Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tasting with Howard Soon and friends

Photo: Howard Soon

Howard Soon is marking his 30th year as an Okanagan winemaker. He started with Calona Wines in 1980. Today, he is the winemaster at Sandhill Wines, the 2009 Canadian Winery of the year.

He also has some oversight for the team of brilliant female winemakers at the Calona (Katie Dickieson), Peller (Stephanie Leinemann) and Red Rooster (Karen Gillis), all of which are owned by Andrew Peller Ltd. Peller bought Calona, Sandhill and Red Rooster in 2005.

Because Peller has invested in vineyards and better winery equipment as well as personnel, these wineries are producing the best wines in their history. For example, at the spring wine festival competition in the Okanagan, three Sandhill wines, including a Viognier, won best of varietal awards, with Red Rooster’s Viognier as a runner-up. Peller’s Cabernet Franc was judged the best of that variety. Peller, Sandhill and Red Rooster had plenty of other wines that made it into the finals.

The good news for consumers is that most of the wines from these four wineries are still selling for less than $20 a bottle. The Sandhill Small Lots wines are more but they are worth every penny being asked for them.

Modest, down-to-earth and good-humoured, Howard has never let his success go to his head. For much of his career, he has worked from a funky office in the bowels of the Calona winery, a place with the decor of the workshop in your father’s garage. “I don’t spend much time in my office anyway,” Howard shrugs. He is very much a hands-on winemaker.

Recently, Howard and his team hosted me to a tasting of wines that either have just been released or are about to be released. Some of the prices here may be those of the previous vintage because websites have not always been updated. (The Peller website lacks prices entirely.) It is unlikely that prices have changed very much, however.

Here are my notes:

Calona Artist Series Sovereign Opal 2009 ($12.99). This is the only wine grape to emerge commercially from breeding at the Summerland Research Station and Calona has tied up all the grapes. The wine is exotic, with spicy aromas and peach flavours and an off-dry but well-balanced finish. The wine always reminds me of Argentina’s equally exotic white, the Torrontes. 88.

Calona Artist Series Gewürztraminer 2009 ($13.99). A juicy wine with lychee and spicy flavours and a rose petal aroma. The finish is dry. 88.

Calona Artist Series Cabernet Merlot 2008 ($14.99). A wine with bright berry flavours, with long ripe tannins giving it a soft, full texture. 88.

Calona Artist Series Merlot 2008 ($14.99). This quaffable wine has flavours of plums with a moderately jammy core of fruit. 87.

Peller Chardonnay Private Reserve 2009 ($NA). An elegant wine, with expressive aromas and flavours of citrus and a hint of butterscotch. 90.

Peller Pinot Blanc Private Reserve 2009 ($NA). The wine has the classic green apple flavours of this variety, with nice weight on the palate and with a crisp, refreshing finish. 88.

Peller Pinot Gris Private Reserve 2009 ($NA). Tasting of ripe pears, this is a rich wine with, in the Alsace style, a touch of warmth from its 14.5% alcohol. 87

Peller Cabernet Franc Family Series 2008 ($NA). A lively red with berry and cola flavours. 88.

Red Rooster Rosé 2009 ($15.99). Made in the south-of-France style, this dry rosé is made with Cabernet Franc juice, giving a hint of cranberry to the flavour. 87.

Red Rooster Viognier 2009 ($16.99). A lovely white with flavours of pineapple, peach and apricot. It is rich on the palate but with the classic firm and dry finish of this variety. 89.

Red Rooster Reserve Chardonnay 2008 ($21.99). A bargain considering the wine was fermented in new French oak barrels. It begins with powerful aromas of oak and butterscotch and toast. There are tangerine and mango flavours. This is a Chardonnay with power. 88.

Red Rooster Pinot Gris 2009 ($16.99). This wine has mouth-filling flavours of pineapple, pears and citrus, with a long, satisfying finish. 90.

Red Rooster Pinot Blanc 2009 ($16.99). Crisp and fresh, this wine has bracing apple flavours, a rich palate and a flinty finish. 90.

Red Rooster Riesling 2009 ($15.99). An off-dry wine, this begins with citrus aromas, juicy, sweet tangerine flavours and a hint of the oiliness that Riesling develops with time in the bottle. Now, it is a fine aperitif with the potential to age into a complex wine in a couple of years. 88.

Red Rooster Merlot Reserve 2008 ($29.99). Here is a generous red with ripe berry flavours and a long finish. 89.

Red Rooster Malbec Reserve 2008 ($22.98). A chewy, concentrated red with bright flavours of blackberry and currant. 89.

Sandhill Pinot Gris 2009 King Family Vineyards ($18.99). This wine has a laser-like focus and freshness, with tangy citrus, pear and melon flavours and with an attractive spicy note in the aroma. 90.

Sandhill Small Lots Viognier 2009 Osprey Vineyard ($24.99). The fruity aromas are so dramatic that an involuntary “Wow” came from my mouth when I put my nose into the glass. On the palate, there are layers and layers of peach, apricot, pineapple and other tropical fruits. 92.

Sandhill Rosé 2009 ($17.99). Fairly dark for a rosé, this juicy wine has strawberry and cherry flavours but a firm, dry finish. 88.

Sandhill Cabernet Franc 2008 ($19.99). The classic brambly, lively red that this variety delivers. 88.

Sandhill Cabernet Merlot 2008 ($19.99). A wine with a firm structure, this needs to be cellared another year before the lively fruit flavours show as well as they usually do in this consumer favourite. 89.

Sandhill Syrah 2007 ($21.99). A firm earthy red with flavours of spicy black cherries. 88.

Sandhill Small Lots Sangiovese 2007 ($29.99). Aromas and spicy cherry flavours recalling Black Forest Cake. 89.

Sandhill Small Lots Syrah 2007 Phantom Creek Vineyard ($34.99) A bold, gamey wine with aromas of deli meats and berries; with flavours of black cherries. The long ripe tannins give this length and richness. 91

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rocky Creek's 2009s show the promise of that island vintage

As any Vancouver Island vintner will tell you, the 2009 vintage was one of the finest on record, and a welcome relief after the miserably cool and wet vintages of 2007 and 2008.

Wines from those earlier vintages often were thin and acidic. Solid wines were made by those vintners who took extraordinary measures to get their grapes ripe. However, you needed either to know who the good farmers were or to taste the wines before buying.

It will be a lot less chancy buying the 2009s. The long, warm summer and autumn ripened grapes in coastal vineyards, producing aromatic wines that are harmonious and full of flavour.

Three samples from Rocky Creek Winery at Duncan illustrate the glory of the 2009 vintage.

Rocky Creek is the winery that Linda and Mark Holford opened in 2005 in the basement of their home in suburban Ladysmith. A chemical engineer and a veteran home winemaker, Mark, who was born in 1968, had been thinking of a winery as a future retirement project until discovering he could open without a vineyard as long as he got a commercial license. Rocky Creek was by far the smallest commercial winery in British Columbia.

The other winery license in British Columbia, the land-based license, requires the winery to own a vineyard or a berry patch. It is economically more favourable for a small winery. Thus, in 2008, Mark and Linda moved to a farm in the Cowichan Valley and planted both grapes and blackberries, qualifying as a land-based winery.

Why would anyone plant blackberries when that invasive species would take over all of Vancouver Island if not controlled? Because the regulators insist that land-based wineries that make blackberry wine actually grow some of their berries. The requirement is a bit absurd but then, so are other liquor regulations. Wineries have learned to live with the little absurdities.

Although Rocky Creek’s own grape vines are not yet producing fully, the winery has had other sources of grapes. The winery now has 5.5 acres of estate vineyard and leases another five acres of producing vineyards (one near Chemainus, one near Rocky Creek).

Rocky Creek has a focussed portfolio that includes a dessert-style blackberry wine, a sparkling wine, a pinot noir and the three whites reviewed here. The bubble, called Katherine’s Sparkle, was first made in the 2008 vintage and is sold out at the winery. The 2009 vintage of this wine is due for release this fall.

All the current releases sell for $20 a bottle (the blackberry is released in a half bottle format). All are sealed with a unique Australian closure, called the ZORK, a clever re-sealable plastic closure. To the best of my knowledge, Rocky Creek is the only British Columbia winery so far to adopt this closure. It makes it very easy to open the bottles and you don’t need a cork puller.

The wines:

Rocky Creek Ortega 2009. This German-developed white has now proven its worth when it comes to yielding good wines in cool climates. This wine begins with an inviting aroma of gooseberries and herbs. On the palate, there are flavours of citrus and melon. The dry, herbal finish has an intriguing note of arugula. 88-90.

Rocky Creek Pinot Gris 2009. The slightly pink blush of this wine indicates that Mark left the juice in contact with the skins to pick up a little extra colour and flavour. The wine begins with delicate fruit aromas (pink grapefruit) with flavours of pears, apples, papaya and even mango. Finishing dry, the wine is crisp and refreshing. 89-90.

Rocky Creek Robin’s Rosé 2009. Since the winery has only released 100 cases, I suspected that, as in 2008, Mark bled a bit of juice from his Pinot Noir with the twin objective of making a darker Pinot Noir and a charming rosé. On the contrary, he sourced Pinot Noir from a new vineyard and crushed it specifically for this wine. The wine’s cherry hue is appealing, as are the aromas and flavours of raspberry and strawberry. Finishing dry, this is a solid food wine. 87.

Rocky Creek Wild Blackberry 2008. A wine with 16% alcohol fermented naturally, this is a rich wine with, as you would expect, tons of the familiar aroma and flavour of the Himalayan blackberry. This is Rocky Creek’s most popular wine, good with cheese or, as the website says, over ice cream. In some years, it was my favourite Rocky Creek wine as well but now I think the 2009s leave it in the shade. 85.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A preview of Painted Rock's 2008 Red Icon

Photos: Painted Rock proprietor John Skinner (top) and winemaker Gavin Miller (bottom)
The first wines released last fall by Painted Rock Estate Winery - reds from 2007, a Chardonnay from 2008 – were widely acclaimed by restaurateurs and wine critics.

Here is an insider tip after a barrel tasting at the winery: for its coming second release, Painted Rock has done even better. Red Icon 2008, its flagship wine, is arguably better than the 2007.

Since barrel tastings may not be available to everyone who visits Painted Rock, I will titillate you with a few notes on the wines I tasted, including an unexpected wine – a junior Red Icon that will be called Echo, which is made with the wines remaining after Red Icon is blended. In the tradition of the premium second labels from great Bordeaux wineries, Echo will be less expensive than its big brother and is made for more immediate consumption.

Painted Rock has just opened what is perhaps the Okanagan’s smallest tasting room on its vineyard overlooking Skaha Lake. The property is just beside the access road to the famed Skaha climbing bluffs (the road is now a paved road, thanks to the winery). Painted Rock’s address is 400 Smythe Drive, just off winding Eastside Road about 10 minutes south of Penticton. There are signs to both the winery and the climbing bluffs.

The tasting room is small because it is a temporary facility. The building formerly served as the lunchroom for vineyard workers. Now that their lunchroom is in the nearby winery, Painted Rock owner John Skinner turned the building into a stopgap tasting room. He certainly plans a grand tasting room in the future to capitalize on the spectacular views, but the priority now is getting the winery business firmly established.

This property, which John bought in 2004, was once part of the world’s largest apricot farm, or so legend has it. It had been fallow for a number of years. Before vines were planted, the property was sculpted into west-facing contours sloping down toward the lake. The 30-acre vineyard includes the five Bordeaux reds, two clones of Syrah and a block of Chardonnay. While there is a little more room for vines, John seems in no rush to get big. He says that Painted Rock will never produce more than 5,000 cases a year.

A former stock broker, John has involved several top consultants to advise him on the vineyard and the winemaking. One of these is Alain Sutre, a Bordeaux wine guru who consults internationally. His initial contract was for two years. This spring, he asked for an extension.

“I think you own the Pétrus of the Okanagan,” he told John, “and I want to stay on.” High praise, indeed, for the vineyard and what it has begun to produce, although a bit unsettling, considering that Château Pétrus is the world’s most expensive wine.

Alain comes to Painted Rock six or eight times a year, notably when winemaker Gavin Miller needs to blend the wines. Alain’s international experience as a blender may be a big reason why the Red Icon is such an exceptional wine.

What makes the wine singular is that about 20% Petit Verdot is in the blends of both the 2007 and the 2008. It is unusual to find a Bordeaux blend with more than five per cent of Petit Verdot. Most French winemakers use it like spice in cooking.

Winemakers are concerned that the variety’s tannins and its unique perfume will be too dominant. That may be true in Bordeaux but the variety seems to express itself more harmoniously at the “Pétrus of the Okanagan” vineyard.

Red Icon 2008 is 30% Merlot, 25% Malbec, 25% Cabernet Franc, 20% Petit Verdot and, in another departure from usual blending, no Cabernet Sauvignon. By comparison, the 2007 is 33% Cabernet Franc, 20% Petit Verdot,
16% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot and 15 % Malbec. No doubt, the 2009 blend will be different again – whatever yields the best-tasting wine, according to the palates of Alain, Gavin and John.

The 2008 begins with inviting areas of cassis and spice cake, leading to sweet berry flavours … a touch of cherry, a touch of blackberry and currant and a hint of vanilla and chocolate. The tannins are ripe and silky. The wine is very elegant with a long, long finish. 94. The current release sells for $55.

The winery will also be releasing a Merlot 2008 (silky tannins, concentrated blackberry and plum flavours) and a Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (dark in colour, with layers of cassis, minerals, chocolate and vanilla). I scored both about 90. The current releases sell for $40 each

As for Echo 2009, which is about 65% Merlot, it has not yet finished its time in barrel. However, the tank sample I tasted was delicious, full of sweet berry flavours set against the ripe, silky tannins that this site seems to produce.

Barrel samples of the 2009 Syrah are also delicious, with each clone bringing flavours to the final blend, not yet made.

Finally, Chardonnay 2009, the winery’s second vintage, is also a winner. It begins dramatically with aromas of sweet sage and flowers. The fruit flavours are bright (the winemaker put none of the wine through malolactic fermentation), with notes of grapefruit, lime, tangerine and nectarine. The oak and lees flavours are very subtle. 91. The current release sells for $30.

Was I impressed? You bet I was.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Quails' Gate's 2010 Spring Release Wines

Photo: Vineyard at Quails' Gate

Tony Stewart, who runs family-owned Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, accompanied the winery’s spring releases this spring with some interesting comments on the 2009 growing season.

The Stewarts have more history with Okanagan vintages than most wine growing families. Richard Stewart, Tony’s father, was a founding member in 1961 of the Association of British Columbia Grape Growers, a grower lobby group.

Two years later, he began planting what is now the Quails’ Gate Boucherie Vineyard in West Kelowna. The following year, he and Calona Wines, partnered to develop one of the first vineyards on Black Sage Road.

Last fall, when a sharp frost snapped across the Okanagan at Thanksgiving, Tony Stewart could report that this was the earliest on record – “arriving a full two weeks ahead of our father’s earliest severe frost memory of October 26.”

Normally, one would expect a devastated vintage from an early frost which killed the leaves on the vines and stopped grape maturity in its tracks. “Fortunately, due to the unusually warm days in the summer and a very favourable September all varieties achieved or exceeded target ripeness,” Tony said in a covering letter with the wines.

After that early frost, he worried that a brutal winter would follow. That was not the case, however. There was a mild winter and an early spring. It looks like the 2010 vintage “is off to a great beginning.”

The winery’s spring release wines actually cover three vintages, all of them excellent, judging from the quality of these wines. Here are my notes.

Quails’ Gate 2009 Rosé ($14.99). The winery has released 3,200 cases of a thoroughly delicious dry rosé made with Gamay grapes. It has juicy flavours of strawberries and rhubarb with an intriguing hint of spice on the finish. Great value for one of the Okanagan’s best rosé wines. 90.

Quails’ Gate 2009 Chasselas-Pinot Blanc-Pinot Gris ($17.99). One of the winery’s most quaffable whites, this is 50% Chasselas from some old vines in the winery vineyard. The blend also includes 35% Pinot Blanc and 15% Pinot Gris. This is a big volume blend at 9,200 cases and, with a moderate 12% alcohol, is an ideal summer and luncheon white. Refreshing and light, it has flavours of citrus, melons and apples, with a juicy texture on the palate and just a hair of sweetness. 89.

Quails’ Gate 2008 Chardonnay ($$18.99). The winery has released 5,460 cases of this attractive wine. Sixty-five percent was barrel-fermented (only 20% of the barrels were new) and the remainder was fermented in stainless steel. This gave winemaker Grant Stanley the opportunity to blend a fruit-forward wine with only subtle oak, in a style deliberately different from the winery’s reserve Chardonnay. There are notes of citrus on the nose and the palate. The hint of oak and of the lees fleshes out the wine which, nevertheless, finishes with a clean, focussed and refreshing crispness. 90.

Quails’ Gate 2008 Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay ($29.99). The winery released 2,150 six-bottle cases of this, its premium Chardonnay. All the stops were pulled out to make this wine: fruit from older vines fully barrel-fermented in French oak (50% new) and put through complete malolactic fermentation. The result is a rich wine, toasty and buttery on the nose, with flavours of peach, tangerine, butterscotch and with a finish that goes on forever. The wine is drinking well now but also has the structure to age for several more years, in the manner of a fine white Burgundy. 92.

Quails’ Gate 2008 Pinot Noir ($24.99). If anyone knows how to grow Pinot Noir in the Okanagan, it is the Stewart family, which has been growing it since 1975. The vineyard now boasts multiple clones, giving the winemaker superb blending options. This wine, of which 7,424 cases is released, begins with an appealing and brilliant ruby hue. The aromas suggests black cherries and raspberries, influenced by the smoky, toasted hints of French oak (only 15% new). On the palate, there are ripe flavours of spicy cherry. The texture is the classic velvet of good Pinot Noir. 88.

Quails’ Gate 2007 Merlot ($24.99). This wine (7,960 cases releases) is a remarkable example of good farming, with 90% of the fruit coming the Quails’ Gate vineyard on the slope of Mt. Boucherie and only 10% from the much warmer terroir of Osoyoos. Yet this is a fine, ripe wine with lifted berry aromas surging from the glass. On the palate, there are appealing flavours of blackberry with a hint of vanilla from the 18 months of barrel aging. The fine ripe tannins supported concentrated flavours and textures of a red that will cellar well for at least five more years. 88-90.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

East Kelowna winemakers on the move

Photo: Bernhard Schirrmeister, now of The View Winery

There has been a shifting of winemaker musical chairs among Kelowna area wineries this month.

It began when St. Hubertus and Oak Bay Estate Winery parted company abruptly with winemaker Hooman Haft Baradaran, a German of Iranian descent who came to St. Hubertus in 2008.

The winery had completed bottling several of its 2009 vintages (Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Rosé) before Hooman left, presumably not on the best terms. As a stop gap measure, St. Hubertus was able to call in Tom DiBello, now a consulting winemaker in the Okanagan since leaving CedarCreek in March. Tom has apparently agreed to help St. Hubertus with the production of its Pinot Noir this fall. That should excite the followers of St. Hubertus because Tom has strong skills in making Pinot Noir.

For the moment, Hooman is without a chair. That may not last long, given his résumé. Born in 1973, he first took a degree in hotel management and then worked as a sommelier at various top European hotels, including Claridge’s in London. Then he switched to winemaking, getting that training at Brighton University in Britain and in wineries in Greece, Germany and Washington State before coming to the Okanagan two years ago.

His replacement at St. Hubertus is a native of Cahors in France, Marie-Thérese Duarte, who has a master’s in winemaking from a university in Toulouse. Now in her mid-30s, she worked in California before coming to the Okanagan in 2007 “to get some knowledge at making Icewine,” she told me. She worked initially at the Rollingdale winery where Icewine is something of a specialty.

The following year, she moved to The View Winery & Vineyard in East Kelowna, taking the place of Markus Haken, the German-born winemaker that made The View’s first vintage in 2007. Not keen on making apple cider – a sister company at The View makes thousands of litres a year – he had decided to return to Germany.

He was in Canada in the first place at the suggestion of a fellow German winemaker, Bernhard Schirrmeister, who had referred him when The View was recruiting initially.

Bernhard and Markus are both German-trained winemakers with impressive résumés. Bernhard, who had been attracted to the Okanagan after vacationing here, joined Lang Vineyards in 2005. When Lang was acquired later that year by the Holman Lang group, Bernhard became the group’s senior winemaker. He left there abruptly in February this year.

Now in an ironic full circle, Bernhard has been named the new winemaker at The View. He has no problem with making apple wines, having grown up in an area of Germany where such production is common.

The 40-acre vineyard at The View (so named because of the spectacular view over the valley and the city of Kelowna) provides Bernhard an interesting mix of opportunities. The plantings include Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Ehrenfelser and Optima, varieties with which he should be familiar. There is also a block of Baco Noir which, until now, has been sold to other wineries.

Of greatest interest, The View has the Okanagan’s largest block of Pinotage vines, mostly young, plus a South African vineyard manager to look after them. The winery’s current releases include a promising 2008 Pinotage and a tasty 2009 rosé called Distraction, which is 90% Pinotage, 10% Gewürztraminer.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cerelia Vineyards' Roman Reds

Photo: Megan Mutch

The story is told that Pan American Airways, on its flights to Rome during the second Vatican Council, offered menus in Latin to clerics on those aircraft.

For the next conclave in Rome, might I suggest the two red wines just released by Cerelia Vineyards & Estate Winery in the Similkameen Valley, if only because the vintage dates are in Roman numerals on the front labels. Of course, for those not literate in old Roman, the back labels provide the vintages in modern numerals.

Curiously, this is one of two British Columbia wineries that uses Roman numerals or names. The other is Cassini Cellars near Oliver in the Okanagan, whose big red is called Maximus. Now, there might be a minor risk in that. I doubt that younger wine consumers learned either Roman numerals or Latin in school while the older generation has probably forgotten what little Latin they learned.

We may be speaking of a dead language – but there is plenty of life in the wines, the first reds from Cerelia, a winery that was launched last summer by David and Dennis Mutch; and their wives Peggy and Roxanne; and David’s daughter, Megan, and her husband, Corey Witter. Tourists who call at the Cawston winery experience the special charm that warms this family winery’s tasting room.

I am not clear who is the Latin scholar among them. They tell me that Cerelia was a harvest festival of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. The uses of Roman numerals flows from the choice of that name.

Megan, a former pharmacy technician, is the winemaker, having taken the Okanagan College winemaking course. She has been mentored through her initial vintages by an excellent coach, John Weber, the co-owner and winemaker at nearby Orofino Vineyards.

The winery debuted last year with a good Pinot Gris and a good unoaked Chardonnay, both from the MMVIII vintage (translation: 2008). The two reds made in that vintage have now come out of their barrels and are being released as well. The good news is that these are well made and well priced reds. The bad news is that the quantity is limited.

These are young reds that will age well for several more years. They taste good now, however, because the tannins have been managed very well. Both spent 16 months in oak barrels, 80% of which were neutral. This certainly helped give the wines round, elegant textures. There is no harshness but rather textures that are rich and ripe. To be sure, both wines opened to become even more appealing after breathing in a decanter. That is as it should be with competently-made reds.

Cerelia Cabernet Franc MMVIII (75 cases at $25 a bottle) shows all the brambly aromas and flavours that are the hallmark of ripe Cabernet Franc. There are flavours of blackberry, black cherry, spice and chocolate. When the wine opened, it delivered a big punch of sweet fruit flavours. I rated the wine 88 when I first opened it and 90 a few hours later.

Cerelia Misceo MMVIII (280 cases at $23 a bottle) is a blend of 60% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. (Misceo, which is pronounced mis-say-oh, apparently in Latin for blend.) This wine is a bit firmer and perhaps more age worthy than the Cabernet Franc; it opened nicely overnight. It begins with berry aromas that signal flavours of black currants, black berries and plums. Rich in texture, it showed chocolate and spiced black cherry flavours with a bit of breathing. It also gained points over a few hours, finishing at 90.

What can one say about Cerelia’s excellent red wine debut? In vino veritas!.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

New Okanagan wineries blossom this spring

Photos: Anthony (left) and Wyn Lewis; Okanagan Villa Estate Winery

New winery openings are a sure a sign of spring in the Okanagan as the cherry blossoms.

Four wineries, two of which are selling wine for the first time, opened new tasting rooms at the end of the first week of May. Another three are expected to open in June or July. This brings the winery population in British Columbia comfortably above 200.

Okanagan Villa Estate Winery, perched on a plateau with a dramatic view over Kelowna and the Okanagan Valley, opened in East Kelowna last Saturday. The tasting room and wine shop are in a restored heritage house at 3240 Pooley Road. You can’t miss it: it is a bright yellow cottage surrounded by vineyard. There are two bed and breakfast rooms on the second floor. Telephone: 250-762-5405.

The winery is operated by Wyn Lewis, a retired banker, his wife, Marion, and their three sons, including winemaker Anthony, a rock and jazz musician. The business plan calls for the production of white wines. The Lewis family planted only whites: Riesling, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer, varieties they believe are most suited to their vineyard.

Wyn and Marion, who were both born in Wales, came to Canada in 1975, soon after they graduated from Cambridge (engineering and botany, respectively). Shortly after, they went to California where Wyn joined the Wells Fargo Bank. He was the bank’s director of international operations before retiring in 2000.

In 2003 Wyn and Marion decided to move to Victoria. But before they began looking for property there, they were advised to check out the Okanagan. The region’s beauty captivated them. They found an apple orchard in East Kelowna. Even with the smoke and flames of the Okanagan Mountain forest fire billowing up not far away, they signed the deal to purchase this spectacular view property. In a few years, vines had replaced most of the orchard.

Their three sons, who toured successfully for a decade with their own band, have also become involved in the wine project. Anthony, the winemaker, is a music producer who has been involved in recording more than 100 albums for a variety of bands. Winemaker, he says, is like sound mixing.

His brother, Phil, is an artist. His paintings have been adapted for Okanagan Villa’s edgy labels. The bottle of one wine, a Gewürztraminer blend called The Vibrant Wine, is wrapped totally with a shrink-wrap label. The other wines are a juicy Riesling and a fine Chardonnay. All sell for $30 each.

“If I could only make one wine, I would make just Chardonnay,” Anthony says.

Photo: Bobby Gidda

Volcanic Hills Estate Winery at 2845 Boucherie Road in West Kelowna, is a week or two away from opening its tasting room. However, winery president Bobby Gidda and his father, Sarwan, hosted an open house on the weekend. Telephone 778-755-5550.

You definitely cannot miss this winery, a 20,000-square-foot building on the east side of heavily-travelled Boucherie Road. This is the latest in the growing cluster of wineries in this neighbourhood (Beaumont, Little Straw, Mt. Boucherie, Mission Hill and Quails’ Gate).

Volcanic Hills is opening with five well-crafted and well-priced wines: a Gewürztraminer, a Pinot Gris, a Gamay, a Syrah and a Chardonnay Icewine. I enjoyed them all but I was particularly taken with the rich and peppery Syrah, a bargain at $23.90.

Photos: Decoa and Jeff Harder; Ex Nihilo winery
Ex Nihilo Vineyards (1525 Camp Road, Lake Country, 250-766-5522) has been selling its wines for two years but has only just competed an attractive tasting room. Again, this forms part of a growing cluster of wineries that justify a trip down Camp Road (Gray Monk, Arrowleaf).

Decoa and Jeff Harder, owners of this winery with Alberta livestock dealers Jay and Twyla Paulson, made an initial splash by releasing a Rolling Stones-branded icewine. They followed that up by winning gold medals at the Riesling du Monde competition for both the winery’s 2007 and its 2008 (the current release) Riesling.

The tasting room is worth a stop, both to view the art displayed in these elegant surroundings and to taste excellent wines, most of which I rate 90 or better. The current releases include Pinot Gris ($19.50), Riesling ($22), Merlot ($34.95) and a delicious Bordeaux blend called Night ($39.95).

Photos: David Paterson; Tantalus Winery
Tantalus Vineyards (1-877-764-0078) opened its new winery on Saturday at 1670 Dehart Road in Kelowna. There is plenty of art on display here as well and a tasting room with floor to ceiling windows that look over vineyard and the city beyond. Take some time to note the many energy efficient features of the building, including the clever use of natural light throughout.

Tantalus is already established as one of the leading Riesling producers in the Okanagan, with two examples. The “regular” Riesling is $22.90 and is an intense wine with lime flavour notes, bright acidity and a crisp, refreshing finish. The Old Vines Riesling ($29.90) is an intense, laser-focused, mineral-rich classic dry Riesling.

Australian-trained winemaker David Paterson, who joined Tantalus last year, has been bringing the winery’s Pinot Noir up to the same quality level as the Riesling. The new release is the 2008 ($29.90) is an attractive velvet-textured charmer.

In 2009 David also made a juicy rosé for Tantalus, using Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. The wine has flavours of raspberry and a refreshing, dry finish.

And the three Okanagan wineries in the wings:

Krāzē Legz Vineyard and Winery at 141 Fir Avenue in Kaleden (250-497-6957) hopes to have its tasting room construction completed by June 1.

Ancient Hill Vineyards at 4918 Anderson Road, Kelowna (250-491-2766), just east of Kelowna International Airport, expects to open in July (having been delayed by the late arrival of bottling equipment from Europe.)

Serendipity Winery at 990 Debeck Road, Naramata (250-496-5299) has just begun construction of a winery and tasting room. However, the wines are just appearing on the market and owner Judy Kingston will do tastings by appointment. A Viognier ($24) and a white blend ($18) are just being released and a red Bordeaux blend will be ready shortly. The latter wine, called Serenata, is $29.90 if ordered prior to release.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Court settles ownership of Therapy Vineyards

Photo: John McBean

It is never helpful to a consumer products company like a winery to have its dirty laundry out in public.

But that is just what has happened to Therapy Vineyards, the fine Naramata winery involved in a tumultuous divorce between one of its founders, John McBean, and the rest of its shareholders.

Late last month, British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Eric Rice handed down a judgment that confirms the 2008 removal of McBean as general partner. The judge noted that “the insults travelled in both directions” between McBean and the investors who revolted against his management.

There is at least one more shoe to drop. McBean still has an action before the courts involving payments allegedly due to his management company.

While none of this should impact the quality of Therapy’s wines, it certainly distracts the current managers from running the business in a competitive market.

McBean is an Alberta businessman and a long time wine lover. For many years, he ran the Opimian Society in southern Alberta. During an Opimian Society wine tour in the Okanagan, he discovered that the property and vineyard of the original Red Rooster winery was for sale. He put together a limited partnership to raise the necessary funds and, in 2004, the partnership bought the property.

The following summer, they launched Therapy Vineyards, a name inspired by the serene beauty of the vineyard. The winery’s labels mimic Rorschach inkblots, a controversial tool of psychoanalysts. Now, there seems a certain irony in that, given the dysfunctional relationships among the winery’s owners.

The trouble blew up in early 2008. Justice Rice picks up the tale in his judgment: “The management of the Partnership didn’t quite ‘click’ as they say. By 2008 some of the Limited Partners were complaining that Mr. McBean failed to consult them well enough, that he treated the business as if it were his own. There were chronic complaints of delays in financial reporting, and fears expressed that his plans were too grandiose and expensive.”

By that time, Therapy had begun building its current winery, a well-equipped facility with the capacity to produce substantially more wine that it was then making.

By May 2008, the partners, led by Tsawwassen businessman Rick Connors, began gathering information on the business. That convinced them, Justice Rice writes, “that there were serious financial problems developing, including unpaid creditors, cancellations of key suppliers, and inadequate funds to pay key employees, and reports held back because Mr. McBean refused to sign them.”

The issue came to a head at a May 7 meeting. McBean was asked to resign and refused. Then at a May 29 meeting of the investors (there were 126 owning 175 partnership units), the investors voted 145 to nothing to remove McBean as general partner.

Several days earlier, he had made a pre-emptive strike against what he considered a “palace revolt.” He fired Marcus Ansems, the winemaker and general manager the winery. He also fired Rachel Ansems, the winemaker’s wife who was the winery’s accountant and he got rid of the winery’s accounting firm.

“Mr. McBean refused to accept … that he was no longer General Partner,” Justice Rice wrote. “Allegedly he changed the locks to the buildings … and hired security guards, and demanded that Mr. Ansems leave the premises with no right to return to attend on an urgent basis to the processing of the wine.”

The Connors group responded on June 8, 2008, by putting Therapy Vineyards in the hands of Grant Thornton Ltd., a receiver, in order to stabilize the business. McBean had replaced the tasting room staff with employees who had limited experience with making sales and who lacked the necessary Serving It Right certificates required by liquor regulators.

It was a chaotic summer; even construction on the winery was suspended a few months and the building was not completed by the harvest of 2008. Eventually, the receiver handed the business back to the investors who now had Rick Connors as general partner. Ansems, a veteran Australian vintner, handled most of the 2008 crush before turning the cellar over to a new winemaker, Stephen Latchford. (Ansems then left to run a wine import club.)

In the case that came before Judge Rice, McBean was challenging his messy removal. The judge found that procedural errors made by the investors were not serious enough to reverse McBean’s removal, given that the investors had twice voted overwhelming to get rid of him.

“In my view, the Connors Group acted in the reasonable belief that the Partnership was in financial danger, but with undue haste,” the judge wrote. “As for Mr. McBean’s likening the removal to an ambush, I cannot agree. I cannot accept that he was taken by surprise. He ought to have known that a battle was brewing.”

Saturday, May 1, 2010

An evening with [yellow tail] wines


Four samples of [yellow tail] wines arrived at my door on the very afternoon that we were going to a potluck dinner party.

Since I had committed to bringing wines, I shelved my earlier plans and took the four samples instead. At the end of the dinner, one of the guests smacked his lips over the Cabernet Sauvignon and said: “Well, I will rethink my views on [yellow tail]!”

An odd comment – and I never had a chance to ask him just what his views had been. I suspect that he picked up from somewhere the dismissive attitude that[yellow tail] can’t be all that special because the brand is everywhere.

But that is exactly why the brand is special. The Australian brand, which was only launched in 2001, is such a big success because consumers keep buying it. It is the biggest Australian brand in many markets, including British Columbia.

The top-selling red wine in the B.C. liquor stores for several years has been [yellow tail] Shiraz, which has generally outsold the next most popular wine, Jackson-Triggs Merlot, two to one.

Currently, the Liquor Distribution Branch has about 56,000 bottles of various [yellow tail] wines; at least 15 are listed, including two sparkling wines. The brand is bigger than a lot of British Columbia wineries.

In fact, [yellow tail] may be suffering from its own success. The brand has become so ubiquitous that some consumers have begun to look for the next hot brand. Wine brands do have cycles of fashion. About the time that the [yellow tail] brand was created, the hot brand in B.C. liquor stores was Farnese from Italy. It is still here and the three listings, at $8.99 and $9.99, undersell [yellow tail] ($12.99 to $17.99) by a considerable margin. But the LDB stocks only 5,600 bottles now, a long way from the numbers when consumers were buying it by the case.

The next hot thing may be Malbec from Argentina, although the category of shared among about 50 wineries. The top brands are Finca Los Primos ($10.99, 7,900 bottles in the LDB), Fuzion ($8.99, 7,200 bottles) and Finca Flichman ($9.99, 5,300 bottles).

However, [yellow tail] spreads its success across more varietals and styles than any Argentina producer.

Photo: the late Filippo Casella and family

The brand is produced by Casella Wines, a winery started by the Filippo Casella, who just died last October. He and his family moved to Australia from Italy in 1951 and established a winery eight years later. Casella was largely a bulk wine producer before [yellow tail] took off. According to, the winery now has global sales of about 12 million cases.

In recent years, the winery has expanded its range, adding several reserve wines, a rosé and two sparkling wines. The strategy gives the [yellow tail] consumer and opportunity to move up to premium wines after a long love affair with the regular wines.

My sampler pack of four wines included:

[yellow tail] Pinot Grigio 2009 ($12.99). Light and fresh, with notes of citrus and apples, this is an uncomplicated white best consumed as an aperitif.

[yellow tail] Riesling 2009 ($12.99). This has a little more personality than the Pinot Grigio, with aromas and flavours of citrus and other tropical fruits. Unlike many Australian Rieslings, which are bone dry, this has enough residual sugar to fatten up the texture.

[yellow tail] Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($12.99). This wine was the crowd pleaser at my dinner party. The wine is big, with spicy and jammy flavours of blackberry and with soft tannins. The wine is made in the quintessential [yellow tail] red wine style, with a typical hint of sweetness on the finish.

[yellow tail] Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2008 ($17.99 but $15.99 until June 26). This elegant wine has aromas and flavours of cherry, blackberry and mint, with soft, approachable tannins. The finish is also dry.

It is interesting to taste these two Cabernets are tasted side by side. The regular Cabernet is very good quality for a wine that is made and blended in boatload quantities. The reserve, while still showing [yellow tail’s] appealing house style, is more refined. An earlier vintage won the Jimmy Watson trophy in 2004, arguably the most prestigious trophy in the Australian wine industry.

This winery, seen below, can make seriously good wine.