Are we too cavalier about alcohol?

Drinking alcohol is everywhere in our media landscape and especially on social media, upon which wine in BC has been latched for a fair number of years. Photos of wine bottles in exotic places with amazing food and lovely people are all over the internet on Facebook and Instagram accounts. Add in the trending craft breweries, distilleries, and cideries, plus the marketing power of the big name brands and it seems like an entire generation of adults are drinking without care and living the life. Only the benefits of booze are promoted by social media but nobody offers anything about the potential for problems, societally and personally, that might have occurred, or will occur, later on. People who are fall-down drunk in the gutter are probably not steady enough to take a selfie and post it. Have our attitudes become too cavalier about alcohol lately?

The irony of writing an article like this on a wine blog is not lost on me in any way. I am a huge fan of irony – got the poster, seen the show, own the DVD – and that is why I am hoping that maybe this might get people thinking a little bit more about it. People in the wine industry are all trained through the Serving It Right program, an irritating but necessary course that every person who wants a job serving alcohol in this province must take. We are trained to know the law and what to do in various circumstances  and now we now must be re-certified every five years to stay current. If it helps keep people informed, I’m all in. It is not a bad thing to be thinking about this beyond the online exam. A recent article in the Globe and Mail by André Picard summarized the way that we “romanticize” alcohol in Canada while scrutinizing opioids, marijuana, and other nebulously legal / illegal drugs. Alcohol, according to Picard, is “too often portrayed as good, harmless fun.”

Lots of people have an amazing ability to drink often and well because alcohol in some form is easy to find. People promote their lifestyle on social media and when visiting wineries. (I do that, of course. You are reading some of it now.) But sometimes they make jokes, which to me seems to trivialize it. I have often heard people say, “We NEVER have any wine left over in our house! Ha-ha!” (Ha-hah, yes. Good one.) They buy t-shirts with funny slogans on them proclaiming their love of wine. (Oh, the doctor says you need “glasses” – so funny.) They mock wine sales professionals such as myself for spitting out wines when we taste, calling it ‘alcohol abuse’, and then laughing with their friends. (Hysterical! Did you just make that up yourself? I’ve never heard that before…)

I think that these cavalier attitudes may be masking something potentially more harmful.

Drinking has always been a part of life everywhere I’ve lived and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it in moderation. Alcoholic beverages are perfectly natural, safe to drink, and preferable in most circumstances, especially when traveling. As we learned from North America’s great ‘college-experimental-phase’ with Prohibition almost a century ago, trying to ban it altogether is like trying to ban precipitation and is clearly futile. Prohibition resulted in the complete opposite effects, namely even more consumption, binge drinking, clandestine alcohol production, and dangerous situations to drink. Furthermore, the only alcohol that was available was potentially more harmful because it was coming from a completely unregulated, illegal industry.

Legal alcohol industry or not, some people have an inability to stop drinking once they start. That’s where we get some of the social problems that come from real alcohol abuse (not the spitting-out-at-a-wine-tasting kind). According to a World Health Organization chart on alcohol abuse rates throughout the world, Canada has a total rate of 7.35% of the population (5.43% men and 1.92% women). If we take the population of BC as 4,683,139 as of July 2015, that means that there are over 344,210 people who potentially have problems with alcohol. Some of those people will get treatment for their dependence and some won’t. Regardless of whether genetics plays a part in it or not, the fact remains that some people are going to have issues no matter who they are or where they live. As a former politician who used to be in charge of liquor laws in the late 1970s once put it to me, generally “80 percent of the people are fine with alcohol, 20 percent are not. But it’s the 20 percent that cause 80 percent of the problems.”

And now those people (7.35 percent to – yes, it is a stretch –  20 percent) have massive new wine displays in select B.C. supermarkets lording over them as they go through the checkout lines. In some stores, they are clearly visible from anywhere outside of the main aisles. It is simply impossible to ignore. Many people mentioned this aspect of it in comments on Minister John Yap’s blog which was ostensibly used to solicit peoples’ opinions on the matter. A surprising number of people cited social concerns – minors that work in the stores, recovering alcoholic family or friends, or simply that B.C. already has too many convenient places to buy alcohol already – as a reason to not allow wine in grocery stores.

These opinions were pretty decisively ignored. Most of the people commenting in favour of wine in grocery stores cited mere convenience, as if it was a “no-brainer” that since they already sell cigarettes, they might as well have wine too. That is some good quality internet argument logic for you that would only sound more natural if it was accompanied by an unruly mob carrying pitch-forks and torches. I guess since a store already sells car tires, they might as well sell puppies too. “I mean really, that’s the no-brainer to me,” they said. Calling the restrictions on selling wine in a grocery store “archaic” does not really make sense either since there really isn’t anything to do with modernizing anything.  Does that mean to be truly modern means that any store should be able to sell alcohol? Does true ‘modernization’ mean that anything goes and that all stores should be free to sell absolutely anything that they want? What about firearms? Puppies, booze, and ammo all together in one stores sounds like a good business idea to me! Offer it as drive through and I’ll be the first in line! (Hi! I’d like a bottle of Southern Comfort, the cute little white poodle, and a Glock G43 please.)

When Vancouver city council recently voted to allow wine in grocery stores (with many restrictions), it prompted a few new complaint articles like this that bemoan the “nanny state” and how the wine drinker is ultimately being repressed somehow because of “anti-liberalization”. The author, David Fine, cites Washington State and Quebec as having fewer alcohol-related health issues than BC and complains again about the government restrictions on alcohol. Of course, he doesn’t mention the fact that the drinking age in Washington is 21 (how’s that for a government “anti-liberal” restriction?) and in Quebec is technically 18 (but, as I know from personal experience, is less an actual restriction and more of a suggestion). These places have vastly different attitudes towards alcohol compared to BC. Washington State is far more policed in general than BC while Quebec’s alcohol culture is historically ingrained.

It’s not that I have anything against selling wine in grocery stores, I don’t. I grew up in Quebec where there is wine in grocery stores, corner stores, and government stores. Quebec holds the record for the shortest Prohibition in North America (less than 1 year – it was both enacted and repealed in 1919). I love going camping in Washington State and I agree that getting wine in the supermarkets is absolutely convenient when picking up supplies. But why should my own convenience put someone else’s health potentially at risk? Convenience is not a “no-brainer” that should be “modernized” and free of the “nanny state”. That’s just being selfish. Plain and simple.

We should also note that in Washington State and Quebec, the wine displays are not as obtusely crowned in the centre of the store as they are in BC grocery stores. Wines are on the shelf next to the crackers somewhere down aisle 6 and have no more attention drawn to it than Cheez Whiz or laundry detergent. My problem is not with the law or the alcohol culture in B.C., it is the way that we are lionizing it. By putting alcohol (so far, only wine and cider but, in reality, that door is now open) in such a prominent display in our grocery stores, we are no longer promoting just a product but a lifestyle. Those are two very different things.

When was alcohol ever really that inconvenient for the under 45 generation anyway? Do we really need more convenient wine purchasing locations above and beyond the hundreds of licensed retail stores, government stores, and private wine stores that we already have? At one point, the Town of Oliver (the Wine Capital of Canada) had more liquor retail stores than traffic lights and that’s not counting the wineries’ own wine shops that are not inconveniently close by. In all of the towns in BC where I’ve lived in 17 years here (five towns so far), finding a liquor store close by has never, ever been a problem. I have always lived within walking distance of some kind of liquor store.

Why do we need to put massive signs around high-profile wine displays in grocery stores? Is it because we feel that BC wine cannot compete unless it has this absolutely dominating marketing presence that completely outsizes other grocery departments like the bakery, deli, or fresh produce? Are we that insecure about our industry’s competitiveness? My point is not so much that it shouldn’t be sold in supermarkets, but why do they have to get the star treatment with huge signs and a central display? I’ve never seen that kind of booze promotion anywhere else.

When I lived in Quebec, there was a distinct difference in quality between the wines in each type of location. On the wine continuum from plonk to grand cru, the government stores carried the top quality on down to the decent, inexpensive wines. The supermarkets carried less expensive wines that are probably imported in bulk and bottled locally to look like imported wines. The corner stores (called dépanneurs in Quebec) like 7-11 carry bottles that are probably barely legally wine, and some of them probably skim that name pretty tightly. Essentially, if you want the good stuff, the government store or winery wine shops are where it’s at. (There is a growing band of brave vignerons in Quebec.)

From my point of view, putting real, VQA-certified, B.C. wines into supermarkets is a step in the wrong direction. It is forcing BC wine down the throats of consumers needlessly and we are starting to see it get stratified naturally through the ultimate expression of economics – market demand. Now that the super markets have to purchase their wines outright, they are being much more careful about the wines that they choose to carry. That means that if it doesn’t sell, it’s not going to re-ordered and the wine selection will get winnowed. The private LRS stores located nearby (sometimes sharing a parking lot with these stores) are hoping for this because they will pick up on the more expensive products or smaller boutique wineries that have limited production for their wines. People will start to understand that grocery stores mean cheap and cheerful and LRS stores mean quality. Since LRS’s can purchase whatever they want, VQA or not, that puts them at the advantage while the supermarkets gets ‘stuck’ with the value-priced VQA brands. BC wine’s image is suddenly less prestigious. (I am not considering the previous Liberal government’s wholesale pricing schemes in this argument – I am only interested in a public perception point of view here.)

Marketing aside, wine is now a lot more visible and maybe there are people who do not really need to see that. It is essentially forcing a lifestyle choice into the faces of a small part of the population that can do a large amount of damage. Suddenly, wine is absolutely unavoidable to anyone with alcohol issues that shops that these grocery stores. They now have to face temptation on their own or find a different place to shop.

I believe that BC wine is strong enough to compete without the excessively domineering marketing that I’ve seen in grocery stores so far. I also believe that it can do it without threatening the social health of our towns and cities. Consider that 7.35 to 20 percent of your Facebook friends potentially have a problem with alcohol in some way. How might huge wine displays right behind the check-out aisles effect them? Just like alcohol is healthy in moderation, asking questions about our community is healthy for a democratic society. Let’s question this kind of thing.

Cheers from wine country.

~Luke

 

 

John Peller at Wine Talks – Preparing for Battle

The BC wine industry will be facing some battles over the coming years. The renegotiations of NAFTA  and the Comeau case, that is set to be heard in the Supreme Court of Canada this December, are just two of the things that the industry will have to fight for. So says John Peller, CEO of Andrew Peller Ltd. at a talk Tuesday evening at the Wine Talks series at Okanagan College*.

Peller’s talk included a lot of family history and thoughts on where the industry is today. The family history aspect of his presentation was quite moving and many in the audience appeared to have not been aware of John’s grandfather’s, Andrew Peller’s, personal involvement in the genesis of BC’s wine industry. (Of course, there will be a book coming out that will include some of that history, and more, next summer. *ahem*) The most poignant information for me was insights about Andrew Peller’s character and personality, something that is not easy to obtain through the text of a book, even his own autobiography. Andrew Peller wanted only to be able to have and support a family. After all of the companies that he had created (some successful, some not) the most important thing was family and, as an immigrant coming from Hungary, his arrival in Canada was what allowed him to do that. The most important day in his life had nothing to do with business success but everything to do with his arrival in Canada. After a tumultuous journey by ship across the Atlantic, the sight of Halifax harbour was the happiest moment in his life.  This remained so throughout his life and in his will, he asked that his ashes be scattered in Halifax harbour.

John Peller’s father, Dr. Joseph Peller, had left his medical practice to take over the company through the late 1960s and into the 1990s. John took over in the early 1990s and has guided the company through to the present. Taking over in the post-Free Trade years was not easy and I believe that John deserves a huge amount of credit for taking the company from André’s Wines / Baby Duck to Andrew Peller Ltd. / Gretzky & Sandhill brands.  His knowledge of the industry is profound, intense, and very personal. The actions of politicians, bureaucrats, and trade negotiators are on John’s mind as the Comeau case and NAFTA are poised to become two battles for the wine industry in the coming years.

For industry people, these events will make their day jobs either more or less difficult depending on the outcome. Some wineries, especially smaller ones, may not even notice while others might be driven out of business because of it. For most casual wine consumers in BC, nothing may appear to change at all. Customers in Ontario may one day be able to order their own case of BC wine directly from the winery’s website without any fear that they would be breaking the law. In BC’s wine country right now, the interprovincial trade issue has been a big part of conversation for many years.

According the Peller, the outcome of the Comeau case will not solve anything but will be the “match that lights the gasoline” poured on the fire of interprovincial trade. With the fuse ready to be lit, there is clearly going to be some turbulence in the Canadian wine industry in the coming years and it is all based around trade with other provinces or countries. This is how far the industry has come in the recent quarter-century. 25 years ago, the industry just wanted to be able to sell their wines to anyone at all!

What I think is the saddest part about the Comeau case is that it uses the Supreme Court to modify laws that should have been updated or rescinded altogether by our elected Members of Parliament. These people are the ones who are elected affect that kind of change, not the courts. In his talk, John Peller said that the government bureaucracy of today is very different than the way it was in the 1980s. He noted that 40 years ago, the federal bureaucracy used to be staffed by people who were not capable of getting jobs anywhere else and who simply did as they were told by the elected MPs. Peller contends that the same bureaucracy is now made up of much more educated, competent individuals. This new bureaucratic culture is much more powerful and almost calls the shots to the elected MPs instead of the other way around. Peller noted that the quality of those elected MPs has declined over the years and that this makes progress difficult. He cited Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s recent troubles with making changes to the tax system as a symptom. Morneau happens to be Liberal but Peller suggested that these changes would have been proposed regardless of the government’s political stripes because the main objectives in the changes originated from the bureaucracy, not Minister Morneau himself. In a recent meeting to discuss NAFTA, a Minister in the government admitted to Peller that he (the Minister) “didn’t really know anything about the wine industry at all”. That is worrying coming from a person ostensibly fighting for the survival of the wine industry in international trade agreements.

On the same evening as Peller’s talk at Okanagan College, a press release arrived in my inbox about a campaign to raise money for the wine industry to present as interveners in the Comeau case. They even have a GoFundMe page and a hashtag #CanadianWineForAll. While the $200k is certainly lofty, I am curious to see how many average consumers will make a donation to this particular cause. I, as a lowly industry grunt, wine writer and single parent, have no extra money at this time to donate. I would guess that donating blood to this campaign is not really necessary at this point.

But I certainly agree that interprovincial trade barriers are silly and need to be removed and I was happy to hear that the Supreme Court will be hearing the Comeau case. The group of BC wineries who will be interveners – Painted Rock, 50th Parallel, Noble Ridge, Liquidity, and Okanagan Crush Pad – are all similarly positioned in the BC wine world. None of them are the “Big 3” commercial wineries – Andrew Peller Ltd., Arterra Wines Canada, or Mark Anthony Wine Brands, all of whom have developed strategies to deal with interprovincial trade. (It was Andrew Peller who noticed that it was not illegal to bring grapes across provincial borders, which is why he set up wineries in places like Truro, Nova Scotia.) Nor are they the very small boutique wineries that plentifully dot the Okanagan Valley and make the Naramata Bench one of the highest density wine regions in the world. Sadly, the fractures between large and small wineries will likely continue.

As someone with a particularly broad vantage point from which to observe the nation’s wine industry, John Peller now has the potential to be highly influential in BC in a way that his company has arguably not been since the late 1970s, when Baby Duck lost top spot to Calona’s Schloss Laderheim in total domestic sales. After seeing the respectful handling of Sandhill (a Calona brand originally) and others, I have nothing but optimism for their recent winery acquisitions. My hope is that the company headquarters in Ontario will spend enough time reading the memos coming from their BC wineries. Perhaps this truly national company with someone who is knowledgeable about all wine-producing regions and wineries of all sizes across the country, will be able to lead by example. I, for one, will be watching intently to see what happens.

Cheers from wine country,

~Luke

 

*Major kudos need to be extended to Ian MacDonald of Liquidity Wines in Okanagan Falls for initiating the Wine Talk series with Okanagan College. I had not yet been able to attend one of these and am thrilled that there is a winery owner that understands how important academics is to the future of an industry. From what I can tell through my research on the history of the wine industry here, this has not always been the case. Higher education has not always been respected in BC compared to other places where I have lived. Perhaps the industry will be considering a more academic approach to solving its problems in the future…

History in the making

So here it is folks, a working cover of THE BOOK that has occupied my life since 2014. I am in the editing stages of it now and this cover is really only a mockup for an upcoming catalogue but I thought I’d share it with you anyway.

The book will cover a lot of BC’s historical terroir, from the geological history, the earliest days of the provinces European history, a ‘college-experiment’ with prohibition, and the beginnings of the industry itself right through to recent events. The previous concise history of BC’s wine industry was Alex Nichol’s book  “Wine and Vines of British Columbia” in 1983. (Yes, the same Alex Nichol that later  started Nichol Vineyard in Naramata.) Clearly, there have been some changes to the industry since that time, including Free Trade, Farmgate wineries, the BCWI, and the first $50 bottle of table wine in BC (know which one that was?).

The timeline for publication is late summer / fall of 2018. I’ll be posting about its progress here of course so check back often for updates. There’s a lot of interesting people and events in our province’s wine history. This book will talk about as many of them as possible.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Smoke on the water

Controlled burn on Mt. Kobau in 2015

I noticed lately that there hasn’t been a whole lot of action on social media this summer regarding #bcwine. A quick scan of that hashtag on Twitter reveals that very few people are posting anything that involves scenery in any way, even from accounts that are normally filled with beautiful wine country views. This also includes my own twitter account as well as another for a winery that I manage.

Of course the reason is that we have been largely smoked out for most of the summer. It’s one thing to have clouds clog up the valley (which is something that happens in most winters, making it very dark all day – they don’t put that in the brochures) but it’s another thing when it is smoke from forest fires. Smoke is insidious that way. We can’t get away from it by driving up to higher elevations like we often can with clouds. It turns the sun and moon red. It also smells bad and takes away the natural aromas of the seasons.

For those of us in the industry, there could also be another odd by-product of the smoke: self-censorship.

In 2015 I posted photos of the Mt. Kobau fire near Oliver as it happened because it was interesting, so close at hand, and was part of life in wine country as I saw it. It was a controlled burn that the forestry people were doing because the conditions were perfect for it. It looked like a volcano for a couple of hours and it made some dramatic looking photos so I posted it somewhere.

I was soon sent messages by more than a few people in the industry telling me to stop because I was giving people the ‘wrong impression’ of what it was like and that it not helping to bring tourists to the valley. I was told that the media was blowing things out of proportion and that it was keeping visitors away.

That was all entirely possible. Tourism plummeted that year during the last part of the summer as people cancelled hotel bookings and changed their plans. Business was down for a lot of places and there were noticeably less people driving through the Okanagan at that time of year. The smoke from the fires (most of which was from a much larger fire across the border in the US) literally choked the valley for a few weeks that year.

The same happened this year except that the fires were nowhere near the south Okanagan and fires in the north near Peachland and Kelowna did not start until later in the summer and one is burning right now across the river from Cawston. Arguably, the smoke this year was less worse than it was in 2015 but it seemed to last a whole lot longer. By the end of August, I realized that I hadn’t seen a blue sky in weeks nor had I taken any photos at all. The landscape just wasn’t as pretty as I knew it to be and didn’t think it very interesting to document. The light was flat and diffused making everything bland, flat, and grey.

This is one reason why I chose not to document much of the scenery this summer but maybe I shouldn’t have self-censored so much. The point of documenting something is to be able to recall it properly later. The Okanagan that pretty valley with a big lake in the middle  all year long – there are some really dark days in the middle of the winter that are just depressing, but nobody visits here at that time for the same reasons as they do in the summer.

One of the major reasons that I started this blog in 2009 was to document the Okanagan’s wine industry year round, to go ‘beyond the guided tour’, and show what it was like to live, work, and be in the place that makes the wines that we love. If wine is tied so much to a place, why is it that most people only see the best facets of that place? The beautiful vineyard photos that start off every issue of Decanter show some pretty amazing places but they probably aren’t that amazing every single day of the year? Why do we sell-censor? What do we have to hide? The wines come from this place, warts and all, so why try to put such a squeaky-clean face on it all of the time? Truth is always more interesting and complex than a misleading image and if smoke is going to be part of the Okanagan’s reality in the future, perhaps due to the changing climate, then we can’t deny that. People still flock to Victoria, BC at all times of the year even though people are clearly aware of what they are in for when they go. It’s really not a place where sunshine is a forgone conclusion (although I’ve heard that this past summer was very good for sunshine).

As for me on this website, I will continue to tell it like it is. There is a lot to experience here and to miss out on it because of self-censorship is not constructive nor valuable in the long run.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Andrew Peller Goes Shopping

Well, that was an interesting day in wine country.

Today’s announcement by Andrew Peller Ltd. that the company has inked deals to acquire Black Hills Estate Winery and Gray Monk Estate Winery and has written a “letter of intent” to acquire Tinhorn Creek was indeed a shocking read in my email’s inbox this morning. Not the least of which because I was actually just getting ready to go to work at Black Hills, where I have been working part-time as a wine educator there. It was shocking that all three estate wineries’ purchases would be announced at the same time but in some ways, this should not be all that surprising at all.

This shows that the BC wine industry is consolidating and I believe that it is the way forward for some of the larger estates in BC wine. The biggest gains for these wineries is access to a much larger and potentially more connected sales teams. This will help some of them reach a wider national and potentially international audience beyond what they could have been capable of independently. To me, this is exciting because BC wine may now get to be more available in other markets and may be able to gain a wider recognition because of it.

Mission Hill has already acquired estate winery properties in a similar fashion. In recent years, they have acquired CedarCreek and the former Antelope Ridge / Domaine Combret property on the Golden Mile bench which is now known as Checkmate. If they couldn’t find a property to take over, they created a new one from scratch as with Martin’s Lane. Mission Hill has very much lead the way with the acquisition of smaller, premium properties. Although the jury is still out with how successful this has been, it appears to be relatively positive.

What people like about these estate wineries is their personalities and Mission Hill has wisely allowed these to remain or develop. For Peller’s new acquisitions today, the tasting experience at Gray Monk (with their Germanic-focused portfolio) is very different from the Black Hills Wine Experience Centre which is different still from Tinhorn’s modest tasting room and self-guided tours. Each has its own character and charm. Could these get lost in the future under ownership of a large corporation?

We have seen what could happen to small estate wineries in BC when they get rolled into a larger corporate body. The one that tends to raise the more ire amongst people who have been following the BC wine industry for a long time is the sad case of Sumac Ridge. Once an innovative and cutting-edge flagship estate winery that produced the first traditional method sparkling wine and introduced the first $50 bottle of table wine in BC (the red Pinnacle from 1997) among other things , it was quickly stripped of its prize possessions (Stellar’s Jay and Black Sage Vineyard wines) and reduced to the basement entry-level label under the thumb of Constellation Brands where it remains as the “anywhere, anytime” wines. Perhaps this will change as Arterra Wines Canada begins to initiate changes. We shall see.

Peller, however, is no stranger to purchasing estate wineries. Ontario wineries were acquired in the 1990s and then in 2005, Red Rooster was purchased around the same time as the company acquired Calona Wines. Rather than do what Constellation did in purchasing Vincor, Peller chose to close its historic facility in Port Moody and carefully centralize production in Kelowna, renovating the arguably more historic Calona property instead. They maintained the premium branding of Calona’s labels like Sandhill, and grew Calona beyond where Calona could have taken itself on its own. The same is true arguably for Red Rooster, who with talented winemaker Karen Gillis at the helm, has consistently made the term ‘over-deliver’ apply to many of her wines and has the awards to prove it.

With Peller being a Canadian company (the CBC report says that they are Ontario-based but let’s not forget that the company was actually started in Port Moody, BC) and a company that appears to respect the personality of each estate in question, this seems to be a very positive outcome for three estate wineries. Based on their corporate ‘personality’, it seems unlikely that they would coerce brands into a simple tiered value system the way that Constellation did a decade ago. Nor will they guild the lily in the nuvo-visionary style of Mission Hill. Peller is perhaps the most ‘Canadian’ of the large commercial wineries being that they seem to understand the value of working together for a common goal, slowly, methodically, and with careful insight and forethought.

Yes, Peller did create Baby Duck back in the 1970s. That was a long time ago and it’s time to move on. I, for one, and looking forward to seeing these estates will change and evolve over time. And if they hadn’t had Baby Duck when they did, writing out a $95M cheque would have been a lot more difficult today.

 

Adventures in Quebec Wines

Beautiful vineyard at Cote de Vaudreuil.

Exploring new wine regions is always interesting. With little or no prior experience with any of the producers, it is almost like I was starting over from scratch with my wine knowledge. This is particularly true if the wine region is very small and if the grapes are very different from the ‘classic’ vinifera grape varieties. It is both exhilarating and humbling at the same time.

Take the province of Quebec. It is the province of my birth but it has been more than 20 years since I have called this place my home. I do recall seeing signs on the highways for wineries but, at the time, I had no interest in local wine at all. The Quebec wine consumer has a strong preference for French wines, particularly the reds from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Beaujolais. The SAQ, the province’s government liquor board (which is not a monopoly), stocks mostly French wines and Italian wines seem to follow up close behind. According to a Globe and Mail article, more Port is sold in Quebec than in all of the USA. Two things happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s that allowed the local wine scene to really get started. Wine’s popularity began to increase (everywhere – this is not unique to Quebec) and the SAQ employees went on strike in late 2004. Suddenly, the coolest place to get wine was right at the wineries’ doors. Quebecois discovered their domestic industry.

Compared to BC, Quebec’s wine industry appears to lag behind some of the developments and trends that we have seen in BC. The labels here are printed often printed on glossy stock and readability beyond a few centimetres is limited, which in my opinion, greatly inhibits brand recognition on the shelf. There are also no wine standards, even on the very basic level that BC and Ontario have with VQA, although there is a certifying body called the Vins du Quebec, which is the Quebec Winegrowers Association. Their round symbol adorns some bottles but not others so it’s hard to see how meaningful this certification really is. This means that all labels are not created equal and reading them at the store can be a bit challenging. The federally-mandated information (abv, bottle size, and winery address) are usually there but sometimes on the front label and sometimes on the back. Some have artwork, some have basic graphics. Some have bilingual labels and some are only in French.

When the grape varieties are listed, they far less familiar because there is more reliance on the hybrid grapes here than in other regions. Vignerons here are a hardy bunch. It takes a lot of bravery to plant a vineyard and start a winery in Quebec when it is not only the climate that is less than hospitable, but also the domestic market itself.

Patio at La Romance du Vin in Rigaud.

For someone seeking a real wine adventure though, Quebec is an awesome place to explore. Forget the fruit-forward Merlots and Pinot Gris of BC or the elegant Pinots and Rieslings of Niagara, Quebec is the currently the wild wild east of the Canadian wine industry. Every winery is a new adventure and every glass will challenge your tastebuds in new ways.

My first experience with Quebec wine was in 2003 at Le Cep d’Argent near Magog so this was not my first taste of wines from this region. I’d also had red wine made with Frontenac on a VIA train some years later. I recall it tasting more like new barrels than fruit but it didn’t turn me off of Quebec wine. Stylistically, the acidity is generally far higher here than in BC or Ontario. Alcohol levels are generally low (~12%) which makes the wines very amenable to food pairings.

Here are some of the wines that I tasted on my recent trip.

Vent D’Ouest Vingoble Saint-Armand 2016, Domaine du Ridge (Saint-Armand)

This wine is made with Seyval Blanc, a grape variety that anecdotally appears to be one of the most popular for growing in Quebec. Stoney, lemon rind, orange blossom, and and light herbal quality make this wine’s aromas very appealing. The wine is crisp and bone dry with a beautiful light body and a wonderful lemony finish. Saint-Armand is right up against the Vermont border just east of the Missisquoi Bay (effectively the northern part of Lake Champlain) and likely receives some moderating influence from it. They are brave enough to bottle by single vineyard and have a full portfolio of wines to choose from, including some reds. (12% abv, sealed with a screw cap)

Cuvée Charlotte 2016, Léon Courville (Lac Brome)

Seyval Blanc and a grape listed only as ‘Geisenheim’ (strangely, since that is the place where many German hybrids and crosses were created). The nose is light with lemon balm, white flowers, and light fresh herbs. Stylistically, it is very similar to the Domaine du Ridge with similar flavours and bright, crisp qualities. This would be an excellent seafood wine. Lac Brome is an easy drive from Montreal and close to the tourist town of Knowlton on the way to the Eastern Townships. (12.5% abv, sealed with conglomerate cork)

Seyval Blanc 2016, Vignoble du Marathonien (Havelock)

Located directly south of Montreal and close to the border of New York State, this wine is also made with Seyval Blanc. This wine shows more grassy / haystack aromas along with the lemons and dried herb aromas that were part of the other wines made with Seyval Blanc. Dry and super-crisp, this wine has a fuller flavour and longer finish than the other wines mentioned thus far. This wine could handle seafood salads and other foods that would require a firmer structure. (12.5% abv, screw cap)

“Le 1535” 2015, Isle de Bacchus (Ile d’Orleans)

Jacques Cartier named the large island in the middle of the St. Laurence River ‘Isle de Bacchus’ (Bacchus’s Island) in 1535 because of the large amount of grapes that were native to the island. It has always been an island that is fiercely proud of its agricultural heritage. This wine is a blend of three grape varieties – Vandal, l’Éona, and l’Acadie – and features light aromas of white peaches, orange blossoms, wool, a Muscat-like grapey quality along with an intriguing light perfumy note. In my limited tasting of Quebec wines, this one ranks as one of the most complex wines I have tasted. It has a medium body and a much longer finish than the other Seyval-based wines tasted so far. It is a very intriguing wine. (12.5%, Nomacorc synthetic)

Frontenac Gris 2015, Cote de Vaudreuil (Vaudreuil-Dorion)

The first of two wineries that I got to actually visit in person on this trip (the other wines were purchased at the local SAQ), owner Serge Primi has created an amazing wine oasis not far off of highway 40 (which becomes the 417 in Ontario – the main highway between Montreal and Ottawa). The vineyards are visible from the main grounds, which attracts the eyes of visitors with a huge assortment of sculptures. Clearly, M. Primi has taken the visitors’ experience in account and made a beautiful space that is welcoming and comfortable.

Frontenac Gris is a pungently aromatic variety that makes for a very full-flavoured wine. This wine has medium intensity aromas of dried hay, pears, tropical fruits, and a great soft spicy character (and colour) that comes from appropriate time spent in barrels. The wine is brightly crisp with a level of acidity that matches its flavour intensity.

While visiting the winery, I was able to try the Côté Plateau White, Pepino Rosé, and the Tango Red. All of them were solid and well-made wines. Serge was extremely hospitable despite eyeing his tractor that was ready to head out for vineyard work (as it had been since 10am that morning) but the constant stream of visitors kept him tied to the wine shop for the whole day. Like most farmers, he took it in stride and noted that it was not a bad problem for a winery to have. I highly recommend stopping here if you are in the area. (13% abv, twin-top cork)

Correspondance Rosé NV, La Romance du Vin Vignoble  (Rigaud, Quebec)

Alain Bellemare has been working hard at making wine in 2 countries for almost two decades. With a wine growing tradition in his family dating back 13 generations, he has eschewed any hybrid grapes in favour of planting vinifera grapes on the basis that he deems the hybrids to make totally inferior wines. Vinifera in Quebec is a challenge, even given that his vineyard’s location, close to the moderating influence of the Ottawa River, seems to be extremely well-chosen. Unfortunately, the 2017 vintage has been less than amenable for Alain and at this point, it looks like he may even be able to harvest anything this year.

This is too bad. The Rosé, made from Cabernet Franc, is a beautifully balanced bowl of sour cherries with a soft spice and a slight tinge of graphite minerality. The wine is beautifully dry and perfect with the pasta dish that we had that night. When I visited (on a miserable rainy day), Alain also had a Riesling and a red blend made from Cabernet Sauvignon among others. Art is a big part of life at La Romance du Vin with everything from the bottle labels to the hand-carved molding around the doors and windows made using the talents of family members. There are lots of things to see here at all resolutions.

(12.5%, Nomacorc synthetic)

The fun part of visiting a region that is so vastly different is that there is often a lot of new things to learn. While I personally don’t have a problem with understanding French, I can see how the language barrier might make some people less comfortable with visiting the wineries. Of the handful of wineries that I have visited in Quebec over the years, I have always been able to converse in English with the people at the tasting bar. Like wineries everywhere that receive visitors from around the world, they are used to talking to people in many different languages and are very accommodating. Even though I can speak French, my use of the language is somewhat limited and in Quebec, it is considered polite to use to the language that is the most comfortable to both parties.

Along with learning something new in another language, there is also a good chance that you will run into grape varieties that you might not have ever experienced. This also means that there will be new flavours in the wines that you might not have ever tasted.

Cote du Vaudreuil

If you are ever in Quebec, or even travelling through, it is worth stopping to to try some of these wines and have a great tasting adventure.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

 

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