Monday, December 18, 2017

Upper Bench: success taxes the winery

Photo: Winemaker Gavin Miller

Seven years ago, winemaker Gavin Miller and his wife, Shana, with backing of a silent partner, took over the bankrupt Stonehill winery in Penticton.

They renamed it Upper Bench Winery and Creamery – because it is located on Upper Bench Road and because Shana added an excellent cheese-making facility to the winery. The business has done so well that Gavin has no more room to increase production in the current winery.

“We are stuck at 4,500 cases because my building won’t accommodate anything more, which is a bit of a shame because I wanted to go to at least 5,000 cases,” he told me recently. 

His options include removing vines adjacent to the current winery to make room for additional production and storage room. But like so many other winemakers with wineries of this size, Gavin has concluded that an incremental expansion is not cost effective. Justifying the investment in additional winemaking equipment and storage requires a move to 10,000 cases.

“Do I want to do that?” he asks rhetorically. “Probably not. My only reason for doing that would be to make ourselves more valuable for a takeover, as an exit strategy. But as an actual winery, we are probably better off sticking where we are.”

Perhaps he could grow the revenues by inching up the prices of his wines. “I have also had people in here, saying my wine is too cheap,” he says.

In our conversation, Gavin and I reflected on the trend among a growing number of wineries to price their wines aggressively, with surprisingly little consumer pushback. Indeed, expensive wines are often released just to members of winery wine clubs. Black Hills Estate Winery, as an example, has just released a $100 Cabernet Sauvignon primarily for its wine club. It appears that wine club members will pay up just to have exclusive wines.

Gavin initially priced his wines at a time when consumers still were complaining that British Columbia wines are too expensive. Gavin wanted his wines to be affordable – and they are, delivering great value for the quality.

“To a certain extent, I shot myself in the foot,” he admits. “What I am now learning is that a lot of people buy wine by price, especially restaurants. They are looking to fill slots. Everyone is between $20 and $40 in the Okanagan, so your average sommelier is inundated with Okanagan wines in that slot. Maybe I could put prices up and bring out wines in the $60 mark. You have people looking for that price point.”
My sense, however, is that Gavin will keep his feet on the ground and keep his wines affordable for the foreseeable future.

Another fad he is not joining is the natural wine frenzy, and I applaud him for that. “Sommeliers want weird stuff which, 10 years ago, we would call bad,” Gavin says. “Natural wines, they are godawful. I am all for natural yeast but I am not for producing something that has no sulphur in it, or has a shelf life of three weeks. I like good clean wine myself. It should enliven your palate, not confuse it.”

Here are notes on his current releases at Upper Bench – all of them tasting clean and refreshing. Prices do not include taxes.

Upper Bench Riesling 2016 ($20). This is a fresh, even delicate, Riesling, with aromas and flavours of lime, with hints of white peach. The excellent balance gives the wine a juicy finish. 90.

Upper Bench Chardonnay 2016 ($22.53). This is a textbook example of a fresh, clean, fruit forward Chardonnay. It has peachy aromas.  On the palate, the wine is juicy with notes of clove, peach and tropical flavours. The oak is exceptionally subtle, adding texture. 92.

Upper Bench Pinot Noir 2015 ($24.25). The winemaker attributes the robust style of this Pinot Noir to his training with Bordeaux varietals. He like to make big wines. A full-bodied wine, it has aromas and flavours of cherry and raspberry with a hint of spice on the finish. 90.

Upper Bench Cabernet Franc 2015 ($26.50). Gavin is one of the Okanagan winemakers advocating for a higher profile for this variety. This wine has the classic bramble and black cherry aromas and flavours.  This is a bold, ripe, mouth-filling red. 91.

Upper Bench Estate Merlot 2014 ($33). This is a wonderfully concentrated wine, with aromas and flavours of cassis and black cherry. The long ripe tannins make for a big, bold but accessible wine. 92.

Upper Bench Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($33). This is an elegant and polished wine, with cassis aromas and flavours of black currant, black cherry and a touch of chocolate. There are long ripe tannins, and absolutely no hint of greenness. The vines were cropped at 1.8 tons an acre. It may be barely viable economically but it does assure a delicious wine. 93.

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