It doesn’t seem like too many years ago that we first stopped into a new production facility, one of the growing number of wineries on the Naramata Bench on Penticton’s north side.
It was a winery and distillery. Cool idea, we thought, as craft distilleries were just starting to come into vogue.
Cool ideas aren’t enough to grow a business on, though, and now that same facility is Upper Bench Estate Winery, and it seems to be thriving. And it doesn’t hurt that it is now also home to a cheese factory, where some very fine products are being made in small batches.
Gavin and Shana certainly have the pedigree to make the business work. The English-born Gavin has plenty of winery experience in the Okanagan, having worked at several wineries. Shana learned the tricky art of cheese-making at Poplar Grove, working along side Gitta Sutherland, who continues on with her own superb factory.
“She was ready to fly out on her own,” Gitta told me as we shared a dinner table in Naramata last week.
In addition to their work skills, the Millers are blessed with charming personalities, as evidenced by our visit to Upper Bench last Saturday. Both Gavin and Shana were behind the tasting room counter, along with a staff member or two, as they served a steady stream of customers. We settled in for a chat, another writer stood with her notebook on the counter, customers came and went, and no one felt like they had been ignored.
When I mentioned our visit to the original premises, Gavin laughed and talked about their purchase of the place, which had gone into receivership. It seems that the owner had installed a distillation system and was busy making spirits before he had a licence. He then learned that putting a distillery on property in the Agricultural Land Reserve is a no-no unless the spirits are being made from plants grown on the property. The result was that the Millers took over a property with thousands of litres of spirits that had to be dumped.
Today, Gavin is making a very nice selection of wines, all nicely balanced. On the morning of our visit, he had hand-labelled some of the newly bottled Zweigelt, which quickly sold. When we wanted to buy a few bottles he ducked into the back to stick the labels on our purchases. A cool climate red, Zweigelt is a versatile, light red wine that pairs easily with food but when lightly chilled becomes a very nice patio sipper.
It was on a visit to Okanagan wineries last year that we once again became open to Chardonnays, having long since abandoned the varietal that had become one-dimensional, the market flooded with over-oaked wine tasting of vanilla, with a creaminess that comes from secondary malolactic fermentation. In recent years, though, winemakers have started to produce unoaked, or lightly oaked versions, letting the fruit do the talking and reminding consumers that Chardonnay has some lovely characteristics. Our tasting at Upper Bench at that time helped confirm that Chardonnay is on its way back.
Upper Bench produces Merlot and Pinot Noir, in addition to the Zweigelt, red wines. Whites also include Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Riesling, all clean and crisp on the palate, with great floral notes. Once again we couldn’t resist purchasing some of the rosé wines, dry, fruity and with a surprisingly full body.
We made our wine selections, after having also tasted a few samples of cheese, then moved to the cheese counter and decided to make things easy. We bought one piece each of the half-dozen cheeses available on that day. They are all marvelous.
Shana is a meticulous cheesemaker, going beyond regulatory demands to ensure that her products are safe. Each batch is tested in a food lab before she puts in the shelf.
“It’s expensive,” she said. “But I don’t ever want to be responsible for making a customer sick.”
From our experience, sick customers will never be an issue at Upper Bench Estate Winery. Two very nice, very talented people, doing what they love to do and giving it everything they have. Now that is a winning business plan.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.