Photo: Phantom Creek owner Richter Bai
When the new Phantom Creek Estates winery opens in 2018, both
its premium red wines and the architecturally-stunning winery will cause a
sensation in the Okanagan.
The winery is rising from the former Sundial Vineyard and
the nearby Phantom Creek Vineyard, both purchased earlier this year by China-born
Richmond businessman Richter Bai (Mr. Bai to his winery colleagues).
goal is to produce outstanding wine in Canada,” Bai told me through a
translator. In its first vintage in
2016, Phantom Creek crushed 100 tons of Bordeaux red varietals.
is not another investor parking money in British Columbia real estate. When I
visited the winery during crush last October, I noticed that he was pitching in
with various winery chores, very much the hands-on owner.
has assembled a strong team to run the winery. That includes Phantom Creek’s
recently appointed president, Ingo Grady, a 35-year wine industry veteran who
has been director of wine education for 17 years at Mission Hill Family
Estates. Before that, he ran his own wine import agency for 10 years.
had a big corporation in China,” Bai says. “I understand if you want to do
something that is the best, you must have the best team. If you don’t have the
best persons, then you cannot achieve that goal.”
Bai once owned an iron mine in China’s Shanxi Province and
now operates a flaxseed processing firm in China, managed by his son, Brandon,
30. He immigrated to Canada when his children decided to study at Canadian
Bai says his interest in wine may have been triggered by the
traditional rice wines made in his village in China. “When he came to Vancouver, he discovered some of the
wineries here,” says wine consultant James Cluer MW, who became his coach here.
“In China, he had been fortunate to enjoy a lot of wines. He was a wine lover.
He thought maybe he could realize a dream of actually building a winery in
he committed to a vineyard in the Okanagan, Bai educated himself in the wine
industry by visiting about 100 top-flight wineries in California and Europe. “At
the vast majority, he met the owners and the winemakers, and got the more
in-depth tour and visit,” Cluer says. “And we say a lot of amazing things
because we went to the great producers in those regions.”
business plan came together in July, 2015, with Napa Valley winemaking
consultants Anne and Cameron Vawter joining the Phantom Creek team. In
April, 2016, Bai purchased the 60-acre Sundial Vineyard, a prime site for
Bordeaux varietals that had been planted in 1992 by Harry McWatters. Bai plans to refresh the vineyard with plantings
of newer clones. Organic practices are being adopted gradually.
Bai also bought the nearby Phantom Creek Vineyard, a seven
property where veteran vineyardist Richard Cleave grew Bordeaux reds for some
of the best wines made by Sandhill Vineyards. Bai also tried to buy the nearby
Saddle Ridge Vineyard, a 47-acre Black Sage Road vineyard, only to be thwarted
by Mission Hill Family Estates, which exercised its right of first refusal. Subsequently,
he bought 20 acres, also for reds, nearby on the Black Sage Bench.
were already familiar with these vineyards. In the vintages of 2012, 2013 and
2014, Anne sourced Black Sage Bench grapes to make ultra-premium Bordeaux
blends for One Faith Vineyards. The One Faith wines, currently priced at more
than $165 a bottle, are the most expensive in the Okanagan. The Vawters ended
their consulting to One Faith when they joined the Phantom Creek project in
Anne (right) grew up in Washington State wine country. After
considering a career in dentistry, she got a degree in viticulture and enology
at the University of California, quickly emerging an important consultant
winemaker. Most of her clients (such as Ziata Wines, Oakville Ranch Vineyards
and Teaderman Vineyards) are in Napa
Her husband, Cameron, is the winemaker at Dana Estates at Rutherford. Anne has
her own label, Red Mare Wines, a name inspired by her equestrian interests. She
manages Blossom Creek Ranch, a horse farm in Calistoga.
interest in wine came through my uncle who ran a beer and wine distributorship
in the Seattle Tacoma area,” Anne says. “He introduced my father to good wines.
We lived in Walla Walla. My father would find wines and go on wine lists. I was
one of his children that enjoyed tasting the wines with him, even when I was
little.” She acted on his suggestion that she go to the University of
California to study winemaking.
the 2016 vintage, the Bai group built a temporary winery last summer in the
vineyard (taking out some Cabernet Franc). A large metal-clad building, it
likely will serve future storage needs. Currently, it houses five new oak
fermenters, along with stainless steel tanks, numerous barrels and leading edge
winery equipment including an optical sorting table.
At Phantom Creek (as she did at One Faith), Anne fermented
the Bordeaux red varietals both in oak vats and in French oak barrels,
achieving wines that are bold but accessible. “Tannins are something I focus on a lot as winemaker,” she
says. “As a wine lover, I think delicacy and elegance of tannins is really
important in creating the yum factor. It has to be supple and soft and delicious.”
Phantom Creek is
producing a “flagship” Bordeaux blend, some ultra-premium small lot reds and a
range of varietals that Anne says will be “entry level but not cheap.” She has 52 separate lots of red wine in the
cellar, giving her excellent options for blends.
New Zealand-born Ross Wise (left) joined Phantom Creek in September,
2016, as the fulltime winemaker. He
joined Phantom Creek because it offers “the chance to make nothing but premium
A 2005 enology
graduate of Australia’s Charles Sturt University, Ross came to Canada in 2006,
working as a harvest intern at Flat Rock Cellars in Ontario. He stayed on,
ultimately becoming the winemaker in 2010. In 2012, he launched his own
consulting firm, making wines with several Ontario wineries, most recently Keint-he
Winery and Vineyards, a self-described Burgundian winery in Prince
Edward County. Ross is also studying to
become a Master of Wine.
selling the vineyard in 2016, McWatters had already built the ground floor
(barrel cellars and processing space) for a 35,000-case winery at the top of
the Sundial Vineyard. It was to be called Time Winery and is now being
recreated in a former theatre in downtown Penticton.
group has retained that ground floor, but is extending it to build a 50,000-case
winery. Backen, Gillam and Kroeger, a San Francisco and Napa firm of architects
with a portfolio that includes 40 wineries, has designed Phantom Creek.
are building around and within the Time shell on the hill,” says John Taft,
Backen, Gillam’s senior winery architect. “As you approach from Black Sage
Road, you would come in from the south to the winery. You would come up through
the vineyard. We are building on top of the hill, into the site to take
advantage of the underground spaces which are best for barrels. We will build
new on top. This is the hospitality facility. There is the restaurant where it
has the panoramic view. You get amazing views from the hospitality room,
looking straight south down the valley.”
winery’s underground cellars are designed both for handling wines by gravity
and for allowing customers to tour the entire facility. Taft’s model includes a
cellar for large oak vats and another of Alsace-style oak foudres for future white
No whites were made
in 2016 at Phantom Creek, aside from Riesling Icewine. The Chardonnay grapes at
Sundial were sold last fall. The block may be replanted with red varietals in a
gradual renewal of the vineyard planned to begin in two years.
Creek is looking elsewhere in the Okanagan for Riesling and Pinot Gris for
table wines. The winery is considering making those wines in a joint venture with
a major Alsace producer, whose name has not yet been disclosed.