John Schreiner

By John Schreiner
reprinted with permission

Black Hills Winery

At a recent wine tasting, one of the guests asked: “What is a cult wine?”
It is a top quality wine highly prized by collectors. They get their names onto a winery's VIP list and get in line to buy each release when the winery announces it. They usually buy it six to 12 bottles at a time.

The most enduring cult wine from the Okanagan is Nota Bene, the flagship Bordeaux blend from Black Hills Estate Winery . Paul Guedes (below with wife Kara) is a North Vancouver businessman who has collected Nota Bene in each vintage since that wine debuted in the 1999 vintage.

Recently, to celebrate his and wife  ninth wedding anniversary, he invited some of their closest wine-loving friends to a dinner at which 12 vintages of Nota Bene (1999 through 2010) were served. The venue was a cozy restaurant called Kitsilano Daily Kitchen where chef Brian Fowke prepared an astonishing nine-course dinner, pairing the tapas-sized courses with the wines.

Because the Okanagan is a young wine region, vertical tastings like this seldom happen. I can think of just two other cult wineries – Blue Mountain and Burrowing Owl – that began releasing wines in the 1990s. Black Hills opened in 2001, nine years after Blue Mountain and three years after Burrowing Owl. There were other excellent wineries that opened, or were open, in the 1990s but none sustained the cult following that leads to collectors cellaring each and every vintage. (I expect a few producers might take issue with.)

Black Hills was launched in 1996 when two couples – Peter and Susan McCarrell and Bob and Senka Tennant – purchased an abandoned vineyard on Black Sage Road and planted 36,000 Bordeaux varietals on 26 acres. In 1999 they decided to open a winery, making wine with half of the vineyard's production while selling the rest. That gave them cash flow while they developed the Black Hills brand.

The first wine was Nota Bene 1999. It was well received by a number of reviewers. In a prescient review at the time, if I may pat myself on the back, I wrote: “ A Noteworthy and Collectible Wine. For collectors of British Columbia wines, the latest must-have wine is the 1999 Nota Bene from Black Hills Estate Winery , a producer near Oliver which has just opened. This has all the marks of becoming a cult red wine capable of appreciating in value."

The Nota Bene blend is usually anchored with Cabernet Sauvignon, but not always. The 1999 Nota Bene was 64% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc. The second vintage in 2000, however, was 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc. That has generally been the template. The 2010 Nota Bene, for example, is 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot and 16% Cabernet Franc.

The predominance of Merlot in the first Nota Bene reflected the 1999 vintage. It was a cool vintage, one in which it was harder to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot. The first Nota Bene had 13% alcohol. The 2000 vintage, from a warmer year, had 14% alcohol. Even warmer years produced a 2004 Nota Bene with 14.6% and a 2007 Nota Bene with 14.7%.

Senka Tennant, with some initial coaching by telephone from Washington consultant Rusty Figgins, made Nota Bene from 1999 through 2007. She had a hand in making the 2008 as Black Hills transitioned to new ownership and to the current winemaker, Graham Pierce (right). This comparative stability in winemaking has meant that Nota Bene's style has been reliably consistent across all of the vintages.

When the McCarrells  wanted to retire from the wine industry, Black Hills was sold in late 2007 to Vinequest Wine Partners Limited Partnership. The Tennants took a few years off and then opened Terravista Vineyards in 2011, a Naramata boutique offering only two white wines.

Vinequest president Glenn Fawcett financed the purchases and the subsequent expansions at Black Hills through the sale of units to investors. Paul Guedes is not an investor but is an enthusiast for Black Hills wines.

Currently, Black Hills is owned by about 450 investors who, among other perquisites, get a free case of Nota Bene each year. With the wine now selling at $53 a bottle, that is a good dividend. It is just one of the privileges of ownership.

Vinequest Wine partners have doubled the winery's total production to about 10,000 cases a year. However, the production of Nota Bene is capped around 4,500 cases a year, safeguarding the quality of the wine as well as its comparative scarcity.

At the end of the Paul Guedes vertical, his 18 guests voted on their favourites. There were six votes for the 1999, five for the 2003, four for the 2002, two for the 2005 and one for the 2006.

Obviously, Paul has a temperature-controlled cellar with excellent storage (constant 54 degrees F), because none of the wines had fallen apart.

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