Peter Draper took one look at the Pinot Noir vineyards along the banks of Lake Okanagan and fell in love.
Peter, a winemaker who came halfway around the world from Australia in search for the perfect pinots and chardonnays, figured he'd found home after arriving at Quails' Gate Estate Winery in Kelowna, British Columbia.
Tragically, Peter suffered a heart attack in November and passed away. He was 39.
I met Peter last summer during a visit to B.C.'s premier wine-producing region. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man who had a deep passion for Burgundy and its most famous grapes: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Peter succeeded another Aussie, Jeff Martin, just a year before. Peter left Mount Mary Vineyard, a top Australian winery known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
"He much admired Burgundy," said Tony Stewart, co-owner of Quails' Gate. "He felt strongly that Okanagan Valley Pinot Noir had possibilities for greatness."
He certainly did.
On that day last summer, Peter and I spent an afternoon walking through the vineyards and the new winery facility. He felt fortunate — not only because he looked forward to the opportunity to make great Pinots here, but also because Quails' Gate is a serious winery that has built a top-notch facility. With about 100 acres of vines bearing fruit, he saw nothing but great things ahead.
Peter's passion began in the vineyard. As we walked through the rows of vines, leaves and baby grapes, he pointed out how wonderfully situated the plants were. "The angle of the slope here is 20-30 degrees," he said. "We get perfect sunlight here."
As he raved about the tremendously diverse soil types in the valley, he knelt, grabbed a handful of dirt and looked down on the lake, which not only provides nourishment to the vines, but also tempers the sun that can bear down in the summer months. The lake and the northern climes, Peter pointed out, make this particular part of the valley excellent for creating world-class pinots and chardonnays.
"This is quite a different site from others down the valley," he said. "We avoid the heat."
When Quails' Gate hired Peter in late 1998, it had found a gem. Not only did he love getting out in the vineyard and tending to the source of his grapes, but he also enjoyed the hands-on aspects of winemaking — and he had a reputation for owning a first-class palate.
In addition to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Peter was excited about other vines and wines at Quails' Gate.
Optima, a little-known grape in the United States, is grown for ice wines. Peter noted as we tasted a recent bottling that Quails' Gate often is blessed with a bit of botrytis, or "noble rot," a fungus that can surround and shrivel grapes, concentrating their sugars and adding character. The legendary Sauternes of France are made great by the noble rot.
As we made our way through Quails' Gate barrel room, Peter and I sampled some old-vine Maréchal Foch, a grape variety left from British Columbia's French hybrid past. I'm not normally a big fan of French hybrids — and neither was Peter — but this Foch was amazing. It was inky black, darker than any wine I'd seen before. And the character was astounding, with none of the "foxy" flavors normally associated with hybrids.
Peter saw all the wines of Quails' Gate as part of the bigger picture for his future. He hoped to make a career of Quails' Gate, spending long days in the vineyards as well as in his lab and barrel room.
"As far as I'm concerned, the actual winemaking is the easy part," Peter said in a news release after he was hired. "My biggest challenge in creating premium wines begins in the vineyard. I'm looking forward to growing grapes with a great intensity of fruit flavor that will eventually translate into some of the best wines Quails' Gate has ever produced."
Unfortunately for Quails' Gate and the wine-loving public, he didn't get that opportunity.
His sudden death shocked the owners and employees at Quails' Gate, along with the rest of the winemaking community up and down the valley. Several nearby wineries immediately offered to pitch in and help with the new wine that already was in tanks and barrels. And a couple of Australian winemakers also arrived on loan to help until a new winemaker can be hired.
"The wine business is pretty good about taking care of each other," Stewart said.
Quails' Gate has set up the Peter Draper Educational Trust Fund to help Peter's children, and the winery plans to match donations. The address is: 3303 Boucherie Road, Kelowna, BC V1Z 2H3. Or call 250-769-4451.