Monday, November 4, 2013

Lake Sonoma Winery comes to Canada

Photo: Wine partners Dan Zepponi and Tony Stewart

Because of the disparity in taxes and mark-ups, California wines often are cheaper in the United States than in Canada.

Lake Sonoma Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, which has just been listed in British Columbia, is a rare exception. The cellar door price at the winery is $40. In British Columbia liquor stores, the same wine is $26.99.

There are comparable deals on Lake Sonoma Dry Creek Zinfandel, which is listed here at $24.99, and Lake Sonoma Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($23.99 but not yet listed). Both of those wines sell for $35 at the winery.

Canadians are getting the break because Lake Sonoma is a joint venture between Tony Stewart, president of Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, and Californian Dan Zepponi, who was president of Mission Hill Family Estate Winery from 2007 to 2009.

The strategy behind the joint venture is to use the Quails’ Gate marketing structure to sell these California wines in Canada. Because Lake Sonoma is new to the Canadian market, the partners sharpened their pencils when it came to pricing to give Canadians the better deal.

“We’re wine people,” Stewart says. “Wine should have value. There needs to be more value put into the consumer’s glass. ”

Four or five years ago, Stewart had begun thinking of investing in an Australian winery. When he discussed the idea with Zepponi, who was then in the Okanagan, the Californian persuaded him it would be a far better idea to invest in California. Not only would the business be in the same time zone, but California wines were gaining market share in Canada while Australian wines were struggling.

Not long after Zepponi returned to California, the two formed a partnership to produce a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon under the Plume label. Several vintages of that wine have been listed here at $30 a bottle. Recently, a Plume Chardonnay has been released but it is not yet here.

Last year, the partners were able to buy Valley of the Moon Winery, one of the oldest wineries in California (circa 1863) when it was sold by the Heck Group, producers of Korbel Champagne. It is a 45,000-case winery, roughly the same size as Quails’ Gate.

“It is strategic because Quails’ Gate has got to a certain size,” Stewart told the Globe & Mail. “Having a U.S. operation of a similar size means there can be synergies in viticulture; and oenology team members can move back and forth. It provides the opportunity to gain access to the U.S. market. And we’re a partner in a wine distribution agency for Western Canada” which would get California wines for its portfolio.

The purchase included several brands including Lake Sonoma Winery, a brand that was launched in the 1970s. Zepponi says it would be impossible to register Lake Sonoma under today’s strict appellation rules. The name recognition of the Sonoma appellation makes this grandfathered brand all the more valuable.

Lake Sonoma is drilling deeper to make sub-appellation wines within the overall Sonoma appellation. The Russian River Valley is renowned for Chardonnay wines. Dry Creek is a narrow 16-mile valley notable for its 100-year-old Zinfandel plantings while Alexander Valley at the north end of Sonoma County is a highly-regarded Cabernet Sauvignon terroir.

While Valley of the Moon has 40 acres of vineyards, it contracts select blocks of grapes in the various sub-appellations, taking advantage of Zepponi’s deep contracts.

Zepponi’s family arrived from Italy to grow grapes in California about a century ago. His father partnered with the deLeuze family to operate ZD Winery. Ultimately, the Zepponi family sold its interest in the winery but Dan and his siblings continued in wine careers. Prior to coming to Mission Hill, Dan had been the senior vice-president for production at Beringer Estates. After buying grapes for Beringer, cherry picking for Lake Sonoma is relatively easy.

Here are notes on the wines.

Lake Sonoma Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2012 ($23.99). This is an elegant wine, with nicely understated oak and buttery notes that frame aromas and flavours of citrus and nectarine. 90.

Lake Sonoma Dry Creek Zinfandel 201o ($24.99). The wine begins with aromas of spice and blackberry, leading to cherry and blackberry flavours. The flavours are bright and lively. The texture is full and nicely balanced; this is not a Zin with over the top alcohol. 90.

Lake Sonoma Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($26.99). The wine begins with the classic minty varietal aroma, along with aromas of black cherry and black currant which are echoed on the palate. The tannins are firm but ripe, with a core of sweet red berry fruit and vanilla showing through as the wine opens. 90-91

1 comment:

Wineaux said...

Great article John. I visited Vally of the Moon in June 2013 and would like to taste the Chardonnay that you wrote about. I see Everything Wine in Vancouver has it for $27.00 but I'd like to find it in Kelowna. Any ideas?

John Cryer
Director Corkscrews Wine Club