Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Looking Ahead to WBC13 - Week 4 - Fairview Cellars

We're six weeks out from the start of the 2013 Wine Blogger's Conference and it's time for a fourth stop on my little Pre-WBC13 Road Trip through some of my favourite BC wineries. This time round, it's a visit to the top end of the Golden Mile and to Bill Eggert and Fairview Cellars. To get there as you head South of Oliver, you just need to remember to turn right when you see the sign for the golf course. It's important to watch for the golf course because you're likely never going to find the winery if you're relying on Hwy 3 signage. I'm not sure if Bill has finally relented and put up a sign but, from Day 1, he had been deliberately avoiding one. If your wine preferences lie with big reds though, you're going to want to find Fairview.

Fairview is synonymous with Bill and Bill is synonymous with Fairview. It's hard not to be when you've pretty much been a one-man operation for over two decades. And, if there's one common response about Bill from folks in the Okanagan, it's likely going to be that he's about as big a character as there is in the region. "Iconoclast," "Madcap," "Bear," these all might be names of Fairview wines but they're also words that easily come to mind when describing the man himself. Indeed, the "Madcap Red" moniker was born when one of the higher profile wine scribes in Vancouver referred to Bill as the "madcap winemaker." Being the rogue that he is, Bill simply worked the comment into the name of a wine. You only need to ask but there are, naturally, stories behind additional wine names like "Bucket O' Blood" and "Two Hoots."

Born in Ottawa and raised in Northern Ontario, Bill was first introduced to the wine industry while working on his uncle's vineyard near Beamsville on the Niagara Peninsula.  At the time, Inniskillin and Chateau des Charmes were the only small wineries in existence. His uncle grew grapes and sold them to Jordan Wines. Back then, the majority of grapes were still hybrids that were blended with imported juice. "The wines were wonderful, but they had no real attachment to the terroir" and the story goes that Bill had no luck in convincing his uncle to replant the hybrid vines with vinifera grapes.

Bill also worked for a short time at Charal Wines in Ontario before he ultimately made his way out to the Okanagan in 1984. Upon arriving, he worked at Covert Farms (which is now a winery itself not that far from Fairview) but ended up heading back to Ontario for a bit. He returned to BC, for good, in 1986 - the lure of vinifera grapes and better skiing were just too much of a draw.

Bill purchased his own property in 1989, when he found and fancied a six acre parcel with a South-East facing slope, located on an alluvial fan of the Reed Creek and overlooking the first tee of the neighbouring golf course. He began planting grapes in 1993, starting with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot - and a bit of Cab Franc since it arrived in his order by chance. His experience in the valley and with growing grapes, generally, convinced him that his land was best suited for the red Bordeaux varieties and he saw no reason to plant white wine grapes when the land was telling him red was the way to go. Financial constraints and water issues made planting a lengthy process, however, and he didn't finish planting the vineyard until '99.

During those early years of setting up the vineyard, Bill found that the biggest obstacles to making wine in BC all revolved around the relative size of the industry. Being such a small industry, the ability to source supplies and information was limited. Luckily, Bill finds that this isn't as serious of a problem nowadays as the industry is maturing and the introduction of technological practices is exploding.

Fairview Cellars finally opened the doors to its wood cabin tasting room in 2000 - although the winery didn't really have tasting room hours.  If you knew about the winery, you could call to see if Bill was going to be around or you could just drive by and honk. If he heard you arrive, he could likely arrange for a tasting.

It didn't take long for Fairview's reputation as one of the best small, premium wineries in the Okanagan to grow as Bill's wines found favour with folks looking for BC reds that had some oomph to them. Fairview only offered reds until the 2006 vintage when Bill was given some Sauvignon Blanc that he vinified. The Sauv Blanc proved to be very popular and he's promised to keep making it as long as the grapes continue to be made available. The Sauv Blanc has yet to be given a catchy name for the label but Bill does refer to it fondly as his "oyster wine."

As much as he likes drinking Sauv Blanc, Bill's admitted that his favourite grape to work with is Cab Sauv. There are certainly those that feel the Okanagan just isn't suited to ripen Cab Sauv on a regular basis but Bill isn't one of them. He'd much rather "listen to the vines, not the wine writers." It may just be that his vineyard is particularly suited to the variety but he finds Cab "easy to grow, easy to ripen and easy to make wine with." He particularly likes the fact that his Cab Sauv's drink well in their youth but are still holding well into their second decade.

There's also plenty of discussion around Okanagan growers focusing on Cabernet Franc as it is seen as an earlier ripening grape than Cab Sauv and Bill originally thought that he might end up growing more Franc than Cab Sauv himself. As much as it might be out of the ordinary though, Bill finds that his terroir lends itself to the Cab Sauv regularly ripening sooner than the Cab Franc and the end result is that he doesn't have a whole lot of Cab Franc planted - although he certainly wouldn't mind having more as he finds that he tends to garner bigger accolades for his Cab Franc varietal wine than he does for his other wines.

1291.  2007 Fairview Cellars Cabernet Franc (VQA Okanagan Valley)

After taking a look at the Fairview Cellars wines we had on hand, I decided to go with a Cab Franc since, in keeping with the raison d'être of this blog, I need - and want - to add a new wine to The List. I would dearly loved to have open a bottle of The Wrath Cab Sauv - likely a one-time only vintage due to the hail storm right around picking time - but I don't think it's quite as ready to open yet. Another time. When you find yourself making a decision on which bottle of Fairview to open, one thing Bill is known for is putting a "Best After" date on his reds. In this case, he advised the the '07 bottle would be "best after Dec 2010." I think we're safe.

The fact that there were only 300 cases of the '07 Cab Franc produced just goes to illustrate how difficult it can be to find Fairview's wines. If memory serves, I ran across this one when Bill was serving it at the Vancouver International Wine Festival a couple of years ago.

If I had to choose a most memorable characteristic of this wine, it would be that the nose just jumped out of the glass and it was stellar. Being Franc, the wine was more nuanced than a big Cab and it tasted better with every bite of our BBQ'd rib-eye. Once the steak was gone, I didn't find that the fruit was as big on the palate as it was on the nose but there's no doubt that the bottle was empty long before we would have liked it to be. Funny that.

Looking back, I remember first hearing about and meeting Bill, some years ago, at one of the Okanagan Spring Wine Festival tastings. We were advised not to miss trying his wines because he was a "winemaker's winemaker." Funny thing is that a healthy number of articles over the years have quoted Bill as refusing to call himself a "winemaker" because he's never had formal training. Rather, he considers himself, first and foremost, a grape grower.

Indeed, when the UBC Alumni Association recently held a panel event titled, "The Grape Debate - Should BC Have a Signature Wine Varietal," Bill was vocal in his disappointment with the fact that neither the pro- nor the con- side of the panel featured a grape grower to discuss the topic. Bill sees the topic as being one driven more by Vancouver media than by growers and winemakers. He doesn't agree with the premise that BC needs to have a signature grape in order to be able to market and export its wines to the world.

For Bill, there are more factors involved in resolving a signature variety than marketing concerns. He advises that "the Okanagan, where a vast majority of the grapes are grown, is a very unique area for many reasons. Its small area, mountainous terroir, soil variability and the long, narrow North/South aspect make it difficult to identify similarities in terroir required to produce a big enough volume of one varietal to call it a signature grape." He continued, "as a result it has always been my humble opinion that BC should celebrate its diversity. We have the ability to grow successfully almost every commercial grape save those grown in extremely warm climates. By celebrating diversity, we also embrace other regions with their completely different terroirs such as the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and many of the other small pockets of vineyards popping up around the province."

He posits, is there any economic sense in pushing for a signature grape when the act only seems to elicit a race to the bottom on pricing? Not from his standpoint. He finds it hard enough trying to make a living when you might aim to produce 4000 cases in an exceptional year.

Being a one man show in such a demanding business is a helluva way to make that living; so, Bill has actually changed things up a bit in the last year. He's finally hired a "general manager" to work with him at the winery. Bill's keeping the head winemaker's hat but he's also now referring to himself as Fairview's CEO - a moniker he rather fancies.

The assistance at the winery will also allow Bill to keep up with what's happening in the political realm of the business. He plays an active role in the structure of the BC Wine Institute, currently sitting on the Board of Directors and on a number of committees. The help also comes in handy as Bill is adding to the portfolio by embarking on a Pinot Noir operation with some additional lands further up the valley. With a different terroir and an unfamiliar grape now in play, Bill's encountered a whole new learning experience.

He also looking forward to completing some expansion of the Fairview facilities. He's looking to double the size of the cellar. The expanded facilities will provide him with the opportunity to bring all of his primary fermentation tanks inside where he'll be able to address temperature control and work toward an even more accomplished end product in the bottle.

And, speaking of a favourable end product, when asked if he had the opportunity to serve any one of his wines to all of the WBC13 participants, what would it be, Bill said that he'd love to serve up either his Cab Sauv or his Bear (Cab/Merlot blend) from the 2005 vintage. He doesn't think they're showing at their peak yet but he does think that they show what can be done with Cab Sauv in the Okanagan. He considers 2005 to be the best vintage in BC since 1994 and is pleased that the wines are showing particularly well - thanks to his vines being that much older and his collective understanding of vineyard characteristics and the winemaking process being a decade stronger. He believes that the '09 and '12 vintages are also excellent but that the wines just haven't had enough time to mature yet.

As you might imagine, the man and his wines are quite intriguing - if not downright fascinating. His involvement in social media is tempered for the time being. He has a limited presence on Facebook and you can find him regularly enough on Twitter with his @FairviewCellars handle - particularly if there are political issues being discussed online. He's not convinced that social media does much to increase sales at the winery though.

If you run across him during WBC13 - or otherwise - and want to hear some first-hand tales, you can't go wrong if you show up with "any Scotch over 15 years old." Not to say that he wouldn't be open to other options. I think it's safe to say that it'd be worth your effort.

No comments:

Post a Comment