Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Looking Ahead to WBC13 - A Visit to Red Rooster

With the Wine Bloggers Conference 2013 quickly approaching, I'm starting to see more and more posts and tweets relating to this June's extravaganza. For the first time, the North American version of WBC is going to cross the 49th Parallel and meet in Canada - in British Columbia and the Okanagan Valley none-the-less. Being a BC kind of a guy, I think it's safe to say that I've been rather intimate with my share of BC wines over the years. With that in mind and knowing that many of this year's participants will have never tried a BC wine before in their life, I thought I'd take a stab at a series of posts to highlight some of my favourite BC wineries.

The idea is to feature a different winery each week leading up to the start of the conference. If I'm reading the calendar correctly, that'll see ten terrific wineries featured before we all meet in Penticton. Keeping in the spirit of this blog, I'll naturally have to drink a bottle from each of those wineries so that I can add the bottle to The List. Hopefully, I haven't bitten off more than I can chew. Lord knows I'm chronically behind with my writing. On the other hand, the drinking part won't be a problem.

Seeing as how Boo and I just spent this past weekend with a fine assortment of folks at Red Rooster winery, it only makes sense that this is the natural place to start.

Red Rooster is one of the 23 wineries (at last count) now found on the Naramata Bench just outside of Penticton - and there's no doubt that most of the bloggers attending WBC13 will find themselves on the Bench (if not at Red Rooster itself) at some point during their stay. The winery was established by Beat and Prudence Mahrer in 1997 at the far end of the Bench. That original location, however, had a maximum capacity of 10,000 cases and the Mahrer's found that they needed to reinvent themselves at what might have been the first showcase winery on Bench in 2004 - and its much increased 30,000 case capacity.

The winery has always had a tie to local art and some feature pieces are prominently displayed on the property and in the winery. The current location even features a gallery on its second floor. One of my favourite stories about Red Rooster, however, relates to Frank the Baggage Handler - the whimsical statue that greets guests just outside the tasting room.  Frank was initially commissioned as public art by the City of Penticton in 2004 but his installation - and the public display of his man parts - proved to be a tad outrageous for some of the city's residents. Although the city tried concealing Frank's privates at first, some self appointed art critics were sufficiently appalled that they performed a "Lorena Bobbitt" and vandalized poor old Frank's penis. Since it was evident that Frank's manlihood was still a bit much for some residents, Red Rooster adopted him - and all his glory - and moved him to the winery.

The best part of the story for me, though, was that, for their next vintage, the winery produced a special release "Cabernet Frank" and quickly sold out of all of the artist signed bottles. I've tried for years to find a bottle of Frank but, much to my dismay, there just don't seem to be any bottles still hanging around - and that's even with the winery's help in trying to find a bottle. Sadly, they no longer produce a varietal Cab Franc. I'm thinking the marketing tie-in is still ripe to be picked should they ever go the Cab Franc route again though.

Shortly after Frank was moved to Red Rooster, the Andrew Peller group purchased the winery in 2005. Accordingly, the winery benefits from shared experiences with stablemates Sandhill, Peller Estates and Calona in BC and with Trius, Wayne Gretzky and Thirty Bench in Ontario.

The next step in the winery's evolution was the appointment of Karen Gillis as its winemaker in 2007. Prior to Karen's arrival, the winery had seen a bit of revolving door when it came to winemakers. Karen has now finished her sixth vintage with Red Rooster and she seems to have become an anchoring influence at the winery. Born and raised in BC, Karen attended BCIT where she studied food technology. Those studies included a winemaking component and it didn't take too long for her to gravitate to the world of wine where she cut her winemaking teeth with Okanagan superstar, Howard Soon. She now oversees a varied production of wines that covers a full spectrum of Okanagan varieties and she's known for favouring a fruit forward style that is delivered at reasonable prices. It's also a style that is earning some hefty recognition and hardware I might add.

Karen is as down-to-earth and self-effacing as a person can be and she'll inevitably give credit to the growers and her team at the winery but it's easy to conclude that the lady has talent. I need only point you to some of the accolades she garnered in 2011. Her 2009 Chardonnay won Canada's only Gold Medal at the Chardonnay du Monde competition in France and, not only that, it was named one of the Top 10 wines in the competition (out of 914 entered). That award was followed shortly thereafter when her 2009 Pinot Noir was named Best of Varietal, Best of Class and Best New World Pinot Noir at Jerry Mead's New World International Wine Competition in the States. And the tributes kept coming. The 2008 Meritage was given a Lieutenant Governor's Award for Excellence in BC Wine - one of only eleven wines to be named in 2011.

I think I've already added all three of those wines to The List. So, I figured we'd treat ourselves to yet another big winner from that year.

1274. 2009 Red Rooster Syrah (VQA Okanagan Valley)

The Syrah was named Red Wine of the Year at the 2011 Okanagan Fall Wine Festival and, in my humble opinion, it is drinking beautifully - think rich, black cherries and a bit of spice coming through. The wine was definitely New World in its approach but there's also no way you'd confuse it for a big Aussie Shiraz. Both Boo and I were very pleased to see that this wasn't our last bottle either.

Early on with the move to the new location, Red Rooster introduced what I feel is one of the smartest marketing moves I've seen in the BC wine industry. I've written a fair bit about the winery's unique Adopt-A-Row program through the years; so, I won't go into too much detail here (you only need to search the topic in the blog for more). However, the concept is that the rows of Malbec planted on the estate vineyard are adopted by wine lovers and the winery delivers an annual case of wine and throws a Spring Pruning weekend and a Fall Harvest party for any adoptive parents that can make it - in addition to other perks like early notice on wines and discounts at the winery. This past weekend, we attended the pruning party - during which we tasted our way through current releases, sampled the yet-to-be-released 2012 whites, enjoyed a lunch and Q&A session, feasted at a winemaker's dinner at one of Penticton's heralded restaurants and pruned the 50 or so vines that make up our row. I can attest that there was far more wining and dining than there was work. Boo and I had finished our row in less than 45 minutes and there wasn't enough work to do to keep us going any longer - much to our dismay actually.

Picking grapes in the Fall is even more fun.

Through the Adopt-A-Row events, I've come to know Karen and some of her team and I truly value all the time and patience everyone affords me. Karen took the time to answer a whack of questions that I'd thrown her way in preparation for this post. It was hardly a Proustian questionnaire but I definitely learned some hitherto unknown aspects of Karen's approach to wine. A few highlights of the repartée - for me anyhow - were:

A favourite aspect of the industry for her is that it's still a small community and that everyone knows each other. But, more than that, she loves the huge connection between all the different components of the agricultural business community - particularly the fact that the region's chefs are working hard to create "amazing wine and food pairings, all sourced locally." You only need look at Red Rooster's relationship with Bogner's Darin Paterson to see how intimately the winery tries to work hand in hand with the local food community.

When asked if there was a particular wine she makes that gives her slightly more of a thrill than the others, Karen advised that it was Red Rooster's Golden Egg - the Valley's only take (to my knowledge) on the classic Rhône or Aussie Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvèdre blend. There is very little Grenache or Mourvèdre grown in the province; so, in order to get her hands on some, Karen has coaxed some of her regular growers to plant a row here or there. The vines are still young and have yet to reach their potential but Karen hopes to keep learning about the blend and seeing how those grapes and vines evolve in the vineyards. Aussie drinkers will be familiar with the GSM nickname, but Karen couldn't source enough "G" to go that route. Mourvèdre is the biggest component in her blend; she just didn't think the MSG name would go that well with the wine's label or with winery's marketing plan. Hence, Golden Egg name is here to stay.

Karen is also having fun playing around with the winery's new concrete egg fermenter. Red Rooster received their first egg from France in time for Karen to try it out on some of last Fall's vintage of Viognier and Pinot Gris. The new concrete fermenter provided her with yet another outlet to quench her thirst for knowledge and she's looking forward to seeing what influences the egg might have on different wines down the road.

And, speaking of "thirst," Karen confessed to a favourite tipple of sherries and ports during the colder months of the Okanagan calendar. A lover of winter comfort foods, she advised that a full, nutty and well developed sherry queues up nicely as a "comfort wine."

Being the gentleman that I am, I'm never going to ask a woman her age, but Karen's considerably younger than me. As such, I was surprised to hear her say that she's sees "young superstar" winemakers as being a big trend in BC wine - and she wasn't counting herself in that group of "youngsters." She's already finding a next generation of winemakers coming through the ranks and she's impressed with their desire to try new approaches - whether those approaches be experimental or a throwback to more traditional methods.

It was Karen, herself, who was recently being heralded as a young gun. When someone like Karen is already looking to a new generation, I guess it just goes to show how quickly the BC winemaking scene is growing and changing. I have to think that Karen and Red Rooster are laying a good foundation for the years to come though.

As mentioned, Red Rooster produces a fairly wide range of both varietal and blended wines. Personal favourites over the years have been Bantam (the easy drinking white blend), the Reserve Merlot, the Riesling, Rosé and Reserve Gewürztraminer. The best way to find a favourite of your own is to visit the well appointed tasting room and take in the view and the breadth of Karen and the winery's hard work.

If you're visiting the Okanagan for WBC13, be sure to take in the Naramata Bench. I don't think you'll regret the excursion or making Red Rooster one of your stops en route.

No comments:

Post a Comment