The winemaking background of Carlos Lee, owner, winemaker, president and CEO of Blackwood Lane Vineyards & Winery, is part of a strange and wonderful story.
The South Korean native grew up in Peru, was schooled in Ontario, Canada, and worked in Detroit before opening his winery in Aldergrove, British Columbia. Along the way, Lee tasted some of the world’s best wines, enjoyed a successful career in the automotive industry, and honed his winemaking skills in search of what he refers to as wine’s “secret recipe.”
That part of the story, interestingly enough, was born in the basement of the South Korean embassy in Peru, where Lee’s parents moved when he was 4 years old.
“They would have these wonderful parties … for dignitaries and presidents,” he recalls, “and they would gather all us children and throw us in the basement.”
At that time he was about 8 years old, and, “in search of some fun,” the group of kids ventured into the wine cellar and surmised that in order to get into the least amount of trouble, they would try the “stale, 20-year-old wines that no one would want,” he says with a grin. We thought, “These wines have expired. They’re in a dark corner collecting dust. And (yet) they tasted pretty good.”
At the time, of course, he didn’t realize that this would be a life-changing experience. But that youthful excursion into the world of wine “stayed with me as a permanent record,” he says.
Another life-changing event occurred when he was 10 years old in 1970, when his father purchased a brand new Ford Galaxie 500.
“I got in the car and it smelled so good. I fell in love with that car, and I said to my mom and dad, ‘I think I know what I’m going to do when I grow up …. I’ll build cars.”
Lee made good on that dream by earning a mechanical engineering degree while attending university in Toronto and a master’s degree at Western University in London, Ontario. His first job took him to Detroit, where he worked for Allied Signal, a supplier of intake systems to the U.S. auto industry’s big three manufacturers.
“Occasionally we’d have parties for the executives of Ford, GM and Chrysler. We’d take them to fancy restaurants … and the server would show me what wine they were ordering.” Recalling his childhood forays into the Peruvian wine cellars, he looked at the Château Pétrus label and said, “Oh, I know that one!”
But it was the aroma of the wine that really brought back a flood of memories. “Immediately I recognized the smell. It’s like the scent of your mom’s perfume .... it was instantaneous.”
The problem came at the end of the meal, when he was handed the bill for the party-of-ten dinner —about $8,000, outrageously high by today’s standards but astronomical for back in the late 1980s.
“That’s when I realized, I like certain wines, but that’s not something I can do every day … unless I start making it. If I can build cars,” he thought, “I can make wine, especially if you have the taste in your head.”
His philosophies about wine, then and now, were exactly the opposite of those in his automotive-based career.
In the auto industry, he notes, you’re rewarded for innovation and experimentation. “But winemaking is not an experiment, it’s an establishment. You stick to the standards. So I sat down with a lot of winemakers and picked their brains.”
Soon after, he began making wines on his own. His first effort – a Bordeaux red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, called ‘Alliánce,’ which he still makes today – essentially sent him on his way to establishing his own winery.
Lee’s parents retired in Vancouver, B.C., and he moved there from Ontario in 2002 to help care for them before they passed away. After the move, he purchased a restaurant in White Rock, B.C., prior to venturing into the wine business full time.
While looking for potential properties for his winery, Lee insisted on a site with a sunny, south-facing exposure. He found it in the Fraser River Valley wine region of Western British Columbia, located just a few minutes’ drive north of the Lynden, Wash., border crossing. The property included a home built in the 1970s, which Lee originally wanted to demolish but decided to keep and renovate as the tasting room.
Blackwood Lane Vineyards & Winery’s first commercial vintage debuted in 2004 and the 12-acre site now includes a spacious outdoor patio and seating area with picturesque views of the surrounding rolling hills and lush greenery.
Noting the area’s mostly wet climate, Lee says he’s still experimenting with estate-grown grapes such as Chardonnay and Viognier, “trying to figure out what grows best here.” Until then, everything the winery produces is sourced from leased vineyards in the warmer, eastern portion of the province’s Okanagan Valley.
Lee is a big proponent of producing wines that are varietally correct. “I make everything the traditional way. We don’t use any chemicals; we don’t use pump-overs. Everything is well-aged before we decide to release it.” That means that red wine vintages on the current tasting room menu range from 2009 to 2012, far older than the average winery might be serving.
North American wine drinkers with taste preferences ingrained in bigger, bolder wines will find nothing of the kind at Blackwood Lane. Lee is true to each grape’s Old World influences, and his wines showcase understated fruit flavors and subtle complexities, giving them great food-pairing potential. His 2014 Chardonnay, 2012 Vicuña Roja (cq) Red Blend, and 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon are indicative of the elegant, yet tasteful wines found there.
“For people who accuse me of being too traditional,” Lee says, he’s also created a 2014 Sea Buckthorn Riesling, a blend of the white varietal infused with a 5-percent splash of the tart, Saskatchewan-sourced berry. The result is a bone-dry, uniquely flavored wine with a slightly orange tint that “pairs well with pad thai, or anything with soy or ginger. It really elevates the food.”
Although many of the winery’s visitors come from nearby Vancouver, Lee notes he has a solid fan base from the United States as well.
“A lot of people come here … and feel like they were transported to Tuscany or somewhere foreign. We’ve elevated the lower mainland (wine tasting experience) to where we’re no longer the chasers; they’re chasing us now,” he says with a laugh.
For wine enthusiasts looking for a winery with top-tier, Canadian-made wines with a Eurocentric flourish, Blackwood Lane Vineyards & Winery may be the perfect place, with a great, behind-the-scenes story to match it.
DAN RADIL is a freelance writer based in Bellingham, Wash. Dan teaches wine classes at bellingham Technical College and produces a wine blog, danthewineguy.com.
This story was originally published September 13, 2018 12:00 AM.