There’s a saying in the wine industry among winemakers that ‘it takes a lot of beer to make good wine’. In JAK Meyer’s case, it took a few beers with a good friend to convince him to establish his own winery. A decade and a half later, Meyer Family Vineyards continues to produce among the very best wine coming out of BC’s Okanagan Valley.
JAK and Janice Meyer are the type of people that when you meet them for the first time, you feel like you’ve known them forever.
They are the antithesis of pretension; instead they exude a ‘what you see is what you get’ quality that makes you instantly feel at home. On a rainy afternoon, the four of us sat out on the winery’s patio under cover, sipped award-winning Chardonnay and talked for well over 3 hours; just as friends who have known each other for years would do. Chris and JAK are actually squash buddies from 20 years ago, but as soon as we sat down with them it was just like old times. In fact, it didn’t take JAK long to pull out his phone and check to make sure that JAK is still three positions ahead of Chris in the provincial rankings!
What was always intended to be just a hobby, began in 2006 with a 3-acre property the Meyer’s purchased in Naramata that was planted to Chardonnay. The plan was to make 600-800 cases a year as a side project. JAK recounts with a laugh, “I would love to say we had a lifelong dream, but it was drinking beer with a guy one day who said, ‘you should have a winery’, and I said, ‘you’re right!”. That ‘guy’ was none other than James Cluer, Master of Wine and industry consultant that has helped launch more than a dozen wineries worldwide. Initially, the idea was to source grapes through contracts, make some wine and sell it. For JAK, coming from a background working in the world of stocks, he was drawn to making something tangible for a change.
JAK and Janice got a taste of the business and, after a couple of years when they felt ready to make the leap to owning a winery as their full-time vocation, the McLean Creek property in Okanagan Falls came up for sale.
The original owner that had planted vines in 1994 sold it in 2005 to a developer based in Arizona. The developer ended up getting a manufacturing license and made wine for two years. In 2008, he was a casualty of the financial crisis and had to sell. “We were able to come in, get a transfer of license and take over. It was pretty unique because though he had a license for two years, he never sold a bottle of wine so there was no previous reputation that we had to deal with.”
At the time they acquired the estate, it consisted of the vineyard and one small building. Of the 14.5 acres planted, about a third remain from the original planting in 1994.
The previous owner had planted Muscat, Cabernet Franc, Gewürztraminer, and Merlot. The Meyer’s replanted all but 5.5 acres and put in Pinot Noir. “Having so many different varieties on such a small property didn’t make much sense to us. Our decision to focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir has worked well for us.” A pretty big understatement to say the least. Ask pretty much anyone in the wine industry “who is making the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Okanagan?” and Meyer Family Vineyards is guaranteed to be on that list. Last year at the International Wine and Spirits awards, the Meyer Family Vineyards 2016 Chardonnay produced the 2nd highest scoring Chardonnay (96 points) in the world while its 2016 Mclean Creek Road Pinot Noir, Micro Cuvee Pinot Noir and Old Main Road Chardonnay all received silver medals.
The decision to focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir was one based on what grape varieties would grow best in the alluvial and glacial soil made up of gravel and sandy loams.
One would expect that if you’re going to invest the time and money into a winery focused on limited varieties, they would be wines that you would enjoy. At the very beginning, JAK tells us these two wines were the exact opposite to the wines he enjoyed at the time. “Fifteen years later, Chard and Pinot are pretty much all I drink, but like a lot of people I started out with the big reds. I thought I knew everything by drinking big Napa trophy Cabs, then I went through Aussie Shiraz and then Bordeaux. From pre-winery days I’ve still got some great wines that were very highly reviewed but when I open them, I can’t drink them anymore.”
Not only does the terroir suit Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the vintage variability of the Okanagan is another reason for focusing on these two cool climate grapes.
“They’re picked earlier, so we have much less variation than some of the big reds that have to hang longer. In a cool year they really struggle to ripen whereas we always get where we want to get to. Vintage variation for us is more evident in the flavour profile and that’s fun for us. Some vintages will be better than others, but we want the wines to be expressive of the terroir and the vintage.”
A big part of the reason they’ve maintained such consistent quality with their wines is winemaker Chris Carson who has been with them since almost day one.
The Meyer’s actually hired him before the winery was built. Though born in BC, Chris was in New Zealand at the time but moving back to the Province. He spent close to a decade working his way up to becoming head winemaker at small wineries like Akarua and Gibbston Highgate in the Central Otago region, spent several off seasons working in Montrachet, and worked with Josh Jenson at Calera in California’s Central Coast for a year. “We’re probably one of the only wineries that hired a winemaker without having a winery! But we saw his resume, particularly his experience with Pinot Noir, and he was a great fit.”
The winemaking philosophy at Meyer is inspired by Burgundian traditions centred around minimal intervention, low yields, and quality fruit that is organically farmed and hand-harvested. They produce close to 9,000 cases per year and while their focus is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, they also make a fantastic Rosé, Gewürztraminer, and vintage Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine. We’ve yet to meet a Meyer wine we haven’t liked, and their sparkling wine is an absolute steal at just under $35 (Canadian).
At its core, the winery’s most important motivation is literally front and centre in their name: Family.
Their two daughters, though still teenagers, are actively involved helping in the tasting room or with chores around the winery. Their two rescue dogs include thirteen-and-a-half-year-old Bruce (named after Bruce Willis because he was found abandoned in a dirty Die Hard tank top), and two year old Chris Hemsworth (the litter had 3 boys and were each named after a Hemsworth brother). And, their tasting room manager and sales rep are both so welcoming and friendly, you’d assume they were somehow related to JAK and Janice.
The family business recently expanded when JAK partnered with his sister who lives in Osoyoos to start a second brand. She has vineyard largely planted to Merlot and the wines are made at Meyer Family Vineyards, though the goal is to open up another tasting room and facility. The second brand is called Mayhem Wines, and with his characteristic good humour and easy laugh, JAK explains its origin, “If you’re going to have a partnership with your sister, you call it Mayhem.”
In 2006, Meyer Family Vineyards was the 35th winery in BC and today there are now more than 300. Despite the rapid growth of the region, one thing remains constant and that is the quality, dedication and care that the Meyer’s put into their wines. Wines that you enjoy even more when you get to know the wonderful family behind them.
2018 Meyer Family McLean Creek Road Vineyard Chardonnay
Just 680 cases of this delicious Chardonnay were produced. Medium gold in colour with notes of apple, marzipan and hints of citrus. There is loads of intensity to the flavours and a great balance between structure and body. Right on the fulcrum, in our books.
Excellent ($28.80 at the winery – particularly good value for this quality level)
2014 Meyer Family Blanc de Blanc
In some ways we think it is unfair for us to judge sparkling wines from other regions because we are such rabid Champagne fans.
But this 100% Chardonnay sparkler won us over with the first sip! This wine is “zero dosage” meaning that no sugar is added to the wine when bottled. In our view, most vintners quite rightly add sugar because the wine usually needs the sugar to create body and offset high acidity. But with this cuvée the zero dosage is the right decision as the fruit was picked ripe enough that it strikes the right balance without it. Green apple flavours are joined by notes of toast and just a hint of spice. There is great texture to this wine with good cut and definition.
Very Good/Excellent ($34.87 at the winery – particularly good value for this quality level)
2018 Meyer Family Old Block Pinot Noir
This delicious Pinot Noir has lots of black cherry notes with some hints of plum and raspberry. Complexity is added by the hints of baking spices that come through on the long finish. The body is medium+ and has a good, textured mouthfeel. The tannin is ripe and flexing a bit of muscle at this point in the wine’s development. This bodes well for long ageing and we would love to re-visit this wine in 5 more years or even a decade – it definitely shows that kind of staying power.
Excellent ($43.57 at the winery)
4287 McLean Creek Rd
Okanagan Falls, BC
Canada V0H 1R1
+1 (250) 497-8553