Here’s The Thing Vineyards
4740 Black Sage Road
Oliver BC V0H 1T0.
Leah McDowell, who operates this winery with husband Jamie, recalls an aphorism from Michael Bartier, their winemaking consultant.
“Michael always says it is easy to grow grapes and make wine,” Leah remarks. “Somebody has to sell it. This is where people hit roadblocks. That’s what I do: I sell wine. I have always sold wine.”
Indeed, it would be hard to find another new winery owner with as much marketing experience. She formerly ran two VQA stores as well as a retail store under the Okanagan Estate Wineries license. Jamie, meanwhile, was the distribution manager for a large paper company.
Born in Langley in 1963, Leah initially studied kinesiology before leaving university to work as an administrative assistant and then start their family. She returned to the work force at a Save-On-Foods store then managed by Darrell Jones, now the president of Overwaitea Food Group.
In 2003, she heard about the VQA wine stores that were being fostered by the British Columbia Wine Institute. “I went into one in Langley and I thought that would make a nice business,” Leah remembers. “Three months later I had my license. I opened my first VQA store in December 2003 in Burnaby.”
In 2009, she took over the Okanagan Estate Wineries store in downtown Vancouver’s Hudson’s Bay store. She sold it to the manager five years later, using the proceeds to buy a VQA license in Victoria and relocate it to Abbotsford.
Then in 2014, the Wine Institute reached an agreement to begin moving VQA licenses to Save-On-Foods stores. “I knew that for me at least it was over,” Leah recognized. “You’d never be able to compete with the likes of the Pattison Group.”
She telephoned her former boss, Darrell Jones, - who still remembered her - and completed the sale of her VQA stores by early 2016. Over a dinner later that spring, Kim Pullen, then the owner of Church & State Wines, asked Leah what she planned to do next.
“We really had no clue,” Leah said. “We were trying to figure out something we could do together, Jamie and I.” Kim Pullen suggested they open a small winery.
They engaged Michael Bartier to help them find property. As it happened, Michael had been working for Road 13 Vineyards and knew that Road 13 wanted to sell its 10-acre Rockpile Vineyard on Black Sage Road. A deal was struck and the McDowell winery project got a running start. Rockpile had been planted in 2006. They took over a property with enough grapes to support, eventually, the production of 3,000 cases a year.
Road 13 handed the vineyard over after the 2016 harvest. Here’s The Thing got all of the fruit in 2017 but sold some grapes. Leah’s sales experience told her to move cautiously while establishing her brand. The winery opened with 1,200 cases.
The major blocks in the vineyard are four acres of Cabernet Franc and three acres of Syrah. There is about one acre each of Gamay, Viognier and Roussanne. Jamie would like some Chardonnay but the vineyard is fully planted.
Leah admires Viognier wines. “One of the first I said to Michael is that I don’t even know what Roussanne is, I am ripping it all out and I am planting Viognier. He said, no we are not doing that. We are going to grow the Roussanne, we’re going to make the wine, we’re going to see what we’ve got and then if we want to blend it or sell it, then we have that option. If we rip it out, it’s over.”
It was very good advice. One of the white Rhone varietals, Roussanne has proven to make an interesting and delicious companion to Here’s The Thing’s Viognier.
By John Schreiner
reprinted with permission