Poplar Grove’s Slow Road to Success

The standout Okanagan winery’s new pinot noir shows why patience is a virtue.

Generally speaking, the best wineries work on a different scale of time than the rest of us. Unlike some other industries—tech, say, or entertainment—the world of wine does not as a rule reward the latest and greatest new thing. After all, part of the appeal of wine is waiting—for ripeness, in cellars, and on sublimity. That is not to say that wineries don’t jump the gun. In the “New World” (regions other than Europe and the Middle East) especially, they are liable to rush things, releasing too many wines too soon and losing their sense of identity along the way. There are myriad reasons for a winery to release lots of wine and quickly, many of them coming down to sheer economics. When the bills are due, releasing a large number without expensive cellaring is the easiest way for wineries to pay them. Understandably concerned with their bottom line, many winery proprietors take the fast lane. Tony Holler is not one of those proprietors.



Holler, who has owned the Naramata Bench’s Poplar Grove Winery along with his wife, Barb, since 2007 (it was founded in 1993), takes a remarkably unhurried approach. It is already well-known for waiting painstaking amounts of time to release many of their red wines, but Holler thinks they can wait longer. Following a recent visit to Château de Beaucastel, one of the great estates of the Southern Rhône, where he was able to taste wines from the past 50 vintages, he is planning an expanded cellaring program at the winery. “It struck me that no one in the Okanagan does this. No one cellars their wines and does a release at 10 years,” says Holler.



Holler is similarly reserved when it comes to introducing new wines to the portfolio, so it was only after much appropriate hemming and hawing that he approached executive winemaker Stefan Arnason with the idea to produce pinot noir for the first time ever. Arnason himself was hesitant at first. Pinot is a notoriously finnicky grape, and it didn’t entirely fit with Poplar Grove’s other red wines, most of which are made from the classic Bordeaux varieties: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec, and petit verdot. But thanks to the efforts of Dan Marshall, Poplar Grove’s assistant winemaker who was tasked with the pinot noir winemaking program, the production of the first vintage went off without a hitch. “Dan Marshall just became a complete pinot noir nerd about vinifying this properly,” Holler says. “Dan was obsessive about it. I remember you’d see his truck at the warehouse seven days a week for months because he was so obsessed with doing a great job.”





Holler was inspired by the worldclass pinots of Central Otago, New Zealand, but Marshall sees Okanagan pinot as a singular expression of the heartbreak grape. “I’m not sure that I can identify what Okanagan pinot noir is. The styles vary significantly, from light and subtle to extracted and brooding,” he says. “Personally, I don’t consider that a weakness, but a strength of our valley. You don’t have to go into a vintage with a preconceived notion of what the wine should be. That allows us to follow the fruit and follow the vintage wherever we feel it is taking us. It’s a freedom that doesn’t exist in all, or even most, wine regions, particularly when it comes to pinot noir.” Coming off the five-year-old Hudson vineyard at the very southern reaches of the Naramata Bench, Poplar Grove’s 2022 pinot noir is a promising first effort no matter what style its compared to, and while Central Otago may be apt, it doesn’t do service to its luminous, underripe red fruit flavours and wiry acid backbone.



Poplar Grove’s tried-and-true wines are also still humming along, maintaining the award-winning quality standards that have installed and kept the estate in the upper-tier of Okanagan wineries for decades. The recently released 2023 pinot gris, packed with enticing notes of peach and mint, is tightly wound, elegantly perfumed, and made for summer. The 2020 cabernet franc epitomizes what the grape can do in the Okanagan, exploding with sage brush and tobacco before tempering into a medley of licorice, raspberry, and maraschino cherry. The 2018 vintage of Poplar Grove’s icon wine, The Legacy, features well-integrated tannins that will carry its flavours of chocolate, raspberry, and rose well into the future.

While its first pinot noir shows that Arnason, Marshall, and company have the chops to produce wines outside of Poplar Grove’s excellent, Bordeaux-centric wheelhouse, Holler plans on being characteristically patient with any further experimentation. “We need this to settle in,” he says. “I need to have five years of fantastic pinot noirs made before I would consider anything else.”

Or as Arnason says, “Rushing never leads to good outcomes.”




6 Poplar Grove Wines to Try

Pinot Gris 2023

Rosé 2022

Cabernet Franc 2020

Merlot 2020

Pinot Noir 2022

The Legacy 2018