In this quick interview we ask a few timely questions of Tony Holler, co-owner (with his wife, Barb) of the Okanagan Valley’s stunning, multiple award-winning Poplar Grove Winery.
The 2016 vintage of Poplar Grove’s signature red blend ‘The Legacy’ recently won gold at the 17th annual Decanter World Wine Awards, scoring an amazing 96 points. I’m sure it’s gratifying for the winemaking team, but what does that level of recognition mean for you personally?
The Decanter award and other international awards for our Legacy do have special meaning to me personally. Obviously, these international awards validate the excellence of our winemaking team and our farming team and their ability to work together to produce world class wines. These awards also validate the reason I decided to get into the wine industry in the Okanagan Valley. I believed that with diligent care in the vineyard and in the winery, we could produce wines that stood side-by-side with the best wines in the world. Two of my life’s pleasures have been collecting an extensive wine cellar that includes wines considered the best in the world and drinking the cellar with my friends and my family.
The awards confirm our plan for our vineyards, where we grow our varietals which require the most heat (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot) in the hottest part of the Okanagan on the east side of Osoyoos Lake, under Anarchist Mountain and close to the US border. Varietals that like less heat like Merlot and Malbec, we grow on the Naramata Bench. Legacy is a blend of these 5 varietals and I believe that the success of Legacy is due, in part, to where the various varietals are grown – listening to the land is so important when deciding what to plant and how to care for the vines. This effort is all worth it when I taste the wines – and even more these days when I get to celebrate a golden nod from the international wine community with the Poplar Grove team that made these beautiful wines possible.
People might not know that you started your career as a medical doctor and that you met your wife when she was a pediatric ICU nurse. Given your skill sets and experiences, what’s it been like to not be on the front lines in BC’s fight against COVID-19?
COVID-19 has been an incredible challenge worldwide and BC is no exception. It feels a bit odd not being on the frontlines, but I haven’t practiced medicine for over 25 years. Even though I no longer practice medicine, I am very interested in understanding how to protect ourselves from this highly contagious virus. The recent news that we have some excellent vaccine candidates seeking approval from Health Canada is a welcome update and spells the end to this pandemic.
The newly reimagined al fresco Restaurant at Poplar Grove is known for great service, excellent wine-paired food, and a jaw-dropping view. None of those things has changed over the past 9 months, yet COVID-19 has prevented them from coming together to their fullest potential. How do you see the Restaurant evolving in a post-pandemic world?
Luckily, we have space to expand the restaurant. We’ve taken over some of the Tasting Room space, which actually has the best views, and repurposed it for the restaurant. It’s an incredibly challenging time for restaurants, and we’re simply adapting as best we can.
We had a busy summer due to all the BC tourists coming to the valley and it gave us an opportunity to treat our guests to a hint of what our new team is capable of. We have a new team in the kitchen, in the front of the house, as well as the Tasting Room. We certainly had to delay our “launch” plans for our new restaurant until the spring of 2021, due to COVID, but it has also given us the time to make decisions and changes in a less-rushed atmosphere. We have lots of exciting plans and we envision creating a destination restaurant here in the Okanagan.
One positive outcome for the valley, in general, is that a lot of BC tourists, unable to travel abroad, discovered the beauty of the Okanagan. And it’s possible to have the type of vacation that includes wine, culinary and a wonderful playground for activities without leaving our province. We hope that this introduction brings more people to the valley in the post-pandemic world.
I once read that when you purchased Poplar Grove thirteen years ago you had a long-term vision to make the winery one of the most respected estates in Canada. Do you feel like you’re there yet?
Our goal from inception was to become one of the most respected wineries in Canada. This is a long-term goal which involves not only producing excellent wines but doing it consistently year in and year out. This means that we can’t have mediocre vintages and this depends on the vineyards. We spend the time and have the patience to work towards understanding what the vineyards can produce regardless of the weather.
Some of the most difficult years in terms of farming have produced some of our best wines and I suspect 2020 will be one of those vintages. One of the farming practices which has been invaluable in maintaining quality in our wines is managing crop load. In a cool year, you can always produce fruit that is excellent, but you have reduced crop load. Typically, in August we decide, based on the year, on how many bunches we allow to ripen. Some years we cut off as much as half the bunches – some years less.
Since this is a business that my wife Barb and I hope our four sons will pass onto their children – I see that we are on a long term journey where there is this bar that is always being raised and it will be up to future generations to continue the journey.