To follow up on my tasting notes for the Coolshanagh Chardonnay 2017, I had a chance to interview Skip Stothert, owner, about some of the history of this winery and how COVID has affected them. Enjoy.
My Interview with Skip Stothert
Karl: What were you doing at the winery or your plans when we had the COVID 19 shut down in March 2020?
Skip: On March 13, 2020, we arrived back in Mexico via LA and Seattle and went into quarantine the next day not knowing what was up. Everything slowed down on its own. Sales slowed down. Production was handled by Okanagan Crush Pad so we did not have to worry about that. We ramped up our membership sales. Other than sales, we were not too affected.
When we started this venture we lived in North Vancouver and moved to the Okanagan as our sons had moved away with their families. We bought 52 acres and I was bored leaving my paving business to my sons. I put in a few acres of vineyard. I had a biologist come by and I went over the soil structure with him and said that I would like to do Burgundian style vines, not knowing anything, other than growing up tasting good wines when I grew up. When I grew up I had sips of wine with dinner from my parents who belonged to the Opimian Society. We managed to have good Burgundian and Bordeaux style wines at the table.
I was in love with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and had researched and purchased 4 different French clones for planting. I was building a vineyard but never wanted to have a winery because I was getting ready to retire which I still find hard to do today. I planted a few acres and then ran into the winemaker for Foxtrot, Gustav Allander, who came and look at the vines and fell in love with them, so in 2008 we had our first vintage. Foxtrot bottled our wines till 2011. In 2012 we moved to Okanagan Crush Pad (OCP) where we could have our own virtual winery.
Dijon Clone 548 (low yielding, small & loose clusters with high sugar potential, complex aromatics and concentrated length), 95 (larger berries producing a rich and balanced wine with great minerality and texture) and 96 (balanced vigour with high-quality berries that offer elegant aromatics). These were all planted in 2004. Additional rows of Clone 76 (classic representation of the variety, with medium yields and balanced structure and aromas) were planted in 2009. Pinot Noir was planted on the property in 2009, mostly to Clone 91. An additional planting of small-berried Clone 943 occurred in 2011. Both clones are known for their potential for powerful red berry intensity of flavours. (from the Coolshanagh website)
When I started developing the vineyard it was raw land. When you study the geology of the Okanagan, but everyone has really great vineyards. On our side of the lake we are more glacial till. The other side of the lake is volcanic. That is huge in itself. If you go to where we are, the upper half of the road is stripped bare glacial rocks. I found out the glacial till had moved limestone into a strip along our property and when I was developing the vineyard and drilling holes for vines and posts, I wondered why I didn’t have easy clay sandy soil instead of all these rocks? Then we realized that these rocks are limestone and when we dug our pits with Pedro Parra, the vines after 10 years have grown 8 ft. The minerality in our vineyard is one distinction for the flavours of our Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There are lots of vineyards on this side of the valley that have limestone. We are not the only people but we have it in spades.
Do you have a tasting room?
We do tastings for members only. We are 7km past Naramata, so you have to want to go there. You have to drive past 45 wineries with tasting rooms to get from Penticton to Naramata and reach our vineyard. We do 2-3 private tastings a week. The tastings are really for serious Coolshanagh members.
Have you done Zoom tastings with members?
No, I have not. We are small and we like it that way. We now have 10 acres planted. Probably 75% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Noir. The most fun we have is doing the tastings because of the people we meet. We meet interesting people from all walks of life. Many know a lot about wine, while others don’t know much but are interested. So that is what we enjoy. We get lots of people recommending others to come out and visit us. It keeps us busy. We usually taste through 3 vintages. Now I bring out the occasional Blanc de Blancs sparkling that we are cellaring. It won’t be ready for another 2 years but already tastes excellent.
I saw on the website, you are doing sustainable farming and converting to organic. How far along are you to conversion to organic viticulture?
We are sustainable. We don’t use any chemicals. We use chicken manure for fertilizer, and we use clover to grow between the vines. For a small winery like us, it is too hard to get stamped organic. We do it as our kids tell us that we need to be organic. They want to drink our wine. That was one of the reasons.
What I’ve heard is it is not too hard to go organic in the Okanagan because of the dry air and heat. No problems like a damper climate would get.
Our spray regime is every 7 days with an organic spray. We do this regardless of the weather as all of a sudden you can get hit with something and then it is too late to react.
How many people make up the crew that works in your vineyard?
There is a vineyard manager. And for the most part, it is two people. At peak times we bring in local casual labour. Pickers and people doing thinning. There are ample people that we know in the valley.
What happened with COVID in the summer last year? Was there a problem getting pickers?
No, our people are all local. We are small, and just pick blocks when they are ready. We had Dr. Pedro Parra check around 6 years ago. He examined our soil structure and told us what blocks to pick at different times for different flavour profiles. We ferment the blocks separately and then blend them at the end. So we don’t need a lot of people to pick.
I assume that Matt Dumayne at OCP making your wine now?
Did you tell Matt to make the wine however he chooses, or did you give him some guidance on the style of wine you wanted him to make for you?
To begin with, Michael Bartier was there together with Matt Dumayne. They wanted to look at the vineyard first of all. They wanted good clean fruit before they take your grapes to OCP. They explained that they do Okanagan terroir first of all. I said that’s great, but can we profile that a little bit? They gave me a bit of a worried look and then they asked what I had in mind. I said, Chardonnay can have a rainbow of flavours, but I’d like it to be profiled in a Burgundian style, as I selected and planted French clones. With that in mind, they both decided that they would use 32% neutral French oak and 68% goes into concrete vats. At first, we used smaller barrels and now we use 500 litre puncheons. The wines are kept separate for a year and then are blended. After another month they are bottled. We like to keep our wine for another 1.5 years before releasing it. It gives it a bit of a Burgundian style that quite a few people realize.
The 2017 Chardonnay was a little bit different because it was a different growth year. With that in mind, Pedro Parra gave us a compliment of being in the top percentile of vineyards worldwide and indicted because of the amount of limestone we have in our soil that we are similar to a Mersault style vineyard. So that is the profile that we went after. As I mentioned 2017 was a different growing year; cool in the Spring and an early freeze in the Fall.
There was also some smoke from forest fires that kept the temperature down.
Yes, it slowed up the ripening. We went to a more lean style; More acidity. A Chablis style.
It is still a very big wine.
You are right. But it was a different growth year. A lot of places were having problems ripening fruit.
Do you have any news on new wines that you are trying from 2020 or to come in 2021 or future plans? You briefly mentioned the Blanc de Blancs.
Right at the moment we are slowing down until COVID ends and people start travelling and restaurants start opening, I’m finding sales is the largest problem. People that got into the wine industry in the 1990s were fortuitous in their timing and everyone wanted their wines. They all got branded easily. Go forward 35 years and you have over 300 wineries vying for the same spots. When COVID hit, big brands moved aggressively into retail places which affected our sales, except for member sales. So we are wondering what is going to happen and holding off on future development plans.
I think the restaurants are not going to open fully this year, so that will still be a hard market. I have many friends in hospitality and they are having a hard time. The bigger wineries with tasting rooms are going to do fine. We, being a small winery, don’t want a lot of production without a lot of sales. We just want to have a good quality product made the best we can.
Lots of wineries have moved to online sales to keep going.
I’m noticing price reductions and sales promotions to keep inventory moving. The bigger wineries will stay successful. I’m worried about the smaller wineries.
There could be bigger wineries purchasing smaller wineries.
I worry about the people that have just started 3-5 years and just opened. What they thought they were going to get in the market is going to be different from what they now realize. We are keeping our fingers crossed that the online sales, tasting rooms, and staycations work. And Vancouver people show up in large numbers.
I see the 2016 Chardonnay for sale on your website. When will the 2017 be released to the public?
The 2017 is being released to hospitality. We reduced the price a little bit to compete with the bigger brands who seem to have reduced their prices as well. We also have a 2017 Reserve Chardonnay that we are starting to sell and we will be selling the 2018 soon. The 2018 is a clone of 2016. The taste profiles are almost identical. The 2019 is coming along quite well. The Blanc de Blancs will be kept for degorging over 30 months and then keep for another year. We are a couple of years away from releasing that.
You are talking a lot about your Chardonnay but not much on the Pinot Noir. Can you tell me what is happening with your Pinot Noir?
Our Pinot Noir was rated similar to Cotes de Beaune by some sommeliers. I only have 175 cases, so we sell it to a select market; to members and some stores that supported us with the Chardonnay from the beginning. It is a Burgundian style wine, subtle, classy, doesn’t hit you with a fruit bomb, and has earthy notes.
Tell me where the name of the winery comes from.
Coolshanagh the name comes from Gaelic, my wife’s side of the family. About 200 years ago before there were addresses. On their house, they had Coolshanagh, which means Meeting Place of Friends. I think our wine is suited for family and friends to sit down and have a nice bottle of wine. It is not an everyday drinking wine; it is a more special wine. It is a really exceptional food wine. The Reserve Chardonnay is killer with seafood. We serve it with just about everything when we have friends over, and the Pinot Noir.
Thank you Skip for this interview.