Meet Jeff Martin of La Frenz Winery

EAT’S WINE CHAIN

Road 13 Winemaker Jean-Martin (J.M.) Bouchard passes the glass to Jeff Martin at La Frenz Winery

Top Photo: Winemaker Jeff Martin at La Frenz Winery

Quick Stats: Jeff Martin

  • Aussie by birth, Canadian winery-owner by choice.
  • Bachelor of Wine Science, Charles Sturt University.
  • Cellar rat – 4 years initially with McWilliams Wines, Australia, www.mcwilliamswine.com progressing up the ranks to senior winemaker for 11 years. Wine harvest Carmenet, Sonoma, California. International wine judge. 4 years as winemaker with Quails’ Gate Winery. Since 1999, owner with wife, Niva Martin of La Frenz winery.
  • Reputation for “pushing the envelope” and “leaving no stone” unturned.  40 vintages making wine in both hemispheres.
  • Took his small Canadian cult winery and put it on the world map by winning in 2007 “Best of Show” for La Frenz’s 2005 Merlot (800 cases made) at the Northwest Wine Summit, the largest wine competition held in the Pacific Northwest. The first time a Canadian winery had won this award in the 12 year history of the show.
  • Scored another monumental win and major upset in 2011 when in what was considered to be one of Northwest’s best Pinot Noir vintages, La Frenz 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir (500 cases made) was named Best Pinot Noir of the Pacific Northwest. In fact, in 2011 this small winery from the Naramata Bench won the most gold medals of any Canadian winery in both the All Canadian Wine Championships (Windsor) and the Northwest Wine Summit (Portland) and second overall for receiving the most gold medals in the entire Pacific Northwest.
  • For this winemaker “The quality in the bottle begins in the vineyard.”

 

How did you become a winemaker?

I had just finished high school and knew that I wanted to focus on agriculture in some endeavour. I was working the wheat harvest when my Mom called and said that McWilliams Wines was looking for a trainee “Oenologist”.  At the time I had never heard the term “oenologist” and had to have the word translated before I realized it meant “a winemaker”.  Very early the next day, on my way to the wheat harvest job, I stopped in at the McWilliams Hanwood winery where the staff had all but disappeared to go home for their Christmas holidays. I luckily ran into the gardener who was watering the plants in front of the office and we got to talking. It turned out he knew my grandfather who ran the Griffith Airport and he also had a passion for planes. I asked him what the McWilliams were like to work for and what being a winemaker entailed. After a good chat, I told him I was interested and if he knew who I should contact when the office reopened. It turned out the gardener was also the general manager, Glen McWilliam, who hired me a few weeks later. McWilliams Wines offered to pay my tuition at Charles Sturt University if I decided that I was serious about becoming a winemaker. After three months and my first harvest behind me, I was absolutely hooked and enrolled in the wine science program at Charles Sturt University.

 

First BC wine?

I don’t remember my first BC wine, but I remember my first trip to Canada in the late eighties. My wife and I had been living in Sonoma, California for three months for the wine harvest and afterwards we took a holiday to Alberta and BC, Canada. Literally my wife and I fell in love with Canada on our first trip. We visited Banff, Jasper and Vancouver staying in the lap of luxury at CPR hotels. I couldn’t believe how naturally beautiful Canada was and how terrible the Canadian restaurant wine lists were at the time.

 

Epiphany wine?

My first “epiphany wine” was as a young winemaker around 1983 when I tried McWilliams 1961 Nutty Claret, made by the legendary Maurice O’Shea. It literally “blew my socks off”.

 

Wine experience that has influenced you as a winemaker?

In the late eighties, I spent three months living in Sonoma working for the Chalone Group for the harvest and later touring the industry on a fact-finding mission for McWilliams. I got to taste wines late at night with some burgeoning great winemakers. At the time, the University of California, Davis was a centre of winemaking expertise and California was evolving faster in winemaking than anywhere in the world.  When I returned to Australia, I was excited to implement changes that I had learnt. As a winemaker you have to be innovative and ever ready to learn something new. You have to be careful not to reach a plateau and rely on just repeating what you have previously learnt.

 

Favorite wine region outside of Canada?

Santa Barbara and the Central Coast. I love that the area is home to small artisan wineries, with a wide range of wine styles adapted to their unique microclimates. And of course, I love the beautiful wines. It is refreshing as it is still relatively unknown and understated.

 

Favorite home-cooked meal and wine pairing?

 A recipe we took from Mario Batali’s book Italian Grill:  Tagliata of Bone-in Rib Eye with Arugula, and a bottle of Sangiovese (I’m a huge fan of the variety) or Masi Amarone. This dish calls for a good, earthy Italian wine.

 

Favorite home-cooked meal and La Frenz wine pairing?

Leg of lamb roasted with mustard and coffee, with the pan juices sweetened with a little blackcurrant jelly for gravy, plus vegetables and either our La Frenz Shiraz or Malbec.

 

Dead-man walking last wine request?

Any Turley Old Vines Zinfandel.

 

Your favorite La Frenz Wine today?

Our 2009 Reserve Chardonnay

 

Favorite Cocktail?

Classic Lime Margarita. And to satisfy my cravings for good Mexican food, we head down often to Osoyoos and cross the border to Rancho Chico in Tonasket, Washington. Hands down my favorite authentic Mexican restaurant.

 

 

 What beer is currently in your fridge?

Naramata Nut Brown Ale and Sleeman Honey Brown Ale.

 

What were the last restaurants you ate at?

Bogners of Penticton & Hillside Winery Bistro

– both were excellent.

 

Favorite restaurant outside of BC?

Lahaina Grill in Maui, Hawaii. The service, the food, and the winelist are to die for. It included Turley Old Vines Zinfandel by the glass.

 

What BC restaurant first carried La Frenz wine?

I am forever grateful to both Brent Haymen at Raincity Grill 

and Vikram Vij who at the time had just started his restaurant Vij’s and was looking for small independent wine producers.

 

Can you find La Frenz Wines outside of BC?

We sell out of our wines every year directly through our winery and website. We send a limited amount of our wines to AB to allow new customers an opportunity to try our wines. We have a large number of loyal American customers that travel to our winery once a year to pick up their orders.

 

Last wines you recently tasted or enjoyed?

2007 Steinert Alsace Grand Cru Gewurztraminer and a 2007 Tamar Ridge Botrytris Affected Riesling from Tasmania which I brought to a dinner at Hagen Kruger’s home, the owner of Wild Goose Winery. He did double duty and cooked a wonderful Indian meal. Both wines were great and were chosen specifically to accompany the spicy food.

 

Favorite grape varietal?

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The wines reflect a sense of place and really show in the glass what’s happening in the vineyard.

 

You are known for “pushing the envelope” and “leaving no stone unturned”. Can you provide an example?

I was brought in as the winemaker at Quails’ Gate to focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but one of my wildcard successes was recognizing the potential of the out-of-favour Marechal Foch. While everyone told me the grapes were “wet dog”, I really thought these old vines had potential and with Ben Stewart’s approval made just two barrels in 1994 in the style of an Australian shiraz. And the rest is history – Old Vines Foch is today one of Quails’ Gate Winery’s signature wines.

 

 How does an Okanagan varietal differ from winery to winery? 

Diversity in the Okanagan microclimates can easily be seen in Pinot Noir. Blue Mountain,  Road 13Kettle ValleyHowling Bluff, and Tantalus to name a few, all make good Pinot Noir and yet they are all very different because of each winery’s vineyards, microclimates and winemaker. If you took five chefs, and gave them exactly the same recipe and ingredients then asked them to make the same dish each would taste different because of the chef’s influence at each turn in the process. Vineyard subtleties, terroir and the winemaker have the same influence over making wine.

 

Do you think that the Okanagan should be known for one or two varietals?

The Okanagan is such a diverse region with very different microclimates that dictate the diversity of styles produced here. I don’t believe that only one or two varietals can be successfully grown from Osoyoos to Vernon. The Okanagan’s microclimates allow us to excel in many different varietals. A natural plus for both the industry and the wine tourist is the diversity of wine styles in one valley. Diversity will be an essential in the Okanagan’s future.

 

How has the wine industry changed since you moved to the Okanagan?

When I came to the Okanagan as a winemaker for Quails’ Gate there were less than 50 wineries, today there are well over 150 wineries. I am excited about the core of trained young winemakers in the Okanagan with international experience who are pushing the envelope stylistically, in producing their wines. I believe that the future of the Okanagan lies in making premium wines worthy of their price point. The bigger players like Calona Vineyards  can make good wines and offer good value in their under $20.00 price-point but for the Okanagan to continue to be recognized on the world stage I believe we need to focus on premium and super premium wines. Good wines must also represent good value and value is not what you pay, but rather what you receive.

 

With so many wine competitions, which ones do you focus on and why?

It seems that there are more and more wine competitions every year. We are a small winery, so we are limited with the number of competitions we want to enter both from the headache value and by the overall amount of wine that we produce. We focus primarily on two large competitions because for me they can be a good reference on how our wines compare when stacked up in a comprehensive blind tasting. We enter The Northwest Wine Summit, the largest wine competition in the Pacific Northwest (1400+ wines) and the All Canadian Wine Championships (1100+ wines), the oldest and largest Canadian wine competition.

 

Do you belong to a wine club?

Yes – I belong to a winemakers tasting group started by Rhys Pender and partners in crime. The calibre of wines from around the world we taste is sensational. As a winemaker, I firmly believe you can’t taste only your own wines or you risk developing a “cellar palate”. To have an educated and fine-tuned palate is essential. As a winemaker, you must taste benchmark world-class wines with other people to get their insights and perspective. It is refreshing to taste these wines, share ideas and discuss the wine industry with many of the Okanagan’s winemakers.

 

Why did you call your winery “La Frenz”?

La Frenz is the last name of my grandfather. It sounded better than what we saw from our winery door.

 

Anything new?

We just purchased our newest vineyard site, 16 beautiful acres we call “Freedom 75” which is directly across from our winery. We will be planting the latest and greatest Chardonnay and Riesling clones this spring.

 

Your vision for the future of La Frenz winery?

To get better. That is, to continue to make incremental improvements at everything we do. Since 2009, Scott Robinson has been the winemaker of La Frenz, and while we consult on the winemaking process and blending, ultimately he is calling the day-to-day shots. My focus is on my vineyards and getting the best flavors from each of them. To make good wine, you have to start in the vineyard. Everything that comes out of the soil is reflected in the wine.

 

Winemaker anywhere in the world you admire? 

I have three winemakers that I admire for their total wine focus and their genuine humbleness. Australia’s Rick Kinzbrunner of Giaconda Winery and Ron Laughton of Jasper Hill WineryAnd Oregon’s Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars. I have enjoyed spending time walking their vineyards and barrel tasting with each of them.

 

BC winemaker that you are currently taking note off?

This winemaker never accepts the status quo and is constantly delving when making his wine. His attention to detail is exceptional and his track record proves that whenever he is calling the shots, award-winning wines will result………. To be revealed in the next EAT Wine Chain………

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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