Monday, September 28, 2015

Class of 2015: Black Market Wine Co.

Black Market's Rob Hammersley and Michelle Shewchuk

The name of this winery describes the relationship that the owners, Calgarians Rob Hammersley and Michelle Shewchuk, have with Okanagan wines.

“We travel a fair bit between the valley and our home in Calgary,” Rob says. “We are always ‘smuggling’ wine across the border because you can’t bring back more than two bottles, or whatever the interprovincial rule is.”

The name also fits because Black Market is a virtual winery without a physical presence (so far) in the Okanagan. Black Market is a client of BC Wine Studio, an incubator winery at Okanagan Falls.

“We’re kind of an underground winery,” Rob suggests. The two wines released so far are sold primarily through Black Market’s web site.

This is a couple with a passion for wine who are astute enough to keep the day jobs that pay the bills while the brand gets established. Michelle is an airline flight attendant and Rob is an accountant and business evaluator.

Both were born in Winnipeg (Rob in 1971, Michelle in 1974) and they met while at university. Their interest in wine took off after they joined a wine tasting group run by a fellow student who subsequently became a winemaker in the Napa Valley.

“We would get together probably once a month; there were usually six or seven of us,” Rob recalls. “We would each kick in $20 and he would pull five or six bottles from his stash. He had this massive map of the world and every bottle had a story to it. It was from here; it tastes like this because of the soil or because of the sun. And we were hooked ever since then.”

After university, they lived three years in Japan, working as English teachers and fostering a love of travel that has never left them. Fortunately, Michelle’s career makes it easier to travel.

“It was a defining experience for us,” Rob says about the three years in Japan. “We travelled a lot. Michelle has travelled her whole life; not so much me. We travelled a lot while we were living in Japan and we continue with that mentality. We go somewhere far flung at least once or twice a year now.”

They have even found wineries in improbable places. “We have taken our three kids to Kenya a few times; my sister lived there,” Michelle says. “There is one winery and we found it. They let us in. It took a lot of convincing.”

They have wanted their own winery for some time. Rob’s judgment as a business evaluator guided the hard-headed decision to start with Black Market under the tutelage of BC Wine Studio before risking a lot of capital on land and buildings.

“From my perspective, the best way to manage the risk of moving into a fairly crowded market is to get the market space first and work backwards,” Rob explains. “We have still invested a sizeable amount of money in this but not the sort of thing is going to ruin you.”

On the various custom crush options now available in the Okanagan, they chose Mark Simpson and BC Wine Studio because they are allowed to be fully involved.

“I am making wine with Mark,” Rob says. “We work in the vineyard. We work at all sorts of stuff just to learn and gain a feel of the whole process. That’s what is really important to us.” This is vital on-the-job experience.

“It’s critical to our future success,” Rob says. “We do intend to move out on our own in a few years.”

Meanwhile, Rob is working through the viticulture and enology program at Washington State University. He has previously completed a sommelier program and the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s advanced course.

“I can’t get enough of learning about wines from around the world,” Rob says. “I think it is important as a winemaker and someone who is about to start selling wine.”

The virtual winery model gives Rob and the Michelle to work with a broad range of varietals since, at this time, they are not locked into their own vineyard. “If we find a great parcel of something and make some fantastic wine from it, that’s great,” Rob says.

In the 2014 vintage, for example, they made 150 cases of Syrah to their repertoire. (The wine is not yet released.) “I have a pretty strong belief that Syrah is going to find a great home in this valley,” Rob asserts. “It is a wine I personally enjoy drinking. It is a varietal I have studied in my viticulture program. It is just perfectly suited for the right sites in the valley.”

The Secret Society white blend likely will change from vintage to vintage, depending on available grapes. In the current vintage, they are working on a Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon blend.

“I am essentially making wines that I like to drink, and hoping there are other people with a similar taste,” Rob says. “I think there probably will be. We just have to find them.”

Here are notes on current releases.

Secret Society White 2014 ($22 for 125 cases). The blend is not disclosed on the label, likely to underline the mystique suggested by the name. But here it is: Gewürztraminer (50%), Ehrenfelser (45%) and Chardonnay (5%). The Ehrenfelser was aged six week in acacia barrels. A dry aromatic white, the wine is crisp and dry, suited to food. It has herbal aromas and flavours, along with a hint of grapefruit. 89.

The Syndicate Red 2012 ($30 for 100 cases).  The blend is Merlot (40%), Petit Verdot (29%), Cabernet Franc (26%) and Malbec (5%). Each varietal was aged in French oak (50% new) for 18 to 21 months before the final blend was assembled. This dark red (that’s the Petit Verdot for you) begins with floral and red fruit aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of black currants, cherries and cranberries, with complexing notes of leather and tobacco. The excellent structure suggests this wine will age well. 90.

The Syndicate Red 2013 ($30 for 120 cases but not yet released).  The blend is Cabernet Sauvignon (37%), Merlot (36%), Cabernet Franc (23%) and Petit Verdot (4%). The Cabernet Sauvignon contributes notes of mint to the red fruit aromas. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant and blueberries with hints of coffee and chocolate. The texture is concentrated. 90.

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