Wednesday, October 12, 2016

40 Knots Winery has a good summer

Photo: Brenda Hetman-Craig and Layne Craig

In June, I spent an interesting morning at 40 Knots Vineyard & Estate Winery, tasting the wines with owners Brenda Hetman-Craig and here husband, Layne Craig.

Then an avalanche of work intervened.  By the time I got back to my notes, I discovered that most of the wines were sold out. It is now academic that I scored most the wines 90 or higher. It is no wonder that this Comox winery has some bare shelves at end of summer. Consumers found the wines without my help!

What is notable about the success is this: the original owner of 40 Knots, Bill Hamilton, also had good wines on the tasting room shelf when he opened in 2013. But he was overwhelmed both by the demands of the 18-acre vineyard and the challenge of gaining traction in the market.

Soon after opening, he had the winery on the market. “I am 63,” he explained at the time. “I have been living and breathing this place since I started it. As you are well aware, it is seven days a week. I thought we would kind of shut it down at the end of November, come back in February, early March. That’s not the way it works at all. It’s 12 months of the year. We have 40,000 plus vines in the ground. They all have to be pruned.”

Brenda and Layne, on the other hand, are almost a generation younger, with a commensurate energy level.

They came to wine by a circuitous route. Layne grew up in Midale, a small farming and old-producing town in southeastern Saskatchewan. He tried to join the military after high school. “They were not going accept me to fly fast planes because I wear glasses,” he recalls. So he bought some land and began farming.

“I had to get a real job to support my farming habits,” Layne says. “I became a technologist in the oil and gas industry; and I got my pilot’s license.” That enabled him to fly crop-dusting planes and, after the oil industry job took him to Calgary and Fort St. John, to commute back to his farm. Eventually, small-scale farming became uneconomic and he sold his farm, happily into a rising market for agricultural real estate.

He and Brenda both worked for a company called Canadian Natural Resources. “We were in pretty high stress jobs, corporate high stress jobs, and saw it was starting to take a toll on our health,” Brenda says. “We thought we have to slow down and do something different.”

The search for a lifestyle change led them back to Layne’s first love, agriculture. “I have always loved the art of wine, ever since I was 15 years old. I like to read. I would read encyclopedias as a kid. I wouldn’t pick up a novel. I would pick up a manual. Or I would pick up a book of soils, or how to grow … and I would read those.” Winegrowing was farming, after all, and if done right, one can earn a living.

They spent about two years looking for a winery. While the search included the Okanagan, they were drawn to Vancouver Island and the lifestyle there.  The real estate listing for 40 Knots caught Layne’s eye because 40 knots is also the stall speed of his personal aircraft.

40 Knots appealed because Bill Hamilton had not spared any money in developing the winery (right). “It had all the equipment,” Layne says. “It had the right varietals. It had the right terroir. And it is on the ocean. It makes me a rarity in Canada to be one of the few wineries on the ocean.”

He takes advantage of the location to practice an unusual cellar technique: he floods the barrel cellar regularly with salt air. This maintains good humidity for the barrels and may well have subtle positive impact on the aging of the red wines.

The consulting winemaker for 40 Knots is Matt Dumayne (below), the New Zealand-trained winemaker at Okanagan Crush Pad Winery in Summerland. “We had thrown everything into this [winery] and decided we had better get the best winemaker we can, because we didn’t know what we were doing,” Layne says.

While they have an ongoing relationship with Matt, it is obvious that the consultant is training Layne, and that Layne is an able student. “The second time he was up here, Matt said ‘I am going to turn that fellow into a winemaker’,” Brenda says.
“But when Matt started working with us, we said we don’t want this to be a training consultation,” Layne adds. “We do want to learn but we want Matt to maintain being our winemaker. Our goal is to make premium and ultra premium wines. They have to be really good wine.”

The 40 Knots wines are made both from their own grapes (or grapes from elsewhere on Vancouver Island) and from grapes purchased from the Okanagan. They distinguish the wines made from Okanagan fruit with a label, Stall Speed.

The portfolio spans the range from sparkling wine and table wine to fortified and dessert wines. Spindrift Brut 2014 ($36.90) is a bottle-fermented blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The wine is crisp and fresh and provides a display of active bubbles. 90.

The flagship white is Whitecaps 2015 ($18.90), a blend of five estate grown grapes – primarily Pinot Gris, Siegerrebe and Auxerrois with a touch of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It is a delicious aromatic white with spicy aromas, flavours of lime and guava, a juicy texture and a long, long finish. 91.

The winery’s excellent Pinot Gris and Siegerrebe wines are sold out; and there are limited quantities of Viognier and Ortega.

The reds include a Gamay Noir 2015, a flavour-packed wine that I scored 91. Of course, it is now sold out.  However, the Pinot Noir 2015 ($25.90) also scored 91 and is still available.

So is the winery’s Stall Speed Stick Shaker Syrah 2015 ($42.90), a bold and meaty red made with grapes from the south Okanagan.

40 Knots has two wines of special interest. L’Orange Schönburger 2015 ($42.90) is sold out but was the sensation of the tasting room. Matt Dumayne, who also makes so-called orange wine at Okanagan Crush Pad, fermented and aged Schönburger grapes on the skins for some months. The wine, which gets minimal intervention, develops an orange colour and dramatic aromas and flavours.

“We have been keeping a list of some of the flavours that people have found in this wine,” Brenda says. “They include cedar, leather, coriander, crabapple, nutmeg, dill, fennel, black pepper, thyme, rosemary, pine, eucalyptus, pine needles, violets, rose, jasmine, green beans; malt vinegar, walnut and pecan for the tannins, mandarin orange, citrus. Somebody said sawdust, clove, apple cider, saltiness, candied molasses, orange brandy, orange-scented dry erase marker, gooseberry and Saskatoon, cigar box, peach, peach pit, anise, and smells like autumn.”

Did I say the wine is complex? It pairs well with both chocolate and cheese – and probably also with a good cigar.

The other special wine is Trie Emily 2015 ($89.90), a dessert wine reminiscent of Sauternes. Late harvest Pinot Gris, affected by botrytis, was picked and then put into a drying cabinet f0r 46 days to concentrate the sugars and flavours. The juice was pressed at about 38 Brix, fermented slowly until about half the natural sugar had been turned into 10.6% alcohol. Only 179 bottles were made.

I think this is a superb dessert wine (93 points), with honeyed aromas and luscious tropical fruit flavours. The wine is named for a close friend of the 40 Knots owners who helped pick the grapes.


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