruited to run the Vancouver-based North American operations of Fisons PLC, a British fertilizer company. While Elaine was becoming a chartered accountant, Don was promoted to Fisons head office in Britain, where he ran a division.

 At heart, Don is an entrepreneur who enjoys building companies.  “I’ve always had this yearning to be in my own business,” he says. “And I really had a twinge in my bones for the wine business.”

In 1989, when Labatt decided to sell its the wine business to the managers, Don came back from Britain to lead the team. Even though conventional wisdom at the time held there was no future for Canadian wine, he sunk his savings into the winery buyout.

I sold my ski chalet and took all the money I had saved up, and re-mortgaged my house,” he recalls.
 But this is what ultimately grew into Vincor which owned, among other assets, six Okanagan wineries.

One of them, Osoyoos Larose, is a joint venture with Groupe Taillan of Bordeaux
One of their consultants was Alain Sutre who was sufficiently impressed to take on other Okanagan clients 
since then.  (They include Burrowing Owl, Painted Rock and Poplar Grove.)

When Don and Elaine decided to get back into the wine business in 2006, they also turned to Sutre. “I said to Alain, is it possible to raise the bar again?” Don says. “Osoyoos Larose pushed the bar up and others have embraced that vision, because quality has gone up around the industry.” Sutre said yes, noting that Okanagan terroir was so much better understood than had been the case a decade earlier.

They looked in detail at five Okanagan sites, in some cases taking soil and temperature readings, before buying 44 acres in 2007 from Olivier Combret and his family, then the owners of Antelope Ridge Estate Winery. Only 14 acres were under vine, almost all of which has since been replaced. The decision, Don says, was financially painful but necessary to upgrade the vineyard.

There is a delightful sentimental streak in both Don and Elaine, illustrated by the names of their vineyards.

The former Combret property is called Arise Vineyard. One of Don’s ancestors several generations ago was a purser in the first British garrison in the Barbados who settled on a 10-acre farm that he called Arise. The property stayed in the family even after Don’s grandfather moved to Canada about 1900. Don decided to revive this family name for his new vineyard.

Photo: Vineyard at Culmina

In 2009, while Arise was being planted, Don and Elaine bought another 60 acres on two hillside benches above Arise. Here, two new vineyards have been planted. The lower of these two is called Stan’s Bench, named for Elaine’s father. The upper bench, a cool northeast slope that rises to 595 meters, is called Margaret’s Bench, for Don’s mother.

When the three vineyards are fully planted – the final planting is scheduled for this spring – Culmina will have about 54 acres of vines to supply it.

These are among the highest density plantings in the Okanagan, with 2,044 vines per acre. In most Okanagan vineyards, the density ranges from 900 to 1,500 vines per acre. The theory behind high density is that by forcing the vines to compete with each other, each vine will produce less fruit but better quality.

In addition to these three vineyards, Don and Elaine are also planting about 1,000 bush vines (Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon) on three sun-bathed  and almost inaccessible fingers of soil on the mountainside. They admit that this is a $10,000 experiment.

That, however, is pocket change in this project. Total investment is not disclosed but is substantial. The technology for computer-monitored real time moisture and temperature data alone is a $100,000 investment. Soil analysis is so detailed that the vineyards are broken into 1 ¼-acre blocks, with the choice of clones of rootstocks precisely determined by the soil in each block.

The multiple exposures and soils of the site governed the planting decisions. “We have not planted what I want to drink, and that upset me no end,” says Don, who had hoped to plant Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache and Mouvedre until his consultant advised against them.

The varieties planted in Arise, lowest and warmest of the vineyards, are Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Malbec. Stan’s Bench, which has both heat pockets and cooler exposures, is planted to Chardonnay, Riesling, Viognier, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Margaret’s Bench is planted to Chardonnay, Riesling and 2.3 acres of Grüner Veltliner. This is the first planting of that Austrian white in the Okanagan.

Photo: Steep road in Culmina's vineyards 

Culmina has dynamite winemaking.. Matt Dumayne, after more than a decade of winemaking in New Zealand, moved to the Okanagan in 2010 and joined Don and Elaine in time to make Culmina’s 2011 and 2012 vintages before leaving at the end of January to become associate winemaker at Okanagan Crush Pad Winery..

In mid-January, Pascal Madevon left Osoyoos Larose, where he had been winemaker and vineyard manager since 2001, to join Culmina.

The wines to be offered this summer, likely between $25 and $30 a bottle, are expected to be a Chardonnay called Dilemma (because there is still some debate whether to keep those old vines or plant newer clones) and Hypothesis. The latter is a Bordeaux blend – 50% Merlot, 25% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

The winery explains that Hypothesis can be defined as “a provisional idea whose merit requires evaluation. … To the Triggs, Hypothesis wine represents ‘their best effort’ bringing together all the wisdom of 30 years in the industry.”

The winery is equipped with a tasting room and function rooms to take advantage of the stunning views over the valley from this site. Like everything else here, the owners want to raise the bar on the visitor experience. There will be a casual tasting bar but the intent is to go further.

“We want to tell our story,” Elaine says. “We will do sit-down tastings. But because we have spent so much time and energy on vineyard development, we really want to focus on providing as many people as possible with a vineyard tour; and to educate them on what we are doing.”


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