Looking for Friends in all the Right Places

2017 Best Performing Small Winery of the Year – La Frenz Winery

By Anthony Gismondi

Want to be the best small winery in Canada? Jeff and Niva Martin co-founders of La Frenz, the 2017 winners of The Best Small Winery of the Year at The National Wine Awards, have the blueprint. Go on a holiday (to Canada). Fall in love with place. Go back home, pack up and sell everything, and move to the Okanagan Valley. Okay, there were a few more steps in between but essentially the energetic Australian couple from the Riverina area did just that and have never regretted it.

Jeff Martin touched down in the Okanagan in 1994, at Quails Gate, after graduating from Charles Stuart University and working for 14 years for the McWilliams Group in New South Wales. As Martin closes in on his 40th vintage, in both hemispheres, the once hands-on winemaker is sharing the wealth and his love for the Naramata bench with fellow Australian winemaker Dominic McCosker who arrived in the spring of 2014.

Co-founders Jeff and Niva Martin and Winemaker Dominic McCosker

According to Martin, “McCosker does a masterful job in the winery along with our daughter Elise and new intern Kathy Nichols. All have international winery experience, great palates and know just what it takes to make world class wines. It takes a great team to make great wine and for this I have to give credit to our very own dream team. Raul Garcia, Roberto Ramirez and Miguel Vazquez who head up the vineyard crew with a combined 20 years’ experience meticulously tending the four vineyards of La Frenz.”

La Frenz takes its name from Jeff’s German grandfather. It was meant to tie the place to family. It’s befitting of the small winery moniker too. Production is less than 8000 cases, a size that especially suits the spectacularly scenic Naramata Bench. Last year’s winner Lake Breeze, finished a respectable third in 2017, just behind Meyer Family Vineyards from Okanagan Falls, before two more Naramata producers made the TOP TEN including number five Daydreamer, and number six Laughing Stock Vineyards.

Over the years, the winery has grown to encompass 17 hectares across four different vineyards sites, each with its own distinctive soils and aspects. Rattlesnake, Freedom 75 and Desperation are all mid-valley on the Naramata Bench while Rockyfeller sits on the Golden Mile Bench in the Oliver region of the south Okanagan Valley.

The Naramata Bench, quietly and unofficially divided between “above the road” and “below the road” by the locals, is suited to a wide range of varieties, many of which Martin has explored over the decades, but as time marches on there is more and more of a focus at La Frenz and all along the bench. Pinot noir, chardonnay, merlot and cabernet franc and syrah all look like big mid-valley winners and McCosker and Martin are looking closely at most of them along with their beloved sémillon.

La Frenz belongs to the Naramata Bench Wineries Association but has little time for those who impose their standards on their work or land. That said farming ‘naturally’, promoting bio-diversity and working in living soils play a big part in Jeff and Niva’s success in the wine business.

As for the wines that made it all happen, La Frenz grabbed a platinum for its 2015 Ensemble a 70/30 blend of sauvignon blanc and sémillon (White Blends), you can feel the McWilliams upbringing here and that goes ditto for the gold medal winning La Frenz 2016 Semillon Knorr Vineyard (White Single Varieties). The top three of six silver medals cover off La Frenz 2015 Chardonnay Freedom 75 Vineyard, the La Frenz Liqueur Muscat (Fortified) and La Frenz 2015 La Vitta Pazza White Blend Muscat Riesling (White Blends). You can click on the above wines to find out what our judges thought of them.

Finally, the Naramata Bench and its wineries are a relatively new story but in fact the region is old. The first wagon road was pushed through from Penticton to Naramata in 1907, although boats from the dock in Naramata to the docks of Penticton, Summerland, Peachland and Okanagan Landing near Vernon were already plying Okanagan Lake. The Kettle Valley Railway arrived in 1915 and the bench has never look back.

One Hundred Dollars Canadian - Back

By the way, in a strange quirk of nature, beautiful stunning nature, the same view that captured the imagination of Jeff and Niva Martin can be found on the back of an old Canadian 100-dollar bill from the 1950s. It won’t be too long before you’re paying as much for the top wines at La Frenz.


We would like to acknowledge the following sponsors: George Brown College Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts for their ongoing support, Zwilling for the glassware used throughout the judging, Container World for shipping and logistics, and a special thank you to Wines of Nova Scotia. Each and every awards bottle image appearing our site as well as photos of the backroom and judging was done by Jason Dziver. You can see more of his work at Jason Dziver Photography.