Two long established wine families have reached across the border to produce a new Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The Stewart family, which owns Quails Gate Winery in Westbank, BC, and the Zepponi family of Sonoma, California, have a history of similar if distant beginnings, in that their forebears settled and started farming at around the same time in their adopted homelands.

Back in spring 2010, when Quails Gate co-owner Tony Stewart told me he was working on a joint-venture, naturally, I was intrigued. As one of the Okanagan’s most consistent producers, Quails Gate has earned my respect—not only for their wines but also for a business acumen that should be the envy of more than a few competitors. Combining the family’s long background in the early days of Okanagan fruit ranching and horticulture with his financial and other experience, Tony Stewart and brother Ben Stewart (who built the winery with their father Dick) have established Quails Gate as one of the valley’s most impressive ventures, not only within the bottle but also as a visitor destination.

At the time, Stewart told me the family had been looking for some time to purchase a winery, possibly in Australia, New Zealand or elsewhere. That made sense, particularly as Quails Gate was one of the first Okanagan wineries (after neighbouring Mission Hill hired John Simes from Montana) to reach out to other wine regions in its search for a winemaker to make premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Current winemaker Grant Stanley came to Quails Gate from New Zealand Martinborough trailblazer Ata Rangi.

Plume founding partners Dan Zepponi (l) and Tony Stewart, Tim Pawsey photo

Eventually, however, Stewart’s search for a collaborator wound up much closer to home than anticipated, when he met Dan Zepponi, then president of Mission Hill Family Estate. Hailing from California, Zepponi had come to Quails Gate’s hilltop neighbour on a two year contract to restructure the company’s operations. (He proudly reports that during his tenure Mission Hill experienced more growth than any other Canadian winery.) Zepponi has the wine biz in his blood: his family co-founded ZD boutique winery; and his career eventually led him to become V-P of Production for Beringer Estates and its stable of premium Napa wineries.

Stewart and Zepponi are the partners behind Plume Winery, and this week unveiled its inaugural release:

• 2009 Plume Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Zepponi explains that long standing Napa connections and his role with Beringer Estates (where he managed 4,000 acres of vineyard) allow him access to a wide variety of fruit from different and contrasting parts of the region. This wine (which includes some Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot and Merlot) has components from ‘sites from north of Calistoga to to Rutherford and south to Atlas Peak and Oak Knoll’.

“We think we have a really nice wine at an approachable price”, he says–and we’d agree. The 2009 has been helped along by an ideal vintage compared to some but also by a determination “not to make a wine over extracted or too ripe.”

Zepponi (who in his varied experience once ran a coffee roasting company) quips:

“We didn’t want to make the equivalent of a double French Roast!”

... A good match with Hawksworth's beef tenderloin and Chanterelles

The medium to full bodied red is already very drinkable, with ripe red berry aromas, vibrant red fruit and cherry notes wrapped in balanced oak with a definite streak of juicy acidity, easy tannins, a touch of spice and a lengthy close—a great match with Chef David Hawksworth’s beef tenderloin with braised lentils and Chanterelles.  When it becomes available in mid-November in BC it will retail for $29.99 Cdn., and in the US for about $24 US. Good value for an entry level Napa Cab.

(2009: 1200 cases produced; 2010 2200 cases; 2011 expected production is 6,000 cases, possibly with a reserve wine.)

The wine was made at St. Helena’s The Ranch custom crush, although Zepponi says the company is close to finalizing the purchase of an existing property, which for obvious reasons he can’t disclose.

He also won’t yet reveal who the consultant was on this wine—although he did much of the work himself. But he did happen to mention that his “cell mate” at The Ranch is Tim Mondavi; and that the winemaker who lent a guiding hand is a ‘high-profile Napa Valley’ individual and a long-time friend since childhood.

Zepponi and Stewart say their intention is to make wines that speak strongly to origin.

“It’s really very much all about a sense of place,” says Zepponi, who adds,

Terroir is the only way to survive in the wine business… I’ve been in the commodity side long enough to know that.”


UPDATED Jan 30, 2012.

Things take a little longer to get going here on the more laid back Wet Coast but Plume is now available on BCLS shelves.