Inside the Wine: Nikki Callaway of Quails' Gate

Nikki Callaway ctsy Quail's Gate
Nikki Callaway ctsy Quail's Gate

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting with winemaker Nikki Callaway from Quails’ Gate Winery during a three-day trip up to British Columbia’s wine country in the Okanagan Valley. Quails’ Gate is located in West Kelowna on top of stunning south facing slopes overlooking Lake Okanagan. This harvest marks Callaway’s second with Quails’ Gate after a few years at Mission Hill Winery managing their small lot portfolio. At 32 years of age, Callaway is already well respected within the industry for her excellent wines and dedication to quality.

Christine Campbell: I was doing some digging and it looks like you started down a path to become a doctor. Is that correct?

Nikki Callaway: I went down a medical path for a little while, in biochemistry – my parents were in the medical industry. I decided instead to choose a path of enjoying life more as a winemaker than sitting in a hospital all the time.

CC: Were you interested in wine while you were at school? Was wine a part of your life early on?

NC: Wine has always been a part of my life - wine and gastronomy. I have lived and travelled all over the world. I grew up in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia and Dubai - but was born in Calgary. When my family went on vacation, we usually travelled to wine regions. In Saudi, I used to make wine with my Dad. Alcohol is illegal and prohibited there, so we would go to the grocery store and buy our Hungarian grape juice and our bread yeast and sugar, etc and made it underneath our stairs.

CC: So you dabbled with winemaking as a little girl?

photo by Christine Campbell
photo by Christine Campbell

NC: I don’t know if you would call that winemaking but yes, I was 4 or 5 when we moved there and those are some of my first memories. We traveled to places where wine is an everyday part of the culture. I would have one small glass of wine with dinner in my teens. My first year of university was at University of Victoria and I wasn’t of legal drinking age but even then I would go down to the little wine shop to buy wine. I was never asked my age probably because I knew a lot about wine…so I would buy a few bottles and go back to my room to study.

CC: Did you have a go-to varietal then?

NC: Not really, but I am prone to go Old World – the French, Italian and Spanish wines had good quality wines priced at reasonable price points. It took me a while to understand the Canadian wine culture and pay $30, $40 or $50 for a bottle of wine. I don’t think anyone expected B.C. or the Okanagan Valley to have the wine industry prosper as well as it has. With all of the tourism wine brings to the province along with infrastructure and employment – it just continues to grow. I came back to Canada in 2009 from Bordeaux to work at Mission Hill and there were not many winemakers with Masters Degrees or resumes from around the world - it was more of a Mom and Pop culture with a few wealthy Albertans starting up wineries as a hobby. Now, in 4 or 5 years, the resumes I receive to help at the winery or in the vineyards are outstanding – we are not a small industry any more. We are a professional one but still, people don’t know about our wines. When I go back to France and visit friends in Bordeaux, they still laugh – they think Canada is only capable of making Icewine. Even the US doesn’t really know us yet. They have Napa, Sonoma, Oregon and Washington to choose from. Yet, when I was down in Paso Robles on business, I did a blind tasting with some of my colleagues, and they liked our wines the best. They liked the acidity and the elegance – our wines taste different – they stood out. For me, it means we are doing something right. I think wine is one of the simple pleasures in life.

CC: Absolutely!

NC: You’ve had a crappy day, all you want is to go home and have a glass of wine.

CC: How is being at Quails’ Gate going to be different for you as Senior Winemaker? You worked your way up at Mission Hill and got to see many different facets of winemaking at different price points.

NC: Yes, Mission Hill is a big company and I got to learn about every aspect of winemaking from entry-level wines to super premium wines – that taught me a lot about business and managing portfolios. Here, at Quails’ Gate, I am able to incorporate those lessons but in a smaller, family run operation. I love that I know exactly what fruit is coming from what block at what time. I like how Jo Breti, the vineyard manager, and I talk about how we want to prune. We get to have conversations about spacing and what type of buds we want to keep. It is hard to be able to do that at a bigger winery.   Here we manage between 180 – 200 acres. I can go for a walk at lunch and go and check on a specific block and I like having that connection and involvement in the process. We have a small, intimate team and we are growing very, very quickly. This last harvest we picked over 1,300 tonnes – so we are not a small winery by any stretch.

ctsy Quails' Gate
ctsy Quails' Gate

CC: Is there a grape variety that you love to work with?

NC: I don’t think so – every varietal can be great and challenging in its own way, which is what makes it fun. I do enjoy Chardonnay and Pinots as well as my Bordeaux reds. That is a broad spectrum but those are the wines I enjoy.

CC: Do you like sparkling wines?

NC: I do enjoy sparkling wines but I am very picky. We planted 25 acres last year of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Gris – mostly Champagne varietals. We haven’t decided how we are going to proceed with this yet but there is a possibility of doing a sparkling wine. It would be fun and interesting. I think there should be more sparkling wine made in this area – we have the perfect situation. I also think there should be more Chenin Blanc made here as well. Our climate is just like the Loire Valley and we have so much more we can do here in the Okanagan.

CC: What soil types are most prevalent here at Quails’ Gate?

NC: We have a lot of volcanic soil, which is our best kind. We have great sandy soil for our Pinot Noirs. We keep everything separate and fermented by its block – so it is great to see how certain clones do in certain soils. We have a lot of variables to work with especially with our Pinot Noirs based on the soil type. Since I have been with Quails’ Gate, we have started another tier. We have something called Richard’s Block Pinot Noir. It is eight barrels that are selected purely just for that wine from the French clones. The Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir has been around for a while now and it is a big, bold Oregon style Pinot Noir. We will have two directions our Pinot Noirs can go down – a Burgundian or Oregon style of wine.

CC: Talk to me about food and wine pairing. Is it incredibly important to you?

NC: I think it is a wonderful marriage but I am not infatuated with rules and regulations telling me what I am supposed to drink with what food. I had a great instructor in Bordeaux who changed it all around for me. Usually you do white flights first in tastings followed by reds. He said, no - whites have more acidity; lets do the reds first – the tannins will prepare our mouths for the whites and their acids. Then he would lead us through sensory exercises and pair non-classic food and wines together. I learned so much from him. I think pairing is fun but it is personal. If you love white wines – stick to white wines all night long – just know what whites go with what food. No one should tell you what to eat and drink or how and why.

CC: If you were able to travel to any wine region in the world for one year, where would it be and why?

NC: I would like to learn more about the Niagara region in Ontario. I think there are some great wines out there. But if I was going to stay somewhere for a year it would be Washington or Oregon. I would like to study and understand the stylistic differences. There are so many similarities between here and there but also so many differences. I would like to explore that.

CC: Do you have a personal wine hero?

NC: I don’t think I have one single person but I attribute my being a winemaker to my colleagues from school. When I did my Masters in Bordeaux, there weren’t a lot of women accepted into the program of 45 students. I even had one instructor tell me to ‘go back to California’ and ‘obviously you have never had your hands in the soil – you can’t be a winemaker by memorizing a textbook.’ If it wasn’t for my friends who said, ‘Pack your bags, Nikki, and come with me for the weekend. We will study all weekend long.” And, we did. Yes, we tried thousands of bottles of wine but they really helped me. It was that sitting down and hands on knowledge they gave me, ‘Here is the plant, this is what it looks like, lets go over the notes again, etc.’. They are my wine heroes and they are still my good friends.

CC: Do these friends still think you are only making Icewine?

NC: They still tease me about it but they are proud of me for sure. It is still so funny to go back to Bordeaux with a case of wine. The customs officers say, ‘Mademoiselle, don’t you know we have the best wine in the world right here? Why are you bringing wine here with you?’ Too funny.

CC: Why the Okanagan Valley for you? You could be anywhere in the world.

NC: It was ‘time and place’ I guess. The recession was hitting Europe and I didn’t have a French passport and it was getting harder and harder to get the French companies to pay my Visa. The Okanagan has so much potential. I can’t believe how far the industry has come. It is exciting.

CC: Professionally and personally, what are you most proud of in your life right now?

NC: Probably how much I have achieved at such a young age in an industry that has a lot of strong egos. I have met a lot of people who have tried to smash me down but

ctsy Quails' Gate
ctsy Quails' Gate

I have worked hard and I have had a lot of fun doing what I do. I am the winemaker at one of the most prestigious wineries in Canada where I get to continue to grow and be innovative with a fabulous team. I am proud that I can keep them happy and we all enjoy working together making excellent wines. That is a great place to be.

Some exceptional Quails’ Gate wines to try:

2014 Dry Riesling

2014 Rosé

2013 ‘The Bench’ Pinot Gris

2013 Chenin Blanc

2013 Pinot Noir

2013 ‘Stewart Family Reserve’ Chardonnay

2012 ‘Richard’s Block’ Pinot Noir

2013 Riesling Icewine