Monday, July 8, 2013

Class of 2013: Sage Hills Winery

 Photo: Sage Hills owner Rick Thrussell

Sage Hills Vineyard & Winery
18555 Matsu Drive
Summerland BC V0H 1Z6
T  250.276.4344
When to visit: No tasting room

For Rick Thrussell, the dream of the winery lifestyle was planted during an Okanagan camping vacation in the early 1980s when he and his friends spent an afternoon at Uniacke Estate Winery. The predecessor to CedarCreek Estate Winery, Uniacke had opened in 1980 and was one of the Okanagan’s earliest cottage wineries.

Rick has a vivid memory of that afternoon. “It was one of those quintessential Okanagan days,” he remembers. “It was warm and I was in my shorts. I looked out over this vineyard and thought what an enjoyable way to live - to get up every day and look at this.” The dream was set aside until 2006, while he pursued other careers.

Born in Vancouver in 1959, Rick majored in geography, political science and communications at Simon Fraser University. He spent the 1980s in government-related jobs, managing communications around major infrastructure projects. After a 1991 change of the provincial government, he became a home builder and was so successful that, by 2006, he could afford to move to the Okanagan and revive the winery dream. “Building homes was something that I liked,” he says. “But I can’t bend nails until I am 80.”

He was not ready to retire, however. “The thought of retirement just scares the crap out of me,” he admits. “I just can’t imagine retiring. I need to be busy. When I was building a house, I would work seven days a week until it was finished.”

As he considered life after home building, he remembered the afternoon at Uniacke.I was naïve enough to freeze that moment in my mind and think this is what it is like every day in the Okanagan,” he says. So he decided to become a grape grower.

In 2006, he bought a 4.5-hectare (11-acre) orchard on a Summerland bench overlooking Okanagan Lake after climbing a peach tree to take in the stunning view. The fruit trees were removed to make room in 2007 for an organic vineyard with Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir. Now the unromantic side of viticulture caught up, with unusually cold winters setting the vineyard back so that it was only 2012 before enough grapes could be produced for Sage Hills’s debut vintage of 800 cases.

“We planted at probably the most difficult time to plant grapes in the last 20 years,” Rick suggests. Heavy rain in 2007 sent a debris torrent sliding through his property and into the lake. Severe frost that winter killed about 15% of the young vines and the subsequent freezes further set back vines already struggling to establish themselves organically.

Determined to avoid herbicides and pesticides, Rick relied on the expertise of Karnail Singh Sidhu, the owner of Kalala Estate Winery and a leading organic consultant in the Okanagan. “My vines have always had to struggle to grow. They have competed against weeds for five years. Everything had to be done by hand.”  Rick has taken to calling himself the “head weed picker.”

The  debut wines were made by consultant Tom DiBello at nearby Okanagan Crushpad Winery, an interim measure until Rick builds his own winery. His ultimate target is to make a maximum of 4,000 cases a year.

“I am a bit of a control freak,” he admits. “I like to be involved in everything. I think beyond that volume, I would not be able to be. I was like that in building as well. I would build one home at a time because that’s what I could pay attention to. When I finished, I would go on to the next one.”

The goal is to produce premium quality wines which will be priced as such ($28 for the whites, $45 for a Pinot Noir still in barrel. In his view, that is the appropriate category for Okanagan wineries.

“I find myself sometimes in discussion with people who say Okanagan wines are so expensive,” says Rick, who is cropping at no more than two tons an acre. “If I want to double my crop, then I can drop the price of my wine. But I don’t believe the path to success for the Okanagan is making mediocre wine.”

He points out that the Okanagan has far fewer acres of vineyard than other major west coast wine regions. “Washington State has 140,000 acres of vineyard; Oregon has close to 80,000 acres and California has over to 400,000 acres. If you are going to compete with those people, you don’t do it with mediocre wine. You are gonna lose. You have to go head to head with those people by making high end quality wine.”

“It is one thing to put a high price on your bottle because that’s what it cost to make it,” he adds. “You have to deliver. You have got to provide the consumer with a wine that they believe is worth what they are paying for it.”

The Sage Hills vineyard, which is now solidly established, has an exceptional view of Okanagan Lake to the east and of the mountains that border the lake. The planned Sage Hills tasting room will make the most of that view.

It will also share the modernist lines of Rick’s cliff top home, a design inspired by his admiration for the work of the legendary architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. The home and the planned winery have geothermal heating and cooling. It is an extension of Rick’s insistence on growing grapes organically without herbicides.

Here are notes on the first releases.

Sage Hills Small Lots Pinot Gris 2012 ($28). This is a wine of remarkable complexity, starting with aromas of citrus and bready lees. The flavours of apple, pear, peach and lychee unwrap themselves layer upon layer on the palate. The finish is crisply dry. 91.

Sage Hills Small Lots Gewürztraminer 2012 ($28). This wine begins with delicate aromas of rose petals, spice and grapefruit. On the palate, there is more spicy grapefruit. However, the flavours are moderated; this is not a flashy Gewürztraminer but a dry, food-friendly Alsace style wine. 88.

Sage Hills Syrah Rose 2012 ($28). This delicious dry rosé has spicy aromas and flavours of strawberry and plum, with a texture that almost gives this the heft of a light red table wine. This is a versatile wine, suitable for everything from the hot tub to the grilled salmon. 90-91.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home