Monday, June 27, 2016

Class of 2016: Little Engine Wines

Photo: Steven and Nicole French

Little Engine Wines
851 Naramata Road
Penticton, BC, V2A 8V2
T. 250.493.0033 

Since the “anything but Chardonnay” remains well entrenched, it would seem a risky proposition to launch a winery with a major commitment to that varietal.

Except that Little Engine Wines, which opened its Naramata Road tasting room late in June, is offering some of the best Chardonnay in the Okanagan. In fact, Little Engine’s entire portfolio is, arguably, the most impressive yet from a new British Columbia winery.

Why? Perhaps because the winemaker is Scott Robinson, the former winemaker at La Frenz Winery and a former partner in the short-lived Stable Door Cellars.

“He was our first fulltime employee,” says Steven French, who owns this winery along with his wife, Nicole. “Scott is an absolute perfectionist. He is so meticulous. We loved the taste of his wines. That is why we followed Scott. We could go out and court any winemaker, but we knew what we wanted from a taste perspective.”

The winery and the tasting room are in a newly-completed structure just south of Red Rooster Winery. In contrast to the mini-chateau style of Red Rooster, Little Engine’s winery is designed to look like large barn that has been part of the landscape for some time.

Chardonnay dominates the six-acre vineyard beside the new winery. That variety also grows in an eight-acre vineyard nearby, on a former apple orchard just below the site of Steven and Nicole’s new home. But for the ravine that splits the property, they could walk from the house to the winery.

There is room for additional vines on the winery vineyard. There also are plans for a stand-alone tasting room in a few years, with windows that will frame views over vines and Okanagan Lake.

For Steven and Nicole, Little Engine is a career change from the energy business in Alberta. Both were born in 1969: Nicole in London, ON, and Steven in Winnipeg.

“We finished university [in London] and moved to Calgary and stayed there for over 20 years,” Steven says. “I had a great career. I was in oil and gas. I am a finance guy.” Latterly, he was an executive with Secure Energy Services Ltd.

They bought Okanagan property in 2011, initially so that their athletic sons could go to the hockey school in Penticton. The decision to launch a winery was triggered by a long-time interest in wines. “We enjoy good food and good wine,” Nicole says.

“We started becoming wine collectors more than a decade ago,” Steven says. “And we started doing wine tastings with groups.”

The winery fulfils another ambition. “I wanted to create something that is tangible,” Steven says. “I wanted to have a mark.”

That determination lies behind the winery’s name. “A friend and I back in Calgary were trying to decide what the name should be,” Steven says. “I am all about tenacity and never giving up. He said, ‘You should have in your tasting room that story book, The Little Engine That Could.’ Little Engine was born.”

The winery’s labels, crafted in consultation with Vancouver design guru Bernie Hadley-Beauregard, suggest the intent to reach high. Each label has a ladder reaching for a stylized moon.

“The ladder is what it takes to reach for the moon,” Steven says. “Our family motto is ‘Dreams don’t come true; dreams are made true.’ If it takes a ladder to get there, don’t give up. It is just like the little engine that could.”

Getting a foot on the ladder meant hiring a winemaker like Scott Robinson (right), a laconic vintner with an uncanny resemblance to former hockey player Trevor Linden.

Scott started his professional life as a kinesiologist with a 1995 degree from Simon Fraser University. He also managed a beer and wine store in Delta while in university. In 2003, when he and his wife, Danielle, went travelling in the southern hemisphere, he took the opportunity to visit wineries.

“We spent two weeks in Perth and drove through the Margaret River region” [in Australia], Scott told me several years ago. “I thought I could park it here and never leave. It is quite a magical place. I went to some wineries there and I thought this is something I might come back to.”

When they returned to Vancouver in 2004, Scott went back to kinesiology but began working part time with Langley’s Township 7 Winery.  The following year, he moved to the Okanagan, dividing his time between kinesiology, winery work and winery assistant courses at Okanagan College. He did three crushes at Township 7, teaming up with other winemakers there.

In 2007, he arranged to do a vintage at the Kim Crawford Winery in New Zealand. “Just before I left to go there,” Scott said, “I inquired at Adelaide University, and sent off my transcripts; mentioned that I had done this course up here and that I had some practical experience, to see if that would get me into the master’s program.” He was accepted at the Australian wine school early in 2008.  He was thinking of staying in Australia when he the opportunity to return to the Okanagan in 2009 to make wine at La Frenz.

“This is a place I really wanted to work,” Scott told me in 2009. “This was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

When he left La Frenz after the 2012 vintage, Scott intended to go back to Adelaide University for a doctorate. Instead, he agreed to become the winemaking partner in Stable Door Cellars in 2013. Unfortunately for Scott, but fortunately for Little Engine, the partnership collapsed in 2015. Scott was quickly snapped up by Little Engine.

The Little Engine wines can be called bold. “When Scott, Nicole and I started talking,” Steven says, “we said when it comes to reds, we want something that is big. There are a lot of Pinot Noirs in the Okanagan that, in my opinion, are very subdued. We said to Scott, if we are going to make a Pinot Noir, we want big. And we will reflect that in our Merlots and Cabernets and blends.” Scott is on the same page as the owners.  

The Little Engine wine portfolio – about 30% of which will be Chardonnay – has three tiers: Silver, Gold and, for ultra-premium wines, Platinum. The winery has opened with about 2,500 cases. The target is to grow to 5,000 or 6,000 cases and to sell most of it from the cellar door.

Here are notes on most of the current releases.

Little Engine Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($28). This is a wine with lush tropical aromas and flavours. There is lime and grapefruit on the palate. The wine has a generous texture with enough acidity to highlight bright fruit. 91.

Little Engine Chardonnay 2015 Silver Label ($33). By fermenting half of this in barrel and half in tank, the winemaker has retained bright fruit on the nose and palate – citrus, ripe apple and guava. The tropical flavours are framed subtly with buttery and toasty oak. 92.

Little Engine Reserve Chardonnay 2014 Gold Label ($55). This complex and ageworthy wine spent 16 months in French oak. Regular lees stirring added bready notes to the citrus aroma, as well as a rich texture. On the palate, the marmalade and guava flavours are framed with oak. The vibrant acidity allows the wine to show a freshness and a fruitiness that rides on top of the oak. 93.

Little Engine Reserve Pinot Noir 2014 Gold Label ($55). Dark in hue, this is a bold Pinot Noir, with aromas and flavours of plum and cherry. There is appealing spice both in the aroma and on the finish. The ripe tannins give this a silky texture. 92.

Little Engine Merlot 2015 Silver Label ($35). This elegant but full-bodied wine begins with aromas of cassis, blueberry and mulberry. On the plush palate, there juicy flavours of plum, blackberry and raspberry. The red and black fruit on the finish is quite persistent. 92.

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