About a year ago, Constellation Brands deconstructed the
portfolio of Sumac Ridge Estate Winery.
Sumac Ridge wines, now value-priced, continue to be sold but
two of that winery’s iconic brands have been liberated to exist on their own.
These are Steller’s Jay Brut, long a multi-awarded sparkling
wine, and Black Sage Vineyards, premium wines anchored to that vineyard on Black Sage Road.
Even if Constellation is the world’s biggest wine company
and has abundant market intelligence, its Sumac Ridge strategy can be
questioned. Sumac Ridge is the oldest continuing estate winery in the Okanagan,
with strong brand recognition. Carving out its two premium brands could reduce
Sumac Ridge to a commodity wine producer.
The contention for setting Steller’s Jay free is that
premium sparkling wines are made by dedicated sparking wine houses. If that is
so, the Sumac Ridge winery should be re-badged. Steller’s Jay continues to be
made and aged in the cellars here while table wine production has migrated to
the larger and more modern Jackson-Triggs winery north of Oliver.
The Sumac Ridge tasting room remains open, however.
Many other Okanagan wineries celebrate their icon wines.
Hester Creek has The Judge. Seven Stones has The Legend. Mission Hill’s Oculus
has become so prized that sales are basically restricted to the winey tasting
Icon wines are important for several reasons. Their prestige
reflects across a winery’s entire product line. The first red icons in the Okanagan
were Oculus and Sumac Ridge’s Pinnacle (now discontinued). At $50 a bottle when
it was released a decade or so back, Pinnacle did not sell well. However, Sumac
Ridge founder Harry McWatters told me that it “reduced the price resistance” to
the winery’s $25 Meritage. C0nsumers figured that if the winery made a product
good enough to cost $50, its other wines must also be good (and they were).
The second benefit of having icons in the line-up is the
discipline these wines impose on a winery’s viticulture. Unless a specific
block of premium grapes has been identified, entire vineyards need to be
managed as if every wine were to be a $50 quality. The superb quality of Hester
Creek’s $20 Character blends and its $28 Reserves results in part from growing grapes
to make the $45 Judge.
Constellation has close to 1,000 acres of Okanagan vineyard.
All of it is farmed well. No doubt, the exceptional blocks – like
Jackson-Triggs’s SunRock Vineyard – get special attention.
Black Sage Vineyard is another of those exceptional blocks.
It is half of a 115-acre block that Harry McWatters planted in 1993, mostly
reds. A few years ago, when Harry unwound his relationship with Sumac Ridge and
Constellation, the vineyard was divided. Because Constellation owned the Black
Sage Vineyard name, Harry called his half the Sundial Vineyard, the site of his
new winery called Time Estate.
The advantage of the Black Sage Vineyard is its mature vines
grown in a great terroir. Constellation has decided to showcase this vineyard
with vineyard-designated wines.
I understand but it just feels a bit odd not to anchor the
brand to a winery.
Here are notes on the wines.
Steller’s Jay Brut 2008 Méthode
is a cuvée of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which, like Champagne
, is aged en tirage
for at least three years before being hand-riddled and disgorged. In the glass,
the wine puts on a wonderful display of fine and long-lasting bubbles. The
aroma is slightly bready from its time on the lees. The wine has citrus and
apple flavours with an attractive nutty undertone. The finish is crisp and
Sage Vineyard Merlot 2011
This has a rich and juicy texture with flavours of black cherry and blueberry
as well as hints of sage and tobacco. This is a generous Merlot, benefitting
from the concentration of old vines. 90.
Sage Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2011
($24.09). This variety is a great favourite of Jason James, the
winemaker. The wine appeals, with brambleberry aromas and flavours of black
cherry, blackberry. There is an earthy spice on the finish. Give it a year or
two in the cellar. 88-90.
Sage Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
($25.09). This begins with the classic eucalyptus aromas of the
varietal, followed by black currant flavours and hints of cedar. The firm
structure suggests that this wine will age well in the cellar and reveal more
than it does in its youth. 89-91.