Brent Rowland: hedonistic winemaking
"My wines have to give pleasure. I cannot guarantee that everyone will like the wines, but I can guarantee they are an honest, pure representation of the region and vintage."
-Brent Rowland, Winemaker, Averill Creek
Inevitably, I'm overcome with giddy excitement when I discover relatively unknown wine regions. While Vancouver Island wouldn't necessarily fall in that category, historically, their reputation has left much to be desired.
Upon making the choice to feature only Vancouver Island wineries at my last wine conference, Sensory Symposium, I was met with mixed reviews: "Island wine is meh", a common response I encountered from many industry colleagues.
It wasn't until I reached out to Mike Rathjen, of Rathjen Cellars, (who had come recommended by Jay Drysdale of Bella Wines) who graciously connected me to his network of minimal intervention winemakers that I came across Brent Rowland, of Averill Creek in Duncan, BC.
Serendipity is always at work. Leading up to the symposium, Ryan Corrigan, winemaker at Rosewood Estates Winery in Beamsville, Ontario, had mentioned he and Brent were often confused for the same person: both formerly worked at famed Jordan winery Pearl Morissette, and both make wine with a low intervention approach. Having garnered much respect for Ryan and the work he does, even before I had the chance to meet Brent, I knew he would be a kindred spirit.
Meeting Brent was akin to reuniting with an old friend. Humility effortlessly emanated. He comes alive, given the opportunity to wax on about his ethos and chemistry of his process (don't get him going on malolactic fermentation). Disdain for esoteric attitudes in the natural wine community is palpable. It's the reason he makes the types of wines he does: consumable and pleasurable are always the goal.
Neighbour and friend, Mike Nierychlo of Emandare Vineyard put it best, when we were bonding over our love of Brent's 2018 house Pinot recently: "Here's how I describe my favourite wines: put it in a room full of wine nerds, and we'll forget to drink it because we're blown away by the complexities. Put it in a room full of everyone else, and it'll disappear because it's so damn chuggable. Wine needs to be delicious, otherwise what's the point? That's why I love Brent's wines."
LM: At the sensory symposium, you mentioned something along the lines of
being "clean, but not sterile" while discussing hygiene and the
importance of it in your winery. Can you elaborate?
BR: I meant that I am clean and organized for sure but I do not feel the
need to sterilize everything and be too pedantic about it. I don't
inoculate any wines, so I like the idea of there being a milieu of
wild yeast in the winery and vineyard that carry out fermentation.
Besides, I feel that it is unnecessary, winemakers tend to use being
overly sterile as a safety blanket. It's like dry ice, it doesn't do
much for the quality of the wine but it sure makes them feel good. :-)
LM: You refer to the island as a "haven for growing grapes" - why is that?
BR: For me, phenolic ripeness is crucial in making wines of quality. I like
to consider myself more of a phenolic farmer than a winemaker. There
is a distinction between cool climate wine regions that I don't feel
get enough acknowledgement. That is the difference between cool
climate "latitude" and cool climate "altitude". Vancouver Island is
well and truly an example of cool climate "latitude". This is
important because even though we are very warm in the summers, we get
cool temps and long daylight hours in the fall. So our acids don't drop out and our sugars
don't spike. We can just sit and wait for phenolic ripeness. When the
phenolics in the skins and seeds are ripe, we pick. The results are
wines with precision, poise, restraint and amazing freshness that
still have full flavor development. These are the wines I want to drink so they are also the wines I want to make.
LM: Malolactic fermentation is sometimes feared by people and often
stopped to avoid certain characteristics - you said you rely on it due
to the bracing acidity the island terroir produces - why is that? What
are other beneficial factors of malo?
BR: I am extremely tactile, so structure and texture is a fundamental
consideration in my winemaking process. To me it is not about
quantifiable acid, it is about the texture of that acid. How is it
presented, how does it feel in the mouth? Malolactic fermentation
converts a hard, crunchy, malic acid into a softer, rounder lactic
acid. The reason most producers are concerned about MLF is because it
can produce diacetyl. This makes the wines heavy and buttery. But
again, another benefit of being in a cool climate is that we do not
get any diacetyl produced during MLF, even when we go 100% malo.
I used to wonder why you can have a Chablis with 100% MLF and no
diacetyl but then have a California Chard with 20% MLF and it is a
butter bomb. So when I was in university I did a lot of research on why this
is. When Oenococcus oeni(the bacteria that completes MLF) has enough
Malic acid present it will preferentially consume that and not produce
diacetyl. When it runs out of Malic and it is forced to consume Citric
acid that is when it produces diacetyl. In cool climates(like Chablis
and Van Isle) you have a high Malic to Citric ratio so the Oeno. Oeni
happily consume the Malic and do not produce any diacetyl. But the
warmer the climate gets the less Malic and the more Citric acid you
get. When you force MLF in these warm regions the Oeno. Oeni must
consume Citric when it runs out of Malic and that is when diacetyl is
produced in the wine. In my experience, if the wine wants to go through
MLF, meaning you don't have to inoculate and it happens naturally,
then there is a high enough Malic to Citric ratio to not produce any
Another benefit is that if my wines did not go through MLF they would
risk re-fermenting in the bottle so I would have to filter them, and I
do not want to filter any of my wines.
LM: Who is killing it in the Canadian wine industry right now?
wines have integrity, a solid identity, and are well made but still
have a consumability to them and give lots of pleasure.
LM: You've completed 19 vintages worldwide - are there any that stand out
to you in particular? If so, why is that the case?
definitely stand out for me. Not necessarily because of the wines but
because of the approach to their winemaking. They both have worked
extensively in Burgundy, but do not just take the recipe and copy it.
They take the Burgundian winemaking ethos and adapt it to their
specific region. They didn't just give me answers, they gave me
problem solving skills. I learned how to use my instincts and make
intelligent responses to the environment I am in, instead of blindly
following the status quo. I believe this is the only way to truly make
wines that express where they are from.
LM: How do you think Canada can be taken more seriously on the global
stage - what needs to change and what are we doing that is working in
BR: Canada is an infant in the global context of wine. If you look any
emerging wine region, the first thing they do is emulate, ie here is
our Burgundian Chardonnay, our Bordeaux Blend or our Alsatian
Riesling. Which is fine, those wines are great. But if we want to take
Canadian wines to the next level we need to be a little more
ostentatious and really try to figure out what wines from here taste
like. Be a little more courageous and take a little more risk so we
can really define our identity.
LM: You describe your style as wine made naturally, but not natural wine
(even though I would consider it as such) - can you go into detail as
BR: I don't want to pigeonhole myself. I definitely make ethical wines
with little to no intervention but the definition of "natural" wine is
still pretty vague. I am making wines this way not as a marketing
strategy or to be part of the "natural wine scene", I am making wines
this way because I believe it just results in a better wine at the end
of the day. I just want to be honest, give full disclosure and
let whoever is buying it decide where it falls based on their
definition of "natural" wine.
LM: What are your wine industry pet peeves?
BR: Sanctimonious winemakers, producers and sommeliers. I love the camaraderie
and inclusion in the wine industry. At the end of the day, it is just
juice that makes us feel good. We need to get as much pleasure out of it
as possible. No need to be elitist about it.
LM: How would you describe your farming philosophy?
BR: I think permaculture would be the best adjective for what we are doing
in the vineyard. It is the same ethos as in the cellar. When it comes
to inputs we do as little as we can. If we do have to add something
then it is as little as we can as late as possible.
LM: What's next for Averill Creek?
BR: It is very exciting times at Averill Creek. We have a whole new team
that is full of passion and energy. We have just done a complete
re-brand and the wines are being released this spring.
LM: Tell me your death row wines.
BR: Well if I am on death row then no time to get clever, I gotta go with
the classics that come with some personal nostalgia:
1995 Heriot Enchanteleurs
2001 Etienne Sauzet Puligny Montrachet "les Referts"
2006 Roumier Musigny
1999 Armand Rousseau Chambertin
Thank you Brent! You can find out more about Averill Creek here, or follow them on Instagram @averillcreek.