Martin’s Lane Winery in Kelowna is certainly an ambitious endeavour. You may have heard many superlatives thrown around regarding the striking modern architecture, the unique approach to the production technology, the small lot/not-so-small price tag thing, and even the exclusive character of its customer model. But seriously, do not let this intimidate you.
Martin's Lane while meticulous and exacting in every detail, is in fact, humble and open to the core. I suppose that’s the heart of good winemaking too: using the top tools, practices and knowledge to gracefully let the best fruit tell its story.
Small Lots with Lots to Give
It starts with the land and fruit. On just a few lots, the winery will only ever produce two varietals: one red and one white. Kelowna wines are some of the most northerly grown, so cool-climate varietals is where we shine – the common classic combination of red and white being the Burgundian dynamic duo Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Given that owner Anthony von Mandl can lay claim to producing a top notch Pinot Noir (Mission Hill's 2015 Terroir Collection No. 43 Reflection Point won 'Best Pinot Noir in the World' at the Decanter World Wine Awards), it’s no surprise they will continue in this tradition. However for white, they’re mixing it up and going with what this region excels at: Riesling – that old growth stock behind the Riesling revolution here, the remarkable off-dry Northern European wine most associate with Tantalus Vineyards, but was in fact planted at the same time throughout the area (1976). And I have to say, even this Chard-lover is glad for it. I find that the crazy range of Okanagan Chardonnay flavours, overly fruity, non-oaked to new oaked (not all good to my tastes) make Chardonnay a gamble here. Riesling on the other hand, while obviously showing variety across sites, all share a similar aromatic quality veering mostly in complexity and perhaps sweetness – and we have the primo stock to work with.
Form Follows Function: Going Beyond the 'Gram
While you can easily write about this winery by talking about the wines and the beautiful architecture in and of themselves, the reason to go and visit is a perfect lesson in how both bring out the best in each other. The way the winery is built really convinces you of the value of non-interventionist fruit respecting wine-making. Such restraint is no laissez faire deal though, the setup requires the best materials and technology: German wood, Italian ceramic and concrete tanks, some crazy hi-tech temp control pipes I can’t even pretend to understand, all exposed in action results in one sharp utilitarian aesthetic. While it may look cool af, every section is an integral part of the process.
Martin’s Lane is a “gravity flow” winery. What that means is that it’s designed on different levels to allow the wine to flow, rather than be pumped, from one stage of the production process to the next, down the hillside. Grape receiving and crushing areas are at the top, followed by fermentation and settling rooms, and finally, bottling and the barrel room. This bottom portion is all sheathed in corrugated weathering steel (that cool rusty-looking steel that makes it look like a rad Richard Serra installation – but where that artist uses rupture to make a point about interconnectivity, here it takes on an agricultural vibe bonding it to the land). It’s essentially grape to bottle in five movements, top to bottom.
As Pinot Noir and Riesling are both notoriously thin-skinned, it follows that the winemaking facilitates the development of the fruit's flavour without too much disruption – a gentle method for delicate grapes. As winemaker Shane Munn says, "the gravity flow process is about how gently moving everything around by gravity can have a positive effect on the structure. All our movements are minimized and are always slow and meticulous."
So while at first glance the building looks quite radical (and it's certainly an abrupt contrast to neighbouring wineries, St. Hubertus and CedarCreek), it's clear that its form is in fact both appropriately in tune with its natural surroundings and fundamental to its purpose. Nothing superficial. Low slung and hugging the hill, its carbon-black exterior echoes the intentionally unremoved burnt tree sticks that dot the slope above it, and its fluid and sloped form bring the grapes from crush to aging in seamless streamlined fashion. While some might speak of modernist architecture as imposing, the best takes its cues from its surroundings without adding any extraneous conceits. Humble in reverence to its site, but inspiring.
Wine Country Catalyst
Of course, all of this doesn’t happen without someone who has the vision and leadership that von Mandl does. Long regarded as the visionary who created BC's flagship winery Mission Hill, who set the bar high and inspired the hundreds of wineries in its wake, von Mandl has not stopped pushing forth since. Aside from Mission Hill, he has CedarCreek, Checkmate, and now Road 13 wineries in his portfolio. Lately he is lauded for taking his wineries fully organic (and hopefully inspiring others to follow suit). We also anticipate that his new project coming soon to the old Courier building will certainly do the well-needed job of exposing tourists downtown to the wine region. No doubt he has inspired and met many creative movers and shakers along the way, not the least is the architect of the OG, Mission Hill, Tom Kundig.As the origin story goes...
“For several years, Tom Kundig and I had been talking about a concept for a radical new winery, carved deep within a steep, rocky hillside to harness the effects of gravity to produce high-end Pinot Noir. Then something incredibly unexpected happened when Mission Hill won the ‘Best Pinot Noir in the World’ trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards in London. This was the catalyst for the creation of Martin’s Lane Winery, the most advanced six-level, 100-percent-gravity-fed pinot noir winery in the world.” —Anthony von Mandl, Owner
After Tom Kundig’s drew his initial sketch in the winter of 2014, von Mandl immediately green-lit the project and the production schedule was fast-tracked. The winery’s inaugural vintage, a 2014 Pinot Noir was awarded 97 points by leading wine expert Steven Spurrier, unprecedented for a debut, and it was produced all while the building was still under construction.
The Wines: Finding Our Cold Climate Forte
Martin’s Lane seems well positioned in the Okanagan’s ongoing attempts to put our wines firmly on the international radar. The debate around whether a signature style would help (sure it would), or whether the region is so diverse as to preclude this, certainly becomes clearer with Martin's Lane's presence. This level of attention to terroir, the historical strengths of the area, and the winemaker’s minimal intervention approach should raise the bar in defining Central Okanagan's cold climate forte.
Viticulturist and New Zealander Kurt Simcic works alongside winemaker and fellow countryman Shane Munn. While Munn has experience making wine from 37 different varieties through both new and old world wineries over the past two decades, he believes that it is Riesling and Pinot Noir that "can put the Okanagan on the map alongside the great Pinots and Rieslings of the world".
Book an Experience You Won't Soon Forget
I learned a lot by their experiential approach. Setting aside how the architecture and the linear approach of the tour (zapping you through chambers and steps with sci-fi swinging doors like some Spanish architectural futurescape) suck you into the process, Lauren Berntzen Rorie, our "Experience Curator" is a passionate and proud purveyor of the owner and makers’ vision. First a swirl of Rieslings to acquaint us to the wonders of what can be done with Kelowna’s famous old growth vines, in a dark romantic setting overlooking the barrel room (exposed to maximum effect just like Mission Hill), before we are guided into the gleaming stepped production facilities – very much the bright, shiny, exposed heart between the raw fruit and the barrel. The takeaway was this: a simple production flow, not massive tanks and mass manipulation with a known flavour profile factored in, or time-to-market concerns, let the grapes grace out.
Finally it was Pinot tasting time in the reception room. All warm woods and round fluid curves, this part of the winery is a suitable departure from the cool utilitarian vibe, and it comes with a spectacular view of the lake and surrounding area. Catalan architect Antoni Puig of the Barcelona interior design firm GCA Arquitectos Asociados, who also designed the black steel folding doors of delight throughout (and the more whimsical elements in the main facility) has created a cocoon that hovers just above the hill slope.
After absorbing so much just viewing the facility, a sit and sip in this space with Shane and Lauren was a relaxed way to pick up on some of the finer points of the winery, and about their passion for its wine styles, and the region in general. I mean how better to experience the wine than chatting around a big table (that view!). Side note: this is something that we really hope increases in the Valley – seated tastings all the way (heck I’d even pay for it like you do at Black Hills). Even more so if they're with delightful wine nerds like Lauren, who casually references vine clone numbers, Fibonacci sequences and gets gleefully excited about the upcoming popping and hissing sounds of malolactic activity in the spring, all while listening to a top notch vinyl collection on one of those sweet tube amp/turntables set ups I could never afford.
Martin's Lane's wines have a fairly old world vibe to me. The Pinot Noir has that savoury complex delicateness, and the Rieslings, which aren’t terribly sweet (even their “off-dry’), are a nice balance of mineral, fruit and aromatics. I'm not going to get too into my tasting experience of the wines since it seems subjective and context dependent, except to say it’s fantastic to see what all this small lot, non-intervention approach yields – and with the killer view, Martin's Lane is like the Banff Centre for wine tasting. #wineretreatgoals
When we ask Lauren about the public perception of the winery's accessibility as being kinda closed off, she remarks it's a curious thing since they are just a phone call or email away from a visit, and she loves nothing more than to share her (insane amount of) expertise of their wines in this intimate, experiential setting. The feeling here is that they want to introduce you to their wines rather than you just find them willy-nilly on a shelf somewhere. Shane Munn explains, "we want the experience to be quite personal. If we get three or four visitors in a day, that’s a big day for us." Lucky for us Kelownans you can call ahead and then pop on over for a tasting experience you won't soon forget. The main way to buy their wines is at the winery or online, and of course the wine club.
While the indiscriminate pleasure seekers and bachelorette party busses may not be hitting up the place, that certainly doesn’t mean this winery is not for the public. Quite the opposite, their desire to offer an immersive, non-rushed and interpersonal relationship with their clientele means it is actually very open to the curious. And that’s a relationship I’d like to have when I want to invest in, or learn about a premium product. •