John Skinner didn’t have a background in wine when he established Painted Rock Estate Winery in BC’s Okanagan Valley. But like any good leader, he was smart enough to know what he didn’t know, and he made sure he surrounded himself with good people. He found a stunning property, hired one of the world’s top wine consultants, and not only is his winery thriving, Canada’s reputation as a wine-producing country is also reaping the benefits.
As we walk into the Painted Rock tasting room, John welcomes us with an affable smile. The room itself is beautifully designed and more akin to an art gallery than a tasting room. White, black and silver are the dominant colours mirroring the wine labels and creating a striking contrast to the bottles on display.
The floor-to-ceiling glass doors that lead to the patio take full advantage of the surrounding view that, with its slopping vines, gives the perception that they are rolling into Skaha Lake. The long white bar is not only attractive, but also functional for anyone trying to make a note on the wine’s clarity and colour. The goal here is clear: to provide a premium guest experience.
Looking at the Estate as it sits today, it’s hard to imagine its former life as an apricot orchard that had been felled leaving nothing but its stumps.
But its west-facing slope and low row of mountains surrounding it made it very tempting indeed, save for those tricky stumps. “We were given two options. The first was to bring in bulldozers and push all the stumps to one end, have a fire, get it all done and be planting in 4 months. The second was to bring in excavators to peel the topsoil back, remove each stump, repair the alluvial silt layer and put the topsoil back. It would take us a year, cost a lot of money, but it would save the terroir.”
Unsurprisingly, he chose option two. What quickly becomes evident when you talk to John is that everything he does has a plan and a purpose.
It took 6 years for the winery to develop from concept to actually producing revenue. A near impossible length of time for people starting in the wine industry without a big investor. As a senior partner at Yorkton Securities he enjoyed a successful career which provided him with both the ability to retire early in 1998, as well as toy with the idea of owning his own winery. After two years of “bumming around”, his wife warned him he’d better find something to do. “I said to my wife ‘I’m going to go to the Okanagan and buy a winery this weekend’. What a stupid thing to say! When I came up here, I quickly realized how little I knew which turned out to be a great advantage because I had to hire a team of consultants.”
The first thing he did was instruct his team to find the best property in the Okanagan whether planted or not. Full stop. Thirty-four properties later, they finally found what they were looking for with their 56-acre site which currently has 27 acres under vine made up of Chardonnay, Syrah and the five Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec.
The second priority within John’s aggressive mandate was to hire one of the top winemaking consultants in the world to oversee the winemaking team. Enter Alain Sutre from Bordeaux who has counted among his clients Chateau Beychevelle and Chateau Petrus. “The whole idea behind Painted Rock is aspirational. I wanted to do it to help the industry as well as have a legacy family business. I don’t want to get bigger; I want to get better. We’re the same size as Petrus which at 8,000 cases is a good model. If you keep your eye on that prize, you can never make a compromise.”
With Alain on board, the groundwork began.
Because it would take a year to clear the stumps, an opportunity presented itself to study every inch of the estate. They put a weather station in the middle of the property with sensors everywhere and augured a hole every 3 metres. They discovered profound influences that they hadn’t accounted for when the property was first acquired: the reflection off the lake helps ripen the Petit Verdot (a notoriously difficult variety to ripen), they don’t need bird nets because the rocks are full of hawks deterring the birds, and when the sun goes down in the west there’s a cool breeze that comes through the mountain behind which sweeps the heat off the vineyard helping maintain acidity in the fruit. “Anything influencing this site that we discovered after the fact has only been a positive.”
In case there was any doubt that he did the right thing back in 2004 by choosing to remove the stumps with excavators instead of bulldozers, the original owner of the property who sold it off in the 1980’s had carved off an acre and a half of land for himself and built a house.
After noticing the attention John’s wines were receiving early on, he called John and told him he was planning to plant some vines on his property. He had the same stump issue so John recommended he invest in the excavator option, but days later there was a bulldozer instead. Sadly, it ruined the property by homogenizing the topsoil and alluvial silt. Though just a couple of years apart in planting, the difference is obvious even from an aerial photo reaffirming John’s mantra to never cut corners.
What John lacks in winemaking knowledge he more than makes up for in networking and marketing. His rolodex reads like a who’s who of those in business, wine and politics, and he’s been conscious to play to his strengths. He regularly organizes and attends dinners at 67 Pall Mall, a world-renowned private member’s wine club in London’s St. James’ district. A member of the club himself, his recommender was none other than Steven Spurrier, co-founder of Academie du Vin, and best known for organizing the “Judgement of Paris” in 1976.
Top wine critics like Jancis Robinson have attended some of these dinners where Painted Rock wines have gone head to head with Old World wines. A risky but necessary move to prove that his wines can compete with the world’s best. But his desire to see his own wines be successful also extends to a pride for the region. “Canada is an easy sell these days. Internationally people are very open to Canada right now. It’s our job to get that word ‘Okanagan’ out there.” He’s teamed up Painted Rock with what he considers the 6 most aggressive exporters out of BC and formed the Okanagan Wine Initiative: Culmina Family Vineyards, Poplar Grove Winery, Haywire Wines, Liquidity Wines, Summerhill Pyramid Winery and 50th Parallel Estate. Rather than individually try and sell their wines overseas, the initiative aims to demonstrate the quality of the region as a whole.
Painted Rock wines have come a long way from being the only table wine representing Canada (next to the icewine) at his first Prowein in Germany almost a decade ago. At a recent dinner held at 67 Pall Mall John was invited to bring the wine he was most proud of from his own winery, along with the wine that represents the winemaking inspiration. He consulted Alain and they agreed the Red Icon filled the first directive. For the second, Alain told John, “When I first tasted Painted Rock from a barrel my mind didn’t go to a region, it went to one winery. The most elevated vineyard on the Right Bank of Bordeaux with the brightest acidity, Cheval Blanc. I got this when I tried your Merlot and Cabernet Franc.” John brought 2 bottles of his 2009 Red Icon wine and 2 bottle of the 2005 Cheval Blanc. At the conclusion of the tasting, Steven Spurrier stood up and declared, “Your Painted Rock Red Icon is more CB than BC.” An incredible compliment that you can bet he’s going to make sure the world hears.
2019 Painted Rock Chardonnay
Brimming with mineral, apple, pineapple and hints of tropical fruit, there is great intensity to this wine. It is rich, textured and perfectly balanced with bright acidity. The quality here is unmistakable; a winner of a wine that could stand tall in a line-up iconic Chardonnays from anywhere in the world.
Excellent+ $39 at the winery (this is particularly good value for this quality level)
2017 Painted Rock Cabernet Franc
A very fragrant wine that is redolent of raspberry with leafy notes coming through on the finish. The body is medium+ and the texture is rich and hedonistic. The acid and tannin form definition and structure and keep this wine well-delineated. The finish is long and minerally.
Excellent $45 at the winery
2015 Painted Rock Merlot
Deep, deep red/black in colour. Looks almost Syrah-like. Intense flavours of black cherry and blueberry are delivered on structured and full bodied frame. Very broad-shouldered, this wine cries out for a juicy steak to be enjoyed with! The finish is long and smooth with notes of spice cake that add intrigue to the powerful personality. Delicious!
Excellent+ $35 at the winery (this is particularly good value for this quality level)
2016 Painted Rock Icon
This Bordeaux blend has 45% Merlot blended with 24% Cabernet Franc, 11% Malbec, 11% Petit Verdot and 9% Cabernet Sauvignon. This is the winery’s flagship. Deep and dark, it offers plenty of plum and black cherry. Youthful tannins are ripe but still quite grippy. This is one you can lay down for a while and not doubt experience further development and integration. The finish is long and tinged with baking spice and mineral.
Excellent $55 at the winery
400 Smythe Drive
Penticton, BC Canada
Tasting Room: 11am-5:30pm daily. Reservations highly recommended.
Fees: $10 per person, redeemable with purchase.