Photo:Tony Stewart and Cynthia Walker; Richard and Rosemary Stewart; Ben Stewart, Andrea McFadden
Considering that Quails’ Gate Estate Winery is one of the
Okanagan’s great success stories, it is surprising to find that the Stewart
family could not get bank financing to open the winery in 1984.
That was an historical nugget in The British Columbia Wine Companion, my 1996 book in which I
gathered a great deal of industry history. The book is out of print but the
manuscript lives on my computer. A search on the Stewarts resulted in a
remarkable number of hits. This is a family that has been, and continues to be,
a major force in the province’s viticulture and wine industry.
Ben Stewart opened Quails’ Gate in 1989 as a “farmgate”
winery. That license had just been created by the provincial government
primarily for small vineyards. In the commercial chaos after the 1988 free
trade agreement, many growers had trouble finding wineries prepared to contract
their grapes because the future looked so bleak.
A farmgate winery only needed four acres of vineyard. The
Stewarts had far more acreage than that but it was a way for Ben to dip his toe
in the water. Within two years, Quails’ Gate was transformed into an estate
winery (minimum 20 acres of vineyard) and the winery has never looked back.
To put Quails’ Gate in some perspective, here are several
biographical profiles from the Wine
Companion, starting with Richard Stewart, the father of Ben and Tony. Ben subsequently went into public
life, first as a member of the B.C. legislature and now, as British Columbia’s
trade representative in Asia, based in Beijing.
Tony, his younger brother, succeeded him as winery president several years ago.
The Stewarts and their spouses were all at the winery’s
recent 25th anniversary celebration, toasting their accomplishments
with for remarkable wines made just for the anniversary. I will review them at
the end of this.
This mini-biography was written after a 1995 interview with
Stewart, Richard (1926-):
A member of a family prominent in Okanagan agriculture almost since the
beginning of the twentieth century, Richard Stewart first planted grapes in 1961 on property now part of the Quails' Gate
vineyards. As well, he formed a partnership with Calona Wines to establish
Pacific Vineyards, which leased land from the Westbank Indian Band for a
vineyard and bought land south of Oliver for a second vineyard. "We
believed there was room for growth in the wine industry," Stewart recalled
later. Initially he planted what were then considered the established varieties
-- such North American labrusca grapes as Diamond, Campbell's
and Patricia. A nursery in Seattle, one of his suppliers, misidentified a
shipment of what should have been 10,000 Diamond vines. Stewart discovered when
the vines were growing that he had been shipped Chasselas, a vinifera vine that
produces far superior fruit than Diamond. "We left them in," Stewart
In 1964 he and Joe
Capozzi (in the latter's private aircraft) flew to grape-growing areas in Ontario and New
York state to choose varieties for the initial
Pacific Vineyards plantings the following year.
At Gold Seal Vineyards in New
York, one of the early vinifera growers, they found
that the previous winter had devastated the vines. That convinced Stewart and
Capozzi to play it safe, planting the more hardy hybrid varieties, including De
Chaunac, Chelois, Verdelet and Maréchal Foch. After managing Pacific Vineyards
for several years, Stewart sold his interest to Calona Wines and concentrated
on developing the vineyard near Westbank that now supports Quails' Gate.
Stewart was a founding
member in 1961 of the Association of British
Columbia Grape Growers (with Frank Schmidt and Martin
Dulik), set up to lobby government for favourable policies. He was not an
original member of the Grape Growers' Marketing Board but soon joined this
price-negotiating body and subsequently became its chairman. Interested more in grape growing than
winemaking, Stewart encouraged his son Ben to establish Quails' Gate.
The book included vignettes on Ben and Tony as well.
Stewart, Ben (1957-): One
of the owners of Quails' Gate winery, Stewart was born in Kelowna,
a member of a family which emigrated in 1906 from Ireland and has been prominent ever
since in Okanagan agriculture and business. After working in the vineyards
operated by his father, Richard, Ben Stewart graduated from high school to
spend the next five years as a banker in Calgary
and Kitimat. He rejoined the family business in 1979 when the Stewarts began
planning an estate winery. Lack of banking support frustrated the Stewarts in
1984 but five years later, Ben Stewart was among the early applicants for a
farmgate winery license. A risk taker, Stewart crushed enough grapes that fall
for 5,000 gallons of wine before he even had his license. Quails' Gate
subsequently converted to an estate winery.
Stewart, Anthony David
(1966-): The business manager at Quails'
Gate, Tony Stewart chuckles ruefully at the warning that his fellow workers
gave him in 1986 when he quit the first full-time job he had had after high
school -- that of a technician in the ore processing plant at Cominco Ltd.'s
Polaris lead-zinc mine north of the Arctic circle. "They said I would never earn as much
money anywhere else," Stewart recalls. Indeed, a decade later the family
winery was not paying him nearly as well as the mine; the compensation is in
the evident satisfaction Stewart draws
from what is already the third career in his young life. When he left the mine,
Stewart took a financial management diploma at the British Columbia Institute
of Technology and then joined the brokerage firm Burns Fry & Co. in Toronto where he became a
commodities trader. In search of the Okanagan lifestyle, Stewart returned to Kelowna in 1992, intending
to resume a broker's career there. However, Quails' Gate had just lost its
accountant; Tony Stewart stepped in temporarily and stayed on to handle sales
and distribution as well as administration. And the winery's prospects have
brightened considerably, sales having risen from 8,000 cases in 1992 to 22,000
cases in 1995.
As noted earlier, Tony has since become president. The
winery has more than doubled its case sales. And the Stewarts have entered into
a major winery joint venture in Napa and Sonoma in California.
The signature wine at Quails’ Gate is Pinot Noir, the result
of Richard Stewart taking a chance on planting the variety in 1975. It was the
first successful Pinot Noir planting in the Okanagan, if not in all of Canada
In the winery’s early years, Ben relied on consultant Dr.
Elias Phiniotis, a Hungarian-trained winemaker who came to Canada
and who has worked for a remarkable number of B.C. wineries since. Beginning in
1994, Quails’ Gate turned to a succession of winemakers from the southern
hemisphere: Jeff Martin, followed by Ashley Hooper in 2000 and Grant Stanley in
2003. He was succeeded last year by Nikki Callaway, a young Canadian winemaker
trained in France
And there was, briefly, an Australian Pinot Noir specialist
named Peter Draper who came to Quails’ Gate in the summer of 1999. His sudden
death in the middle of the 1999 vintage plunged Quails’ Gate into crisis. The
winery still had tanks and barrels full of fermenting wine.
In a remarkable story of winery collegiality, the CEO of
Thomas Hardy & Sons in Australia
heard of the crisis (because Hardy and Quails’ Gate shared an agent in British Columbia) and
sent two of his winemakers to get Quails’ Gate through the 1999 vintage.
In 2002, Quails’ Gate helped another winery in a similar
crisis. Frank Supernak, the winemaker at Blasted Church
died in an accident at another winery that November. The Stewarts sent Ashley
Hooper, their winemaker, to help Blasted
One might argue that there is something of a New Zealand
style in the Quails’ Gate wines, given the decade that Grant Stanley made wine
here. However, the style is really set by the winery’s excellent vineyards,
which deliver quality fruit to Nikki Callaway (right), the new winemaker. She has begun
to show that, as excellent as the wines have been, she is finding more upside.
Born in Calgary
Nikki is the daughter of a physician who worked for many years in Saudi Arabia
. Nikki lived in Saudi Arabia
for 10 years until she
was 14 and had completed elementary school. At that point, her family moved to Dubai
so she could
complete high school.
She came back to Canada
f0r a bachelor’s degree in microbiology at the University of Victoria
She had not mapped out a career path although she was interested in wine. “Dad
talked me out of medicine,” she recalls. “He thought I would have more fun
So she went to Beaujolais
in 2004 and picked grapes for two months while checking out French wine
schools. She chose the University
in 2007 with a Diplôme National d’Oœnologue (in spite of a
chauvinist professor who kept trying to make her cry).
The winemaking program
included hands-on cellar work in French wineries. Upon graduating, she worked
about five months in a French winemaking co-operative. Then she went to South Africa to do a crush there before
returning to France and
doing another crush at a Loire winery.
She might have stayed in France
but she could not get a work visa. So she returned to Canada in 2009 where Mission Hill
offered her a four-month job. “It turned out to be four years,” she says. She
moved to Quails’ Gate in mid-2013.
The four wines in the
just-released Anniversary Series include one wine made entirely by Nikki and
three that she finished. These are limited production wines available only at
the winery and to members of the Quails’ Gate Cellar Door Club.
Rosemary’s Block Chardonnay 2012 ($30 for 80 cases). This elegant wine was fermented in new French oak.
However, the oak stays subtly in the background, with bright flavours of citrus
and apple on full display. The wine’s good acidity gives this Chardonnay a
crisp, refreshing finish. 91.
The Bench Pinot Gris 2013 ($25
for 790 cases). There is a laser-like focus to the aromas and flavours of this
wine. There is citrus, apple and pear. The generous texture reflects the fact
that 15% of this wine was aged in oak. However, there is no hint of oak on the
palate. Nikki is not a fan of oaky wines. 91.
Richard’s Block Pinot Noir 2012 ($40 for 80 cases). The wine begins with delicate aromas of cherry and
strawberry, leading to flavours of raspberry and strawberry. The wine is still
firm, with hints of the developing silky texture that will come with another
year in bottle. 90.
The Boswell Syrah 2012 ($40 for
320 cases). This memorable wine took everyone by storm during the various 25th
anniversary functions, if only for the surprise factor. This is, if memory
serves, the winery’s first Syrah and it comes from a special lakeside plot at
the Quails’ Gate vineyard in West Kelowna. It
is a delicious wine, medium-bodied like a northern Rhone
red, with earthy flavours of black cherry and plum, bracketed by pepper in the
aroma and on the finish. 91.