VQA Store Model is Changing

On Tuesday, November 17th, the BC Wine Institute (BCWI) issued a press release that took many in the wine industry by surprise. But it really shouldn’t have been a surprise. The real surprise might be coming later.

The new rules on alcohol in BC that were implemented in April 2015 allow wine to be sold in supermarkets. As someone who grew up in Quebec, where wine and beer can be sold in supermarkets and 7-11 corner stores, this seemed like a logical move. But B.C. has always had a bizarre way of dealing with alcohol throughout the province’s history and, true to form, this recent change was no different. In Quebec (or Washington State for that matter), it is certainly convenient to be able to purchase wine with groceries but from my experience in both of those places, the wines sold there are never considered “top quality” wines. To have VQA-only wines in supermarkets here seemed at odds with what I’ve previously experienced.

Ok, so what’s the harm in trying? There’s only one way to find out if this will work and that’s to just do it. From what I’ve heard, the four Surrey locations are blasting through amazing amounts of wine and that the whole Save-On-BC-Wine thing is going to be very profitable. That means that the VQA licenses in outlying areas might be better used in more profitable locations and that is always going to be the Lower Mainland.

What shocks me about the closing of the VQA stores is how little coverage it is getting in the media. Tracy Gray of Discover Wines was on Kelowna’s CBC this morning being interviewed about the closure and was very diplomatic about the whole thing. Too diplomatic for host Chris Walker’s taste at times which seemed to inform his seemingly off-the-cuff question about whether or not Gray had been coached by the BCWI in advance of the interview. Gray, always a professional and an excellent and elloquent speaker, responded to all of the questions calmly but with an air of detachment that seemed at odds with the facts. Discover Wines, her twelve and a half year-old business and the number one VQA store for sales every year, was going to be shut down Arthur Dent-style early in the new year to make way for a hyper-profitable retail chain. Even if Gray didn’t show it outwardly, Walker understood what it is that we stand to lose: Our wine culture. The interior will lose out on those great stores filled with passionate, knowledgeable, and helpful staff members who know the wines better than anyone except the winery staff themselves. They are front-line contributors to local wine culture.

And of course this comes with a disclaimer – I used to work at a VQA store and understand how it functions differently than a regular wine store. I also currently work for a winery that sells wines to those VQA stores. Since 3/4 of them in my territory are closing, I stand to lose out on a little chunk of commission. Yes, it will be a owee. But there are bigger things at risk in the longer term.

The light media coverage so far shows me what I already knew beforehand from my own recent experience. People (the general B.C. public that buys wine) have forgotten what VQA means in the first place. It didn’t dawn on me until I worked this past summer as a wine tour guide. I was amazed at how many times that I had to explain to people from B.C. what VQA stood for and what it meant. I’ve had to explain that to people in wine shops and wine stores more and more over the years since I started in the industry. It’s like the industry just assumed that people knew what it was all about.

Here’s a bit of the backstory:

When the wine industry as we know it today was in its infancy in the 1980’s, estate wineries had an uphill battle to prove to consumers that it was fit for human consumption. Canadian wine had a bad reputation. The Vintner’s Quality Alliance was an industry-lead quality assurance DSC_5124program that acted as a “seal of approval” from the industry. The VQA logo on a bottle of wine meant that this wine was considered to be a quality product.  By 1996, the BC Wine Information Centre opened in Penticton (with wines from over 24 wineries!) and was the first stand-alone VQA store. Other stores followed effectively with a mandate to sell B.C. wine and be the defacto community resource for people to learn about their locally produced wines.

It worked. VQA wine sales shot up. Wineries opened throughout the 1990’s at a furious pace. Predictions in the early 90’s that by the end of the century, that B.C. could have at least 100 wineries! Imagine that! Of course at the time, there were only a quarter of that so it seemed like a lofty goal. The optimism in the industry then was a result of VQA and was a complete 180 from only a few years prior when Free Trade was supposed to wipe the industry out  completely.

But something happened in the intervening years. The wine industry continued to grow but not everyone was on board with VQA. Jeff Martin was noticeably absent from VQA when he started La Frenz. (For a great interview with Martin and his thoughts about VQA, check out Calli’s podcast on the subject from 2014.) Other producers followed as the need decreased for VQA to convince consumers that quality wines could be produced in B.C. Consumers knew that B.C. wines could be good already and smaller producers didn’t feel the need to pay the added cost to be a part of the program.

I can see both sides of that argument but that isn’t the point of this article. My point is that over the almost 25 years that we’ve had VQA in B.C., the vast majority of casual wine buyers still do not know what it is and likely have never set foot in a VQA store. Thus, the quietest of media uproars over the recent VQA store closures in the Okanagan.

The issue here is profits. Wineries are businesses and have to make money to survive. The Vancouver is where the customers are and most wineries’ allocations are sent to the Lower Mainland anyways. Having them in a Save-On is far more profitable there than having a nice stand-alone store in the Okanagan where people who do enjoy local wines can (and sometimes do) go right to the winery to buy them. Only time will tell if the new Save-On-BC-Wine model will work in the long run (and who it is that will actually profit the most from it) but I think it’s safe to say that wine will follow where the money is. This BCWI list of VQA stores will have few, if any, locations on it outside of the Lower Mainland in the not-so-distant future. How will that effect the wine culture in the interior of the province where most of the wine comes from and where tourists expect to find it? I guess we’ll all find out in 2016.

Cheers from wine country.

~Luke

Regional Marketing in BC

Regional associations of wineries (sometimes blandly referred to as “generic marketing bodies” in the wine industry) are not a new phenomena in B.C. They lurk in the background of tastings and marketing campaigns in the Okanagan, Vancouver, and other key markets. I’m not even sure that many consumers are all that familiar with them specifically and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. They are kind of under-the-radar organizations that represent many (and sometimes, but rarely, all) of the wineries within a given geographical region. They publish maps and buy advertising space on behalf of their wineries. When asked to name one of these organizations, I suspect that most wine tourists wouldn’t be able to name more than one or two if any at all. When I produced the “BC Wine 101” series of podcasts and posts about each region in advance of the 2013 Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Penticton, it was the representatives from each of these organizations that I consulted and interviewed for the podcasts. They are great for learning about each region but their real value is promoting all of the member wineries. They are worth getting to know because many host amazing events (Similkameen BBQ King, Naramata Tailgate Party, etc) and some of their websites have lots of great information for planning  your next wine tour.

So, have you been to all of these?

The Associations

Naramata was the first unofficial subregion to begin promoting itself as a destination through the Naramata Bench Wineries Association. As a result, wine tourists who come to the Okanagan are more familiar with or have heard more about Naramata wineries than any other region. It is ironic today that a region is that essentially on a road to nowhere is the first place that people want to go. That’s a testament to the success of the continued marketing behind the Naramata wine brand. It wasn’t an overnight success but has surely paid off well to the member wineries and non-member wineries alike. The Naramata Tailgate Party in September is always a hit and spring tasting events held in key markets ensures that there is never a dull moment for lovers of Naramata wine. It’s a strategy that has worked with the results clearly on display at any Naramata winery on any day of the week during the summer. As a touring region, Naramata probably draws the most people daily because the wineries are conveniently close together and most are within a very short drive from Penticton.

Across the lake the wineries in Summerland’s Bottleneck Drive have organized themselves with some fantastic events to promote their region. The pre-Christmas Light Up the Vines events are a pre-Christmas wonderland of activity that is a rare off-season event in the Okanagan. Wine tasting on a cold winter evening is quite a different experience and Summerland is a spectacular place to do it, showcasing each winery’s unique landscape and Christmas light display. As a touring region, Summerland is a fascinating diversity of landscapes which makes it completely different from Naramata’s views (Oh look – a vineyard. Oh look – the lake). Giants Head mountain is the may poll around which the wine tourists spin, stopping at wineries that could overlook a deep canyon, a bucolic farming valley, or even (yes) a lake.

The Oliver Osoyoos Winery Association represents the largest geographical region in the Okanagan Valley compared to the others and also currently has the largest number of member wineries (36). Hosting events like the Pig Out, the wildly popular Half-Corked Marathon, and Cactus Jalopies, OOWA’s events take place mostly in the early part of the summer from May through to July. The exception is the Winter in Wine Country which is held in late November. As a wine touring region, the Oliver Osoyoos region is big. You can’t see it in a day so don’t try. You will miss wineries so just note which ones they are and try again next time. This is the best place to spend an entire week because you can tour every day and not hit the same winery again, unless you want to. The vineyards are more impressive here because they are bigger and so are many of the wineries. Like the Westside there are boutiques and commercial productions here but many of the wineries are solidly medium size productions. This is the best region to tour at any time of the year since many wineries remain open all year. Vineyards in the winter are every bit as beautiful as they are in the summer.

toplogo-finalThe Okanagan Falls Wineries Association represents the wineries in the region around the town of Okanagan Falls. It’s a town that many wine tourists (myself included at one point) drive through without stopping while on the way to somewhere else. The valley narrows here and wineries are far less visible than in any other region in B.C. Most tourist brochures feature a stunning view of MacIntyre Bluff with Blue Mountain Vineyards in the foreground which is just south of Okanagan Falls so it’s a shame that some wine tourists just won’t get off the highway. The big event is their Party in the Park held in July and is always a great summer BBQ beach party. As a touring region, Okanagan Falls offers diversity. Looking for rich reds, aromatic whites, top notch bistros, or stunning views? It’s all there nestled among the most narrow and geographically bizarre area of the Okanagan. 

The Similkameen Wineries Association brings the thunder at the historic Grist Mill every July with the Similkameen Barbeque King competition. Representing the majority of wineries in this unique valley just west of Oliver and Osoyoos, the Similkameen wineries often get passed by too quickly by drivers on Route 3 who are eager to get to their Osoyoos or Kootenay vacation destinations. As a touring region the Similkameen suffers from being farther away from the Okanagan (where there are more accommodations) and being on the road to the Okanagan. The more adventurous wine tourist are richly rewarded for venturing here however because the valley is filled with small, family run, boutique-style wineries that are making wines on a whole new level.

wineislandsThe Wine Islands Vintners Association represents wineries on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands making it the only association that spans two VQA Designated Viticultural Areas. There’s lots to do here and in my opinion, if the Okanagan is our Napa, the Islands are our Sonoma. Ok, the size ratio is way off but the agricultural focus is not. The Islands are not only focused on wine. There is a lot of food-related agri-tourism integrated seamlessly with wine along with ciders, mead, and other fine beverages. In an area that seems completely odd (aka not dry) for grape growing, creative wines are made here that are finally starting to develop a wider following. As a touring region, there is no way to get through this place in a day or even a week. There are too many nooks, crannies, and ferry schedules to contend with. It’s a great place to explore by following your nose, letting one thing lead to another.

In the far north of the Okanagan (where it is technically not even the Okanagan anymore) is the Shushwap Wineries, which have developed a website promoting wine tourism in their region. It’s not really a new wine region (Larch Hills has been around for years) nor are grapes completely new to the area (first vineyard was in 1907, before Oliver even existed). The northern latitude means that they must use different grapes than in the Okanagan but to me, this is what makes it interesting. As a wine touring region, the Shushwap is convenient for travellers on the Trans-Canada highway but like the Similkameen, has to work a little harder to get people off the road long enough to try their wines. It’s a different style of wine making and it’s a style that I think is unique to B.C. and worth checking out.

And then there’s Kelowna…

Although the first winery in the Okanagan was in Kelowna, it has unfortunately remained the latecomer to the regional marketing game. Confusingly, it is also the most disparate with at four smaller regions represented by associations. (Maybe they need an association of associations?) Thankfully recent years have seen a concerted effort on the part of wineries here to organize themselves into associations to attract wine tourists as that sector grows more competitive. Starting in Kelowna, the organizations loosely follow the compass.

The largest region near Kelowna actually across the lake in West Kelowna. The Westside Wine Trail represents the biggest diversity of wineries (in terms of production size) within the smallest geographical area. There are all sizes of wines from garages and quonsets to large commercial production facilities, organic producers to, well, not organic producers. Mission Hill tends to top the pyramid here as an attraction and literally sits atop of Mount Boucherie. Other wineries are tucked neatly into their vineyards on the slopes looking east. It’s difficult to imagine an organization that can represent the myriad interests of such a diverse group but the Westside Wine Trail does it and apparently quite successfully. As a touring region, everything is relatively close together just like in Naramata which makes it easy to spend the whole day there. Many wineries are also open year round.

Fab5

Kelowna’s Fab 5 Wineries represents the wineries on the benchland east of Kelowna, historically known as the K.L.O. Benches (named after the Kelowna Land and Orchard Company that subdivided the land in the late 19th century). As the name suggests, there are 5 wineries in this group which is a perfect leisurely wine touring day trip. The wineries are all small, boutique productions and many are quite fun and creative with their marketing image. As a wine touring region, it seems like a completely different world even though Kelowna is so close. The views of the valley and lake are unique and far more expansive than in any other wine region. There is a lot of history here as well since First Nations, fur trappers, pioneers, ranchers, and orchardists all recognized the beauty of this part of the Okanagan.

lakeshoreThe Lakeshore Wine Route encompasses four wineries on the south side of Kelowna. The wineries operate some of the oldest continually producing vineyards in BC. CedarCreek has been operating as a winery the longest while Tantalus’s vineyards are older but has been a winery for less time. The established winery names draw visitors here because, just like Naramata, this is a road to nowhere. People have to want to come here rather than just stop off on their way to somewhere else. They have been flocking there for years which is a testament to the quality of the wines produced there. As a wine touring region, the Lakeshore wine route is geographically small and makes an excellent afternoon tour destination. Eager tourists who head there in the crisp morning will find it even better with less crowds and beautiful views of the lake in the morning.

scenicLast on the scene is the Scenic Sip, an exciting new association that includes wineries north of Kelowna in the area known as Lake Country. Like Summerland, there is a wide diversity of landscapes to see at each stop, making this an aptly named wine trail. There’s a lot of energy here from the younger wineries which pairs well with the long-established wineries like Gray Monk, who have been successfully attracting people to drive up Camp Creek Road for almost 35 years. As a wine touring region, this is the first place that people can see flying into Kelowna. You are literally mere minutes away from your first winery wine tasting coming out of the airport. The higher elevation of wineries like Gray Monk and 50th Parallel mean that there is a much grander view of Okanagan Lake than anywhere else in the valley. The lake itself is more narrow here, more steeply walled, and far more green compared to Osoyoos’s brown. Worth a day trip but it may take you a little longer to get to all of the wineries here in the summer so plan extra time.

“Emerging” regions

kamloopsNewest on the scene is the Kamloops Wine Trail. It’s so new that I haven’t actually visited this region yet. It’s absolutely on my list and I look forward to heading there. With hot summer temperatures, the Kamloops area has a lot of potential for growing grapes. It’s the winters that will make or break this region, not only in terms of viticulture but also for visitors. There has been some great social media promotion and interaction from this region. It’s also exciting to be able to see the early days of a future wine region which makes now the time to see Kamloops.

Other Regions

The wineries in the Kootenays are not yet organized into an association and perhaps it is still too soon in their development. The Fraser Valley used to have a winery association but that quietly disappeared, at least online. Perhaps a new group of winery owners will feel the need to come together and promote their region.

So have fun touring one (or many) of B.C’s wine regions. Let me know about your experiences. Please post a comment if you have any questions. Happy wine trails and cheers from wine country!

~Luke

What do you mean “blended”?

Another question that has been inspired by the many wine tourist friends that I’ve met over the years is about blended wines. I worked at a winery that offered a beautifully constructed premium blended wine that a customer vocally poo-pooed before even tasting it.

“None for me! I don’t like blended wines at all. I much prefer the single varietals,” said the customer.

“What wines do you normally like to drink?” I asked.

“Oh, I love Bordeaux, Rhones, and Chiantis mostly,” was the reply.

*facepalm*

I wish I was making this up but alas, I am not. There was nothing I could do but “Uh-huh” and nod approvingly. A certain amount of tact is involved in working in a wine shop and I was not going to bother to explain that all of the wines they told me were actually blended wines. Bordeaux wines can be made with 9 grape varieties (6 red, 3 white), Rhone wines with a few (4 in the north, upwards of 27 in the south), and Chianti’s (based on Sangiovese but with a bunch more). Suffice it to say that blended wines may be a bit confusing even to some experienced wine lovers.

What is a “blended” wine?

IMG_0811The Oxford Companion to Wine defines a blend as:

Any product of blending but specifically a wine deliberately made from more than one grape variety rather than a single varietal (which may contain only a small proportion of other varieties).”

Blended wines are made with more than one different grape variety. Different grape varieties have different flavours and textures so blending the varieties together in different ways can enhance a wine beyond what the single varieties could have accomplished on their own. In short, the finished wine should be better than the individual wines were on their own. If that wasn’t the case, they should never have been blended. Wines are generally blended with others of the same colour although that isn’t always the case. Shiraz (a red grape) sometimes has a little bit of Viognier (a white) blended in during fermentation which, bizarrely enough, makes the wine darker. It also makes it more aromatic which is the reason Viognier is used in the first place.

In addition to this, I also extend the idea of blended wines to include wines that have been made using more than one vineyard source, although this might be a little confusing because it’s very hard to tell by taste. In my mind a Merlot from [yellow tail] may be made with only one grape variety (Merlot in this case) but because the Merlot comes from perhaps hundreds of vineyard sources, it dilutes any trace of terroir (or any possibility of unique wine flavours) from the finished product. Of course, that’s exactly the point – to create a non-invasive, innocuous, and widely appealing wine with no sharp edges. Because it’s a deliberate, human-initiated activity, I consider it to be a blended wine as well. A lot of BC wines are made this way but on a much smaller scale than the [yellow tail] example above. Unless it is stated as a single vineyard, most wines will very likely come from 2 to 4 different vineyards.

Blended wine is cheap wine

Well, not necessarily. There are still wineries in BC that produce a low-cost base-line blend using the tailings of batches of wines that were used elsewhere or that didn’t measure up in quality.  These wines will be the least expensive bottle in their portfolio and honestly, there is nothing wrong with that in my opinion. The alternative is that it is sold off at a reduced price to another winery where it will be blended away into something else or worse, that it is simply wasted and poured down the drain.

Sometimes these wines can be an accessible and inexpensive option to start learning about wine. For me, Gray Monk’s Latitude 50 was always on my radar as an early wine lover. Road 13’s Honest John’s series and The Cellarhand from Black Hills are other modern takes on this same style.

IMG_0810Many blended wines in BC are climbing higher up the portfolio’s quality ladder. My theory is that wine makers are getting more confident with their skills and are starting to put more thought into making a better wine and not just accepting what nature throws their way. Perhaps the Pinot Gris was a little flabby last year? Maybe adding a little Pinot Blanc will brighten it up? Adding a little Chard might round it out a little. There’s all kinds of qualities in wine that can be tinkered with simply by combining wines from different grape varieties. Wine makers in BC are getting better and more confident at crafting their blends. Winery sales and marketing staff have also gotten behind the blended wines as well, which is critical if a style is going to be successful in the marketplace.

For me personally, I love seeing what a winery can do and the blended wines are a great indicator of their potential.

Blended wine is not as fruity

This came from a customer’s comment sometime last year and has stuck with me ever since. I wouldn’t say that blended wines aren’t as “fruity” as single varieties but that perhaps they are simply not as predictable. It’s hard to tell what to expect from a wine by looking at the name on the label. Seeing “Pinot Noir” on the label tells you a lot. For BC wine in means that it’s going to be a light to medium red wine without a lot of tannins and some bright cherry flavours. Seeing “Felicidade”, “2Bench”,  or “Autumn Gold” on the label means nothing unless you’ve previously tried the wine.

Being less predictable also makes the wines a little more challenging. Single variety wines are easy to figure out if you’ve tasted enough of them and know that you like a particular one. It’s an accessible way to get into wine and learn about it. I remember being faced with a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and a bottle of Cru Bourgeois Haut-Medoc and choosing the Cabernet Sauvignon because I’d had a few of them before, liked them all, and bought the Cabernet Sauvignon because I thought that I would like it better than whatever the other one was. Of course, the other one was also made of Cabernet Sauvignon (mostly) but because that wasn’t on the label, it didn’t register with me. My loss.

Blended wine is in fashion

IMG_0809Well, it is right now. Or maybe it was? Fashion changes quickly in everything although its difficult to predict and, in the world of wine, is extremely slow to adapt. There’s a big time lag between starting a wine and getting it to market. Wine tastes also change much more slowly than tastes in music, shoes, or handbags. (Uh, so I’ve heard. I’ve read about it somewhere…) Pinot Gris was the hot variety in BC when I first moved to the Okanagan 7 years ago. Blended wines are moving up in the BC wine world and leading the charge for high quality is the blend known as “Meritage”.

Meritage (pronounced “meri-tij” not “meri-tawj” – it rhymes with “heritage”) is a way of indicating that the wine was made using the same grape varieties allowed in Bordeaux. (Technically for a winery to use the word “meritage”, they must belong to the Meritage Alliance, an American organization of which wineries can become a member and therefore be able to legally use the name “Meritage”. However in practice, it has become a generic term to denote a style of wine that is like a Bordeaux.) The earliest prestige or trophy bottles in BC wine’s history were all meritages; Oculus (first vintage ’95), Pinnacle (’97), Nota Bene (’99), and Osoyoos Larose (’01). It was as if BC wine had to prove to the world that we could make a serious meritage. Our current generation of the industry came about at the height of “Parkerization”, when rich, extracted styles of wines were the ones that gained the most attention and were considered to be the most prestigious. Thankfully that era has past but the desire to craft a high quality, complex blend will hopefully never go out of style.

If you blend it…

So the moral of the story is this: Be not afraid of wines not named Cabernet. Single varieties are good, for sure, but there’s a whole world of creativity out there for you to try. Instead of Merlot, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir, look for Character, Corner Stone, Fossil Fuels, and Freud’s Ego. A lot of the blends will also have the varieties listed on the back label just in case you wanted to start with a wine that has varieties that you know you like.

There’s lots of great blended wine out there to discover. Challenge your taste buds and enjoy the wine adventure. Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

The Grand Crus of BC

Thomas Jefferson created lists of his top wines from different regions throughout France and Europe. Many wine lovers of his time did and continued to do well into the 19th century. The fact that one of those lists of Bordeaux chateaux was written into law in 1855 is both the bane of Bordeaux and the reason for its top status worldwide. However, there are arguably good reasons why the chateaux at the top are where they are. Terroir in wine (i.e. where a wine is grown) can create a consistency that is timeless. To paraphrase Terry Theise in an amazing Grape Radio podcast, winemakers come and go, wine styles come and go, climates and weather patterns change, but the soil stays the same and is the most immutable influence on the grapes. Essentially, no matter what human is in charge of making the wine that year, the wines from these great locations have a better shot than most to become the best.

So why start a post like this, which will invariably turn into an argument?

Well, there’s nothing wrong with a little debate now is there? Even though these days it seems that debate is “out” while black and white absolutism is “in”, wine lovers love to talk about wine and so this is hopefully a way to start that conversation. I think it’s time to start recognizing that there are some valuable differences between the landscapes that produce the wine that we enjoy. The list I’m going to present does not take into account the merits of the people in control of the wineries and for that reason alone, there may very well be properties that are not included that some could easily argue should be included. There is no shortage of personalities in the BC wine world but, adhering to the supremacy of terroir as stated above, it’s the land I’m looking at, not the people.

Also, while I recognize that there are some very smart people that are investing boatloads (or the metric equivalent known as a “shit-tonne”) of money into making the best wine that they can, calling oneself a Grand Cru (or in the case of one new “label” using the term “First Growth”) does not make one’s wine a Grand Cru or First Growth. Status like this must be bestowed onto your wines by others (consumers, media, and industry peers) through general consensus. It’s not just marketing spin, it’s a quality ranking. EVERYBODY that works in EVERY winery thinks that THEY make the BEST wines. Having the words “Grand Cru” written on your label, website, or sale sheets won’t make your wine a Grand Cru. It’s a status, not a tagline, that can not ever come from the winery. Honestly, nobody will take it seriously. Putting a Ferrari badge on a Honda and charging $80,000 won’t make the car that much better. In the end, it’s still a Honda and most everyone will be able to figure that out eventually. Thankfully I’m not the only one to question this and I hopefully won’t be the last. In Canada right now, there is no legal control over the use of these terms like there is in France where Crus are classified and set into the law of the land. Here in BC, it’s still the wild west.

What makes me such an authority on BC wine?

I’ve tasted enough BC wine, both bad and good, for enough years that I’m confident with my assessments of quality and longevity when it comes to understanding the wines from the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. It’s not drinking the stuff either – I’ve work in it; vineyards, cellars, planting vines, harvesting grapes, crushing grapes, testing fermenting juice, bottling, stocking, and selling. That said, I have no problems with disagreements that will crop up so don’t hesitate to tell me if I’ve forgotten your favourites. Everyone’s tastes are different and I have no desire to force my preferences on anyone else. But please keep in mind, this is my blog so these are my favorites. Want to list your own favs? Get your own blog. I get asked a lot which wineries are the ones that are “not-to-miss.” Essentially the Grand Crus on this list are the ones that I always mention in my replies.

Criteria

What are the qualities that I’m looking for in a “Grand Cru”?

Identifiable and consistent vineyard source(s) – The vineyard has to be consistently identified as producing quality wine for over 7 years. This is where it might be handy to draw a distinction between a “vineyard” and a “winery”, which is sometimes not always easily apparent. One can visit Mission Hill at their winery on Mt. Boucherie but very little of their grapes are actually grown anywhere near there. The winery must own the majority of their vineyards and have direct control over the quality of the fruit.

Identifiable and consistent vineyard characteristics– The vineyards must themselves demonstrate some unique attributes relating to soil composition, aspect, slope, orientation, etc, that are shared by no others. I don’t believe that a winery can make a consistently amazing product with a revolving door of leased or contracted vineyards providing the fruit no matter how skilled the wine maker. The resulting wines will be too heavily processed and manipulated by necessity and won’t be as complex or as interesting. Grapes from the best sites will make quality wines with only the minimal amount of intervention, even in “challenging” years. I have not scientifically collected data on all of these wineries for this criteria, rather it’s more from my own notes and touring experience.

History of consistent high quality – This will have to be relative of course, since the BC wine industry is young at this stage of the game. In general, a vineyard must be the source for exceptional wines for at least 8 vintages, preferably 10. The wines must show a uniqueness that is clearly evident across multiple vintages. Though the wines in the portfolios don’t have to all be long-lived wines, the perception of ageability as a mark of quality can not be ignored.

Focused wine portfolio – This is probably the most contentious issue (outside of the concept of terroir itself) because the world of BC has many wineries that continue to produce a scatter-shot of wine varieties without any focus on a particular one. Name one famous wine growing region where the wineries are all known to produce more than a dozen different varieties of wine and are recognized for all of them worldwide? That’s right, there aren’t any. No winery is ever going to make this list by simply making more different varieties of wines better than the next winery – a fault I find with ‘national’ wine awards that reward the quantity of quality by ranking wineries based almost entirely on medal count. I’m not saying that these wineries don’t produce quality wine because that’s clearly not the case – there are some fabulous wines out there made by wineries with massive and diverse portfolios. For this list I am interested only in wineries that intend on creating the best wine that they can and are focused on that aspect almost singlemindedly on a small portfolio. I don’t believe that can be done by growing 25 different grape varieties and making 30 wines or even more than 10.

All of the wineries listed here need to have proven consistency with all four of these elements to be considered a Grand Cru.

On with the list.

Grand Crus and Premiere Crus

I know you’ve probably already scrolled down to see it anyways but there’s still another detail to consider. I’ve created a list of Premier Crus which rank slightly below the Grand Crus and I think that needs some explaining as well.

The Grand Cru wineries listed here I consider BC classics – the top-most wineries capable of producing wines of consistency, complexity, depth, and profundity year after year. What separates them from the Premiere Crus is a very thin, flexible line that blurs more often than not. It was this blurring that prevented me from not including these fabulous wineries on this list even though I was only going to focus in on the Grand Crus initially. I believe that all of the Premier Cru wineries that I’ve listed can produce wines on par with the Grand Crus. The only difference is a deficiency usually in one of the 4 elements listed above, mostly the last two. Youth (i.e. the age of the winery) is a significant issue since it is just not possible to know if there is a consistent product, nor if that product is somehow unique compared to other wineries in the same region. Of course, that will change over time. A large and varied portfolio is also an issue among some of these wineries but that seems to be changing as well. As wineries (and consumers) learn what their strengths are, I’ve seen some wineries alter their focus accordingly, which is a positive step in my opinion that will surely see some of the Premier Cru wineries boosted up to Grand Cru.

So here we go. I present to you…

The Wine Country BC Grand Crus:

(listed North to South)

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Tantalus Vineyards – Kelowna

Acknowledged by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson in multiple editions of the Word Atlas of Wine, the vineyards at Tantalus have had the wine cognoscenti drooling over their Riesling going back to the days when it was known as Pinot Reach Cellars owned by Susan Dulik. This is the likely the oldest continuously producing vineyard in BC. It was part of J.W. Hughes’ Pioneer Vineyard that was planted in 1926 and was sold to Martin Dulik, Susan’s grandfather Martin, sometime between 1946-49. The Riesling vines that make up the bulk of the vineyard’s reputation were planted in 1978.

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Laughing Stock – Naramata

Laughing Stock makes the list based largely on their flagship wine, Portfolio, but also for their attention to quality across their small selection of wines. They’ve won Lieutenant Governor’s Awards in the last 4 years for 3 different wines and their focused collection of wines (4 whites, 3 reds) means that their attention to detail won’t ever be overextended. 2014 was their 12th harvest and the 10th release of their Portfolio. In a blind tasting of 8 BC meritage wines, I singled out the Portfolio as my favorite. So did the lovely couple from New Jersey, California Cabernet lovers who had barely tasted or even known about BC wine before that event, sitting next to me.

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Blue Mountain – Okanagan Falls

Blue Mountain has more reputations than most wineries and for all kinds of reasons. They are known for Burgundian wines (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gamay) as well as Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. Just the sight of a stripped label on the shelf sends wine lovers swooning. They are also known for their high quality sparkling wines with the Blue Mountain Brut as the flagship. Ian Mavety purchased the property in 1971, planted it to Vinifera grapes in the mid-1980’s and began the sparkling program in the early 1990’s under the tutelage of Raphael Brisbois, the French-born, Napa-based consultant who now also handles Benjamin Bridge among many others.  Ian’s son Matt handles the wine making now and continues the tradition of high quality.

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Fairview Cellars – Golden Mile Bench, Oliver

Bill Eggert opened the doors of Fairview Cellars in 2000 and for those who have been there, it is the ultimate small winery experience, complete with a piano. Bill is one of the few people in the valley that I would call a true “wine grower”. He does not make wine, he grows it, and it shows. Every vintages’ growing season, weather tantrums, and natural hiccups are represented clearly in each bottle (and sometimes on the label, with names representing an event in the vineyards’ growing season like “The Wrath” and “The Bear”). One of only 3 wineries in BC of which I’m aware to offer a wine above the $100 mark, Bill is focused on red wine production but has also produced a stunning Sauvignon Blanc in recent vintages.

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Black Hills – Oliver

Senka and Bob Tenant and Peter and Sue McCarrell were the two couples to start Black Hills in 1996 after purchasing a former vineyard on Black Sage Road that had been abandoned for ten years following the pull-out program. Consultant wine making help to Senka, then the fledgling wine maker, was from Berle “Rusty” Figgins, younger brother of Gary Figgins from the famed Washington State winery Leonetti Cellars. Starting with the sale of the 1999 Nota Bene in 2001, word began to spread about the quality, complexity, and concentration of this meritage that would become one of BC’s first cult wines. The portfolio was focused on 3 wines by the time the two couples sold Black Hills to Vinequest Wine Partners in 2007 and it remains focused on only 6 wines (3 whites, 3 reds) along with 2 additional wines (white and red) for a second label called Cellarhand.

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Osoyoos Larose – Osoyoos

The first vintage of the Grand Vin was not supposed to happen in 2001. However the grapes were apparently so good and the resulting wine even better than expected that it was decided to release the inaugural vintage from those grapes that in 2001 had only been in the ground for 2 years. A joint venture between Vincor (later Constellation Brands) and the Groupe Taillan from France, Osoyoos Larose has risen to become one of the stars of BC wine by producing only two red wines. As part of the biggest divorce in BC wine history, Groupe Taillan purchased the remaining shares from Constellation and now controls the whole brand. While we haven’t seen the tangible benefits of this new arrangement yet, it is clear that John Schreiner’s recent glowing opinion of their direction away from the “suffocating joint venture” will be good news for Osoyoos Larose.

Wine Country BC Premiere Crus

(listed North to South)

Joie Farm – Naramata
Poplar Grove – Naramata
Painted Rock – Penticton
Wild Goose – Okanagan Falls
Clos du Soleil – Keremeos
Orofino – Cawston
Seven Stones – Cawston
Burrowing Owl – Oliver
Nk’Mip Cellars – Osoyoos

Crus to come?

(Too young to rank but show incredible promise)

Sperling – Kelowna
Terravista – Naramata
Meyer Family – Okanagan Falls
Culmina – Golden Mile Bench, Oliver

Is this the ultimate BC wine list? Not at all. Just like wine, it will change and evolve over time. There are a couple of Premier Crus that only have to wait it out until they’ve been around a few more years to be bumped up. One of them was a Grand Cru in their first vintage in my opinion. I’ve even made some changes since I started writing this article and have gone back and forth on at least a couple. The point is not to make a proclamation whereupon I state that my own superior experience and knowledge of the subject entitles me to state unequivocally that blah blah blah blah blah and it should be taken and written into law blah blah blah blah…

No.

This is a list of my favorites that I mention to people when they ask. Agree or not, let me know. I have reasons for each of them and maybe we can explore that a little. I had hoped to add those reason into this posting but cut them out due to length. Perhaps I can bore you all with a podcast about it in the future. Or maybe a feature on each one of them? We’ll see how it goes.

It is said that a rising tide floats all boats. These are the wineries that I think are really bringing it up in BC’s wine country. Enjoy your BC wine. Cheers!

~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

Five BC Wine Touring Secrets

20130509-213823.jpgIt’s wine touring season again! Time to squeeze up to the wine shop bar, taste a few wines, buy a blingy t-shirt with a half-case, and head to hotel lounge before dinner. Wine country touring can sometimes feel a little more rushed less vacation-like at times, but the fun is always there for you to find. Here are a few of my tips from the many seasons spend touring and living in wine country.

Here are few things to think about as you plan your trip:

Seasons

Riverstone Estate Winery

Riverstone Estate Winery

Firstly, there are seasons to wine touring. The busy season generally runs from mid-May (Victoria Day weekend) to Thanksgiving in October. The truly crazy months are July, August, but September has been punching above it’s weight class in recent years and October is remarkably busy for the Fall Wine Festival. Expect crowded wine shops at this time of year unless you know this: Wine touring secret #1: wine shops are not as busy in the mornings. You can get all the help and information you want from wine shop staff at that time and all without having to jostle for a place at the bar. If crowds and getting more than an arm-width at the bar is more for you, this is a good thing to know. Tour early, have a long lunch, then maybe head back late afternoon when it starts to slow down again. Call ahead though because sometimes smaller wineries don’t open until later in the day.

The shoulder seasons (March break to May 24 and Thanksgiving to Christmas) are also good times to get in some quality wine shop time. Again, some smaller wineries may not be open at this time of year, so check their websites or call ahead to make sure they are open.

Only middle to large production wineries (those are the ones with big parking lots) are open in the winter but it seems that there are more wineries trying out off-season hours. If you’ve ever toured in the winter, wine shop staff (who are usually owners or managers at that time) are more than happy to chat with you for as long as you want.

The biggest thing that people seem to forget is that wine production is also naturally seasonal. Wine can only be made once a year. Wineries harvest grapes in the fall and then make wine out of them. The whites are generally released the next spring while the reds will be released a year or more after that. If you are interested in fresh whites, the best time to get them is in the spring when the new vintages are released. If you decide to come to wine country in the fall, you may not be able to find your favorite Pinot Blanc or Ehrenfelser because it likely sold out in the middle of the summer. Wineries can’t just make more wine at any time like making soda pop or cookies. (I wish I was making this up: I had a customer ask me to call a winery to find out if they could make more of her favorite wine. This was in late July and she truly believed that wineries could just manufacture more on demand.)

What to not wear

Wine touring secret #2: Wear comfortable everything – shoes, shorts, shirts, hats, whatever.There are very few wineries that offer comfortable places to sit. Shoes are important and well as clothes for the heat (in the summer) or layers (for the unpredictable spring and fall). Hats are especially valuable in all seasons, especially when the sun is out. In most places the sun “shines” but in the Okanagan summer, the sun “beats down” more often than not. (At my very first job at a winery, I noticed that I was the only one sitting in the sun during a lunch break – everyone else was in the shade. I mentioned it and a coworker said, “You know, I’m kind sick of summer.” He might as well have said, “You know, I’m kind of sick of oxygen” but I learned to understand it the more I lived here. The heat and sun can be oppressive here at times.

Another thing to not wear: perfume, hairspray, or scented products beyond light deodorant. You might think that you are blending in but trust me, you would stand out less in a wine shop wearing day-glo pink unitard and a sombrero. People who work in wine shops use their noses, a lot. We smell wine everyday. We can tell when a glass is truly clean by how it smells (it shouldn’t smell at all). It’s not just the people behind the bar though; anyone who has spent a day or 2 with their noses in glasses of wine will be more tuned into that sense, and they will find it distracting as well. Interestingly, I find that synthetic odours (perfume, etc) will stand out and interfere with wines’ aromas more than natural ones (mild body odour, bouquets of flowers, etc).

Protect your wine

Looking south from the northern edge of Clos du Soleil's vineyards.

Looking south from the northern edge of Clos du Soleil’s vineyards.

Mostly from the sun. The interior of a car can heat up to dangerous temperatures before you even get to tasting the reds. Wine left in a car can heat up and will “cook” in minutes. Ever wondered why the wine doesn’t taste the same when you get it home? That might be why.

There are 2, maybe 2.5 wineries in the Okanagan, that have any shaded parking at all. Kudos go to Silver Sage and Mission Hill for planting a tree or two. (Honorable mention to Cedar Creek.) The problem has more to do with the fact that trees create shade which is not what vines need – they need sun. I have personally walked through vineyard where the grapes closer to trees (i.e. in shadow part of the day) ripen weeks later than vines that are farther away (no shadows ever).

Wine touring secret #3: Bring a big, warm blanket. It seems weird in the summer, but it isn’t. Keep your wine on the floor of your vehicle (the lowest and therefore coolest part) and insulate it with the big blanket. That keeps it out of direct sunlight and gives you a chance to make it through the tasting before the temperature in the car gets to the wine. Don’t forget to use your car’s air conditioner between stops.

Have a Designated Driver

This should be stupidly obvious by now. Since most tourists aren’t comfortable spitting wine (which is totally acceptable – that’s what the pro’s do), you need to have someone drive you safely where you’re going. If you are doing multiple days, take turns being the DD. Many wineries have added special perks for the DD of a group.

Wine touring secret #4: Buy a wine for the DD at every winery you visit. It’s a great way to say thanks and also keeps them involved in the touring experience. I’ve seen DD’s wander around the wine shop and miss out on some of the great conversation at the bar. Also, there’s no harm in just smelling the wine and you can learn a lot about a wine that way.

The other option is to book a trip with one of the valley’s many wine tour companies. Most will take you around to wherever you want to go and even have some great ideas on wineries that you may not have heard about. (Well, not you personally, because as an avid Wine Country BC.ca reader / listener you are already most likely ‘in the know’…) Look for a podcast featuring interviews with local wine tour operators coming soon.

Eat something between wineries

Here’s a shocker: Wine makes you hungry. At my WSET classes years ago, only a visit to my favorite sushi restaurant right before my class could keep me going through the 2 hours of tasting and talking about wine each week. Even that was no guarantee however. Wine, for whatever reason, stimulates our digestive system and we react accordingly. Plus, eating between wineries refreshes your palate and can really extend your wine tasting day.

Wine touring secret #5: There are some great local bakeries, delis, and coffee shops in all of the towns from Osoyoos to Lake Country. Non of them have paid me for advertising though, so you’ll have to search for them yourself. Pick up an assorted selection of eats for the day – breads, fruits, and cheeses can go a long way. Bring a bag or a picnic basket to use or just store them under that big warm blanket next to the wine. You will be much happier that way, even if you go for meals at winery restaurants. Snacks between wineries also helps to cleanse your palate so you can try even more wine. That’s how the pro-wine tourists like myself build up endurance. Practice makes perfect.

So there you go, wine touring secrets from someone who has done my fair share of touring for over a decade. Leave a comment if you have any other tricks or secrets that you’d like to share.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Podcast 131 – BC Wine 101 The West Side Wine Trail

Mount Boucherie, at the center of the West Side Wine Trail

Mount Boucherie, at the center of the West Side Wine Trail

20130218-203437.jpgWelcome to BC Wine 101, where I will focus in on a different wine region in each episode for anyone who is interested in learning about BC wine, including the wine bloggers who will be traveling to Penticton for the Wine Bloggers Conference coming up in June.

You can listen online here or download our podcast on iTunes.

Of all the regions covered so far in BC Wine 101, the West Side Wine Trail is the most urban. The Trail takes you through areas in West Kelowna where vineyards that have grown for over 50 years are now surrounded on all side by gated housing developments. They are probably the only collection of wineries in BC that are accessible by public transit. But Being this close to Kelowna and the growing communities of West Kelowna has its benefits.

The range of wineries here is truly amazing. A 3-minute drive on Mt. Boucherie Road will take you past wineries in garages and quonset huts, mid-sized wineries with modest wine shops, and a huge commercial winery with an architectural grandeur that is unparalleled in BC and probably Canada as well. And according to Tina Slamka in this podcast, all of these wineries have one similar feature that unite them all, regardless of their size.

I first explored the area as a wine tourist 10 years ago. I remember going to two very different wineries that day and having a great experience at both of them. The view of Okanagan Lake is so dominating here, it is impossible to ignore at every winery on the trail because of the slope on which the wineries are perched. I remember taking a lot of photos that day.

In this podcast, Tina Slamka Chair of the West Side Wine Trail, co-owner and wine shop manager of Little Straw Vineyards, and Salina Petschulat Curtis, marketing coordinator for the West Side Wine Trail sit down for a chat about what makes the West Side such a welcoming place.

The wineries of the West Side Wine Trail:

Beaumont Family Estate Winery Kalala Organic Estate Winery Little Straw Vineyards
Meadow Vista Honey Wines Mission Hill Family Estate Winery Mt. Boucherie Estate Winery
Quails’ Gate Estate Winery Rollingdale Winery Volcanic Hills Estate Winery
Tasting in front of Quail's Gate Estate Winery.

Tasting in front of Quail’s Gate Estate Winery.

From the Barrel Top Grill at Little Straw Vineyards. Volcanic Hills is across the street.

From the Barrel Top Grill at Little Straw Vineyards. Volcanic Hills is across the street, Mt Boucherie and Beaumont Wineries are on the far left. .

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The Amphitheater at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery. The Terrace Restaurant is on the left.