Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Looking Ahead to WBC13 - Week 5 - Painted Rock

The first so many stops on this Pre-WBC13 tour of favourite BC wineries have largely been long-time players and innovators on the Okanagan wine scene. Today, I'm stopping at a new kid on the block - albeit a NKOTB that sang out loudly "look at me" from Day One. And with good reason.

Painted Rock Estate Winery offered its first wines for sale in September 2009 and there really hasn't been any turning back since that time. From his earliest conception of establishing a winery, proprietor, John Skinner, has focused on delivering premium wines - and, in producing a "premium" wine, he takes a global perspective. John doesn't just look to see his wines compared to those his Okanagan neighbours are making, he wants the world to notice Painted Rock. He's a firm believer that the Okanagan is capable of making - and needs to make - superb wines and he set out looking to participate in and, hopefully, to help elevate an industry that was still largely in its infancy.

During his previous life as an investment broker, John travelled extensively and had become both a student of and collector of wine. That hankering for fine wine ultimately developed into the goal of owning his own winery and, although considerations were given to locating in France or elsewhere, numerous visits to the Okanagan to scout vineyard sites or operating wineries, led John to ultimately decide to start from scratch. By starting anew, he realized that he wouldn't inherit any problems or issues of an existing vineyard or winery.

He found his site in 2004 - a 60 acre parcel on bench land just south of Penticton on Skaha Lake. The site had been an apricot farm - the largest in the British Commonwealth at one time - however, it had lain fallow for 17 years as the farm had fallen prey to and had been devastated in the 1980's by a gypsy moth infestation. John purchased the property in 2004 and the first year of operations consisted of a massive clearing of old tree stumps.

Over the next two years, the newly cleared vineyard was planted with Bordeaux reds, Syrah and a small block of Chardonnay - with multiple clones of each variety. Planting Syrah wasn't part of the initial planting strategy; however, John tips his hat to BC wine writer emeritus, John Schreiner, who strongly suggested that Painted Rock consider planting it as writer John was keenly aware of what was succeeding elsewhere in the southern Okanagan. Nowadays, winery John gets a special thrill working with the Syrah, particularly because it wasn't part of the original plan.

Indeed, during his years in business, John knew that you needed to trust others when you weren't the expert. When setting the groundwork for Painted Rock, John saw the biggest obstacle to making great wine in BC as simply being the relative youth of the region. Not having any experience himself in farming or winemaking, he brought in consultants to help build the business from within. Whether those consultants have been recognized international winemakers like Bordeaux's Alain Sutre or experienced locals like Michael Bartier, John looks to learn from prior experiences that are there to be shared by other growers, owners and winemakers.

A few years back, John and his new Painted Rock wines paired up with the Rain City Grill for one of the BC Wine Appreciation Society's most memorable dinners. One of the entertaining stories John told that night revolved around a bit of self-deprecation and his learning curve in winemaking. He recounted how, knowing that they were growing two clones of Syrah in the vineyard, he asked Alain Sutre if they should consider producing both a Syrah and a Shiraz to take advantage of the two clones. Sutre apparently looked at him and asked if he was crazy. Sutre went on to tell him that, with wine, 1+1 do not equal 2 but that, rather, they can equal 3 or more when blended. He advised John that he'd be better off to capitalize on the strong points of both clones and trust that the resulting wine would be both more complex and more enjoyable.

A second story goes that Sutre was so impressed by the Painted Rock terroir that he asked to have his contract extended so that he could continue to see how the vineyard would evolve. He's been quoted as having said that Painted Rock could well be the Pétrus of the Okanagan. Not a bad comparison when you consider that Pétrus is perennially one of the most sought after wines in the world.

Sutre has also played a large role in determining the blend for Painted Rock's flagship wine, Red Icon. In striving to get the most from the vineyard, John asked Sutre to look for a real expression of the Okanagan and the Painted Rock lands and to not simply look to practices that speak purely of Bordeaux. The fruit was all estate grown and John and Sutre were both surprised to find that their blending tests on the first vintage consistently led them to a result that was unique - even for the Okanagan - one that featured Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot as the predominant components.

The resulting wine helped validate John's mandate to cut no corners and to strive for excellence. Indeed, when asked, if given the opportunity, was there was one of his wines that John would like all WBC13 attendees to try, he advised that it would be the 2009 Red Icon. It's the 2007 vintage that I'm adding to The List with this post though. We'd been saving it - both for a special occasion and to give it some time to age - but this seems like an appropriate time to pull the cork.

1294.  2007 Painted Rock Red Icon (VQA Okanagan Valley)

If they hadn't taken note already, BC wine drinkers in the know certainly cottoned onto the arrival of Painted Rock when it was named Best New Winery at the 2009 Okanagan Fall Wine Festival or when the '07 Red Icon and the '07 Cabernet Sauvignon took two of only eleven BC Lieutenant Governor's Awards for Excellence given out in 2010. Red Icon was that unique blend of 33% Cab Franc, 20% Petit Verdot, 16% of both Cab Sauv and Merlot and 15% Malbec. Painted Rock's terroir was speaking - and loudly.

That award worthy pedigree was still evident as Boo and I were both enthralled with the wine. The nose immediately jumped out of the glass with ripe dark fruit but the wine was hardly aggressive with an Aussie or a Californian fruit forwardness. Rather, what struck us most, was the almost velvet texture of the wine on the tongue. There was an integration of smooth, ripe tannin, acidity and fruit that just lingered and got even better when paired with some grilled flank steak.

This was our only bottle of the '07 Red Icon, but I'm happy to say that we have a few other Painted Rock bottles salted away.

The accolades have continued for the winery. Indeed, Painted Rock won another two Lt. Gov. Awards in 2012 for the '09 Red Icon and the '09 Syrah and that same Syrah took a Silver medal at the 2012 Syrah du Monde in France where it was up against 445 wines from 24 countries. The winery was the #1 rated BC winery at the 2011 Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards and '09 Red Icon as named Canada's Best Red Blend in that same competition.

For that first vintage (and, indeed, the second) Painted Rock didn't have its own winemaking facilities and the 2007 and 2008 vintages were made with the assistance of fellow Okanagan wineries - the '07 at Poplar Grove and the '08 at Stag's Hollow - and, to date, the public tasting room at the winery has been a small shack with a great view.

The story on the tasting room is about to change, however. The winery is excited by the prospect of opening up a spectacular, new tasting room by the end of the summer. One that might be just a tad more representative of the premium wines that are served there.

Unfortunately, as you can see by the photo that John forwarded to me this week, there's still a ways to go with the new facility and it won't be completed by the arrival of the Wine Bloggers Conference. The winery's hoping for an August 1st opening and I'm certainly looking forward to a first opportunity to enjoy some wine there. If we're lucky, maybe this year's BCWAS Fall Bus Tour will feature a tour of the new digs.

Even with the new facilities, Painted Rock's target production is a relatively small 5000 cases a year. That doesn't make for a whole lot of availability - especially when John has already entered into agreements to export his wines to growing markets in China and Japan.

With all the recent discussion and debate over a possible need for Okanagan wineries to focus on a signature variety, John takes the view that the region is starting to identify grapes that do particularly well in different parts of the region. He notes the excitement arising from how beautifully Syrah is working from Penticton south and how Riesling and Pinot Noir are seeing equal success further north. He's quick to point out, however, that the Okanagan is a diverse region and that real progress isn't necessarily going to come from a signature variety. Rather, he sees that progress coming from the knowledge and experience that continues to build as winemakers and growers become more aware of Okanagan terroir and regional strengths - and as more wineries commit to producing wines of even higher quality.

It's that commitment to understanding the specific strengths and terroir of his own vineyard that also makes John passionate about the creation of sub-appellations in the Okanagan - starting with the Skaha Bench as being a prime example of lands that are different from anywhere else in the province. Believing that it honours the consumer to define exactly where the wine they're drinking is from, he probably couldn't have a better argument on his side than the ability to pour his Painted Rock wines.

Sub-appellation or not, John Skinner and Painted Rock have definitely put the Skaha Bench on the BC wine map. If any WBC13 participants hadn't heard of Skaha before they arrived in Penticton, hopefully, they'll know a lot more before they leave. I know that if John has any say in the matter, his presence will be prominent at the Conference.  I'd catch him if you can.

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