Canadian Wine Insider

Quails’ Gate: My Canadian Winery of the Year 2020

By David Lawrason

In the absence of the National Wine Awards in 2020, and the resulting recognition of the best medal performance by the Winery of the Year, I would like to personally nominate Quails’ Gate Winery of B.C.’s Okanagan Valley as My Canadian Winery of the Year. There are several reasons, and yes some go beyond the wine itself.

Over 20-plus years, I have developed friendships with many people at Quails’ Gate, from the members of the Stewart Family, through the winemakers, to the communications and marketing staff, to the tasting room crew. Sommelier Mike Lee is a colleague with whom I have shared Fine Vintage Ltd teaching duties in Kelowna and Tasting Room manager Anthony Chalmers was one of my first students in Toronto way, way back.  And Quails’ Gate has always been supportive of projects I have been involved with – The National Wine Awards of Canada, Canada’s Great Kitchen Party (formerly Gold Medal Plates) and WineAlign itself.


With all this history and association my choice is obviously carries some favourable bias.  But having declared this, I would also point out that virtually everyone likes and admires Quails’ Gate and its wines too, and have done so for a long time.

But there is a solid argument based on wine quality as well. In the 2020 WineAlign Guide to Canada’s Best wines (now published at WineAlign), during which five WineAlign critics tasted over 850 wines, Quails’ Gate Rosemary’s Block 2018 took top spot in the huge Chardonnay category. The Boswell 2017 ranked first in the critical Syrah category, with The Connemara 2016 running second in the even bigger Red Blends category. The 2019 Chenin Blanc Clone 220 ranked third in Single White Varietals in its debut vintage. Only the Pinot Noir’s lagged due some smoke taint in the 2018 vintage, but Quails’ Gate was certainly not alone in this particular pinot predicament.

The top Icon Series wines (above) have scaled new heights in quality and price with the current releases – 92 to 94 point scores and $50 to $90 prices.  The mid-tier $30 to $50 Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, plus the Collectors Series (love the Lucy’s Block Rose) are as steady as ever, and the ten labels in the $25 or less varietal series remain a go-to for many across Canada. So, there is certainly a quality standard transmitted through the range, but it is more than that.

There is a sense of purity and balance that allows clarity of expression of the grape variety or style.  There is nothing surprising, distracting or weird about the wines. They are consistent, balanced and appealing – and always a safe bet. But nor are they soft, confected or in any way lazily commercial; they are bright and balanced. 

As a well established winery – founded in 1989 – Quails’ Gate may be seen as mainstream to many – and not edgy to those embracing natural wines. But it is not standing still. There is constant sense of evolution, and a persistent sense of things being done thoughtfully and done well to please – whether in the bottle, in the always busy tasting rooms, or the on-premise fine dining yet country comfy and airy restaurant called Old Vines. 

In 2020 Quails’ Gate was named one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies, an annual competition for Canadian owned businesses with revenues of over $25 million.

A Day at Quails’ Gate

I visited the Okanagan Valley in September, just before COVID numbers started to rise. I spent a day at Quails’ Gate that gave me a better sense of the calibre, depth and energy of the relatively new core of key people within the parent company called Stewart Family Estates (which also owns the Lake Sonoma, Valley of the Moon and Plume labels in California)

The day began with a library tasting in The Library room that overlooks the production area. (Quails’ Gate is notably understated in naming things).  It was with new chief winemaker Ross Baker who has worked at the winery since 2013 – Kelowna raised with a UBC Okanagan degree in biochemistry specializing in wine. We did three short vertical flights of chenin blanc (Clone 220 2019, Chenin 2019, Chenin 2010), Rosemary’s Block Chardonnay (2018, 2015 and first vintage 2012) and Clone 828 Pinot Noir (2019, 2017, 2014, first vintage 2010). All three styles of wines showed they age very well (which I attribute to B.C. acidity), with a more recent evolution to a slightly riper, richer style under Ross Baker and his predecessor Nikki Callaway, compared to earlier, somewhat leaner versions by Grant Stanley.

I lunched with CEO Tony Stewart and Marketing VP Angela Lyons, discussing the transitions now underway in terms of viticulture, winemaking and marketing.  (Angela Lyons joined in late 2018 after representing luxury Australian and California brands in Canada with Mark Anthony and Treasury Wine Estates). Lunch featured bison and with The Boswell Syrah, and it was sublime.  Old Vines Chef Roger Sleiman has captained one of the Okanagan’s top draw culinary destinations for years, delivering creative, locally sourced menus paired with the full inventory of Quails’ Gate wines, including library stocks not found elsewhere.

After lunch it was over the causeway across Lake Okanagan to East Kelowna to tour the 160-acre new Stewart Family Estate Vineyard that is in full-on development to become the largest in this sub-region. We were guided by New Zealand raised and trained viticulturalist Chad Douglas, with 15 years experience in Central Otago, Oregon and Europe. He is a confident, personable and very smart young man who is all about detail in terms of what should be planted where, following the rises and dips and changes in aspect and soil on this bench to inform his decisions. His GPS planting regimen has been underway since planting began in 2017, with more to come. 

This East Kelowna sub-region has already been proven ideal for pinot noir, pinot gris and chardonnay which figure heavily, but chenin blanc, pinot blanc, riesling, gamay, viognier, chasselas and even rare arneis are also in the mix. The site will also house a production facility and restaurant, but planning is early to be more specific, or how it will be named.

On the vineyard walkabout, and later that evening for dinner, we were joined by the relatively new VP of Winemaking Susan Doyle. She is from California, originally hired to oversee the Stewart Family Estates in Sonoma. She has come aboard to oversee the B.C. winemaking operations as well. I was impressed by her perspicacity and intellect, and how taken she is with what is going in the Okanagan. A great team is in place going into this decade.


Links to the Past

During COVID Quails’ Gate converted the historic log cabin on the property into a classy, grab-and-go called The Market that quickly became a huge draw for locals living on the slopes of Mount Boucherie in West Kelowna. It symbolizes much about the adaptability the Stewart family over the years.

Family patriarch Richard “Dick” Stewart passed away in May 2020 at the age of 94.  In his early years he worked for his father’s Kelowna nursery business, but with an interest in grape growing he purchased the former Allison Ranch on Boucherie Road in 1956 and began planting vines in 1961, among the pioneers in British Columbia. He became a founding member of the Association of British Columbia Grape Growers, and by 1989 he had encouraged and convinced his elder son Ben to establish the winery.  

As a result, Quails’ Gate now possesses some of the oldest vines in the Okanagan, especially on its original Upper Boucherie Road site above the winery, which is laced with volcanic soils and boulders below the extinct Mount Boucherie volcano.  You can taste the depth in wines like Rosemary’s Block Chardonnay. But since its founding the winery has also assembled other sites in West Kelowna, East Kelowna and Osoyoos. This long experience with viticulture has also provided Quails’ Gate the chance to drill down and identify countless blocks within its various vineyards, and to farm them sustainably.

The best way to ‘taste’ the early history of Quail’s Gate and the Okanagan is through the Old Vines Reserve Foch, from vines planted on the Upper Boucherie Road site in 1969.  Marechal Foch is a winter hardy French-American hybrid vine, one of many planted in early years to survive in this viticulturally new northern valley. But hybrids were deemed of lesser quality than less hardy French vinifera which were gaining a foothold.  So, in 1981 there was a government sanctioned hybrid vine ‘cull’.  Dick Stewart let this block stand.  In 1994 Quails’ Gate decided to bottle Foch from the site, and today it is one of three Foch based wines. The Old Vines Foch hails from an Osoyoos site planted in 1978, while port-styled Fortified Vintage Foch uses grapes from both sites.

It was the arrival of the Foch bottlings three days before Christmas that triggered the idea to write this article, to encapsulate a year of great tastings by this winery, and to remember that one single day in Kelowna in September that warmed this wine traveller’s soul in an otherwise stultifying year.

Reviews my Top Ten Quails’ Gate Wines

Quails’Gate Rosemary’s Block Chardonnay 2018

Quails’ Gate Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay 2018

Quails’ Gate Chenin Blanc Clone 220 2019

Quails’ Gate Orchard Block Gewurztraminer 2019

Quails’ Gate The Bench Pinot Gris 2018


Rose and Reds

Quails’Gate Lucy’s Block Rose 2019

Quails’ Gate Boswell Syrah 2017

Quails’ Gate The Connemara 2016

Quails’ Gate Richard’s Block Pinot Noir 2018, VQA Okanagan Valley 

129656 Quails’ Gate Old Vines Foch 2018

All the best in 2021 to the folks at Quails’ Gate, and to all my friends in the Canadian wine sphere.  I promise doubled effort to review and profile the work being done by many Canadian wineries in the months and years ahead.

Happy New Year!!

David Lawrason