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Interview with Poplar Grove Winery Owner - Tony Holler

Image provided by Poplar Grove Winery

Poplar Grove is making a name for Okanagan wine in parts of the world such as Europe, the United States, and Shanghai.

From the humble beginnings as a tiny garagiste winery producing around 3,500 cases with founder Ian Sutherland, Poplar Grove is now winning Decanter gold medals and production has grown to approximately 35,000 cases of estate grown fruit.

This was one of the original five wineries that opened on the Naramata Bench, and it caught the attention of Tony Holler who, in 2007, invested in the winery.

Tony, born in Summerland, is a doctor and ran several profitable pharmaceutical companies. During a vacation to Napa Valley in 2004, he and his wife Barb felt encouraged to start a winery back home in the Okanagan. Tony loved the wine that Ian was producing so much that he asked Ian to continue to work with him when he purchased the winery.

Tony’s wife, manages the farming side of the business along with their four sons, who are all involved in the winery.

Poplar Grove is recognized for producing their outstanding signature red blend The Legacy, as well as delightful Cabernet Franc, beautiful Merlot, and an exceptional Pinot Gris. The Holler family shares a commitment to produce genuine, high-quality wines that showcase the character and richness of the Okanagan Valley.

As a collector of fine wines from around the world, Tony believes that the Okanagan is capable of producing wines that can compete with the best.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tony to ask him some questions about what encouraged him to invest in Poplar Grove, his intentions for submitting their wines to international wine competitions, and his winemaker who has been with them for 15 years.

Q: How did you get involved with Poplar Grove and what encouraged you to invest in this winery?

A: Ian Sutherland and his wife started Poplar Grove in the early nineties. They were one of the first wineries on the Naramata Bench. Believe it or not there were only five at that time, now there are 50 which is ten times as many wineries. They had developed what I considered to be a garigiste winery and were making very good wines.

People say, “Well, Tony bought the winery because he liked the wines so much”. There is some truth in that because I thought Ian was one of the top red wine makers in the valley. Particularly his Cabernet Franc and Merlot, I just loved those wines and started buying them around 1997.

At the time, Poplar Grove was a very small business and produced around 3,500 cases of wine. When I decided that I wanted to get involved I said to Ian, “I’m going to buy the winery, but you have to be my partner for a number of years until you decide to retire”. Remember, I never came from the wine industry. I came from a wine drinking background. From there, Ian and I worked together to build the tasting room and production facility.

Q: Where in the Okanagan do you source your red and white grapes?

A: We have about 90 acres on the Naramata Bench. My son Chris owns a 15-acre vineyard on top of Skaha Bench and then all the rest is on the USA border in Osoyoos. We have about 50 acres planted below Anarchist Mountain on the east side of Osoyoos Lake. That’s the hottest spot in the Okanagan and that’s where we grow the big reds.

There was a wine competition in 2018 called the Judgement of BC. It was really interesting because there was an assortment of Bordeaux style reds from all over the world and some great wines were included. International judges voted on the wines and the number one was the Poplar Grove Legacy. The number two wine was from Laughing Stock. Guess where their vineyard was? Right beside ours in Osoyoos. So that tells you a little bit about the terroir. It couldn’t have been coincidence that the number one and two wines picked by international judges came from vineyards that are within spitting distance from each other.

Image provided by Poplar Grove Winery

Q: What varietals do you grow on your estate property?

A: Our vineyard strategy was to plant big reds in an area that we know they’re going to ripen every year. That means we don’t grow any big reds on the Naramata Bench. The only reds we grow here are the Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Malbec because they don’t like that heat in Osoyoos. For our whites, we said, lets grow our whites where they grow best, and I’m convinced the whites grow best on the Naramata Bench. There are beautiful whites coming from Lake Country and Kelowna, but I find the wines a little more austere. I love them, but they don’t have the same flavour profiles that the extra heat here gives them.

Q: What is the style of winemaking here?

A: Think of our wines this way. Our goal is to have a nice acidic backbone to our wines, regardless of if it’s a red or a white. It’s got to be fruit forward, fill your whole mouth with flavour, and refreshing to the palate. That’s really the objective for every one of our wines.

We don’t release our wines until the winemaking team says they’re ready. Most of the red wines tend to be released three to four years after the harvest. Sometimes the Legacy won’t be released to the public for five years. Our goal is to have people enjoy the wines the day they purchase them or have the option to put them away for 10 years in their cellar. We don’t want to release wines unless they are ready to drink.

Our sales have grown by about 20% per year. The wines have improved as our production improved and that's because we're buying better equipment. We're doing all these things to enhance the quality of the wine. And it shows because we win more international awards today than when we initially bought the winery.

Q: Who is your winemaker and how long has he been with Poplar Grove?

A: When I bought the winery, Stefan Arnason, who worked for Stags Hollow at the time became our winemaker. What I liked about his background is that he was a Champagne maker, a brewer and had done almost everything in the alcohol industry. I really admired the fact that he had such varied experience. So, he joined us and that was at the end of 2007. Now he has been with us for 15 years which is so important. Why I think it’s so important that we’ve had the same winemaker for 15 years is because we’re trying to do two things. Have high quality wines as well as consistency. In the alcohol industry consistent quality is number one, but consistency in flavour is also very important because some people will switch brands if it doesn’t taste like how they remember it to be.

One of the benefits that happen over time with the same winemaker is the team starts to understand exactly where the grapes came from, and what happened last year with those grapes. Now Stefan and the team know that these 10 rows of Cab Franc, or these 10 rows of Cab Sauv are going to be the perfect vines year after year. Those top grapes are the ones that go into our Legacy Blend.

Q: What encouraged you to send your wines to Decanter and other worldwide competitions?

A: It was pretty straight forward because when we talked about these competitions, I said, if you go to any liquor store in British Columbia, you right away learn who your competition is and it's not your neighbor, it's France, Italy, the US, New Zealand, Australia etc. That's your competition. So, unless you compete with them, what's going to happen?

Currently we send our wines to Decanter, the London International Wine Festival, as well as the Los Angeles and San Francisco International Wine Festival. Those are the four that we really focus on. I truly believe that the Okanagan needs to establish itself as a top-notch wine region. How do we do that by sending our top wines to these international competitions? There are two things that happen. It elevates the region and the top wine writers in the world have the opportunity to taste our wines.

I’ll be going to the Canada house wine tasting in London and will be doing several events there. It’s going to be difficult to sell a lot of wine in London, but what we are going to do is get the top wine writers in the world writing about the Okanagan and wineries such as Painted Rock, Poplar Grove, and Quails’ Gate, because we’re producing gold medal winning wines at these competitions. Before Steven Spurrier passed away, he wrote all sorts of articles about the Okanagan. Jancis Robinson, same thing, she wrote posts in the big papers in London about this region, which is how we elevate the prestige of this area.

Q: What’s the feedback been like from the international wine judges?

A: I think they’re surprised. They have been surprised for a while and I think now they’re getting used to the fact that there’s a lot of high-quality wines coming out of the Okanagan Valley. And now there’s a bunch of interest where some of these writers are coming to visit the region, and that’s what we want.

Q: Outside of BC where else are your wines sold?

A: We have made the decision that we want to be recognized across Canada. So, you can literally find our wines in every province in tiny amounts. The majority is in BC and Alberta where our wines are quite well known and recognized. There are a few fancy restaurants that sell our wine in the United States, as well as London and Shanghai, but we’re talking about tiny amounts.


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