A world-renown winemaker from France, a chef from a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City, a 500-seat amphitheater and a private tasting room with a Chihuly sculpture overhead — sounds like another Tuesday in Napa, but Phantom Creek Estates has brought this sense of luxury, and commitment, to Canada’s Okanagan Valley. The area, under an hour flight from Vancouver, is Canada’s second largest wine producing region, and is where businessman Richter Bai chose to invest $100M into establishing the new winery. Along with the style, Phantom Creek sought out substance, committing to organic and Biodynamic principles from the outset, and bringing in legendary Alsatian winemaker Olivier Humbrecht to oversee the wines and the certifications. I spoke with Santiago Cilley, CEO of Phantom Creek, about the vision for the estate, and the challenges of opening the winery during a pandemic.
What was the vision behind starting Phantom Creek Estates?
Richter Bai is a businessman at heart. He enjoyed wine as a collector and consumer, but wasn’t involved in wine professionally before moving to Canada from China in 2011. In Vancouver, a local urban winery sparked his interest, and he was intrigued about starting a new business. He envisioned building something that would last generations and be a legacy for his family.
He had the resources to establish a winery anywhere in the world. What was the draw to Canada?
It’s his adopted country, and he saw the opportunity to take an up-and-coming region and do something at the highest level. The Okanagan Valley is perfect for growing Bordeaux grapes, and those are the kind of wines he wanted to make. It made perfect sense to create a winery here, even though it’s an area still waiting to be discovered by many wine drinkers. He understands it’s a long term project.
What made organic and Biodynamic practices important?
When you think about building something that can last generations, you consider your farming intentions, improving the land and leaving your kids something better. He was involved in farming back in China, and was familiar with sustainable practices, which minimized the use of pesticides and fertilizers. And, being meticulous, he surrounded himself with experts for the project. That’s where Olivier Humbrecht (Domaine Zind Humbrecht) came into the picture. When they met, they struck up a good friendship over their similar values and common interests.
How suited is the Okanagan Valley for growing grapes organically?
It’s very conducive to organic farming — it surprises me that not more people are doing it. It’s just a matter of time. It’s very dry, so the disease pressure is low. You always have a bit of breeze blowing, even when you get the occasional rain at the wrong time of year, the moisture naturally dries. We obtained organic certification for all our vineyards in 2020 — a three year process that started in 2017. So now all our wines, except from one vineyard which was only recently certified, are organic. We’ve also been doing our Biodynamic practices from the beginning, which are very stringent, and those certifications usually take another three years after the organic ones. Olivier is helping us with this process. It’s more about our philosophy that just to have something on a label.
What wines are you making?
For our white wine program, Pinos Gris and Riesling. We’re still buying some grapes, but next year, when our newest vineyard comes into production, we will be 100% estate-grown. For reds, with consulting winemaker Philippe Melka, we focus on Bordeaux varietals; single vineyard expressions from six vineyards in four different areas. Each has its own personality. We also have estate combinations, that are broader representations of a southern Okanagan profile.
What capacity is the winery at now, and where are you headed?
Right now we are at 5000 cases. The capacity is about 35,000 cases, the way we are set up. We have a lot of redevelopment and new plantings in the vineyards, so not all are producing fruit yet. They are staggered, so we can grow the amount naturally.
What was the experience of opening a winery during a pandemic?
What doesn’t break you makes you stronger. We are very pleased with how things turned out, considering. We’ve kept people employed and kept visitors coming in winter. In 2020 we were planning on not just the hospitality building being opened, but also the restaurant and a concert series at our outdoor amphitheater. We’ve developed different programs instead — from more casual sit-downs to more involved five-course Founders Dinners experiences. One great thing, we brought a great Canadian chefs home, Sarah Fiore (from the Michelin-starred Estela in NYC). And we are looking to opening the restaurant in May. We’re ready back to get back to normal, and everyone here in BC is optimistic about the spring. People want to get out of the city and be in nature, and we are a perfect place for that.