Photo: Steven and Nicole French
Since the “anything
but Chardonnay” remains well entrenched, it would seem a risky proposition to
launch a winery with a major commitment to that varietal.
Little Engine Wines, which opened its Naramata Road tasting room late in June,
is offering some of the best Chardonnay in the Okanagan. In fact, Little Engine’s
entire portfolio is, arguably, the most impressive yet from a new British
because the winemaker is Scott Robinson, the former winemaker at La Frenz Winery
and a former partner in the short-lived Stable Door Cellars.
“He was our
first fulltime employee,” says Steven French, who owns this winery along with
his wife, Nicole. “Scott is an absolute perfectionist. He is so meticulous. We
loved the taste of his wines. That is why we followed Scott. We could go out
and court any winemaker, but we knew what we wanted from a taste perspective.”
and the tasting room are in a newly-completed structure just south of Red
Rooster Winery. In contrast to the mini-chateau style of Red Rooster, Little
Engine’s winery is designed to look like large barn that has been part of the
landscape for some time.
dominates the six-acre vineyard beside the new winery. That variety also grows
in an eight-acre vineyard nearby, on a former apple orchard just below the site
of Steven and Nicole’s new home. But for the ravine that splits the property,
they could walk from the house to the winery.
room for additional vines on the winery vineyard. There also are plans for a
stand-alone tasting room in a few years, with windows that will frame views
over vines and Okanagan Lake.
and Nicole, Little Engine is a career change from the energy business in
Alberta. Both were born in 1969: Nicole in London, ON, and Steven in Winnipeg.
university [in London] and moved to Calgary and stayed there for over 20 years,”
Steven says. “I had a great career. I was in oil and gas. I am a finance guy.”
Latterly, he was an executive with Secure Energy Services Ltd.
Okanagan property in 2011, initially so that their athletic sons could go to
the hockey school in Penticton. The decision to launch a winery was triggered
by a long-time interest in wines. “We enjoy good food and good wine,” Nicole
becoming wine collectors more than a decade ago,” Steven says. “And we started
doing wine tastings with groups.”
The winery fulfils
another ambition. “I wanted to create something that is tangible,” Steven says.
“I wanted to have a mark.”
lies behind the winery’s name. “A friend and I back in Calgary were trying to decide
what the name should be,” Steven says. “I am all about tenacity and never
giving up. He said, ‘You should have in your tasting room that story book, The Little Engine That Could.’ Little Engine
labels, crafted in consultation with Vancouver design guru Bernie
Hadley-Beauregard, suggest the intent to reach high. Each label has a ladder
reaching for a stylized moon.
is what it takes to reach for the moon,” Steven says. “Our family motto is ‘Dreams
don’t come true; dreams are made true.’ If it takes a ladder to get there,
don’t give up. It is just like the little engine that could.”
foot on the ladder meant hiring a winemaker like Scott Robinson (right), a laconic
vintner with an uncanny resemblance to former hockey player Trevor Linden.
started his professional life as a kinesiologist with a 1995 degree from Simon
Fraser University. He also managed a beer and wine store in Delta while in
university. In 2003, when he and his wife, Danielle, went travelling in the
southern hemisphere, he took the opportunity to visit wineries.
two weeks in Perth and drove through the Margaret River region” [in Australia],
Scott told me several years ago. “I thought I could park it here and never leave.
It is quite a magical place. I went to some wineries there and I thought this
is something I might come back to.”
returned to Vancouver in 2004, Scott went back to kinesiology but began working
part time with Langley’s Township 7 Winery. The following year, he moved to the Okanagan,
dividing his time between kinesiology, winery work and winery assistant courses
at Okanagan College. He did three crushes at Township 7, teaming up with other
In 2007, he
arranged to do a vintage at the Kim Crawford Winery in New Zealand. “Just
before I left to go there,” Scott said, “I inquired at Adelaide University, and
sent off my transcripts; mentioned that I had done this course up here and that
I had some practical experience, to see if that would get me into the master’s
program.” He was accepted at the Australian wine school early in 2008. He was thinking of staying in Australia when
he the opportunity to return to the Okanagan in 2009 to make wine at La Frenz.
“This is a
place I really wanted to work,” Scott told me in 2009. “This was an opportunity
I couldn’t pass up.”
When he left
La Frenz after the 2012 vintage, Scott intended to go back to Adelaide
University for a doctorate. Instead, he agreed to become the winemaking partner
in Stable Door Cellars in 2013. Unfortunately for Scott, but fortunately for
Little Engine, the partnership collapsed in 2015. Scott was quickly snapped up
by Little Engine.
Engine wines can be called bold. “When Scott, Nicole and I started talking,”
Steven says, “we said when it comes to reds, we want something that is big.
There are a lot of Pinot Noirs in the Okanagan that, in my opinion, are very
subdued. We said to Scott, if we are going to make a Pinot Noir, we want big.
And we will reflect that in our Merlots and Cabernets and blends.” Scott is on
the same page as the owners.
Engine wine portfolio – about 30% of which will be Chardonnay – has three
tiers: Silver, Gold and, for ultra-premium wines, Platinum. The winery has
opened with about 2,500 cases. The target is to grow to 5,000 or 6,000 cases
and to sell most of it from the cellar door.
notes on most of the current releases.
Little Engine Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($28). This is a wine with lush
tropical aromas and flavours. There is lime and grapefruit on the palate. The
wine has a generous texture with enough acidity to highlight bright fruit. 91.
Little Engine Chardonnay 2015 Silver
Label ($33). By
fermenting half of this in barrel and half in tank, the winemaker has retained
bright fruit on the nose and palate – citrus, ripe apple and guava. The
tropical flavours are framed subtly with buttery and toasty oak. 92.
Little Engine Reserve Chardonnay 2014
Gold Label ($55).
This complex and ageworthy wine spent 16 months in French oak. Regular lees
stirring added bready notes to the citrus aroma, as well as a rich texture. On
the palate, the marmalade and guava flavours are framed with oak. The vibrant
acidity allows the wine to show a freshness and a fruitiness that rides on top
of the oak. 93.
Little Engine Reserve Pinot Noir 2014
Gold Label ($55).
Dark in hue, this is a bold Pinot Noir, with aromas and flavours of plum and
cherry. There is appealing spice both in the aroma and on the finish. The ripe
tannins give this a silky texture. 92.
Little Engine Merlot 2015 Silver
Label ($35). This elegant
but full-bodied wine begins with aromas of cassis, blueberry and mulberry. On
the plush palate, there juicy flavours of plum, blackberry and raspberry. The red
and black fruit on the finish is quite persistent. 92.