Two of our long-time favourite B.C. wines were, for many years, also the hardest to find. Black Hills produced one of the province’s first Bordeaux blends. Many were the times that we drove along Black Sage Road, disappointed to find a “Sorry — Sold Out” sign on display at the winery’s Quonset building. The experience was similar at Poplar Grove, where Ian Sutherland was making very high quality wine in very small batches. It wasn’t uncommon to find no Poplar Grove wines in the wine shop.
Black Hills started out in 1996 as a partnership of two couples, Bob and Senka Tennant and Peter and Susan McCarrell. From the time the winery opened to sell Nota Bene, a fabulous Bordeaux-style blend, it became a cult favourite. How popular was it? Folks on the mailing list got a heads-up about the Nota Bene release date and were invited to call in with their orders starting at a certain time and day. In those early years, Nota Bene sold out on its release day.
Poplar Grove had similar success. Winemaker Ian Sutherland was obsessive in his quest to make the best wine he could from his vineyard located on the Naramata Bench. Customers responded to those early releases in a big way — it quickly became impossible to find Poplar Grove wines except for brief periods. The wine shop provided a home for La Frenz wines when it started, and later Ian’s wife Gitta established Poplar Grove Cheese in the shop. After all, customers continued to arrive looking for wine, why not give them options?
Last year, I spoke with both Ian and Gitta, now divorced, reminding them about a magazine quote in which Ian said he was living the good life as a small wine producer and had no interest in expanding. Marital breakups are hard on businesses, though, and in 2007 Ian partnered with Tony Holler, who became Poplar Grove’s majority shareholder and president. Holler already owned 110 acres of prime vineyards and suddenly Ian found himself in the position of having many, many more grapes to work with.
Black Hills’ story changed when the winery was acquired by a group, headed up by entrepreneur Glenn Fawcett, actor Jason Priestley and three others, who formed a limited partnership to purchase the winery and vineyards in 2007.
So what has changed and what has remained the same at these two cult winery success stories?
At Black Hills, production remains modest — 6,300 cases. But the Quonset has been replaced by an elegant concrete and glass guest facility and wines, perhaps because of their high prices, at least by B.C. standards, no longer sell out in hours or days. A second, lower priced selection of wines is now sold under the Cellarhand label. Winemaker Graham Pierce is now in charge of production. A recent offer put out by Black Hills is an indication of how popular those early releases of Nota Bene remain. The winery will trade early vintages, 1999-2007, for two bottles of 2014 Nota Bene. Last year, a few boxed sets of 10-year verticals starting with the first 1999 vintage sold for $2,000. Makes me kind of glad I have a set of my own in the cellar, saved from my purchases each hear.
The difference is even more dramatic at Poplar Grove. The focus remains on limited production and high quality, but the little wine shop near the Sutherlands’ old house is now home to the cheese factory and another winery. Poplar Grove’s huge new tasting room and shop on Munson Mountain also houses a very fine restaurant. Just down the hill, a second label is produced. Monster Vineyards wines are lower in price and intended for immediate consumption.
Sutherland is the executive winemaker, but much of the day-to-day responsibilities have been handed off.
If the changes at these two longtime favourites were an indication that all the small producers are expanding and being bought up it would be cause for concern. But the Naramata and Black Sage benches are still dotted with small, family-owned operations, giving visitors plenty of options. And it isn’t like quality has suffered noticeably at either Black Hills or Poplar Grove.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance. His website, www.lorneeckersley.com, features a collection of columns, stories and photographs about wine, beer and spirits, food, travel and arts.