Friday, September 22, 2017

CheckMate releases 2014 Merlots





Photo: CheckMate's pop-up wine shop

CheckMate Artisanal Winery is about unveil its second release of Merlots, four red wines from the superb 2014 vintage.

The big change from last year, when the winery released its debut 2013 Merlots, is that visitors to the Okanagan can sample the hard-to-get wines in a tasting room opened this summer at the winery.

The original concept for CheckMate did not include a public wine shop. It was going to be a very exclusive winery making very exclusive wines. Then the wines - $100 (plus or minus) Chardonnays and $85 Merlots – began receiving rave reviews.

It must have been frustrating to those who collect premium Okanagan wines. Here were ultra-premium wines available, almost without exception, only in fine dining restaurants and by the case, online.

I don’t know who was responsible for this summer’s sea change in the CheckMate policy. But I was delighted to find a wine shop when I visited there in August.

CheckMate is on the Golden Mile, south of Oliver, at a location that should get a lot of visitors. Culmina Family Estate Winery, which has a busy tasting room, is just across the road. And one virtually drives past Road 13 Vineyards (which has two tasting rooms) on the way up the hill to visit Culmina and CheckMate.

It is not surprising that there has been steady visitor traffic at CheckMate this summer. The tasting room, open seven days a week, will be open until mid-October. After that, any visitor interested in a tasting can call winemaker Phil McGahan (250-707-2299) and make an appointment. The winery has a second tasting area in the processing facility, in what was the tasting room in former times, when this was Antelope Ridge Winery.
The CheckMate tasting room is a clever pop-up structure designed by Tom Kundig, the star Seattle architect who redesigned Mission Hill Family Estate winery two decades ago. Mission Hill and CheckMate have the same owner, Anthony von Mandl.

CheckMate has a tasting fee, of course: $20 to taste four wines, $30 to taste six wines. It is refundable with the purchase of just one bottle.

“We do get people who get sticker shock,” winemaker Phil admits. “And when we quote the tasting fee, that reinforces the sticker shock. We will get people who say they don’t usually pay that much for a bottle of wine. But with these wines, when you try them, tasting is believing.”

There is no doubt that the CheckMate wines are among the best produced in the Okanagan. When I tasted the 2014 Chardonnays this spring, I came close to awarding 100 points to one.

At the recent Judgment of British Columbia, six British Columbia Merlot wines were pitted against six international Merlots. The panel of judges rated CheckMate Black Rook Merlot 2013 in first place.

Phil must be the envy of many winemakers in the Okanagan. He has had the budget to modernize completely the aging Antelope Ridge facility with state of the art winemaking equipment. He also has his choice of exceptional grapes from seven or eight of the best vineyards his employer owns in the South Okanagan. And the grapes are grown to his exacting specifications.

Born in 1969 in Australia, Phil (left) was raised on a wheat farm in Queensland. His first career was law. After articling, he joined a legal publishing company. “I worked my way up there, at one of the biggest publishing companies in Australia.” But city living did not appeal to him, so he enrolled in the winemaking program at Charles Sturt University. 

He was able to take the course part-time while working, starting with a custom crush winery in the Hunter Valley.  “I worked there four or five years while I finished my degree.”
During that time, he worked the 2005 harvest at the prestigious Williams Selyem Winery in Sonoma. “Once I graduated, I came back [to California] as an assistant winemaker,” Phil says. He was soon promoted, become one of the winery’s three winemakers. Because he was the junior of the three, his career path was limited. He was ready to move to the Okanagan in 2012 when von Mandl recruited him to craft world-class wines at CheckMate.

The four Merlots just being released all are elegant, terroir-driven wines. Each reflects the distinctively different vineyard sites from which the grapes came. Deciding which one to buy is tough. Each wine is very good – but these are not identical quadruplets.

Below is a view of the wine shop's interior.


Here are notes on the wines. One striking note: these wines were all aged in new French oak, but the wines are so concentrated that the oak is perfectly integrated with the fruit.

Volume of production is given in barrels. In general, each barrel contains between 23 and 25 cases of wine.

CheckMate End Game Merlot 2014 ($85 for 16 barrels). This wine is a blend, with grapes from both Black Sage Road and Osoyoos East Bench sites. The wine was fermented with wild yeast and was aged 21 months in barrels. The wine begins with appealing aromas of sweet red berries and cassis. On the opulent palate, there are savoury and bright flavours of cherry, plum, cassis and vanilla. The wine is elegant and polished, with long, ripe tannins. 93.

CheckMate Silent Bishop Merlot 2014 ($85 for 24 barrels). The grapes for this are from three sites on the western side of the valley. Generally, this is the cooler side which benefits from morning sun but does not bake in the late afternoon sun. Expect brighter fruit flavours and fresh acidity. This wine is intense because the very long and even 2014 vintage also delivered good ripeness. (This has 14.7% alcohol, versus 14.6% for the previous wine.) The wine begins with aromas of dark fruits leading to flavours of black cherry, mocha and coffee, with spice on the finish. This wine also was fermented with wild yeast and aged 21 months in new French oak. 92.

CheckMate Opening Gambit Merlot 2014 ($85 for 23 barrels). The grapes are from Osoyoos East Bench sites. “You get nice pure fruit from the Osoyoos East Bench,” Phil has found. This wine begins with aromas of cassis with elusive notes reminiscent of spice and iodine. On the palate, there are flavours of black cherry and black currant that linger sweetly on the finish. The firm texture suggests this wine will age especially well. 93.

CheckMate Black Rook Merlot 2014 ($85 for 17 barrels). The grapes for this wine are from the Black Sage Bench. The wine is dark, with lifted floral, cassis and vanilla aromas. It is rich on the palate, with savoury flavours of black cherry and black currant. Long ripe tannins give the wine a generous texture and a lingering, harmonious finish. 95.





Monday, September 18, 2017

Black Hills wines: if you hesitate, they are sold out





Photo: Winemaker Graham Pierce


The most vigorous rumour in the Okanagan in the summer of 2017 was that Black Hills Estate Winery was about to be taken over by Mission Hill Family Estate.

Glenn Fawcett, the winery’s president, eventually denied the rumour.BHEW is still owned by the same Limited Partnership Group and still run by the same management team as it has had for the last 10 years,” he said in an email in mid-August.

What he did not reveal - not that one would expect him to do so - was that Black Hills had been in talks since April with potential buyers. In late September, it was acquired by Andrew Peller Ltd.

It did not surprise the industry that such a transaction took place. There are a large number of shareholders in Vinequest Wine Partners Limited Partnership, some of whom  wanted to cash in after 10 years. After all  Glenn had promised them a "liquidity event" within five to seven years.

On the other hand, I have not heard of a lot of impatient shareholders, since  Black Hills is doing very well. With the benefit of well-grown grapes, winemaker Graham Pierce has been crafting wines that add value to the underlying asset all of the time.

One indication of how well the winery is doing is this: earlier this summer, six samples were sent for my review. I was a little slow getting around to them (it has been a hectic summer). Now, most seem to be sold out, at least on the winery website. That explains the lack of pricing on my reviews.

I am reporting on the wines anyway. You might still find some in restaurants or private wine stores.

The good news for Black Hills fans is that John Peller, the chair of APL, has already indicated that production volume will be increased at Black Hills because it will have access for additional grapes controlled by APL.

Black Hills has always been a challenge for consumers who dawdle when buying the wines. Nota Bene, its flagship red, which commands about $60 a bottle now, typically sells out within a day or two of release. 

Black Hills, however, is one of a handful of wineries that offer periodic vertical tastings of flagship wines. There will be an 18-year vertical of Nota Bene at Spirit Ridge Resort in Osoyoos on September 30. Tickets are $199. Don’t too excited: the event is sold out.



Here are notes on the wines.

Black Hills Roussanne 2015 ($N/A). This wine, impressive packaged in weighty bottle, begins with aromas of toasted nuts and ripe apricots. On the palate, the texture is rich, with flavours of ripe apricots. The finish is complex, with notes of honey and smoky toasted oak. This is a white wine with power. 91.

Black Hills Chardonnay 2015 ($N/A). This appealing wine begins with aromas of citrus, butter and vanilla. The latter come from barrel fermentation but the oak is seamlessly integrated in the wine, allowing the fruit to have the starring role. The flavours of marmalade and nectarine are intense, with a long finish. 92.

Black Hills Alibi 2016 ($N/A). This is a blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Sémillon. Created early in the winery’s history, it is one of its most sought-after whites. This wine is crisp and refreshing, with aromas and flavours of lime and lemon punctuated by a pleasant herbal finish. 91.

Black Hills Rosé 2016 ($N/A). This is 100% Pinot Noir. It is delicate and refreshing, with flavours and aromas of cherries. The finish is dry. 90.

Black Hills Cellar Hand Punch Down Red 2015 ($24.90). The blend is not revealed but the wine certainly is based on the Bordeaux reds grown here, possibly with a touch of Syrah. The wine is rich and delicious, beginning with aromas of black currant, black cherry and a touch of oak. The palate delivers more black cherry and black currant, with spice on the finish. 90.


Black Hills Carménère 2015 ($N/A). This winery pioneered Carménère in the Okanagan. Dark in colour, the wine begins with aromas of pepper and plum. On the palate, it is bold with flavours of plum and fig. There are hints of chocolate and tobacco as well, with peppery flavours. Some may find the pepper character over the top; others will hurry to find a good steak. 92.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Corcelettes: tasting room with a view






Photo: Jesce and Charlie Baessler operate Corcelettes

In a recent people’s choice competition, Corcelettes Estate Winery was named the Similkameen winery with the best view.

And that award was made before this winery opened its new tasting room. Perched high on a mountainside, this new wine shop has views that take in panoramic views looking south over the Similkameen Valley. The previous tasting area had a similar view but was somewhat lower in elevation.

For wine touring, views are important. At the very least, it makes the wines taste better – not that the Corcelettes wines need any help to taste good.

How high is the tasting room? The previous owners had a helicopter landing pad on that level. Corcelettes recently planted 400 Syrah vines there at an elevation of 1,510 feet (460 meters). It is believed to be the highest vineyard in the Similkameen Valley.



Photo: Corcelettes Winery with tasting room on left (courtesy of winery).

The original Corcelettes winery was opened in 2013 on a three-acre vineyard near Cawston by Urs and Barbara Baessler and their winemaker son, Charlie. The view was not memorable and the vineyard was planted just to white varieties.

The winery moved in 2015 after the Baessler family bought the former Herder Winery. The Herder winery was opened in 2004 by the late Lawrence Herder, initially also on a site near Cawston. Three years later, Herder moved to an imposing three-storey residence with space for a winery in the basement. The owners turned a living room on the second floor into a tasting room with a view over the valley. The Herder winery closed in 2013 but, when Corcelettes took over, that tasting room operated again briefly.

Charlie and Jesce, his wife, took over the top two floors of the house after the birth of twins. The tasting room was moved down to the winery level, which has become increasingly crammed as production increased at Corcelettes to 3,000 cases a year.

The new tasting room, which opened in late August, allows Corcelettes to greet winery visitors away from the production area. It also includes offices for Jesce, who looks after the winery’s marketing.

Charlie’s career in wine began at the Herder property in 2008. Born in 1985, he had just completed a science degree in 2007. While he was deciding what to do next, he began working for Herder, first in the vineyard and then in the cellar. When he finished the 2008 crush, he moved to Burrowing Owl Vineyards. He stayed there until his family began developing Corcelettes.

During the early years at Corcelettes, Charlie also worked at the Clos du Soleil winery, which was being just down the slope from Herder. “I have always had my eye on this place since I worked here,” Charlie says of the Herder property.

The Herder vineyard, now more than 15 acres, has given Charlie access to red varieties and to Chardonnay. The winery also purchases grapes from several other Similkameen vineyards, allowing it to offer a full portfolio.

A note on names. The elder Baesslers are Switzerland where they had a farm named Corcelettes. Menhir, the winery’s Cabernet Syrah blend, takes its name from stone monoliths found in Europe.  

Here are notes on the wines.

Corcelettes Trivium 2016 ($19.90). This is a blend of 40% Chasselas, 35% Pinot Gris and 25% Chardonnay. The wine begins with aromas of apple, with a note of wet stone minerality. On the palate, there are flavours apple, pear and lychee. 90.

Corcelettes Gewürztraminer 2016 ($17.90). This wine begins with aromas of spice – a touch of ginger – and lychee, leading to flavours of lychee and pineapple. The hint of residual sugar is well balanced with acidity, give the wine a lingering and refreshing finish. 91.

Corcelettes Oråcle 2016 ($19.90). This is made with Zweigelt, a variety that Charlie has been getting for several vintages from LadyHawke Vineyard near Keremeos. It only took four hours of skin contact with half the grapes to achieve a festive pink hue. The wine has aromas and flavours of wild strawberry with a note of cranberry on the refreshing and dry finish. 90.

Corcelettes Pinot Noir 2016 ($24.90). The wine was aged eight months in French oak. It is worth noting that the barrels are convection dried, not toasted, so that oak does not overwhelm the bright, juicy cherry and strawberry aromas and flavours. The texture is silky. 90.

Corcelettes Syrah 2015 ($29.90). This is a classic Syrah, with aromas of figs, deli meats and pepper that are echoed in the flavours. There also are flavours of plum and black cherry. The texture is full and the finish is punctuated with a dash of pepper. 90.

Corcelettes Merlot 2015 ($26.90). This wine will be released in October. The aromas are powerful, beginning with notes of blueberry and black currant jam. The texture is rich and concentrated, with flavours of black currant, black cherry and plum. 92.

Corcelettes Menhir 2015 ($31.90). This is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Syrah, fermented and aged 16 months in oak puncheons. It is a round and generous wine, with sweet fruit aromas and flavours of black cherry, cassis and mocha. 93.

Corcelettes Meritage 2015 ($34.90). This is 60% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot. The wine was aged 16 months in a combination of French and American barrels and vats. It begins with aromas of cassis and vanilla, leading to flavours of black currant, black cherry, tobacco and dark chocolate, with a spicy note to the lingering finish. 92.


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Sandra Oldfield leaving Tinhorn Creek





Photo: Sandra Oldfield 

Sandra Oldfield, a leading figure in the British Columbia wine industry, has announced she is stepping down as chief executive of Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in the wake of Andrew Peller Ltd.’s acquisition of Tinhorn Creek.

“But I am not leaving this industry,” she said in an interview. “I love this industry. I am not going anywhere.”

Here is the text of a news releases from Tinhorn Creek, dated September 17, 2017.

 Dear Tinhorn Creek partners, fans, wine lovers, friends and family,

Tinhorn Creek
 was started in a shed on our Golden Mile Bench property 23 years ago by two families, the Oldfields and Shaunessys, and has grown into the brand and onsite experience that you all support and love today. We pride ourselves on the quality of our wine, our warm and welcoming visitor experience, our dedication to the sustainability of our people, community and land, and the amazing community of people who have all contributed to the Tinhorn Creek journey.

Tinhorn Creek Vineyards has been acquired by
 Andrew Peller Limited (APL), a three-generation Canadian winery, effective October 1, 2017. The Oldfields and Shaunessys [the major shareholders] chose to pass on the winery to APL due to the shared passionate vision APL has for our company, our brand, and amazing potential of the Okanagan as a world-class wine producing region. Our new relationship with APL will provide access to resources and tools that will drive Tinhorn Creek to a new level of quality, service and experience.

What does this mean for Tinhorn Creek? We will continue to make the same ultra-premium
 wines, provide the same excellent onsite experience, host great events and concerts, and welcome our valued guests and Crush Club members when they come to visit. Our award-winning onsite restaurant Miradoro will continue operating unchanged, offering the same delectable cuisine and quality service they are known for. Present Tinhorn Creek staff continue to work for the winery, and we will continue to partner closely with our local community, suppliers, guests and customers as we always have. We are the same people today as we were last week, and we will continue to bring to you the best wine and service we can.

One change will be the stepping back of CEO / President and owner Sandra Oldfield. After 23 years driving Tinhorn Creek forward to where we are today, she will be taking the next year to spend time with Kenn and their daughter.  Kenn will be advising Andrew Peller on a smooth transition over the next 12 months and Sandra will be by his side supporting and assisting him whenever he needs it.

“It has been the honour of my life to have helped build Tinhorn Creek, to make great wines with an attention to sustainability and most importantly, to run our business with empathy toward our employees, our customers and our community,” said Sandra. “Andrew Peller will continue the long term development and growth in the Okanagan that we started.”

Same great wines, same great people, same great events and concerts; AND most importantly, you guys; our same great customers and club members who make up the Tinhorn Creek family we love so much; these things won't change.

APL announced on September 11 that it was acquiring three Okanagan wineries: Gray Monk Estate Winery, Black Hills Estate Winery and Tinhorn Creek. The transaction for the three is valued at $95 million. The Tinhorn Creek acquisition is effective October 1. Tinhorn Creek’s sale was unsolicited, Sandra says.

Tinhorn Creek is arguably the leading asset in this trio. The Oliver-based winery owns 130 acres of vineyard and produces about 40,000 cases of wine, much of it premium-priced. The winery has just released a super-premium meritage blend called The Creek, which sells for $50 a bottle.

Sandra was born in 1966 as Sandra Cashman in Oakland, California, into a family whose only wine tradition was an Italian grandfather who made wine in the bathtub at home.

After getting a business administration degree and traveling in Europe, she took a casual job in 1989 in the tasting room at the Rodney Strong winery in Sonoma. In short order, she was moved to the winery's laboratory and to a career decision. "It was immediate," she told me in an interview for one of my books. "I knew this was what I wanted to do."

She was at the Strong winery through three vintages, learning practical aspects of winemaking. In 1993 she enrolled in the master's program in enology at the University of California's Davis campus. Her thesis, which involved research in the vineyards of the Robert Mondavi winery, was on the development of flavor compounds as Cabernet Sauvignon ripens.

At Davis, she met Kenn Oldfield, an Albertan who was studying viticulture there to prepare for his role in Tinhorn Creek in partnership with Calgary oilman Bob Shaunessy. Sandra agreed to become the winemaker, and ultimately also a shareholder, at Tinhorn Creek. She only relinquished that position several years ago to give her full attention to her duties as chief executive.

It is corporate routine for CEOs to step aside when a new owner acquires their company. It is entirely possible that APL could have found a role for her, since they have given her husband, Kenn, a contract to manage Tinhorn Creek’s ownership transition. Sandra is independent-minded and perhaps has too much of an emotional investment in the company to start taking direction from a new owner.

The depth of her emotional investment was displayed in a blog she has just posted. In it, she writes very warmly of the team she had put together at Tinhorn Creek and now leaves behind.

“I kept two scraps of paper near my desk for the last seven years as Tinhorn Creek’s CEO,” she writes. “One was a long acronym written on paper and stuck to the base of my computer monitor—like some kind of daily devotional mantra it reads: CIHTCVEDTJB? (How Can I Help TCV Employees Do Their Job Better?)”
She explains: “It was there to remind me each time I turned on my computer and throughout the day that my role as CEO was to support them. Not for them to support me. Less leading, more assisting. The mantra also emphasizes how each employee does THEIR job. It was not my role to micromanage them but to give them the right tools, and enough encouragement so they could excel. In the end they take responsibility for what they do, they grow and evolve into new roles, they cross-train in other’s areas and they drive Tinhorn Creek to success. I was good at mentoring, but they were much better at learning and executing and what more could a CEO ask for?
“This is why I am positive that the arrangement we have made with Andrew Peller for transition will end in success for everyone. I will no longer be working at Tinhorn Creek by the time this post goes out. My husband will be advising Andrew Peller for one year to ensure a smooth transition and to ensure that what we have built, and what they have purchased, is sustained into the future. If I did not feel that employees could already run their jobs with commitment and autonomy, it would be very hard to leave.”




Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sea Star buys Saturna Vineyards





 Photo: Winery entrepreneur David Goudge

David Goudge, the owner of Sea Star Vineyard on Pender Island, is going through – in Yogi Berra’s immortal phrase – déjà vu all over again.

He has just acquired Saturna Island Vineyards. No wines have been bottled there since the 2012 vintage. Since the last winemaker there was injured on the job in later summer, the vineyard has fallen into disarray. The unpruned vines are so tangled that a tractor cannot be driven between most rows. Only a block of Pinot Noir in the 38-acre vineyard is healthy enough to be picked this fall.

“The goal this year is to reap what we can from one healthy existing variety,” David says. “The rest of the vines are suffering from neglect. They have powdery mildew; they have drought issues; they are stressed for sure. I don’t think they have been running the irrigation system at all. I am about to find out whether things are broken.”

He has been through this before.

“It is exactly like when I bought Morning Bay,” he says. “The vineyard was a mess. There were deer roaming at their free will, whenever they wanted to.

He is referring to Morning Bay Vineyard & Estate Winery, a Pender Island winery that opened in 2005 but was in considerable commercial difficulty when David bought it in 2012. Two years later, Sea Star Vineyards was launched after Ian Baker (right), David’s viticulturist and winemaker had resuscitated the vineyard.

“When I started in the business, everybody told me that Pender Island grapes never ripen and you are not going to be successful,” David says. “We have proved that is completely false. I would say arguably that our wines are the most sought-after on the coast right now. Now I am heading over to Saturna and we are going to do the same thing.”

A need f0r more grapes has driven this acquisition. Sea Star is producing roughly 3,000 cases of wine a year with fruit from 12 acres of vineyard on Pender.

“I have done some numbers on the amount of wine orders I have declined,” David says. “I know that we could triple our volume. I know I could sell 9,000 cases because I have been asked for it. Our only problem is production.”





When the Saturna Island vineyard (above) is restored, David will have quadrupled the quantity of grapes available to his operations. He plans to resume winemaking on Saturna Island, where the winery has a well-built 10,000 square-foot production facility and warehouse. There is not much room to increase production at the Sea Star winery.

The Pinot Noir that David intends to pick this year will allow Sea Star to increase production of its very popular Blanc de Noir rosé. The other varieties in the Saturna vineyard are expected to support, among other products, a sparkling wine.


Saturna Island Vineyards, which was owned by Vancouver securities lawyer Larry Page, has a history that is both rich and tangled. Here is an excerpt from my 2009 book, The Wineries of British Columbia.



With four vineyards totalling 24 hectares (60 acres) on Saturna Island, this is the largest single planting of grapes on any of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands. The project took roots during a jolly lunch in 1995 at La Gavroche, one of winery owner Larry Page’s favourite Vancouver restaurants [now closed]. A veteran securities lawyer, Larry had partnered with a group to develop ocean-view housing in Saturna, including a lot where he built home for his family. After the lot plan was drawn up, there remained 31.5 hectares (78 acres) of dormant farmland on a sunny slope behind the lots. Jean-Luc Bertrand, who then owned La Gavroche, convinced Larry to plant vines and moved there to develop Rebecca’s Vineyard, the first of four planted between 1995 and 2000. Sadly, Jean-Luc died in 1997. Okanagan winemaker Eric von Krosigk completed the plantings and for a number of years made the wine.

Initially, Larry also owned a lodge on Saturna but, after selling it, he opened a winery bistro and added a permanent dock for the passing boaters. Within a few years, the bistro was serving as many as 100 lunches a day in the peak summer season. And Larry began planning a new lodge on the vineyard, another measure to generate sales for a winery that is hard to get to if you are not a boater.

Saturna Island’s rich history adds colour to this winery. The island was named in 1791 after the seven-gun Spanish schooner Saturnina, one of the Spanish ships exploring the British Columbia coast. Saturna is among the least-populated of the Gulf Islands (about 300 residents). When Larry bought the farm that has become the vineyard, he discovered that the issue of the farm’s beach access had triggered considerable litigation. The individual who purchased the farm in 1936 turned it over a decade later to his daughter and son. The property was divided after the two had a falling out, with Robert Thomson, the son, settling in a beachfront cottage and leasing his farm acreage to his sister and her husband. He agreed to let them use a road across his land when they needed to send their sheep to market or to bring in materials.

Some of those sheep were destined for the renowned Saturna Beach Lamb Barbecue which became an annual tradition after the first one in 1950. When Thomson decided to sell his property, including the leased acreage, in 1987, he said there would be no more beach barbecues. His sister, Jean Campbell, went to British Columbia Supreme Court, demanding beach access along the road, called Quarry Trail. She won there, and again at the Appeal Court, but she could not persuade her brother to sell her the farm. In 1990, he sold it to Larry - who allowed the annual lamb barbecue to resume.

The south-facing vineyards back against a soaring granite cliff that stores the heat of the day, releasing it to the vineyard during the cool evenings. Rebecca’s Vineyard, named for Larry’s daughter, grows Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Merlot.  Robyn’s Vineyard, named for Larry’s wife, was planted in 1996 with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. In 1998 and 1999, the five-hectare (12-acre) Longfield Vineyard was planted exclusively to Pinot Gris on a plot that had been called the long field in its previous farming history. The final block that was planted, beginning in 2000, has been called Falconridge because of the abundant population of falcons on the cliff above. A few more hectares remain to be planted, likely with Gewürztraminer.

In the winery’s first five years, Saturna purchased Okanagan grapes until its nascent vineyard began to produce. When the winery began selling wine in 1998, it had 4,400 cases, all from Okanagan grapes. The winery stopped importing Okanagan grapes in 2003 and relied on its own vineyards. Larry believes that the winery, which was established in 2001, can produce between 10,000 and 12,000 cases a year from its grapes. That is in an optimal vintage. In 2007, cool temperatures and rain at the wrong time resulted in small yields and a production of only 2,700 cases.  After getting advice from Richard Cleave, the Okanagan’s leading vineyard consultant, Larry was able to improve the yields in 2008.

That was also the year when Larry, now very busy in his mining finance practise, listed the winery, vineyards and house for sale at $15 million. “I don’t think anything will come of it,” he admitted at the time. He was really sounding out the market in search of an investor to partner with him in completing the winery’s potential as one of the best wine destinations in the Gulf Islands.


The winery property has been on and off the market several times since that was written. There have also been several unsuccessful schemes to attract partners to refinance the winery. David had looked at the property several times in recent years but did not make an offer until the asking price had dropped to $3 million.

Sea Star Vineyard and Saturna Island Vineyard are across the strait from each other, within easy water taxi range. There is no dock at Sea Star but David has a dock at his Pender Island residence while the Saturna winery already has a dock.


The lamb barbecues never resumed at the winery but were moved to another location on Saturna Island.  As it happens, David pastures a small flock of sheep in the Sea Star vineyard – after harvest. “They didn’t get the memo about not eating grapes,” he says.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Andrew Peller’s triple play in Okanagan wineries




Photo: John Peller (foreground) and Joseph Peller

National wine producer Andrew Peller Ltd. has stunned the British Columbia wine industry by scooping up three of the Okanagan’s leading wineries for $95 million.

In transactions scheduled to close in October, Peller  (APL) is acquiring Gray Monk Estate Winery, Black Hills Estate Winery and Tinhorn Creek Vineyards.

“My grandfather started our business in the Okanagan nearly 60 years ago, and we have always been inspired by the Valley’s promise to make wines that rival the very best in the world,” APL chief executive officer John Peller said in a statement.

“We have long admired these leading estate VQA wineries and now it is a privilege to bring their ultra-premium wines and talented people into our family,” he added “With our investment and resources, these wines have the potential to grow, develop and compete in the growing luxury wine market around the world.”

The combined sales of the three wineries being acquired is about $25 million. APL’s sales in the year ended March 31, 2017, totalled $342.6 million.  This deal cements APL’s position as the largest wine company in Canada.

It will also shake up the BC wine industry. “Buying all three at once is a huge game changer,” says industry veteran Harry McWatters.

There is also a sense of relief that three jewels of Okanagan winemaking will remain in Canadian hands. McWatters notes that APL “has always respected wine colleagues that are competitors.”

The marketing manager of a mid-sized Okanagan winery added: “Andrew Peller did what they thought was best to position themselves competitively locally and globally into the future. As of today, I would say the B.C wine industry just grew up a little more!”

This move also strengthens APL’s position in the production of premium Canadian-grown wine.

While this is the single largest purchase by APL in its history, the family-controlled winery has a history of making acquisitions in the Canadian wine industry. In the company’s 2015 annual report, it said: “Since 1995 we have successfully completed and integrated fourteen accretive acquisitions for a total investment of approximately $113.8 million.”

Each of the three acquired wineries appears to have had its own motivation to accept the APL offer.

At family-owned Gray Monk, founders George and Trudy Heiss are well past retirement age: George was born in 1939 and Trudy in 1940. For several years, they have examined options for transferring the assets either to a succeeding generation of the Heiss family or to a purchaser with values compatible their theirs.

George and Trudy, both former operators of hair salons, began growing grapes in the Okanagan in 1972. Their winery, which opened in 1982, was one of the early estate wineries. It is now believed to be producing about 75,000 cases a year. The winery owns about 50 acres of vineyard and contracts from a significant number of growers.

“We’ve known the Peller family for many years and share and appreciate the same values and approach to quality winemaking,” George Heiss said in a statement.

At Tinhorn Creek, a 40,000-case producer, the major shareholders are Alberta oil industry executive Bob Shaunessy, his wife, Barb, and Kenn and Sandra Oldfield. Sandra is president at Tinhorn Creek while husband Kenn has largely retired from activities at the winery.

Tinhorn Creek opened in 1995, based on 150 acres of vineyards acquired or developed by the partners both on the Black Sage Bench and on what is now the Golden Mile Bench, where the winery is located.
It has been the honour of my life to have helped build Tinhorn Creek, to make great wines with an attention to sustainability and most importantly, to run our business with empathy toward our employees, our customers and our community,” Tinhorn Creek’s Sandra Oldfield said in a statement. “Andrew Peller will continue the long-term development and growth in the Okanagan that we started.”

Black Hills is the smallest of the three producers, probably around 10,000 cases a year, but it is the producer of a red blend called Nota Bene, the most coveted cult wine from the Okanagan. It owns 50 acres of vineyards.

Black Hills opened in 1991, based on a Black Sage Road vineyard planted in 1996 to premium Bordeaux varieties. In 2007, the founders sold Black Hills to Vinequest Wine Partners Limited Partnership.

In a financial circular at the time, Glenn Fawcett, the managing partner, told investors that: “Subject to market conditions at the time, it is the intention of the General Partner to achieve a liquidity event for the Partnership in a 5 to 7-year time frame. Such liquidity event could be in the form of selling the Business and Assets to a private buyer or a public company involved in acquisitions of wineries.”

Now that 10 years have elapsed, some of his investors had become interested in cashing in what has been a solid investment. “Discussions have been ongoing since April 2017, with several parties expressing interest,” Fawcett said in a statement. APL was confirmed in July as the final bidder.

Fawcett said that nothing will change at Black Hills immediately except ownership. “The new owner plans to keep most, if not all, the staff. APL wishes to keep the hospitality, evens and current portfolio intact,” he said.


APL got its start in 1961 when Andrew Peller, a former Hamilton brewer, established what was then known as Andrés Wines Ltd. in Port Moody, a Vancouver suburb. He had previously applied for a winery license in Ontario but the conditions set down by the province would not have made the business viable.

The elder Peller established wineries across Canada. When the business got into financial difficulty, his son, Joseph, gave up his medical practice to run the wine business. Some years ago, Joseph’s son, John, succeeded him at the helm of the business. APL is publicly traded but the Peller family controls it.

APL’s Okanagan footprint was limited to some vineyard holdings until 2005. In that year, it bought Calona Wines, its sister premium producer, Sandhill Wines, and the Red Rooster Winery on the Naramata Bench.

With a history dating from 1932, Calona – based in Kelowna – is the oldest continually operating winery in B.C. Sandhill was launched in 1997 as a producer of single vineyard wines.


When APL completes the purchase of Gray Monk, Black Hills and Tinhorn, it will rival Mission Hill Family Estates in size in the Okanagan. Nationally, APL, with five wineries in Ontario and one in Nova Scotia, is larger. APL also owns 101 retail wine stores in Ontario. 

Dames Rosé: wine for a good cause




Photo: Mirielle Sauvé



Recently, a cheque of $17,000 was given to the BC chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, an organization dedicated to supporting female professionals getting into the wine industry.

The money had been raised from the sale of wines made by Mireille Sauvé, a Vancouver wine marketing consultant whose career once got a boost from a Dames scholarship.

The story is related in a news release from the BC chapter. I cannot improve on the narrative, so I will just reproduce it.

Back in 1991, a 22-year-old Mireille was struggling with her career. Having started working in restaurants at the young age of 14, she was an established server in fine dining with vast experience but frustrated that she was unable to find anyone to take her under their wing to attain management status, and a professional sommelier degree from Toronto’s George Brown University was both out of financial reach and necessitated a move across the country.  

A few senior women in the industry knew of her talents and ambition and encouraged her to apply for a scholarship from the local chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, money they raised throughout the year for exactly this type of need. Mireille received a generous scholarship, scored honours distinction in her course, and went on to become the youngest certified sommelier (yes, of any gender) in Canada.
Apprenticeship at a Washington State winery, work experience with Eric von Krosigk at Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards (now See-Ya-Later Ranch) behind her; her own successful wine consulting business; travels across the world judging wine and no less than three children later, Mireille had reached a level in her career and was invited to join Les Dames as member - the very same organization that had helped her to pay for the schooling she needed to reach this place in her career. Talk about full circle.  

Jumping into the fundraising arm of the chapter committees she saw an opportunity to move away from silent auctions and give back, include other members in an amazing winemaking experience and, if she was lucky, be able to involve and give back to a whole new generation of female winemakers and sommeliers by making and bottling wine with all the profits being donated back to the chapter. The BC Chapter was thrilled to be the sole recipient of these funds and was on hand to accept the first cheque, which was presented August 29th at a “Dames wine” tasting at Marquis Wine Cellars in Vancouver.

The Dames Wine Project

Mireille started to experiment with the white wine a few years ago as she discussed her dream of creating a special Dames wine. An early prototype blending Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat was good enough to inspire her. With that presentation, the chapter approved her use of their branding and gave her their blessing to move ahead. When it was time to pick the grapes, heavy smoke taint from forest fires in Washington State (2015) meant the grapes were at risk in Mireille’s estimation so she went looking for grapes from other regions of the Okanagan or a varietal that would be enhanced, rather than compromised, by a smoky characteristic.

This was a serendipitous move as not only did she find some amazing Pinot Blanc grapes in winemaker Ann Sperling’s vineyard, Ann became not only a mentor, but a friend and her beautiful grapes would go on to be part of the blend for the Dames Rosé and future sparkling wine, next in line. The other grapes that Mireille choose to blend into the white were a Riesling from Sperling Vineyard and a Gewurztraminer from Meyer Family Vineyards, both vinified dry as was the Pinot Blanc.

The red wine grapes were already crushed and Mireille found an organic Merlot that she loved as the base for the “Dames Red”. She turned to her former boss and friend Eric von Krosigk, who had just made a Syrah from grapes grown in the south Okanagan, and like the Merlot, also organic, and Katie Bruce, a young viniculturist at Summerhill, oversaw its production.  The Dames Red is 70% organic Merlot and 30% organic Syrah.

Next Up

“Dames Sparkling” - Working again from Ann Sperling’s grapes, a dry sparkling wine, due to be bottled this fall, will mark the final celebration in the year that marks Les Dames d’Escoffier, BC Chapter’s 25th Anniversary. 

The Dames Rosé 2016, which was released recently, is a blend of 80% Pinot Blanc and 20% Pinot Noir. Mireille set out to make a Provençale style rosé. The French often use a variety called Cinsault which has good minerality, delivers strawberry flavours and is not too dark.
The Pinot Blanc that she chose once again came from the Sperling Vineyard in East Kelowna, which delivers the desired minerality and structure. The Pinot Noir, which delivers the colour and the fruitiness, is from the Stoneboat Vineyard on the Black Sage Bench. The grapes were processed at the Sperling winery.

Here is a note on the wine. It is available in several private wine stores and restaurants and by the case from www.dameswine.com




Dames Rosé 2016 ($23-$29). The wine has that south of France pale hue – light salmon pink - that has become fashionable. It begins with aromas of pink grapefruit that lead to flavours of strawberry and grapefruit. The wine has good weight on the palate. The finish is dry and refreshing. 90.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Bench 1775's fruit-packed wines






Photo: Bench 1775 winemaker Val Tait

A recent package of wine samples from Bench 1775 Winery on the Naramata Bench display the impressive winemaking of Valeria Tait, the general manager and winemaker here.

This winery has a lot going for it, not the least being a tasting patio with an excellent view over vineyards and Okanagan Lake. Val Tait, however, may be its best asset.

Val, a noted viticultural consultant in the Okanagan, joined the winery in 2013, partnering with Jim Stewart, one of the former owners. The winery was sold the following year to low profile immigrant investors who maintained Val in her role, recognizing her depth of experience.

Born in 1964, she has an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and a master’s in integrated pest management. She started working at the Summerland research station on plant viruses and then developed her independent consulting business with grape growers in the early 1990s as new vineyards were being planted. “I was lucky to get in on the industry when it was starting to grow,” says Val.

At Bench 1775, she has reorganized the winery and quickly upgraded viticulture. “We have to be impeccable in the vineyard,” she vows. “It’s such a beautiful site and it has such great potential.”

The 7.5-hectare (18.5-acre) vineyard’s features include a lengthy private beach on Okanagan Lake. “There are very few wineries in the world that are on the water,” Val says. “It is like we are working on a vacation site.” Indeed, one of the privileges to members of the Bench 1775 wine club is access to the beach.

Here are notes on the wines.

Bench 1775 Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($24.90 for 1,100 cases). This Sancerre-style wine begins aromas of herbal spices and lemon. On the palate, there are flavours of grapefruit, lemon and white peach. The wine is crisp, with an underlying minerality for structure. 91.

Bench 1775 Viognier 2016 ($24.90 for 900 cases). This wine is 84% Viognier, with the addition of 9% Pinot Grise, 3% each of Muscat and Riesling and 1% Gewürztraminer. The wine has appealing floral aromas along with apricot, lime and lemon rind. The fleshy texture delivers flavours of ripe peaches, apricots and guava. The finish is lingering. This is a deliciously fruity wine. 91.

Bench 1775 Brut Rosé ($21.90). This is 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay. The wine puts on a great display in the glass, with a pale bronze hue and fine active bubbles. The aromas of apples lead to a delicious fruit bowl of flavours – apples and nectarines. It is a lovely and refreshing sparkling wine. 91.

Bench 1775 Pinot Noir 2014 ($24.90). Dark in colour, the wine begins with aromas of cherry mingled with chocolate. It is juicy on the palate, with a silky texture supporting flavours of cherry and strawberry. 88.

Bench 1775 Malbec Nouveau 2016 ($24.90). According to the back label, this Beaujolais Nouveau styled wine was a “pet project” of the winery’s French intern. The wine is bursting with fruit. The aromas are spicy and floral with notes of cherry. The fruit is bright and vibrant and the texture is juicy. The winery recommends serving this chilled. 88.

Bench 1775 Cabernet Franc clone 214 2013 ($27.90 for 580 cases). Only the Bench 1775 wine club can buy this superb red.  It is a big, ripe wine with layers of blackberry, black currant, black cherry and mulberry. 92.



Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Osoyoos Larose will move ahead on winery




 Photo: Osoyoos Larose  manager and winemaker Caroline Schaller


The best-known Okanagan wine in Quebec may well be Le Grand Vin from Osoyoos Larose Winery.

Le Grand Vin’s appeal in that market is due to its sophisticated Bordelaise style. Since the first vintage in 2001, the wine has been crafted by French-trained winemakers, sent to the Okanagan by Groupe Taillan, the Bordeaux producer which helped launch Osoyoos Larose and which now owns 100% of the winery.

From time to time, wine tourists from Quebec stumble around the Okanagan, searching for the Osoyoos Larose tasting room. They are disappointed that there is none.

That is about to change. The individual in charge of making it happen is the new executive manager and winemaker Caroline Schaller. She was sent to the Okanagan in July by Groupe Taillan. She will be making the 2017 vintage with Benoit Giroussens, the other winemaker at Osoyoos Larose.

In between winemaking, she will help her Bordeaux employer acquire a site for a winery and tasting room on or near the 80-acre Osoyoos Larose vineyard in the south Okanagan.

“We have several sites to see first, with different opportunities,” she said in a recent interview. “We want to be sure to find a great one; and also to find a great architect. Then we will build the winery, in one or two years.”

Since 2001, the Osoyoos Larose wines have been made in an expansive cellar at the far northeast corner of the sprawling Jackson Triggs winery north of Oliver. That was the arrangement struck when Groupe Taillan agreed to a 50/50 joint venture with Vincor, as the Jackson Triggs owner was then known. The location precluded a tasting room and public tours, since the access across the Jackson Triggs crush pad is virtually hard hat territory.

The French bought the other 50% of Osoyoos Larose several. The deal included an agreement that Osoyoos Larose would relocate.

The vineyard is on the side of a mountain, with spectacular views over Osoyoos Lake and the south Okanagan Valley. The complication of siting a winery and tasting room there is building an access road that does not go by the Osoyoos town dump. There long before the vineyard, the dump is downhill from the vines. It is not especially unsightly but it might still be shattering to Quebecoise and other lovers of Le Grand Vin.

This is, without a doubt, one of the Okanagan’s icon wines. Here is an excerpt from my recent book: Icon: Flagship Wines from British Columbia’s Best Wineries.

Osoyoos Larose turned the Bordeaux formula on its head with Le Grand Vin, launching it in the 2001 vintage as the premier wine from the estate, not as the second label. It was a surprise because one of the two partners behind Osoyoos Larose (and now the sole owner) was Groupe Taillan of Bordeaux.

Taillan operates several chateaux in Bordeaux, including Château Gruaud-Larose, a distinguished second-growth winery in Saint-Julien. In Bordeaux, grapes from young vines—vines less than 15 years old—are almost never blended into an estate’s top wine. They are usually reserved for an estate’s second label.

At Osoyoos Larose, Le Grand Vin 2001 was made with fruit from three-year-old vines. The second label, Pétales d’Osoyoos, was not even launched until the 2005 vintage. Even then, it was not created as a home for fruit from young vines but rather for the barrels of quality wine left over after the blend for Le Grand Vin had been decided.

“At the beginning, we intended to have two labels, and the first release in 2001 would be the second label,” says Pascal Madevon, the French-born winemaker who managed Osoyoos Larose for 10 years. Referring to Le Grand Vin, he says: “The first label was to be for the later years because the 2001 is from young vines. That was not the case. The wine is so good, we decided to put Osoyoos Larose on the 2001 label, and we decided to put 95 percent of the 2001 vintage into the blend—except six or seven barrels of hard-press wine. Incredible!”

The winemakers who have succeeded Pascal (now a busy Okanagan consultant) have all been equally impressed with the vineyard.

“Unbelievable, I have to say,” Caroline Schaller remarks. “I saw it on Google Earth, but I could not imagine the mountain, the elevation, the lake. The contrast between the dryness of the mountain and the green of the vineyard and the blue of the lake, it is just unbelievable.  The view is just beautiful from the vineyard.”

Born in Toulouse, she trained at the wine school there, the Centre de Viticulture et d’oenologie de Midi Pyrénées, from which she graduated in 1999. She acquired in international experience first in Napa, where she worked as a cellar hand for Pine Ridge Winery in 2000 and then as a laboratory technician there in 2001.

In 2002, she became an assistant winemaker at Daumaine Cauhapé in the Jurançon region in France. In the following year, she worked as an assistant winemaker at Viña Leyda in Chile. On her return to France, she became a consulting winemaker in southwestern France.

From 2004 until 2017, Caroline was executive manager and winemaker at Domaine d’En Ségur, a producer in the Tarn region of southwestern France. She also was active as a writer and teacher of wine. This year, a winemaker friend employed by Groupe Taillan recommended Caroline for the position in the Okanagan.

She has moved to the Okanagan with her husband, Arnaud Thierry, who is also a winemaker, and their children, a daughter aged six and a son aged nine, and their dog.

“My dog is a fox terrier,” she says. “They hunt but I am afraid what will happen if he hunts here. In France, he used to hunt alone for rabbits – but here, it is not rabbits. What impressed me here also is that we feel we live in the animals’ land. They are not in our land. We are in their land. It’s their country.”

Coinciding with her arrival at Osoyoos Larose, the winery has just released the 2014 Le Grand Vin. The 2013 Pétales d’Osoyoos was previously released. Both are widely distributed.

Here are notes on the wines.

Osoyoos Larose Pétales d’Osoyoos 2013 ($25.99). This wine is 82% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2.5% Malbec, 1% Petit Verdot and ½% Cabernet Franc. The high proportion of Merlot gives the wine its appealing approachability. The aromas and fresh flavours of cassis, cherry and raspberry are framed by ripe tannins. The wine was aged 14 to 16 months in French oak barrels that were one to two years old. New oak was deliberately avoided to preserve the fresh and fruity character of the wine. 90.

Osoyoos Larose Le Grand Vin 2014 ($45.99). This wine is 68% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc, 8% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, and 5% Malbec. The wine was aged 18 to 20 months in French oak, with 60% of the barrels new and 40% one year old. The blend and the barrel selection lead to wine with a fine concentrated structure. There are aromas of black currant and other dark fruits with a touch of vanilla. On the palate, there are flavours of black currant, black cherry and spiced black fruit framed with vanilla and long, ripe tannins. The winery took advantage of the harmonious 2014 vintage, one of the best ever in the Okanagan, to craft a classic red worthy of its name. 94.