Hester Creek winemaker Rob Summers
Cabernet Franc as a varietal wine is being championed by
more and more wineries in the Okanagan.
One of the most notable of these champions is Hester Creek
Estate Winery. This winery’s Cabernet Franc Reserve has emerged as a red that
should be in the cellars of serious collectors of Okanagan wines.
That might surprise those who recall that the winery was
heading for receivership a decade ago. In mid-December 2003, a disgruntled winemaker
named Glenn Barry, who had just been hired that summer, returned to Australia when
he could not collect salary he believed was owing to him.
The bank sent a couple of Okanagan winemakers to look after
inventory. They were astonished to find most of the records for the 2003
vintage were missing, along with identifying tags on tanks and barrels of wine.
While it was never proven who did that, it was certainly the low in Hester
The turning point occurred a few months later when Curt
Garland (right), a businessman from Prince
George, bought the winery. He has since invested about
$25 million in the winery. Hester Creek is now one of the best wineries in the
Okanagan and it has the awards to prove it. One example: its 2010 Cabernet
Franc Reserve won the Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence earlier this
One of Curt’s shrewdest hires was winemaker Rob Summers.
Recruited in 2006, Rob already had had a distinguished career in Ontario where he had
risen to become the national winemaker for Andrew Peller Ltd. Since arriving in
the Okanagan, he has designed Hester Creek’s modern winery and worked with the
vineyard crew to improve what was already one of the south Okanagan’s better
sites. And he has restructured the wine portfolio. It is now a trim and
focussed portfolio led by an iconic red called The Judge and by several reserve
This fall, Rob led an impressive vertical tasting of the
winery’s Cabernet Franc Reserves from 2005 through 2011, the current release.
For good measure, he also added the winery’s first Chardonnay, a Merlot Reserve
and the 2010 Judge.
The quite evident rise in the quality of the Cabernet Franc
wines tracks the significant improvements made at Hester Creek since Curt and Rob
Cabernet Franc Reserve 2005 was made by Hester Creek’s former
winemaker, Eric Von Krosigk, under challenging circumstances. The wine was
still in tanks when Rob arrived in the spring of 2006 and he was able to tweak
it. “We were able to control the barrel
program and the maturing program and that helped a lot,” he says.
“The old winery was the house that Jack built,” Rob
explains. “It was added onto and onto. It was very hard to keep that place
clean – there were a lot of wood walls, the floors were not sealed. We had no
hot water. We had to make hot water with a little power washer and a generator.
There were lots of challenges. There is a little more microbial stuff going on
in the 2006 and 2007, a little bit of funkiness. It is good but the wine is a
little more ‘old world’ style.”
Only 250 cases were made in 2005, compared with 1,200 cases
in more recent vintages.
Should you have a bottle or two of the 2005, it won’t
disappoint you. In fact, the firm texture suggests this might age a few more
years. It begins with lovely berry aromas, leading to flavours of black cherry,
blackberry, chocolate and tobacco. 88.
Reserve 2006, Rob’s first vintage here, was made with leading edge Italian
fermenters from a firm called Ganimede. The winery, on Rob’s recommendation,
bought a pair in 2006. Today, the winery has 14. It is believed to be the only
Okanagan winery with this equipment.
The fermenters are designed to capture the gas released
during fermentation, recirculating it through the liquid. The gas breaks the
cap of skins and keeps the skins immersed without releasing hard tannins.
“With red fermentations, cap management is a big part of how
the wine will turn out,” Rob believes. “With the Ganimede, that mixing of the
wine with the cap is very thorough but it is also very gentle. We get very good
extraction of colour, with very ripe tannins very early on in the process.”
It certainly had a positive impact on the 2006, which –
while still firm – is not as hard as the 2005. It is nice brambly red, with red
currant and cherry aromas, flavours of blackberry and currant and with a spicy
Reserve 2007 benefitted not only by further changes in processing but by
much more attention to the vineyard. Beginning in 2007, the vineyards were
converted over two years to drip irrigation, which not only saves water but is
more precise. As well, Rob began introducing French barrels to a winery that
traditionally used American oak.
This wine begins with complex aromas of vanilla, prune plum
and cherry, leading to flavours of black cherries and plum and a touch of new
oak on the finish. The wine is full on the palate with soft, ripe tannins. 90.
Reserve 2008 has no hint of the old world. By that vintage, Rob had
exorcised the brettanomyces from the winery. The fruit aromas and flavours are
fresh and clean and the texture has become seductive. The flavours include raspberry with pepper on
the finish. 92.
“If you are doing a blind tasting and you have to guess the
wines, you can usually pick out Hester Creek’s Cabernet Franc by that raspberry
character,” Rob says. “Sometimes it is very subtle, as in 2011 and 2010. But it
will become more prominent as the wine ages. If you look at 2008, 2009, even
2010, there is that raspberry and black currant note. It even surprised me when
I was making the wine: raspberry in Cab Franc! And pepper.”
Reserve 2009, one of the better red vintages in the Okanagan, was the first
made in the efficient new Hester Creek winery. Sanitation issues were a thing
of the past. As well, about three quarters of the barrels were French oak. All
that is reflected in the wine’s greater finesse.
It is bold and ripe, with spicy red berry aromas and with
flavours of black cherry, raspberry and mocha. 92.
Reserve 2010 begins to show the additional vineyard improvements made after
Hester Creek hired Mark Sheridan (right) as general manager. He is a veteran
Australian-trained viticulturist who had been recruited to the Okanagan a
decade earlier to manage Vincor’s vineyards.
“With the drip irrigation, that we can reduce the berry size
by adding some water stress to the vine at a time when the cells in the berries
are dividing,” Mark explains. “That is before veraison. You put a mild water
stress on and the cells won’t divide as much. You end up with a smaller berry
and the advantages of that is a higher skin to pulp ratio. You get more intense
This wine – the award winner – begins with complex aromas of
cherry and toasty vanilla, likely reflecting the barrels. The palate is rich
with flavours of cherry, raspberry, blackberry and a lingering finish of spice
and chocolate. 92.
Reserve Block 3 2011 ($28.95). Production reached 1,200 cases and that is
not enough for a wine that now sells out every year. However, Hester Creel is
unlikely to make more than 1,500 cases of this annually. The block, now
identified on the label, will not produce more grapes. Cabernet Franc also is
important as a blender in other Hester Creek reds.
“There is a finite amount we can produce from that block,”
Rob says. “The Judge – our premium blend – also draws from that block.”
As one would expect, the 2011 is still lean and youthful,
with aromas of blackberry and raspberry and with flavours of blackberry and red
currant. This vibrant red should be cellared for another four or five years to
allow it to develop toward its peak. 90-92.
“Stylistically, 2008, 2009 and going forward is where I
wanted to be stylistically, where the fruit is very vibrant and clear,” Rob
says. “It is not a fruit bomb but it is there. The tannins are well integrated
into the wine. The oak aging program is
well integrated, with more French oak. That’s why you see that [quality] ramp
At the completion of this vertical tasting, three other
Hester Creek releases were also poured. Here are my notes:
Chardonnay 2012 ($24.95
for 500 cases). Hester Creek’s first oak-aged Chardonnay, this is an elegantly
sculpted wine. It begins with aromas of citrus and toasty oak. On the palate,
there are bright and refreshing citrus flavours delicately framed with buttery
Merlot Block 2
Reserve 2011 ($28.95 for 500 cases). A supple wine, this begins with aromas
of cassis, plum and toasty vanilla. The concentrated texture is full, with
flavours of cassis, blueberry and mocha. 92.
The Judge 2010 ($45
for 425 cases). The fourth vintage of this iconic wine, it is a blend of
Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The wine has layer upon layer of
rich flavour – plum, cassis, vanilla – in a bold and concentrated frame. The
ripe tannins mean it is approachable now but, with cellaring, there is more
potential to unlock. 94.
If you find any of these sold out, you need to join the
two-year-old Hester Creek wine club, which has more than 1,400 members. They
get first crack at all of these premium wines.