Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Road 13 Vineyards attracts attention

Photo: Road 13 Vineyards

Few Okanagan wineries have ramped up production as rapidly as Road 13 Vineyards.

The winery was launched in 1998 as Golden Mile Cellars. It was producing an anaemic 1,000 cases of forgettable wine annually when Pam and Mick Luckhurst purchased it in 2003. A decade later, Road 13 is making 25,000 cases a year, all of it good to outstanding.

Now, the winery is among several larger Okanagan wineries that are getting unsolicited purchase offers from offshore buyers. There are known to be several Chinese groups kicking the tires at several Okanagan wineries.

Mick Luckhurst has had at least one feeler recently. The winery is not actively for sale, especially now that Joe Luckhurst, their son, has become involved in the business.

Of course, every business has its price. One can only hope that the tire kickers don’t find Road 13’s price soon. The Luckhursts contribute far more energy and drive to the B.C. wine industry than absentee owners are likely to bring. One of the two Okanagan wineries already owned by a Chinese businessman is doing exactly zero to help lift the profile of his winery in particular and B.C. wines in general.

The Luckhursts, on the other hand, have just hosted winemaker dinners in Victoria and Vancouver and, with 26 other B.C. wineries, they participated in the Vancouver International Wine Festival. During the wine touring season each year, Road 13 as an active menu of events at the winery, as a quick glance at the winery web site will show. Perhaps the highlight is a monthly series of dinners at the winery with Joy Road Catering. The dinners are scheduled for the 13th day of each month from May to October.

Pam and Mick got into the wine business almost on a whim. Mick, who was born in Port Alberni in 1950, previously worked as a lumber broker and a real estate developer; and he owned a Nanaimo building supply store. Pam, a former flight attendant, often has been his business partner.

They came to the Okanagan in the spring of 2003 on personal sabbaticals, after selling a residential development business they had run in Edmonton for several years. All that summer, they took visiting friends around on winery tours. By the end of the season, they decided that the winery lifestyle was very appealing.

Mick has taken to grape growing as if he had been born in a vineyard. Indeed, one of Road 13’s popular red blends is called 74 K because Mick once calculated that he has 74 kilometres of vineyards to walk. (74 K is the blend formerly called Rockpile; the name was changed to avoid conflict with a similarly named Ontario wine.)

During their first five years as winery owners, Mick and Pam retained the Golden Mile Cellars name inherited from the original owners, somewhat to the dismay of their peers. The vineyard lands on the west side of the Okanagan Valley from Oliver half way to Osoyoos are known as the Golden Mile. It may one day emerge as a sub-appellation under that name. It would be awkward if an individual winery had pre-empted the name.

The Golden Cellars name was not working for Road 13 either because it was not distinctive from the nickname everyone else had assigned to the region. So in 2008, the winery rebranded, using the name of the road that ends at the winery door.

“Our sales have increased 250% since then,” Pam says.

They have worked with three excellent winemakers. Lawrence Herder was there in the first year they owned the winery. He was succeeded by Michael Bartier. When Michael left in 2010 to join Okanagan Crush Pad, he turned the cellar over to J-M. Bouchard, a Montréal native who has international winemaking experience.

At various production levels over the years, Mick and Pam have said that Road 13 was not getting bigger. In fact, at the recent winemaker dinner in Vancouver, when Pam disclosed that the winery is now making 25,000 cases, she said: “That’s it – no bigger.”

It seems to me that J-M winemaking style is one of the explanations for the production rise in recent years. Michael Bartier had persuaded Mick and Pam to focus most of their production on big blends (like Honest John’s Red and Honest John’s White). J-M continues to make those blends but, whenever he is offered interesting and well grown grapes, he has also expanded the varietal portfolio.

“We were making five or six reds when I arrived at Road 13,” he says. “Now, we are making 17 or 18, including a Gamay Noir.”

A case in point is how the winery came to add Syrah-Mourvedre 2011 ($35) to its portfolio. He has small lots of both varietals, along with a small lot of Malbec. With judicial blending, he produced 290 cases of Syrah-Mourvedre and 550 cases of Syrah-Malbec. The former wine was served at the Vancouver dinner and achieved 92 points in my notebook.

One of the whites served at the dinner was Viognier 2011. It appears to be sold out because it is not on the winery web site. Mick also disclosed that the varietal has been dropped from the portfolio but for a very good reason. “It makes every other wine better when used in blending,” he says.

For example, it is 92% of the blend in 2011 Viognier Roussanne Marsanne ($29) white blend that won a Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence last year. Viognier is also co-fermented with Syrah, improving both the aromas and the colour.

Viognier is also 20% of Stemwinder 2011 ($16.99), a 2,300-case white blend of Chardonnay (75%), Chardonnay Musqué (3%) and Roussanne (2%).

That wine is an example of Road 13’s commitment to offer wines at popular as well as premium price points as well as in all the major styles. The winery’s Sparking Chenin Blanc is one of the best bubblies in the Okanagan. The 2009 is sold out but the release of the next vintage is imminent.

The three Honest John wines are priced from $15.99 for the rosé to $19.99 for the red. Some 6,350 cases of the Honest John’s Red 2011 were released, enough that the wine is in liquor stores and private wine stores, in contrast to some small lot wines, available only at the winery.

The icon red is Fifth Element 2009 ($49.99), a 250-case production that is 68% Merlot, 22% Syrah and 10% Cabernet Franc. Earlier blends actually had five varietals, hence the name. This is an outstanding wine from a strong vintage.

With quality like this, no wonder Mick and Pam have to fend off potential buyers.


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