WineInk: The skiing sabbatical in a vintage season
What would you do if your company was sold to a bigger company and your new boss said, “Take a sabbatical”? Well, for Glenn Fawcett, the answer was easy.
“I’m going skiing,” he replied, and with that the “Skibbatical” was born.
If you emailed Glenn, the former president of Black Hills Winery in the Okanagan Valley of Canada, this winter, his auto-reply read: “Please note that I will be out of the office from Nov. 1, 2018, to Feb. 28, 2019, taking a 4-month Sabbatical to ski & travel the world.”
So how is your workday going?
Glenn did what we would all love to do — spent the best part of this glorious snow-laden winter ripping Riva Ridge in Vail, diving into the Dumps in Aspen, taking the Plunge in Telluride and making turns in Teocalli Bowl in Crested Butte. Often with friends and family but occasionally solo, it was the reverse version of the “gap year” that students use to see the world before getting on with a career. For Glenn, this mini gap year, in his mid-50s, was more like a reward for a job well done.
Last year, Black Hills Winery, a producer of some of Canada’s best Bordeaux blends, including the signature Nota Bene wine (Latin for “Take Note”), was one of three Okanagan Valley wineries (Gray Monk Estate Winery and Tin Horn Creek are the others) acquired by Andrew Peller Limited (APL) for a reported total of $95 million. With November to February, a time post-harvest and pre-bud break in the Okanagan Valley, the idea of Glenn’s Skibbatical began to take shape.
This week, he returns from the slopes of Colorado to a new wine job, not as director and president of Black Hills, but rather in a different role, that of “chief wine evangelist” for the new parent company. His position will allow him to survey the lay of the land in the entire Okanagan Valley looking for opportunities and new ventures in the region.
Before we go any further, I know you are asking the obvious “Where the hell is the Okanagan?” Well, my fellow Americans, the Okanagan is located just north of the U.S. border above Washington state in British Columbia. And when I say it is just north of the border, Black Hills Estates is located about 10 miles from Washington. Between the 48th and 50th parallels, analogous to the location of Champagne in France, the vast region benefits from the extended sunshine of a northerly location combined with the arid heat of a desert climate. These factors converge to provide extreme diurnal shifts, hot days followed by cool nights, that are beneficial for growing great grapes.
There are over 120 wineries in the region and they are producing wines of depth and quality from a range of varietals, from beautiful riesling and chardonnay bottlings to syrah and the aforementioned Bordeaux blends. Many of us know about the wines that are being made in eastern Washington, particularly in the Walla Walla and Red Mountain appellations. Well, if you like those wines, consider that if there were no border, the Okanagan would be the northern extension of the same dry region in the rain shadow of the Cascades with similar soils. A perfect place on the planet to make wine. Bottom line, the Okanagan is the wine region that makes what are, for my money, the best North American wines that you have never tasted.
Oh, and the region, like much of British Columbia, is spectacularly beautiful. With a series of vast lakes surrounded by vines, it is one of the most picturesque and hospitable wine regions for wine travel. Affordable and ripe for discovery, the Okanagan is a place to put on your wine region sojourn list.
So why are we so unfamiliar with the wines of the Okanagan? Well, due to mostly limited production that is often sold directly to local consumers and wine club members, along with strict regulations on exportation mandated by Canadian wine laws, rarely are these wines seen, or tasted, south of the border. Our loss.
While already a veteran in the world of wine tourism, Glenn’s journey to his Skibbatical began when he founded a group of just over 400 wine aficionados who wanted to invest in a winery. In 2007, his Vinequest Wine Partners Limited Partnership purchased Black Hills Winery, which had been releasing wine since 1999. The unique partnership was designed to give longtime customers of the winery an opportunity to participate as partners with a limited investment.
“Everyone wants to own a winery, right?” Glenn noted as we sat on a chairlift this January. “This gave people the chance to fulfill that dream without having to do the heavy lifting.”
Over the ensuing decade, Black Hills Estate invested in an improved winery, acquired additional acreage (including the Double Black Vineyard, named for obvious reasons), introduced a second label (Cellar Hand) and tweaked and refined the flagship Nota Bene wine. The result is the sale of one of the Okanagan Valley’s premier wineries and a new chapter for Glenn Fawcett.
Oh, and the invention of the Skibbatical.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at email@example.com.