Wednesday, March 28, 2012

It's all about more dirt at Road 13 Vineyards

Photo: Mick Luckhurst

The slogan at Road 13 Vineyards is: “It’s about the dirt.”

Two vineyard deals this spring by the winery have given co-owner Mick Luckhurst substantially more dirt to farm. The winery purchased a former Vincor vineyard on the Golden Mile, between Road 7 and Road 8; and it has entered into an agreement with the Lower Similkameen Indian Band to develop a new vineyard in the Similkameen Valley.

“We had 43 acres,” Mick says. This will take us to 107 acres, and it is still not enough.” The winery expanded its production last vintage to 30,000 cases from 19,000 cases the year before.

“We are moving awfully fast,” he admits. [This is] nothing we ever had originally in mind. A lot of it is just my temperament: you push ahead.”

Mick has a more fundamental reason for increasing the acreage directly under  his farming control: wine quality.

“We have phenomenal relationships and great grapes from our other growers,” he says. “But we won ten major awards last year. All ten of those wines were made with our grapes. Did that strike home!”

One of the reasons that British Columbia wines are as good as they are is because two-thirds of the vineyards are owned by wineries. Wineries do not always grow better quality grapes than contract growers. However, wineries make their money primarily from wine while growers depend on grapes without the benefit of value-added. Wineries might make crop load decisions in their own vineyards to produce $50 wines whereas it would be marginally economic for a grower to make similar cropping decisions because he does not have the revenue from premium wine sales.

Mick and Pam Luckhurst bought Road 13 (then called Golden Mile Cellars) in 2003 after a business career in building supplies and property development. They had moved to the Okanagan from Edmonton that year and took the summer off. Touring wineries with friends drew them to the lifestyle. They took over a low-key winery that was then making a mere 1,000 cases a year and applied their fierce energy into building the business.

They have benefit from three good winemakers in succession: Lawrence Herder in the first year, the Michael Bartier and, since early last year, Montreal-born J-M Bouchard.

“He such an exceptional guy,” Mick says of J-M. “He is pushing us as well to raise the bar” – as if as hard driver like Mick needs someone to push him.

When Mick decided to buy more vineyard, he approached neighbour Chris Jentsch who has a 53 acre vineyard. The price was out of Mick’s budget. However, Chris suggested looking at the Vincor vineyard, 30 acres with 19 planted. Chris planted that originally in 1999 and then sold it to Vincor in 2004.

Vincor, which relies mostly on vineyard land leased from the Osoyoos Indian Band, had been trying to sell the Golden Mile property for a while and recently reduced the price substantially. “I thought I can’t afford to miss it at that price,” Mick says. “It is on a bench, so it drops the cold, which is the single biggest consideration in the valley in my mind.”

 The property needs upgrades to the irrigation system and some soil remediation. Mick believes he will have it in shape within two years.

The vineyard currently grows 7 ½ acres of Merlot; 3 ¼ each of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris and 4 ½ acres of Gewürztraminer. The Pinot Gris might be replaced with a new clone of Syrah. There is another acre to be planted in the future.

The venture in the Similkameen is more long term, with planting likely to begin in the spring of 2013. Mick thinks it is a bit late this year to order vines and get virgin soil ready for planting.

Unlike Vincor, Mick is not leasing the land. The Lower Similkameen Indian Band, which has never before had a vineyard on the reserve, has set up a limited liability company to prepare the land and order the vines.

“The minute those plants go into the ground, that’s ours,” Mike says. “We farm it.” Road 13’s fee to the Band and the cost of farming the vineyard should add up to the cost of grapes on the open market, with the advantage that Road 13 makes the farming decisions.

 “We pick the plants, the clones and the rootstock, and we can farm it ourselves,” Mick says.

The intention is to plant 15 acres of Merlot, seven or eight of Syrah, at least five acres each of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Gamay, and four acres of Chardonnay. There will be smaller plantings of Mourvedre, Tannat, Carmenère, Petit Verdot and Malbec.

The property is not far from the Seven Stones winery. Mick thinks the topography may not have quite the frost-shedding ability of the Golden Mile vineyard. Care will be taken to plant the hardier varieties in the riskier sections.

This unorthodox arrangement also says something about the high cost of vineyard land in the Okanagan and the Similkameen. While prices peaked before the 2008 correction, they have not come down very much. Mike cites one Osoyoos vineyard listed three years ago at $212,000 an acre and now reduced, but only to $188,000.

“There are lots of farms listed for sale and there are way more that are not listed by guys who are getting older and want to retire,” Mick says. “These people want out but they have already put the money in their pocket.”

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