Standing Up for What is Right and Left

What has been happening lately in America has been shocking me. The events of Charlottesville, VA simply didn’t make sense to me. Seeing clips of interviews with ‘white supremacists’ being shared on social media seems like one massive case of looky-loos. It’s one thing to spread that kind of message deliberately but it’s a whole other thing to spread by looking down upon on it, which is what social media seems to be really, really good at. Satire is all over social media and a lot of it is hilarious, but it also often belittles it, which then makes it seem like it isn’t really that big a deal.

Except that it is a big deal. Plus, the subjects of that satire don’t think it’s all that funny and are driven even more to continue what they are doing. I believe the current US president was elected because he wasn’t taken seriously during the election. If we are still laughing about that now, we shouldn’t be. His base of support, the people who voted for him, may have done so out of spite for having been mocked so heavily about their own political beliefs. They didn’t find the jokes from John Oliver all that funny and may have resented the constant barrage of sketches from Saturday Night Live making fun of the leaders of their party. I can see how they would have felt bullied by pop culture. Nobody likes that, no matter what side you are on.

That does not in any way condone the nationalist attitudes now emboldened because of a lack of strong leadership at the top. Even talking about / retweeting / reposting articles about those hateful ideas is spreading those same messages further into society. That is something that we need to be very aware of and careful of doing, even with the intention of showing it up for the ‘evil’ that it is. In this post, I will talk about these things, but there will be no links to any of their messages anywhere in here. That is not an accident. I am writing this only to offer my opinions on it and not promote it further by sending readers to see it again. These messages should be consigned to the loony bin, which is exactly where they would have been placed before social media, which has really given an unrestricted voice to these misguided people.

I am fully aware that this is a wine blog, not a political blog. I have always tried not to make any political statements here because I’ve never felt that it was worth it. Politics and wine are not always fun together. Nothing ruins a dinner party more efficiently than a political rant. The reality of it though is that these awful messages that have been coming out of the American states run counter to everything a wine blog should be. NOT to say something or NOT to speak out about it is now DANGEROUS. I believe that we have reached a point in time where ambivalence or indecision is equally or even more lethal to our society than the hate-mongering that was on display in Virginia.

Clearly these people are not wine people. Wine is about bringing people together. Wine is about sharing. At the end of the day, we all need to eat, sleep, and love our children. Wine is and has long been a part of life that way. I cannot think of a single reason why I would not offer to share a bottle of wine or personally pour a glass of wine for anyone else in the world, including any of these people that spread this kind of hatred. They do not see what they say as being evil, they see it as being socially active and there are a whole lot of reasons for that happening that involves far larger problems such as failures in the education and justice systems among others.

It is far quicker and easier to destroy a bridge than it is to build one. I come from Quebec, where divisions of all kinds have existed within the culture far more than in any other Canadian province in which I’ve lived. It’s taken a long time over many generations to bridge some of them at least to some degree. The obvious division is between English and French but there are others that go back further and are less visible now. Protestant / Catholic and Jewish / Christian devisions have traditionally been big separators but since my generation came of age in school, are not as prevalent as they used to be in my parents’ time. Recently, Quebec has been confronted with the racial issues involving religious clothing such as the hijab and this is going to strain religious divisions again – or at least continue what may have already been there. Quebecois culture has always seemed mysteriously defensive to me and I never really understood that until I moved away. In North America, French culture is, and has been for a long time, a minority, entirely surrounded by English provinces and states. This defensive posture, which from my point of view was often totally xenophobic, has caused many problems for this province which included a draining of the small anglophone population from it (none of my good grade-school friends have stayed in Quebec). I was born in and lived for 21 years Quebec, but I would never, ever say that I was a Quebecois. There were some violent episodes in Quebec’s history that showed just how different we dealt with problems divisions like this in the past.

Other provinces in Canada have similar divisions but they are not, to me anyways, as visible. To be somewhat flippant, Canada can be essentially divided into two – Toronto and Non-Toronto. (Everyone from outside of Toronto will understand this.) Culturally in BC, Vancouver has divisions between people of Asian and non-Asian ancestry, which is something that I noticed when I first moved to Vancouver. I soon learned that there are also regional divisions between “the coast” (aka the lower mainland) and non-coastal regions (aka just about everywhere else, including the Okanagan Valley). And it seems that just about every place has divisions based on sexual orientation, which is just as unfortunate and needlessly divisive, particularly on the micro-level between members of families.

It seemed like we, in North America, were doing so well culturally and artistically, if not civilly. President Obama showed the world that a non-white person could be elected president and govern intelligently and with dignity effectively for two terms without a major scandal. Personally, I wasn’t in favour of everything that happened when he was president such as the use of military drone strikes. The cost of filing a tax return went up a lot for citizens living abroad, and police brutality seemed only to increase, strangely, in the Obama years.

I can’t help but notice that these social divisions really started to grow as the internet and social media started to grow. Some of it has been positive, particularly for social activism, but is this really all good? From the point of view of a white supremacist for instance, what happened in Virginia was, to them, social activism. Social media has allowed voices from Greenpeace to the KKK to unite, gain strength, and spread their messages of whatever. With no check on content, messages of all kinds have been able to ferment and grow beyond their own small world, good or bad. It’s not just environmentalism or social justice anymore, it’s community groups, hobbyists, and industry professionals (such as me with this blog) contributing to the noise.

“Take advantage of the town on its feet
and the frustration when the home town’s beat
Mask and sprays and gas and rags
In backpacks with designer tags.
The rush that pushes you into the crowd
to burn the cars and scream out loud
will be turned against you at the end of the season
There’s a new power now that doesn’t answer to reason.”

I wrote this verse for a song called “Survival of the Mob” which was recorded on The Gala Vanters CD that I did in 2012. This verse is about the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver that happened that year but the rest of the song was written well before that. The power of social media to link us together (and now more often than not it seems, to sell us things) comes with a new power to incite us into action, but like a mob rather than as a civilized democratic citizenry. “Freedom of speech” may need some limits. True, absolute freedom is not really possible because that will always mean that someone else will potentially suffer because some people will take advantage of their ‘freedom’ to dominate or hurt others.

What we really need is compassion, which is something that all religions, at their core, teach and hold sacred. Compassion is something that I find strangely absent from social media in most ways. Other than the occasional feel-good video about how similar we all are, there really aren’t that many instances of exchanges on social media that I have had that could be considered ‘compassionate’. The medium is not really meant for that. For all of its communicative power, the truly human experience of compassion is pretty much impossible through social media. Facebook is perhaps the closest with recent augmentation of the far less binary “Like” button to include other ’emotions’ and some emojis might help, but in reality, true compassion requires being in the same real physical place. Maybe our world is not getting smaller after all? Maybe it’s been getting bigger, perhaps too big. When it gets too big and we get so far away from each other, the possibility of removing compassion grows more and more probable. We then start to allow cancerous ideas to take hold, resulting in mismanaged elections, needless suffering, and potentially fatal societal consequences.

For now, we have to work with what we have, and that means social media. If you have a blog, a website, a social media account of some kind (which most people now do), NOW is the time to speak up. These people’s minds cannot be changed, but they can be drowned out. If social media really is a new type of mob, then we all have to band together to do this. They are well-organized and have bonded together effectively and we need to do the same. They think they have the numbers, but they don’t, and we can clearly out-mob them. They are the minority. We can do this by shouting them down.

But we can’t drown them out if we are just standing there, making no noise at all. It’s time to make some noise.

Why aged wines are awesome

Sometimes, opening an aged wine has its hazards. This is the carnage after removing a cork that had disintegrated.

Aged wines take courage. Aged wines take patience. Aged wines take discipline.

All three of those things take a little work and some effort on the part of the wine collector, which may be why most wines are generally consumed young. In practical purposes, it is also expensive to keep wines in a cellar for extended periods of time and most people (or restaurants) just don’t have the space to keep a worthwhile collection. With little or no exposure to the taste of aged wines, most wine lovers will rarely be able to experience the amazing aromas and flavours of an aged wine. Without any appreciation of it, aged wines have little chance to become a part of our BC wine culture.

Unless of course you have lucky enough to have a friend or coworker who can expose you to the amazing world of aged wines. For me, the first seriously aged bottle of wine that I had the pleasure of tasting happened to be from a coworker at a winery in 2008 who had brought in a bottle to share. It was an Ontario riesling from the early 1990s and was a little over 15 years old at the time when I got to taste it. I’d never tasted anything like it. It smelled and tasted like apple pie and a full bouquet of flowers that had been gently doused in kerosene. It was weird at first but became entrancing and I loved every sip.

I have tasted other aged wines since then. I have tasted verticals of BC wines from Clos du Soleil, Black Hills, Painted Rock, Osoyoos Larose, and others, some of which went back a full decade to the oldest wine in the set. I have tasted 14 year-old Pinot Noir from Burrowing Owl that tasted nearly as fresh as the day it was bottled and Icewine from Lang that was just over 17 years old at the time. All were truly memorable and utterly amazing tasting experiences.

Why do we not age our wines in BC? Master of Wine Rhys Pender has often stated that BC wine, with its higher levels of natural acidity that is the envy of other wine regions around the word, is a perfect candidate for creating long-term, ageable wines. Washington State wineries like White Heron have figured this out and have made some amazing examples like the 2003 Malbec that I had purchased while on a trip to Wenatchee in 2011. I have worked hard to save some wines for at least a little while and this is how I did it.

The trick to aging wine is to either have some good distractions or be able to hide wines on  yourself. By distractions, I mean having other wines to serve instead of the ones that you are intending to age. If you want to keep that bottle of Nota Bene or Oculus securely stowed away for an appropriate amount of time, it is best to have other wines readily available. Ideally, though not always financially practical, it is best to have multiple bottles of the same wine to try out. In my own experience, I was able to purchase a case of 2006 Nota Bene and it became our special occasion wine that we opened only on our anniversary or some other special dinner. Choosing our anniversary was a great way to do it because that meant that we only really opened one bottle each year. That made the wines last a long time until the last one was approaching 9 years of age (from the vintage date) by the time is was consumed.

The other option is somehow to hide the wines on yourself. For me, I put them in my wine rack where I have carefully labeled some of the wines with neck tags on them. For the wine that I really want to disappear, I actually put them lower down in the collection and I simply do not label them. It’s as easy as that. The labeled wines stand out more and I will naturally head for those wines first. It’s not failsafe, but it is surprising how much longer a wine will last if it doesn’t have any attention drawn to it.

If you are looking for something that will really go the extra mile, consider a larger format bottle such as a magnum or a double-magnum. These are not as uncommon as they used to be although you might have to go to the winery’s own wineshop to purchase these. Larger format bottles age more slowly than standard 750ml bottles because the ratio of wine volume to surface area of the cork is much greater. Therefore, the flow of oxygen into the bottle (the rate of “oxygen ingress”, according to those in the cork trade) is is about the same but the volume of liquid inside the bottle is much greater so the wine ages slower. The ratio of the ullage (the air space between the wine and cork) is also correspondingly smaller compared to the volume of the wine. Anecdotally, a magnum will add 30-50% on to the total age of the wine. If your 750 ml bottle of 2003 Oculus peaked at 10 years in 2013, the same wine in a magnum will probably be at a similar state of development right around now in 2017 or 2018. That percentage likely increases as the bottle size gets larger with double-mags, Jeroboams, Imperials, and other larger sizes but, since I’ve never owned any of those formats myself, cannot personally attest to the ageability of those sizes.

What I can attest to is that aged wines are a completely different, amazing, and engaging wine experience unlike anything else that you ever get from an old bottle of cola. There is something about wine as it ages that makes it change into something truly amazing. That does not mean that every wine gets better with age. Some of them clearly are not meant for that and some people do not like the taste of aged wines. That is purely a matter of taste. You should not ever feel guilty for opening a bottle of wine ‘before its time’ if that is the way that you prefer it. Wines don’t get better with age, they simply change. If you don’t like what they change into, then it isn’t better for you, is it?

For me, I love aged wines and I believe that there are others out there who would love them too, if only they could try them. If you have aged wines in your cellar, share them with friends and help spread the word! Aged wines are a beautiful experience.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

8th Generation 2011 Riesling Selection

Robin Ridge Cabernet Franc 2014

Robin Ridge 2014 Cabernet Franc

Robin Ridge is a small winery owned by Tim and Carolyn Cotrill  on Middle Bench Road just outside of the town of Keremeos, BC in the Similkameen Valley. They are known for bold tasting wines, red, white, and rosé and have a following for their Gamay and Pinot Noir, both of which are generally more extracted in style than other Similkameen (or even Okanagan) producers.

Zooming In: The Region and The Winery

I truly believe that the Similkameen Valley is one of the wonders of the BC wine world. There is a reason why the pyramids in Egypt are placed where they are and there is a reason by wine grown in the Similkameen Valley is as beautiful as it is. The Similkameen benefits from wind – a lot of wind – in fact annoying amounts of wind at times. But the benefits to grape and fruit growers is that it dries off the vines and trees so that mould, mildew, and rot have little to now chance of taking hold. Unlike in the Okanagan, where some farmers use the downdraft from helicopters hovering over their orchards to dry off the fruit after a summer rain (I have personally seen this many, many times), growers in the Similkameen need only wait a short time before the wind picks up again to dry everything off.

Geologically, the Similkameen differs again from the Okanagan. Thought they were both influenced by glacial activity in the last ice age, the Okanagan was a major drain (possibly a conduit for sub-glacial meltwater – but that’s just a theory) while the Similkameen had ice which then melted away with no significant effluent thereafter. The result is that many of the debris fans that descend from the valley walls remain nearly intact right down to the river while those of the Okanagan (such as the Golden Mile Bench) have been cut off at the knees and now end in dramatic drop-offs to the valley floor.

Robin Ridge’s location is on a plateau of land that is on the fan emanating from the valley to the north that enters the Similkameen at Keremeos. This the valley down which travellers from Penticton will descend as they head towards Keremeos. It is a relatively flat part of the plateau and is surrounded on all sides by beautiful vistas of the mountains, including the famously talused ‘K’ mountain towering over the southern horizon.

WITG (What’s in the glass)

This is all blueberries, dark cherries, black tea, and vanilla (courtesy of their oak program, no doubt). There are tannins here and they are smooth and ripe, without a trace of green in any way. Like the other reds in their portfolio, there are some good tannins here, which I love, and they are not out of balance at all. It is a style that is sometimes described (erroneously, in my opinion) as rustic, but that misses the point. To me, ‘rustic’ implies that the winemakers are hicks and don’t know what they are doing and that is absolutely not the case here. This is not the first vintage of Cab France that I have tasted from Robin Ridge and the consistency of their other reds, Pinot Noir and Gamay, are remarkably regardless of whatever weather Mother Nature dishes out in a particular vintage.

The Big Three Questions

Is it good for what it is?

Absolutely, insofar as anyone knows what a Similkameen Cabernet Franc should really taste like. Has there been enough of them to really give a fair comparison? Probably not yet although I have had great experiences with other Francs from Cerelia, Eau Vivre, and Seven Stones.

Will it Age?

Yes, probably medium-term at most. There are tannins there to be the anti-oxidant firewall and the acidity is good but will the fruit remain intact for the long-haul? Hard to tell. I do regret not buying a second bottle to keep in the cellar for a little longer, at least into 2020.

Would I buy it again?

Yes indeed and I would do it easily if I saw it on a wine list at a restaurant.

In short…

A beautiful example of a rich, extracted-style Cabernet Franc from the Similkameen Valley.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

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!

~Luke

 

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!

~Luke

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!

~Luke

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.

~Luke

 

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!

~Luke

 

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!

~Luke

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!

~Luke