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

 

Why The Wine Islands are worth it

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

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

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

Emandare Vineyards from Dunca, BC

Emandare Vineyards from Duncan, BC

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

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

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

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

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

40 Knots, Comox, BC

40 Knots, Comox, BC

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

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

Garry Oaks on Salt Spring Island, BC

Garry Oaks on Salt Spring Island, BC

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

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

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

View from DeVine Winery on the Saanich Peninsula

View from DeVine Vineyards on the Saanich Peninsula

 

You’ve gotta visit: Hugging Tree

IMG_7024Located right on Highway 3 just south of Seven Stones, Hugging Tree is on the east side of the valley facing due west. The driveway is all gravel and leads straight up to the wine shop in the middle of the 68 acre vineyard and orchard owned by Cristine and Walter Makepeace.

The southern end of the Similkameen Valley is quickly becoming the hot spot for new wineries in that valley. Seven Stones and Forbidden Fruit have long been a part of the scene there but were often a little remote for some travelers to the valley. That shifted a little with the opening of The Vine Glass Resort near Forbidden Fruit and now there is another winery that has opened its doors in the deep Similkameen south.

IMG_7026Why you should go there

You aren’t going to find these wines easily anywhere else so this is the best place to try through their collection.

This is the Similkameen at its best – rustic charm, beautiful scenery, and small, family run farming where everything is done with quality of the wine in mind. It’s a small-production boutique winery with a real country feel. The wine shop is new and welcoming. The view from the front deck is beautiful and shows the southern part of the Similkameen Valley very well.

What to expect

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Brad Makepeace

Great wines, great conversation, and a peaceful easy feeling. There is nothing rushed about this wine shop and I really enjoyed my visit there. (The fact that Brad also plays music and enjoys riding motorcycles may have helped a bit as well…) The big mirror behind the bar recalls an old west saloon and the windows let in lots of light to see the wines well. The front deck is just screaming for an old rocking chair to watch the sunset. It’s what a winery would have been like if there had been boutique wineries 100 years ago. Don’t get me wrong – It’s not a kitschy old-west theme park kind of place. This is the real deal. Brad is a pro and seems very comfortable behind the bar which I learned was from spending years behind bars in Whistler. The result is a real, honest, wine shop experience with a social aspect that will have you kicking the “social” right out of “social media”.

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The wines

Viognier

Rosé

Telltale (48% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Cabernet Franc)

Moonchild Merlot

Vista (65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Syrah)

1 white, 1 rosé, and 3 reds are the wines currently in the Hugging Tree portfolio. Brad is a strong believer in Viognier and the first 2013 vintage is a beautiful representation of what that variety can do in this part of the world. It has big aromas and excellent balance – not flabby or overly soft like other viogniers out there. The Rosé is bold without being over the top, dry, and lovely – everything a tasty rosé should be. The Telltale and Moonchild Merlot were both solid reds as well. As I was visiting early on in the season on a weekday, the Vista was not available for tasting although I did buy a bottle on a friend’s recommendation on twitter earlier that day. Look for it on one of my “Tonight’s #bcwine…” tweets in the future.

Have you been there? Let me know if you visit Hugging Tree by leaving a comment below.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

You’ve gotta visit: vinPerdu

A new series for Wine Country BC – “You’ve Gotta Visit…” where I will feature new, exciting, and interesting wineries that you absolutely should not miss on your travels through wine country. I get asked a lot where to go for unique experiences and this series will focus on some of the new ones that I notice on my own travels though the Okanagan the rest of BC’s wine country. 2015 is showing a good crop of new wineries and as you’ll see from this first featured winery, they are really upping their game when it comes to bringing out a great experience. Hopefully I will feature a new winery each week, if not more often, so that  you can plan your trips and stop in. Tell them you heard about their winery from Luke at Winecountrybc.ca. Cheers!

IMG_0935vinPerdu Cellars is located mere minutes south of Oliver right on Highway 97 and is on the left as you drive south. They have a large sign right out front and a parking lot that is easy to get into and out of without turning around.

Why you should go

IMG_7023There’s no reason not to stop here and every reason to stop here. Convenient location? Check. (It’s right on the highway.) Beautiful tasting room? Check. Solidly built and unique wines? Big check. Amazing winery experience? Absolutely.

Assistant wine maker Catherine Coulombe and her family have really done an amazing job of creating an idyllic space geared for a real wine experience. Even though the highway is right there, you won’t even notice it because the commanding view of the vineyards really steals the show. Thanks to some amazingly effective landscaping, you won’t even hear it either! Each part of the wine shop is beautifully designed for form and function and even includes a little play table for wee-ones. It is truly a first rate example of a wine shop design that blends customer experience, functionality, and aesthetics brilliantly. All five of your senses will get a treat in this wine shop. As if the beautiful vineyard view out of the windows wasn’t enough, the wine shop is filled with beautiful artwork by Catherine’s sister, artist Nathalie Denise Coulombe.

IMG_0936The Wines

IMG_7021A focused portfolio of wine is available as of spring 2015 – Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Compass (a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon). “French style, approachable wines” is how Catherine describes the wines at vinPerdu. They were tasting quite young when I tasted them on my visit but the style is precise and very enjoyable. There are no powerful, full-throttle, tannic monsters here nor are there aromatic varieties like gewurz, riesling, or sauvignon blanc. What you will find is selection of tasty wines that will get along splendidly with just about any food you can imagine.

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What to expect

In addition to wine, the Coulombe’s have planned catered food pairings to accompany the wines on weekends and terrines available to purchase while enjoying the deck that overlooks the vineyard.

The tasting bar can accommodate 8-10 people comfortably and there is also a private tasting room for small groups. There are relaxing chairs and a shaded deck overlooking the vineyard. It’s not a small room but it isn’t big either. When so many wineries out there look and feel more like bus stations, it’s great to find a place to stop in where you can feel at home.

Have you been there? Let me know if you visit vinPerdu by leaving a comment below.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

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North Okanagan Tasting Tour, Part 3: Okanagan Spirits

IMG_0886If you’ve been to Vernon at all in the past 10 years, then you’ll know why there was no way that I was going to be there and NOT try a tasting at this place. Okanagan Spirits has been going strong for about 10 years now and they are really just hitting their stride. I’ve had them on my radar for a while but have never had the time to stop in, even at their other new shop in Kelowna. Since I was in Vernon (and the kids were behaving), I figured I would take in their tour in their original facility before they moved to a new, much bigger facility very soon.

Along with a newer and bigger tasting room space, the new facility will be able to accommodate significantly bigger stills and allow them to use steam to heat the stills rather than burning wood. It’s going to boost their production and allow them to produce larger, single batches, creating a more consistent product.

But that’s for all you to discover when you go to visit them later this summer – which I highly recommend that you do. For this visit, my co-taster and I were thrilled to try many of their special offerings.

IMG_0883Like at Planet Bee and Olive Us, we were told that there was no real particular tasting order, although our host did recommend finishing with the Taboo Absinthe because it was the “big finish”. I started out with the gin while my wife tried out the Raspberry Liqueur. Their portfolio of liqueurs is astounding and have an extremely natural taste that is hard to find in other similar products from around the world. Most liqueurs I remember tasting have a kind of synthetic quality to them, as if they had been flavoured with ‘natural and artificial flavours’ like a cheap fruit juice in the supermarket. That was absolutely not the case with these liqueurs. Perhaps because we are familiar with Okanagan cherries, it was easy for us to taste them in the Cherry Liqueur and it was beautifully smooth. Whichever ones we tried, there was absolutely no synthetic taste to any of the liqueurs and they were all marvellous.

IMG_0884I moved on to try the Gewürztraminer Marc which is grappa made from Gewürztraminer grapes before trying the Aquavitus, an aromatic spirit that is infused with herbs and spices. Dill and coriander are the dominant aromas in this particular version. I found it extremely interesting because it was almost deceptively delicate for such a strong spirit. If you’ve never tried it, I would describe it as “a little like gin, but with more attitude.” It seems to me like the same idea, but the combination of spices is different. Having not yet tried another similar product from elsewhere in the world, I have no point of reference yet. I will promise I will work on that and get back to you.

Overall, it was an educational and absolutely wonderful experience that I highly recommend. Craft distilleries are becoming more common throughout the Okanagan and and are a great way to cleanse and reset the palate at the midpoint of a winery tour.Or if you are going to be in Vernon, make it the climax of your trip like I did. You will not be disappointed.

So ends my series on the Tasting Tour of the North Okanagan. It’s a beautiful part of the Okanagan Valley to explore and there is a lot of history there to check out as well. Be sure to check out the other places I’ve visited and let me know if you  find any other places that I should get to on my next trip.

Cheers from wine (and booze) country!

~Luke

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North Okanagan Tasting Tour, Part 2: Planet Bee Honey Farm

Someone should really start a honey blog. It’s not going to be me but if you are reading and decide to take on honey as a topic, please let me know because I will totally read it religiously.

I’ve written about honey before and have a bit of a history with it. A neighbour of mine where I grew up had bees and made his own honey and I remember going there to get some with my dad. I learned early on that it was a very natural product but most importantly for at the time was that it was sweet and yummy and I loved it.

Fast forward a few years and I’d moved to the big city (no, not Vancouver – a big city) and honey became something that was served in little plastic bottles shaped like bears or in tiny clear plastic dipping packs with McNuggets. The honey that was available (and affordable) to me was only the highly processed stuff and I never paid it any attention at all. Until one sunny day in Port Coquitlam one fall when we were visiting a farm that sold pumpkins. They offered us a tasting of different honeys made from different flowers and that was it – I was hooked. I had no idea that different flowers produced different flavours in the honey or even that honey’s flavours could vary by so much.

IMG_0875Planet Bee Honey Farm is a short drive west of Vernon on Bella Vista Road. Even if you don’t like honey, the view is worth the trip, hence the appropriate road name. If you do like honey, or honey-derived products (candles, mead, skin care products, etc) then this place is a metaphorical Disneyland. It was a slow time of year and we were able to take our time. We were guided around the displays and told about the bees that live in the two indoor demonstration hives. There was all kinds of information about bees and how honey is made. We learned the difference between honey bees, bumblebees, yellow jackets, and hornets along with the life cycle and hierarchy of the bees in the hives.

IMG_0876Then we got to taste the honey. There were a lot of them. There was no way to get through all of them but by tag-teaming the task with the family, we were able to cover a lot of ground. There was no sequential order to the tasting in the same way that wines are tasted as none of the flavours tended to overpower any other particular flavour. That tendency seems to only exist in the wine world for some reason as I didn’t experience any flavour masking at Olive Us the previous day either. Tasting order just did not matter.

Some of the honeys were infused but most of them were made from different flowers. Pollens on different species of flowers taste different and will yield honey with distinctly different tastes. I found that the flavours of those honeys differed not by a way that is familiar to me as a wine taster. All of the honeys were equally sweet, equally textured, and similarly intense. The only difference that I found was in the retro-nasal, mid-palate flavours that weren’t always immediately apparent. Sometimes it would take a couple of seconds to really get the full effect and on the most complex honeys, they would change slightly as the flavour progressed. This was an equally amazing experience to tasting wine.

And then there was the mead. Planet Bee also makes a big selection of mead and most of it is available for tasting. While I confess that mead has never really drawn me in the way that wine has, it was at least familiar to be standing there with a wine glass chatting about some of the flavours.

Just like grape wine, they ranged in sweetness from relatively dry to very sweet. Of course the discussion turned to which was actually the oldest beverage in the world. Of course mead has a very long history and presumed archaeological evidence puts it in a dead heat with wine in some respects. However I contend that wine is the older beverage since making it requires less intervention. A vessel of grapes will turn into wine naturally and of its own accord without human intervention over time since it already contains all of the necessary ingredients – sugar and water are in the grapes, tannins in the skins and seeds to preserve it, and yeast cells on the bloom (skin) to ferment it. It’s all right there. It only needs some cave man to forget a batch of grapes for a while and then it’s party time. Mead requires obtaining the honey, deliberately mixing it with water, and adding other flavourings. All things that require deliberate human intervention and would not be able to happen naturally.

Of course, we will never know the real story of either beverage’s provenance but I still maintain my position that wine is the eldest of the two. Regardless, the mead was very good – balanced and with lots of interesting flavours. But when it comes to figuring out how those tastes and flavours fit into my family’s culinary world, I was at a bit of a loss. What would I drink it with? Does it benefit from ageing? I have made it a goal to be able to study the world of mead this year and I know that I will write more about it over the coming years.

Our purchases made, we said good-bye to the staff at Planet Bee and kept going on our drive. We were glad to have been able to take out time and see the store at our own pace as it was solidly in the off-season. Being there in the summer with many more visitors and their children running around with access to that much sugar, it’s pretty obvious that the bees wouldn’t be the only thing buzzing around the place.

Planet Bee Honey Farm is well worth the visit and it promises a taste adventure like no other. Do not miss it when travelling through Vernon. They were in the middle of a renovation while I was there so it will likely look a little different over the summer. I absolutely plan on returning to see how it will look.

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The Highway Stars of BC Wine

20140806-000807-487912.jpgOn my first visit to the Okanagan’s wine country in 2003, it was rare to see an actual winery while driving south from Kelowna to Osoyoos on Highway 97. Most of the wineries in business at the time were set back from the highway closer to wherever their vineyards were located. The industry has grown much since then and wineries have started popping up in convenient locations on the biggest (and only, in some spots) traffic corridor in the valley. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the signs along the highway between Oliver and Osoyoos.

Visibility is an important aspect to any business and as the wine industry in BC moves from a hinterland-supply backwater to an argi-tourism destination, frontage is going to become a valuable part of the business plan. The dustup last winter concerning overly large and potentially distracting highway signs along the 97 in Oliver is a signal that visibility is becoming an issue here. Wineries closer to the highway are going to be at an advantage when it comes to visibility. Do you think Harry McWatters and Lloyd Schmidt purchased the golf course in Summerland in 1979 because it had a great view? Not likely. It was right on the highway and every traveler and commuter in the Okanagan was going to drive right by their sign for Sumac Ridge Estate Winery. I did in the fall of 2000 on my first ever visit to the valley while travelling for work. 3 years later I remembered exactly where it was and made sure that I stopped.

I should probably qualify what it is that I mean when I say that a winery is ‘on the highway’ because some of the wineries that I’ll be mentioning here are not directly right on Route 97. For me to consider a winery to be located ‘on the highway’, it must be visible and quickly accessible from the 97 and traffic noise must be omnipresent. So while Kismet, Hidden Chapel, and La Stella are all on side streets off the highway, La Stella and Hidden Chapel are farther and are not overwhelmed with traffic noise while Kismet is still quite close to the highway. For me, traffic noise is the biggest issue that wineries on highway locations have to deal with.

The first to appear on the highway in the south was what is now Constellation Brands’ Jackson-Triggs / Inniskillin production facility, which originally opened as T.G. Bright’s in 1981. The building itself is off the northernmost end of Black Sage Road but looks directly onto the highway and may have had a driveway directly from the 97 at one point. The first modern boutique winery with highway frontage was Gersighel Wineberg in 1995. “Who is that?” I hear your ask. Modern wine tourists would know the property better as Castoro de Oro or its previous monicker “Golden Beaver”. It’s a brilliant location that is easily accessible from the highway and clearly visible heading south (although less visible heading north). Two new wineries have recently opened a stone’s throw away from Castoro – Kismet and Maverick – making this a convenient trio of wineries to visit easily on a trip.

CC Jensch is a short drive north and Cassini – who was probably the first to construct a purpose-built winery facility with deliberately large highway frontage in 2008 – and Intersection Winery just beyond that and VinPerdu, a new winery yet to open, just after the highway turns to Oliver. Heading north out of Oliver, Cana Vines is on the right just before Vasseaux Lake and Lixiere is just after the gas station in Kaledon. Heading south towards the border, Young and Wyse is right off the highway as you approach the border.

So what’s the value of this? Are the best wines going to be there? Is it a real wine country experience to stop into one of these places?

The wine is going to be what it is. There are certainly good and bad wines made in any location so you’ll surely be able to find something that you like. These wineries are going to be able to profit from the visibility more than anything else. With visibility comes recognition. Wine tourists who may not even stop at the winery on their travels will at least recall it when they see those names on bottles in the liquor stores which itself may be enough to generate a purchase. That makes little difference to the consumer in Vancouver who has never been to the Okanagan but if they do, that recognition with easy access may just pull the novice tourist off the highway more easily than having to venture down a small side road that isn’t on a GPS.

Will we see a day when highway wineries overtake those who are off the main road in terms of sheer numbers of visitors? Perhaps this will make it easier to get things started. I have no doubt that other regions like Okanagan Falls have been slowed in their development because of lack of visibility. In all of my wine jobs at wineries and wine stores, I have frequently met customers who have driven through OK Falls completely unaware that they were passing some of the most interesting wineries in the province. The first winery to open in a convenient location on the highway in OK Falls is going to have a huge advantage because of that.

But is it a real wine country experience?

I think it depends largely on what you are looking for. Ambient noise level is irrelevant to some people. Certainly people who live in cities are likely more used to it although they may not enjoy it. I personally find it irritating and won’t hide my preference for the quiet acres of vineyards offered by wineries located off the beaten path. Highway noise is louder and more persistent than city street noise, which can ebb and flow with traffic patterns. Highway noise is hard to defeat. I expect traffic noise in a city or town but not in a vineyard. I spent many days working in a vineyard in Keremeos that was right near Route 3 and I remember finding the traffic noise irritating at times. Other vineyards that I worked in were absolutely quiet and I loved it.

Overall, I think that it will be your own threshold for sound will influence your experience at these highway BC wine venues. From what I’ve seen so far, there are some truly amazing wines to try and wineries close to the main road will have an undeniable marketing advantage. Just like any winery anywhere, the experience is ultimately yours alone so enjoy it while you’re here.

Cheers from wine country!
~Luke

Quick Fab 5 Trip

Having to take my motorcycle to Kelowna for a little work at the local Honda Powerhouse dealer, I found myself in town with a beautiful afternoon and no real need to be home at any particular time. That is a rare combination in my world and so I took up the opportunity to visit a couple of wineries that I had as yet never visited.

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If you have previously used Kelowna as your base for wine touring, as I had done on my very first wine trip here in 2003, you have my condolenscenes. While the urbanites among you might feel more at home with the amenities and traffic patterns of the Okanagan largest city, I prefer to enjoy scenic drives between wineries rather than stop and go traffic. Along with the urban locations, there was never (until recently) a clear touring route, organized winery associations, or even a good winery map to make planning my day a little easier. My first winery visit in the Okanagan in 2003 was to Gray Monk followed by Calona (pre-downtown revitalization, when it really looked like it was in the skids) and the Mission Hill and Quail’s Gate. That took the entire day and it was a long one. Since that experience, I tried to keep my touring based out of Penticton.

In the decade since then, other more southerly wine regions have slowly been getting themselves organized with various tourism winery associations and generic marketing bodies. They have their own websites, host their own events, and (crucially) publish their own maps and wine routes. Naramata was really the first to figure this out with the Naramata Bench Winery Association. People knew about ‘brand Naramata’ long before any other and would regularly make that a destination. When I worked at the VQA store in Penticton, I had customers almost everyday who were unsure where to go but would decide to visit on Naramata rather than OK Falls, Oliver / Osoyoos, or the Similkameen (if they even knew it existed at that time) because it was easily recognizable.

20140627-115104-42664076.jpgRecently though, Tourism Kelowna has finally gotten it right although I really don’t know why it took so long. Somewhere I picked up a copy of their latest map and was impressed to see that all of the regions wineries were represented. Clearly broken down into regions that make day-tripping easy to plan (good for tourists and locals), this map is easy to read and accurately mapped (always a criticism of mine). A PDF copy is available for download from their website as well.

Back to the trip in question – I had some wine to pick up at Tantalus and wanted to get some Ward’s cider from The View so I thought that I would fill in the blanks and visit Spierhead and Sperling. I was familiar with wines from both wineries (we featured the first vintage of Spierhead’s Vanguard on a previous podcast) but had never visited IRL. After packing the Ward’s into my panniers, I headed up the hill towards Spierhead. And unpaved driveway awaited me there which, still as a new motorcyclist, had me on guard the whole way up. Once there though I was taken by the presentation – the wine shop and entryway were beautifully done up and obviously well taken care of. The wine shop itself was small but appropriate and bright, and I was welcomed right away. I try to limit my tastings to only one or two wines per winery while on my motorcycle and spit everything as well so I choose the try the Riesling and the Rosé. I couldn’t say no when offered to try the Pinot Noir however and that is what I ended up leaving with.

20140627-115105-42665132.jpgI believe the quality of the Pinots and the Rieslings are going to be the varieties that will make the biggest splash in the boutique-level wineries (which is most of them) around Kelowna. Gray Monk figured this out long ago and Tantalus has focused on it intensely in the past few years. The View, Camelot, Cedar Creek, St. Hubertus, and Summerhill all have serious Rieslings. Wineries like Ancient Hill and 50th Parallel are taking Pinot Noir to an exciting new level. Correct me if you think I’m wrong but I think boutique wine tourists like to taste wines that are produced from grapes that are grown in the same general area as the winery itself. The extreme example of this is Vancouver Island where I generally avoid all wines that are produced from Okanagan fruit when visiting them. I’m not interested in travelling the whole day to taste wines that are made from fruit grown down the road from my house. I want to taste wines made from the place that I’m visiting. In this case, I want to taste what the Pinots (or Rieslings, or whatevers) are like in Kelowna.

After Spierhead, I headed down the hill to stop into Sperling’s beautiful wine shop. Sperling’s wine shop is a step back in time – it is rustic, beautifully appointed in antiques, and has no AC. I appreciated the shaded parking though, which is a rarity in the Okanagan. I tasted the Riesling (of course), the Foch Reserve (I’d never tried it), and the two sweeties – a LH Gewurztraminer and a Pinot Blanc Icewine – which were both fabulous. Cautious of the space I had left in my panniers, I bought the LH Gewurztraminer.

20140627-115106-42666122.jpgOnward to Tantalus, a winery that I have been familiar with for some time and the feature of a previous podcast interview with winemaker David Patterson. I’ve been smitten by their Old Vines Riesling for years now and consider it to be one of the true grand cru wines of the Okanagan valley. This was a quick visit this time – no tasting since I was getting tired and still had to ride a couple of hours to get home. And of course I needed all of the concentration I could muster to keep my Honda upright all the way up one of the longest, inclined, curved, gravel driveways in the Okanagan. Don’t get me wrong here – I’m not complaining about it because I absolutely understand its value for a winery that is as concerned about energy use and environmental impact as Tantalus is. Adding pavement on their sloped driveway would increase the speed of rain water run-off and therefore increase soil erosion. I include it here as a mere point of fact so that others who may be considering wine touring on a motorcycle have a little bit of knowledge about what to expect.

Overall, this side of Kelowna is easy enough and fun to run around on a motorcycle or in a car. The wineries are diverse enough in style – from the antique styling of Sperling to the uber-modern Tantalus – to keep it interesting. I find it fascinating that each winery’s portfolios are starting to show some of the same varieties. To me that shows that there is a focus developing among the producers and that will ultimately lead to a proper demonstration of the terroir. I think we’re still years away from that, but it’s neat to think that we could be witnessing its genesis.

Cheers from wine country!
~Luke

New Winery: Visiting Lusitano Estate Winery

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20140617-083320.jpgIt was a small sign that I noticed on the Oliver Ranch Road which runs south out of Okanagan Falls. It’s a route that is fast becoming the ‘Main Street’ of the Okanagan Falls wine region. In traveling through wine country to visit friends, interview wineries for this blog or other publications for which I write, or just to get off of the main road once in a while, I tend to notice when new wineries put up their signs. It’s fun to discover new things and as I’ve been searching for winery signs for well over a decade now, it’s almost become second nature.

My first visit to Lusitano was short out of necessity. I was on my motorcycle and was quickly running out of time to be back home. Seeing their sign on Oliver Ranch Road, I turned east onto Rolling Hills Road until I saw their main sign. The steep, inclined, loose gravel driveway made getting my motorcycle up it a little tricky and like a cat that climbs trees but can’t get back down, I soon realized that the trip down would be even harder.

The wine shop is a small room off the house with a high tasting bar and shelves for the wines. Fernanda Ganhao welcomed me into the wine shop and told me a about their new winery that sits on the top of a little hill with vineyards cascading down on all sides.

I was finally able to taste the wines on my second trip when I made it easily up the hill in the comfort and stability of my van. The winery currently offers 4 wines – Chic Sauvignon Blanc, Rolling Hills Chardonnay, Luscious Rosé, and Marco’s Pinot Noir. The will be another wine – a Cabernet Sauvignon – that will be joining the lineup later this year. The Pinot Noir was the only wine to see oak in any way. The whites were both crisp and refreshing while the Rosé has just a touch of residual sugar to be nicely balanced. The Pinot Noir was the one that grabbed me the most so I returned the favour and grabbed a bottle of it. It’s an elegant style and I’m very interested in seeing revisiting this wine after it has had some time to settle in the bottle.

It was on this trip that I realized just how unique the landscape is in Okanagan Falls. There aren’t really any wine growing areas of the Okanagan that are built on such diversely oriented portions of land. Just driving through on the 97 and you’d think that the land is pretty straightforward and predictable. It’s a valley bottom just like all the others, right?

Well, no. If you’ve been to Blue Mountain Vineyards and been able to take your eyes off of the spectacular sights of MacIntyre Bluff and the Vasseaux Lake and instead looked west towards the valley bottom, you’d notice that the terrain is beautifully undulating. There are a lot of little hills, valleys, kettles, and geological bizarre-nesses that make this one of the most diverse and varied landscape in all of BC wine country, perhaps on par with Naramata and its motley collection of erosion-scabbed silt bluffs and outcroppings. Standing outside Lusitano gives a different impression of the valley than standing outside Noble Ridge, Liquidity, or Stag’s Hollow. The valley floor south of OK Falls is really BC wine’s fun-house hall of mirrors where everywhere you look, there is a completely different and altered view of the world.

It’s a fascinating world to explore and stopping in at Lusitano will only add to your enjoyment. Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

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Wineries open in the winter

*** NOTE – This list hasn’t been updated in a long time and I’m in no position right now to be able to aggregate any of this information anymore, although I won’t rule it out for the future. For now though, I’ve removed it. Some of the wineries on the list don’t exist anymore and others have expanded or reduced hours since this was last updated. When I first published this article in 2009, wineries were far less communicative via their websites (which wineries only really updated yearly, if that) and social media was not commonplace. Now that information is far more easy to access via social media, websites (which are far more easy to update now), and Google searches (which are not always accurate when it comes to business hours). You can always check out The Big List of Wineries in BC which I try to keep updated and will be tackling this again shortly.

Until then, if you are going to tour wineries in the winter, Google it, check social media, or contact them by email (in advance) or phone them (if planning on visiting within 3 days. Happy touring!

~Luke

The Okanagan Valley can be beautiful in the winter months and it really offers views that are very different from when most people see it in the summer. Yes, there is sometimes snow on the valley floor and yes, it can get cold here. But, it is still Canada after all and that’s the price of admission here. Being ready for the cold will make travelling that much more enjoyable.

While most of the smaller wineries are closed for the season, there are some wineries that offer tastings year-round. There might even be some action in the vineyards or on the crush pads if you happen to be there during Icewine harvest.

Your best bet for finding out which wineries are open is to start at the winery’s website for current hours of operation and seasonal times. Some of them are still open but might have reduced hours or have visits by appointment only. Don’t be afraid of wineries that are only open by appointment (maybe they should use another term, like ‘tasting date’ or ‘scheduled tasting’ – Dentists need appointments). They are more than willing to accommodate any times that you are going to be visiting.

Restaurants at the winery may or may not be open year-round as well so don’t assume that they will have all of their services running. Some restaurants, like Terrafina at Hester Creek and others, close their doors from January to March while others have reduced hours. The closer one gets to Kelowna, the more likely that the restaurant will be open year-round. Restaurants throughout the valley often have great incentives and special going during the winter. Look for winemaker’s dinners and other great events to happen in these times. Calling ahead is the best way for this.

If you do make it to a winery, wine shop people can be a lot more interesting in the winter. With less people around, wine shop staff usually have much more time to chat and aren’t in as much of a rush as they would be in the busy summer season.You may also be the first and only customer that the person behind the bar has seen or will see all day! You can learn quite a lot about the winery and hear about more intricate details about each wine when there isn’t a crush of people crowding the wine shop tasting bar.