Writer and wine columnist John Schreiner is Canada's most prolific author of books on wine.
Monday, September 19, 2022
Priest Creek Winery also survived the pandemic
Photo: Priest Creek's Darren and Jane Sawin
The pandemic did no favours for producers which, like Priest Creek Family Estate
Winery, opened in 2020 just as many wine tourists stayed home. But this East
Kelowna winery and its ambitious owners have begun to gain visibility with a
growing portfolio of wines, sometimes aggressively-priced as Darren and Jane
Sawin set out to make a mark. Unusual for an East Kelowna producer, the
portfolio includes bold Syrahs and Bordeaux blends sourced by Jason Parkes,
their consultant, from the South Okanagan. I was able to include a profile of
the winery in the 2020 Okanagan Wine Tour Guide which had the misfortune
of being published early in the pandemic. The visibility of the book also
suffered because planned launch events had to be cancelled. Here is the excerpt
about Priest Creek.
Jane Sawin once called husband Darren a “winery stalker.” He began
researching the wine business by parking at wineries and counting the tasting
room traffic, including how many bottles of wine guests carried when they
departed. His interest in opening his own winery came after an unsatisfactory
year of selling table grapes from their property in East Kelowna. Aside from
home winemaking, Darren was then a wine novice. Born in 1970, he had grown up
on a family farm near Big Beaver, a tiny village in southern Saskatchewan. “I
had always dreamt of having a ranch,” he says. While he worked as a ranch
hand, the dream was financially out of reach. He moved to Calgary, tried
selling real estate and then began renovating houses for a portfolio of rental
properties. Jane, with an arts degree from the University of Saskatchewan and
a diploma in architectural design, applied her project management skills to
the rental portfolio.
In 2010 they moved to the Okanagan, where they had previously vacationed, and
once again began building and selling houses. “We always wanted to get back to
our farming roots and to raising our four kids on the farm,” Darren says. In
2015 they purchased an East Kelowna property with just under a hectare (two
acres) of mature Gewürztraminer and about three hectares (7.5 acres) of table
grapes. Two years later, having been told they could not grow Pinot Noir, they
offered to sell the farm in order to finance another vineyard purchase.
Winemaker Jason Parkes was one of the first potential buyers to look at the
Sawin property. Subsequently, he bought elsewhere for his own project but he
assured the Sawins that they could grow Pinot Noir. (Neighbouring SpearHead
Winery specializes in Pinot Noir.) Darren replaced the table grapes while
Jason agreed to make to make the Priest Creek wines and mentor Darren in
winemaking. The winery is named for a creek at the back of the property. It is
believed the creek took its name from the Oblate mission established nearby in
1859 by Father Charles Pandosy, credited with planting the Okanagan’s first
vineyard (for sacramental wine).
The winery was under development for three years, during which time Darren and
Jane replaced the table grapes with seven and a half acres with Pinot Noir,
Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. The final license inspection occurred on the same
day in March 2020 that the pandemic restrictions began. These were eased in time
for the winery to open in May with 1,200 cases. Since then, the owners have
opened a wine club with about 550 members and have raised production to 3,600
cases. “Darren now takes the lead for all the winemaking, while consulting with
Jason Parkes where it’s needed,” Jane writes.
Here are notes on three current releases.
Priest Creek Gewürztraminer 2021 ($N/A for 160 cases). This may be sold
out because it is no longer on the web site. This dry Gewürztraminer, made from
grapes of 30-year-old vines, begins with aromas of spice, honey and citrus. On
the palate, there good intensity of fruit flavours including lychee, ripe
pineapple with a delicate hint of candied ginger on the finish. 90.
Priest Creek Pinot Noir 2020 ($38 for 176 cases). This wine, after
fermenting in stainless steel, was aged 15 months in new French oak puncheons.
The intensity of the fruit flavours – dark cherry, blueberry - soaked up the oak
very nicely. The fruit is fresh and the texture is reasonably full. There is a
touch of spice on the silky finish of the wine, which won a silver medal at the
recent Wine Align Awards. 91.
Priest Creek Syrah 2019 ($53 for 140 cases). This wine was aged 30 months
in new French oak barrels. Aromas of blackberry and black cherry lead to
flavours of dark cherry and fig. There are hints of cedar and spice on the