Larch Hills Siegerrebe 2014

Larch Hills Winery Siegerrebe 2014

Now owned by Jack and Hazel Manser, Larch Hills Winery is close to Salmon Arm, BC and is situated on a stunning ridge that faces due south, staring straight down the barrel of what appears to be an extension of the northern Okanagan Valley. Their portfolio of wines is centred around German white varieties, which is eminently suitable for this very northern and high altitude site.

A note on pronounciation: I say it as “Sig-ur-RAY-bee”. It’s easy to remember it by saying, “It’s Siegerrebe, baby!”

Zooming In: The Region and The Winery

The North Okanagan and Shuswap regions are buzzing with wine making activity these days and it’s not hard to see why. It is beautiful here and often not has hot as the southern part of the Okanagan.BC interior’s first-ever commercial vineyard operation was in Salmon Arm in 1907 so there is a lot of history here too. It is far more rural however so fine dining amenities are not going to be in as easy reach as they are in other areas. The stunning beauty of the land makes up for it and the longer drives between wineries means that there is plenty of time to catch that scenery. The added bonus for winemakers here is that the price of land in this region is a lot less than it is around the Okanagan, therefore starting up a small winery takes a lot less cash.

Original owners Hans and Hazel Nevrkla planted the site in 1992 and opened Larch Hills twenty years ago in 1997. They selected a site by intuition which has largely been proven correct. Happily, Jack and Hazel Manser continue that tradition with great aplomb and offer a wonderful portfolio of wines along with an excellent visitor experience now matter what time of year it is.

Just driving to Larch Hills is an experience. It is really off of the beaten path, which is something that I really enjoy. They are perched on the north edge of a ridge that faces south and offers stunning views of the valley below towards Vernon in the far distance. Highway 97A continues north from Vernon and technically leaves the Okanagan Valley shortly after Armstrong, where the rivers begin flowing north into the Shuswap instead of flowing south into the Okanagan. It is hard not to see how it really looks like exactly the same valley, so why this sudden shift? In long-ago geological times, the Okanagan watershed actually drained north into the Shuswap, so the continuous valley walls that make up the scenery in this area were very much part of the same system. How times have changed!

WITG (What’s in the glass)

This wine is beautifully aromatic. Spicy white pears, elderflowers, thyme, lemon verbena, and a soft perfume are all big components in this wine’s aroma. This is exactly why I love this style of wine. It isn’t just all predictable fruit-forward flavours like peaches and apricots in South Okanagan viogniers or plums and vanilla in the hundreds of merlots that get bottled every year. It is fabulously challenging and interesting and that continues to be interesting long into the meal. This wine finishes slightly off-dry but there are other wines in their portfolio that are sweeter. It is finely balanced however which makes it easy to drink with food or without.

I chose to talk about the Siegerrebe for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because I knew that it was going to be good with the dinner that I had this evening. Secondly, because I believe that Siegerrebe is a fascinating grape for BC wine. Now when I say “BC wine”, I don’t mean “Okanagan wine”, which is usually what people in the trade typically mean. I really mean ALL of the wine regions in BC. On my trip to Vancouver Island last summer, I tasted some excellent examples of this variety from Saanich, Cowichan, and Pender Island. Domaine de Chaberton (now Chaberton Estates Winery) has been doing Siegerrebe for years in the Fraser Valley and other Shuswap wineries like Recline Ridge have made excellent versions of this variety. Siegerrebe is everywhere in BC.

To me, THAT IS FASCINATING!! What other grape variety do we have that we can compare so many different regions within the same province??  At best, we can compare many similar varieties between the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys and perhaps one could argue that Pinot Noir is in a few other regions as well. The dark horse sneaking up behind the pack is really Siegerrebe, and I find that amazing. Maybe I’m easily amazed, but I don’t think so. I think that is great and I look forward to doing a tasting at some point in the future that features as many Siegerrebes as possible just to see how they differ from region to region.

The Big Three Questions

Is it good for what it is?

As an aromatic white wine, it is beautiful. Complex, balanced, and endlessly intriguing. There is something about the aromatic wines that I have always found attractive (starting with Sumac Ridge’s Gewurztraminer when I first moved to BC). This wine is not overloaded with residual sugar to throw off the balance nor is it super-high in alcohol. Finishing the bottle at dinner is not going to make cleaning the dishes afterwards a potentially dangerous task.

Will it Age?

Probably not and, personally, I would probably never let it get farther away from 4 or 5 years from vintage if possible. These are fresh and fruity wines and if they are not fresh, then they probably won’t be fruity either. To me, that’s the draw for this style so these go in the easy-access areas of my cellar.

Would I buy it?

Yes, absolutely. I bought this last January while visiting the winery on a beautiful sunny afternoon and would love to return there to buy more at some point soon. I highly recommend this wine to anyone looking for a wine that shows something unique to BC.

In short…

Germanic varieties and styles of wines are a big part of BC wine’s history that include not only the grape varieties but the German-trained winemakers who have been a part of our industry here for decades. With plantings becoming more common around the province and a push by wineries to make this variety more commonly known, this is one grape variety to start seeking out. You will not be disappointed.

Cheers from wine country!



The 2017 LG Awards Results

The results of the 2017 Lieutenant Governor’s Awards for Excellence in British Columbia Wine are now in! Congratulations to all of this year’s winners:

Cassini Cellars
The Aristocrat Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Cassini Cellars
Nobilus Merlot 2013

Castoro de Oro Estate Winery
Crimson Rhapsody 2014

Gray Monk Estate Winery
Odyssey White Brut 2014

The Hatch
Crown + Thieves “The Broken Barrel” Syrah 2013

Howling Bluff Estate Winery
Century Block Pinot Noir 2013

Kitsch Wines
Riesling 2015

Maverick Estate Winery
Bush Vine Syrah 2014

Noble Ridge Vineyards and Winery
“The One” Sparkling 2012

Perseus Winery
Invictus 2013

Upper Bench Estate Winery
Upper Bench Estate Chardonnay 2015

As someone who has been somewhat obsessively gathering information about this particular award for the past few years, I eagerly look forward to seeing the results. I was also lucky enough to have been a witness to this year’s judging first-hand for a short time on the second day of judging.

There are quite a few interesting bits of information about this year’s list of winners. All are from the Okanagan Valley. I personally have enjoyed seeing winners from all of the regions of BC’s wine country represented somehow. So far Vancouver Island (Enrico in 2015), the Fraser Valley (Domaine de Chaberton in ’05 and ’06), the Similkameen Valley (Eau Vivre in ’12 and ’13), and Lillooet (Fort Berens in 2014) are the only non-Okanagan wines to win at this competition. Based on some of my travels to other regions over the past couple of years, I predict that this will change. However, since the bulk of production is still in the Okanagan Valley, the odds are still more favourable to wins coming from there.

Gray Monk takes their second-only LG award for the 2014 Odyssey White Brut sparkling wine. For such an esteemed first-generation estate winery, it seems entirely odd to me that they have not won more often in the past. Their previous win was for the 2007 vintage of the same sparkling wine seven years ago. Similarly, sparkling wine has helped Noble Ridge win one for “The One” 2012, which makes “The One” a two-time winner in three years. (Yes, I enjoyed writing that particular sentence…)

Cassini Cellars won two awards, both for big red single-varieties. Though that is not frequent, a double win like that has happened before and usually demonstrates that a winery is getting very good at establishing a particular style. The Hatch and Perseus wineries, both owned by Terabella Wineries,  shows that promising things are happening within that organization as well. Both Terabella properties are first-time winners as are many of the other wineries in this set while Cassini has won previously for a 2012 Cabernet Franc in 2015.

As I see it, the most significant fact for this year is that for the first time ever, there are no large commercial wineries present among the winners. Andrew Peller Ltd. received an award last year (through Red Rooster’s win for the 2012 Reserve Merlot) and each of the previous years have seen at least one win by a commercial production winery. In the early days of the LG awards, commercial wineries dominated the awards, winning multiple awards each year and often for the same wines again and again. Sumac Ridge and Jackson-Triggs (both Vincor brands) dominated the early competitions. Between 2008 and 2012, this slowly began to change and the smaller production wineries began to take over the winners’ circle to a point where the commercial wineries were shut out this year.

Why has this been the case? Two things spring to mind. The first, and probably least probable, is that the depth and quality of the smaller producers is swaying the judges’ opinions. While it is possible to see great quality wines from commercial producers, the attention to detail in small-production batches has really caught on in the past decade. The second, and probably more likely, is that the larger commercial wineries simply don’t bother submitting their wines to the LG awards. Vincor’s many awards pretty much stopped when Constellation took over and in the tumult since that time, the realignment of their brands has seen some get neglected, for lack of a better word. Powerhouse LG award-winners Sumac Ridge (who still hold more LG awards than any other winery – 10) were dismembered into Stellar’s Jay and Black Sage Vineyards premium lines while the Sumac Ridge branding took on the lowest-priced value line. The once-great original estate winery survives in name only with little chance for a future LG award at all and with no impetus from their parent company to want to enter them into it.

Mission Hill has never entered anything into the LG’s, or at least has not won anything which seems unlikely given the high quality of wines produced by that company. Now that four-time winner CedarCreek is under their portfolio, that name is unlikely to appear on a plaque in the near future as well.

I have written posts at the LG awards in years past (see 2014, 2015, and 2016) and there will be more about it in my upcoming book about the history of wine in BC. I very much wish that more wineries would participate in it but in many ways, that would make it more complicated to conduct and may require additional resources on the part of Government House. As it is, the competition is already a very large process. The judging takes place over three days and seems (from my own observations at least) to be far less rushed and more thorough than other competitions. With only a dozen winners in any given year and 486 wines entered this year, the actual odds of winning an award is staggeringly low compared to other competitions.

From an observer’s point of view though, that exactly what makes them all the more exciting and interesting! Congratulations to all of this year’s winners!

Cheers from wine country!


Time Winery Chardonnay 2013

Time Winery 2013 Chardonnay

Time Winery is the brand of Encore Vineyards, which is owned and operated by the McWatters family, headed by Harry McWatters, whose career spans 50 years of BC wine history from Casabello, Sumac Ridge, and now Encore Vineyards. This Chardonnay comes from the Sundial Vineyard south of Oliver and is an oaked style of Chardonnay.

Zooming In: The Region and The Winery

The grapes come from what used to be called the Sundial Vineyard northern part of the Black Sage Bench south of the town of Oliver. As far as vineyard land in BC goes, this is as good as it gets. I would even argue that it is also some of the best vineyard land in Canada. As proof, consider this: Grapes for three of the first four ‘prestige’ wines ever produced in BC (Oculus, Pinnacle, and Nota Bene) were all grown in this same small area of the Black Sage Bench. Legendary grape grower Richard Cleave lived across the street on his Phantom Creek vineyard which provided Sandhill with grapes for their Small Lots series. The Tennant and McCarrell families just south of Cleave started Black Hills in the late 90’s which brought a new level of focus on the area. Prior to being called Sundial, this was Sumac Ridge’s home base and responsible for the Chardonnay but also the ground-breaking Black Sage Bench series of wines from Sumac Ridge which helped build that brand through the 1990s. Before Sumac Ridge, it was known as Monashee Vineyards, an innovative vineyard first planted in the 1960s that used the first mechanical harvester in BC. No other vineyard region in BC has such a lengthy and tightly-packed history as this region.

As it turned out, the name “Sundial Vineyards” was only a temporary moniker. The original “Black Sage Vineyards” name used by Sumac Ridge was sold to Vincor when that company purchased Sumac Ridge. The McWatters family needed another name and chose Sundial, an eloquent metaphor that merged the elements of light (needed for ripening grapes) and time (always measured in vintages on a bottle) in brilliant simplicity. With the sale of the property to Phantom Creek Estates in 2016, the name Sundial Vineyards may unfortunately disappear from shelves in the near future.

WITG (What’s in the glass)

As it is clearly an oaked chardonnay, this is not a wine to take home to mama simply because mama probably doesn’t like oaked chardonnays. Card-carrying ABC members also need not apply. This Chard comes packing and for my taste, that is awesome. It is not overpowering however and the specs on this wine say that it was build in thirds – 1/3 is oak fermented, 1/3 aged in oak, and the remaining third completed entirely in stainless steel.

This is a 2013 vintage which means that the wine is now almost 4 years old. Not old for a person or  cat but sometimes wines like Chardonnay get a bit fussy at this age. True enough, it is solidly in the developing stage. The fresh lustre of a young, vibrant, and fruity wine is now gone. Currently, it is hinting at some aged character but isn’t fully showing what it is capable of, if indeed further aging is what you are after. For my own taste, this wine is at the extreme edge of where I like it. That is to say, I don’t like my chards to be so youthful and fruity that they are characterless juice but at the same time, I want a chardonnay that can speak to me with that soft voice from the other pillow in barely a whisper. This wine does that.

The aromas in my glass were light but present – orange rind, small flowers, ripe cantaloupes, vague hints of vanilla and cloves, and dried mangos. The oak has subsided somewhat but that is what I expected. There is complexity here and every time I go back to it, there is something a little different to experience – a new aroma, flavour, or texture that I hadn’t noticed before.

Since it is developing, the booze is showing a little heavy right now. The alcohol (at 13.9%) sticks out a little bit but not enough to make it unpleasant or too bitter, although that will depend entirely on what food gets paired with it. A rich, buttery sauce might bring out that bitterness more than a simple lemon or herbed sauce.

The Big Three Questions

Is it good for what it is?

You bet it is. It is an oaked chardonnay. To me, oak should add complexity and nuance to a chardonnay and not overpower it, which is what I think people didn’t like about the heavily oaked chards of old. Wineries could cover up a lot of grape-growing or winemaking mistakes with a generous smothering of oak. That is clearly not the case for Time’s Chardonnay since the oak flavours compliment and elevate the wine as a whole rather than act as a sugarcoating.  For people who like really oaked chards, this wine might not actually be enough oak for you so consider other wines if that’s what you are looking for. For people who don’t like oak at all, well, I’m guessing that you probably haven’t read this far. But just in case you have, you will probably like this wine because the oak is not overpowering nor is it out of balance. Don’t turn it down if someone offers it to you at a party. This is a solid, benchmark BC chardonnay that straddles fruit and oak with graceful complexity.

Will it Age?

The back label suggests that it will ‘age gracefully through 2018’ and I would agree with that. However, it depends entirely on what you seek out in a wine. I love the complexity that a tinge of age brings out and that is exactly where it is right now. If you are wanted something fresher, look for a younger vintage.

Would I buy it?

Yes, I would and I have. This particular bottle was a gift but I have purchased this very same wine before and will no doubt do it again when their new wine shop opens on Martin Street in Penticton.

In short…

This is a textbook example of a balanced, BC-style Chardonnay.

Cheers from wine country!


New high water marks

Sand bags line Okanagan Lake’s waterfront in Penticton

Listening to the news on the radio in Vancouver last weekend, reports made it sound like the whole valley was a flood zone and that visitors are going to be swept away in the deluge. This is not entirely the case. There are many wineries that I have visited that would really like everyone to know that the wineries in the Okanagan are indeed open for business as usual.

Yes, there is some high water in the Okanagan. Yes, Okanagan Lake appears to continue to be rising and is expected to crest in the middle of June. Yes, the SS Sicamous (the historic paddle wheeler on the beach in Penticton) is actually floating again for the first time since being intentionally beached 30 years ago. Yes, there is a lot of debris in Okanagan Lake because of raging outflows from tributaries. Low-lying farms near the river and tributary streams in Oliver are slowly taking on water and unfortunately will suffer great losses for their tomatoes or peppers. It is not a good situation and it will be a difficult for  many farmers who depend on those crops for income.

But not all of the valley is caught up in it. Life continues here in wine country and for wineries and grape growers, life is pretty much normal. Most vineyards are on elevated land farther away from the lakes and rivers. There are some vineyards located on outflow areas of streams that are normally dry or very low flows most of the year. All wine shops that I have seen are open for visitors and, because of a string of fabulous vintages over the past few seasons, have never had such amazing collection of stellar wines to offer for tastings. Contrary to the doom and gloom of the news reports, wine country is still a great place to visit in 2017.

The wild and natural Similkameen River

The Similkameen River is high as well but is flowing and “behaving” according to one long-time riverfront winery owner. The Similkameen is still essentially a wild river with no flood controls while the Okanagan River below the lake is regulated with flood control dams. The problem is that the flood control gates are apparently open as much as possible.

Here is where water use and climate change in the Okanagan gets troubling. Most water concerns focus on restricting the use of water because it is something that we have so little of for most of the critical times in the summer. But at a seminar held at Okanagan College on March 30, 2015, scientist Scott Smith from the Pacific Agri-Foods Research Centre in Summerland spoke about the changing conditions that climate change will bring to the valley’s whole water basin. The biggest point that I got out of that seminar is not that the changing climate will make things hotter for life in the Okanagan, but that it will fundamentally change the way that water is used by the land itself.

Penticton Creek, earlier in May

It is all about how the land retains water. If there is a lot of vegetation in the mountains (large trees, shrubs, etc.), then the vegetation will act to help the land retain water. Roots will soak up water and make the soil stronger by holding it together. If that vegetation get weakened (through rising average temperatures, forest fires, logging, etc.) then the land’s ability to soak up water is diminished and in the spring, the water will quickly flow down to the lake and out through the water system. Forest fires (of which we’ve had more than a few in the past 20 years) are sudden changes to the landscape and can have profound effects. The Vaseaux Lake debris flow in June 2004 was caused by forest fires the previous year, which were “believed to have been a contributing factor (Forest Practices Board 2005) by changing the water infiltration and run‐off characteristics in the watershed.

If by 2040 (only 22 years from now) the predicted temperatures at the higher elevations (such as the top of Okanagan Mountain Park and many of the other peaks that line the valley) reach similar high temperatures that we now currently experience at lake level, the vegetation on the mountains is going to change and fundamentally reduce the water retaining ability of the mountains in that water basin. The result is probably going to be more of what we are seeing this spring – a big surge of water in a year of only moderate snowfall at best.

As I have been deep in studying the history of the Okanagan, this is not the first time that the Okanagan has ever flooded. This has happened before and the highest water recorded on Okanagan Lake was 343.28 meters in elevation in 1948. The current system of flow controls was designed and constructed by 1958 and yet here we are in 2017 with a lake level that at this time sits at 343.22 meters and appears to be headed towards a new record high water mark. Is that infrastructure going to be able to handle changes in the future?

Like a bottle of wine, this situation will evolve over time. However, it is sometimes difficult to believe that it will get better with age.

Regards from wine country.



The Forgotten Hill Wine Company

There is something immensely satisfying watching friends realize a dream. My friend Maya was instrumental in helping me move from the coast to the Okanagan in 2007. She was a friend of the family and we bonded instantly over wine. We toured wineries together, critiqued wines, wine shops, and wine labels together, and gossiped non-stop about the industry and some of the goofy and amazing experiences that we’d had. We both started working in the cellars (for different wineries) in 2007, have met and compared notes with regularity ever since. When I started this blog and podcast in 2009, Maya was involved in some of the earliest podcasts and even contributed awesome articles, which have remained popular to this day.

Maya in 2007 standing on the future vineyard site.

On one of my first trips to meet Maya in Naramata in 2007, she showed me a recently levelled patch of dirt that she claimed would one day be the site of her family’s vineyard. It was a hot day in July and the dust was everywhere but it was clear that this was a unique site. High above Okanagan Lake on a southwest-facing plateau, the vineyard would clearly offer some of the best views seen by any grapes in Naramata and maybe even the whole valley. It also had something extremely interesting that sparked my interest in learning about the geology of the Okanagan: beach sand.

640 meters above sea level, approximately 300 meters above the lake.

I’m sorry – WHAT?? After driving uphill for 10 minutes from Naramata, 300 meters above the current level of Okanagan Lake, there is BEACH SAND??  Yes, there is. It is the remains of the former shoreline from Glacial Lake Penticton, a body of water that encompassed both Okanagan and Skaha Lakes as the glaciers receded following the ice age. Standing at the edge of the vineyard overlooking the lake that is now far below, this will boggle the mind somewhat if one spends too much time thinking about it. It is best to have a glass of wine before attempting this.

Thankfully this spring, her family’s dream to open a winery has finally come to fruition and a wine tasting is now available to prevent this kind of senseless mind-boggling. Over a decade in the making, the Forgotten Hill Wine Company opened its doors to the public for tastings this spring by appointment only. Don’t let the ‘by appointment’ thing scare you. There are solid practical reasons for this including very limited parking and single-lane access to the wine shop. However, the reward for the adventurous is big since it is securely ensconced far beyond the pavement high above the village of Naramata. After easily booking online and then making the trek up to the top of Smethurst Road, your welcome could not possibly be any warmer. (Wine touring tip – spending the afternoon in this area of Naramata is now entirely possible since Smethurst Road is also home to Nichol and Daydreamer Wines.)

Maya and Ben Gauthier in another vineyard (2010)

Maya and her husband Ben operate Forgotten Hill and the Forgotten Hill B&B on the same property. Both are trained winemakers and viticulturists who are able to talk about their wines with precision and passion. The wine shop is small but matches the garagiste scale of the winery. Their initial offering is of four wines – two Pinot Gris, a Rosé, and a Pinot Noir – but future plans include Syrah, Viognier, and a second Pinot Noir.

For those who like the small-scale wineries and the attention that they clearly pay to what seems like every individual bottle of wine, Forgotten Hill will not disappoint you. Maya has always been fascinated by Pinot Gris and was relentless is her pursuit of the perfect version of it for her vineyard site. The Pinot Noir is also immaculately executed and is a stellar confluence of silky textures, complexity, and a long , dreamy finish.

Rather than waste space with tasting notes, I would rather that you seek these wines out and judge for yourself rather than simply trust my opinion. I will say that all of the wines are solid performers that will hold your interest throughout a meal or a dinner or an entire evening for that matter. I have enjoyed more than a few bottles of prior non-production vintages of the Pinot Gris and can say with certainty that they are absolutely true to their unique place on the highest elevation vineyard on the Naramata Bench.

After spending the past 3 years of my life looking backwards by researching BC wine’s past, it is refreshing to get a glimpse of its future. Forgotten Hill is not only the carefully executed culmination of a dream, it also shows how the leading edge of the wine industry is not afraid to explore the furthest reaches of the Okanagan. I am glad to have been able to witness even a small part of its evolution.

Cheers from wine country!



BC Wine Culture 2017 – THANKS MILLENNIALS!

I was pouring wine samples at a liquor store recently and perusing the shelves during the lulls between customers when something occurred to me. Wine and craft beer cultures have both made a serious change to liquor stores in under a decade.

The store I was in was the average run of the mill private liquor store in a relatively average part of town. 15 years ago, it was decided not an average part of town and looked quite run down. Even still, the term ‘gentrification’ didn’t really apply to the changes that have happened in the area but it had definitely been cleaned up and was more economically active than it had been before. It occurred to me that though there were people coming in and heading straight for the Bud section and then heading to the checkouts, there were also people who were carefully looking for particular wines. On the shelf next to where I was conducting my tasting were $90 bottles of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, $120 bottles of Sauternes, and wine royalty from New Zealand and South Africa. As I stared at the $45 bottle of NZ Sauvignon Blanc (really??) I started thinking.

Then, when I realized that there was no way I could possibly afford to get all of the wines that I was thinking about, I quickly realized something else… A store like this would not have even considered bringing in those types of wines (or, more cynically perhaps, those private stores’ managers would not have even known about those types of wines) even just ten years ago. This wasn’t just a small shelf in the corner either. It was two multi-tiered shelf sections (the standard wire shelving – 3 bottles high, easy to pick from) that represented a sizeable investment in inventory on their part. The craft beer section was even bigger and filled with all kinds of bizarre and creative labels from small producers throughout the western provinces.

What has happened in the past decade?

Indeed, there has been a big shift in many ways and not just within the wine industry. Being a wine-person however, I can’t help but put most of the blame on the wine industry for leading this charge in foodie / locavore / craft-quality culture that we find ourselves now ensconced. Small boutique wineries (first called ‘cottage’ wineries before changing the name to the more erudite ‘estate’ wineries) predated what we used to called micro-breweries (now called ‘craft brewers’) in BC by almost 4 vintages. 1977 was the first vintage of the first official ‘cottage’ winery – Peachland’s Chateau John de Trepanier – and John Mitchell’s application for a small brewery at the Toller Pub in Horseshoe Bay in May of 1981. According to John Wiebe, author of the most-excellent book “Craft Beer Revolution”, BC’s craft beer “revolution owes its start to the dogged determination” of Mitchell, who inspired many more to try similar small-production brewing in their own pubs.

From a historical perspective, that is really not a lot of time but the close coincidence of craft breweries and estate wineries is hard to ignore. Estate wineries grew to include just under a dozen by the end of the 1980s and really only took off as the 1990s reached cruising altitude. Wineries were aided by the fallout from the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement which saw the creation of the BC Wine Institute and the Vintner’s Quality Alliance. Brewers never saw this same kind of government-sponsored push but regardless they managed to persevere through to the present boom where every modestly-sized city can support a small community of small independent craft brews and brew pubs.

So what has brought us to where we are? Are the small farm gate wineries suddenly producing wines that are that much better than they were in the early 1990s? Or are there simply more people paying attention? How is it that these businesses (wineries, breweries, LRSs, etc) have survived by selling high-priced bottles like this?

This is where we get to put the blame at least partially on the Millennial generation. According to a recent article in Forbes, they want ‘quality everything’. Suddenly, mass-market big-volume wines are not going to cut it at a dinner party. THANKS MILLENNIALS! Now even smaller LRS’s have to stock a bewildering array of small breweries and wineries in addition to the big brewery brands like Bud, Miller, and Coors so now we have a lot of choice. THANKS MILLENNIALS! In the words of Oscar Leroy from TV’s Corner Gas, “We’ve been bumped up into a new wine bracket!” THANKS MILLENNIALS!

Of course, once you taste the good stuff, it is really hard to go back. There are a lot of wineries, like Wild Goose for example, who have been producing wine on that level for a very long time and are now quickly getting onto the radar of those who are looking for that level quality.  Other estate wineries have also figured out about this quality quotient, sometimes taking it to an extreme and with prices to match. Is this sustainable?

As long as wine is still on the forefront of foodie fashion (arguably as much as it ever could be) and paired with favourable economics, wine will probably continue to occupy the tables of Millennials throughout their lifetime. This will no doubt be a good thing for the stability of BC’s estate wineries for the next generation of wineries and wine makers. Even though I’m technically Gen-X (“Who are they?” asked the wine industry throughout the world) and not a Millennial, I will still drink to that. Cheers from wine country!


Back at it


Hi BC wine folks,

It has been too long since I’ve posted anything even somewhat resembling a blog post. There are many, many reasons for that but the big one is that I was working on the book about the history of the wine industry is this province. I can say that the manuscript is now (mostly) complete and that it has been submitted to the folks at Whitecap Books. 

The working title is “Valleys and Vintages: A Taste of British Columbia’s Wine History” and represents almost 2 and half years of interviews with amazing people, travels throughout the province, many photographs, and intense research at many public archives and museums. The experience has been an unforgettable one so far although it really is not over until I have the book in my hand. The process now shifts gears.

What I really hope to convey is that even though BC’s wine industry is young, there are a lot of places where history can really come alive. Standing in a loganberry patch on the Saanich Peninsula, that could very well have been the site of the very first planting of that berry in the province and certainly provided berries for the first wines ever produced in BC, was a powerful moment. Watching the sun set over the water while standing on the site where the very first commercial vineyard in BC’s interior used to be was eye-opening and powerful since I was watching almost the same view that those grapes had had 110 years earlier. Searching through documents like menus and price lists from pre-prohibition hotels and saloons, overdue account statements with a kind note to the customer handwritten and signed by J.W. Hughes, and original letters to the City of Victoria from Growers’ Wines signed by Herbert Anscomb were just some of the many documents that have thankfully be preserved in various public archives.

We are lucky that so many people from the genesis of the modern wine industry are still with us today. I am so thankful that I’ve been able to interview many of them over the past two years. They have opened their wine shops for me, shown me their wineries and vineyards, and met me at restaurants and coffee shops so that I could here their stories and recollections firsthand. I recorded as many of the conversations as I could so that I could make sure that every word, every expression, and every nuance was recorded.

Traveling to some of the places by motorcycle was also particularly thrilling since every change in temperature, every smell, and every sight was impossible to ignore. This is where the climate controlled environment of an air-conditioned car denigrates the experience of traveling through wine country. Yes, it might be a little more comfortable, perhaps a tad more convenient, and of course one cannot purchase nearly as much wine while on a motorcycle, but arriving at a new winery without having to get out of the airlock of a vehicle was a beautiful way to soak in the context of a vineyard. I could feel the slight cooling sensation as I approached a vineyard such as Emandare near Duncan because of their proximity to a lake. I could feel less humidity in the air after I left the highway and arrived at Blue Grouse. I could sense the rising humidity levels as I entered the Fraser Valley and got closer to the water in Tsawwassen. Travelling by motorcycle is a great way to stay connected with the world around you but in a way that is far more real than anything transmitted over Wi-Fi or 4G.

For those of you who might be interested in hearing about some of the research that went into this book, I will be presenting a seminar on BC wine history at Okanagan College in Penticton on May 4th, 2017. Click on the Okanagan College logo to find out more and register for the seminar. I am really looking forward to sharing with you some of the great things that I’ve found about the history of wine in BC and some of the adventures that I went on in order to find it. I hope to see you there!

I will try to post more often again about BC wine and the happenings in wine country. I am even hoping to get the podcast machine back into production as well if I can find suitable co-conspirators who are interested in talking about BC wine. Look for more action coming from Wine Country BC over the coming year. 2017 promises to be an exceptional vintage.

Cheers from wine country!


Food and Wine Pairing in Kelowna

ln2912-wine31foodwinepairingWant to have some fun with food and wine? The Kelowna campus of Okanagan College is putting on a food and wine pairing course. It’s a practical way of learning about why certain foods go with certain wines and why other combinations might not work at all. It’s a lot of fun, a lot of in-class practicing (of course meaning ‘wine tasting’) and one of the most fun final projects in any food and wine course.

How do I know?

I will be the teacher again this semester.

The course is open to the public to anyone who is interested in this topic. Increase your wine knowledge (BC and international wines are used), learn how to expertly pair them with different foods, and create a memorable meal.

Contact me on Twitter or Facebook if you have questions.



Garagiste 2016

img_1819I was able to attend my second Garagiste North Festival last Sunday, September 18th and two years after the festival began, I can safely report that it is still the most casual, accessible, and most really-like-it-is-in-wine-country wine festival I’ve ever attended.

The first one was held in 2014 and was hosted by Meyer Family Vineyards in Okanagan Falls. It was a beautiful day and I had the distinct impression that nobody  – wine makers, festival organisers, or attendees – really knew what was going to happen. To use a Tom Petty lyric, the future was wide open. But it worked. It was a beautiful day and everyone was in good spirits to taste some exciting new wines. Some were really new – barrel samples, in some cases.

The recent Garagiste North had equally beautiful weather but the location was very different – the garden centre at the Penticton Canadian Tire. At first blush, it seemed like an odd place for a wine rendezvous but it worked very well. Outside air was clean, the space was never too crowded, and the pathways and trellises made each area of the festival unique. Everyone, wine makers and attendees, seemed to be a happy mood all of the time. Festival co-founder Jennifer Schell pointed out that it is really a true wine tasting festival rather than a wine drinking festival. After the first festival in 2014, many of the wine makers commented that the festival attendees where clearly interested in the work that went into the wines and were asking informed and intelligent questions about their craft. For attendees, like me, who are more used to elbowing their way into a busy table in a noisy conference room, shouting out a wine’s name, then waiting for the wine maker or sales rep to pour it, this casual style is so much more enjoyable and far more human in scale. In fact for me, two hours had gone by in the blink of an eye and I realised that I hadn’t taken enough photos!

The really big added bonus for the attendees was the addition, for the first time, of a retail store to buy many of the wines that the wineries were pouring! What an amazing opportunity for both wineries and attendees! Many in attendance clearly made use of this shopping opportunity as it was not long before some of the wines began to disappear.

In a nutshell, the Garagiste North festival is a far more “wine country” tasting experience then you will ever get in a conference centre, with far more interesting people pouring far more creative wines. It is an appropriate scale of event where people on both sides of the barrels can enjoy themselves. Garagiste North will never become a large festival because that would defeat the purpose. As it grows in popularity, it might start to get more difficult to get in. Enjoy it now!

Cheers from wine country!



Why The Wine Islands are worth it

The old pathway through the vines at Blue Grouse Vineyards in Duncan

My book research has taken me to some really interesting places in B.C. While the research phase is mostly complete, in some ways I really hope it never ends. I will probably just begin to concoct reasons to go on more research trips. Writing for a blog no longer counts since it never really returns anything to make paying for all of that the research worth it. Unfortunately, podcasting doesn’t do it either but I’m still working on that one.

This past summer, I was privileged to be able to meet with winery owners, wine makers, and archivists while visiting Vancouver Island and Salt Spring Island. The last time I visited was in 2012, I was sick, and couldn’t smell or taste a thing. I relied on my wife to be the designated taster and bought only a few bottles on the whole, rainy trip. It peaked my interest though because the last few times that I’d tried wine from Vancouver Island, I was not really that impressed.

Emandare Vineyards from Dunca, BC

Emandare Vineyards from Duncan, BC

Vancouver Island to me was grey skies, rain, logging trucks, tiny highways with lots of stop lights, and views that were off-limits unless you were on a ferry or had waterfront property. Victoria, like all capital cities in North America from Albany to Washington, DC, are always touristy, transient, and freakishly sanitised so that everything appears lovely at all times, just so that visiting diplomats get only the best impressions of the province, state, or country. Get outside of the city however and things start to get interesting.

Vancouver Island is remarkably diverse. There are parts that remind me of southern Ontario (which may or may not be a compliment) and there are other parts that remind me of nowhere else that I’ve ever been – all within an hour’s drive. The wines reflect that diversity too but they’ve managed to be bundled up into a tidy promotional package that they’ve beautifully called “The Wine Islands.”

What I learned on my previous trip that was confirmed and raised on this recent one is that Vancouver Island is an amazingly interesting place to make wine. Forgot the wineries that bring in grapes from the Okanagan, make wine from it, and then try to hide it or downplay it somehow (you know who you are), there are some spectacular wines out there. Wineries are doing great things with Pinot Noir, Marichel Foch (I know – it’s one of those big, scary hybrids that we’ve all be told are from the bad old days of B.C. wine’s past…), Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Ortega, and others. They don’t taste anything like Okanagan wines AND THAT’S AWESOME! They are finally starting to taste like the place that they come from.

img_1428The Saanich Peninsula is particularly important in B.C. wine’s history (you’ll have to read the book when it comes out to find out why) and there is a small cadre of wineries there who are making awesome, creative wines there. The Cowichan Valley is the most populous in terms of the number of wineries and there is a reason for it. It’s a warm valley in a rain shadow that had dried, browned grass growing between the vines when I was there in late July. (Sound familiar at all?) There is also the Comox Valley farther north, which seems like quite a stretch north but is still below 50 degrees of latitude. Plus, after Parksville, the speed limit is 120 all the way to Comox so, you can safely stretch a bit…

Here is my take of wines from Vancouver Island: They are our version on Italy.

40 Knots, Comox, BC

40 Knots, Comox, BC

Let me explain. What I mean is that in general (very generally), the wines here exhibit a bright, fruity quality that I’ve always equated with traditional Italian wines (before they got all “Parkered” when everyone started oaking the crap out their Chiantis). They are not overtly tannic or grippy in any way. They are briskly acidic, fresh, and elegant in a way that hotter places cannot get away with. The alcohol levels are way more in check than some Okanagan wines, and with a much lower risk for frost, the growing season is longer. The result, if done right, is amazingly complex wines that are just begging to help make your meals that much more awesome. Try using a Wine Islands wine in place of an Italian wine next time you have lasagna, spaghetti, or any other Italian-style dish.

That style of wine is particular trendy right now (Dolcetto anyone?) and if the Wine Islands can play their marketing cards right, they could come out of this trend with a stable, well-respected industry that consumers will know to reach for at the wine stores.

Garry Oaks on Salt Spring Island, BC

Garry Oaks on Salt Spring Island, BC

That is the key of course to any wine region but particularly to the Wine Islands. The turnover rate of this region is far higher than the Okanagan. Wineries are easy come, easy go here. The lucky ones like Blue Grouse, Cherry Point, and Beaufort have been able to attract new owners. Others (Godrey-Brownell, Echo Valley, and Marley Farm) have not. It is frontier wine production in a lot of ways.

The Wine Islands is a region that is worth supporting and I hope that you do. When you head to a quality wine store in the future, ask for an adventure. Ask them if they have any wines from Vancouver Island or any of the Gulf Islands. It’s a great way to experience the taste of the coast and is always going to be cheaper than the ferry.

Cheers from wine country!


View from DeVine Winery on the Saanich Peninsula

View from DeVine Vineyards on the Saanich Peninsula