This year’s BC book harvest

I originally started this post back in early August because it was the first time that I could actually sit down and do some proper writing here. Jobs and other large projects had occupied my time up until that point. 

And then the fires started and priorities changed pretty quick. Since then of course, more books have appeared including Jennifer Schell’s coastal sequel to her producer-appreciation cook book “The Butcher, The Baker, The Wine and Cheese Maker” called (deep breath) “The Butcher, The Baker, The Wine and Cheese Maker by the Sea“. I have not picked up the new one yet but it is on my “To buy” list. Until then, there are these two fine BC-produced books to check out:

photo 2Two books have been appearing not inconspicuously on wine shop shelves this year and as a lover of B.C. wine for many years, I have developed a reflex to buy them as soon as a new one comes out. I have even bought some books twice or even thrice as gifts or when a new edition are released. The thrill of reading about the people, places, and wines never gets old for me even though at this point in my career I now know many of the people personally. So while I am freely open to admitting that I can go for days without having to take a sip of wine, it is a rare occurrence when I can make it through a day without reading about wine. Wine books are almost more addictive for me than wine itself.

The two new books this year are “Naramata Bench Vineyards and Wineries” by Garth Eichel and Taryn Liv Parker’s “Okanagan“. Both are regionally-focused and both contain stunning visuals with real experience-based descriptions of the profiled wineries. By that I mean that they don’t just simply review the wines and tell the ‘official’ story of the winery. Instead they try to tell you what it would be like for you to go there. This is a crucial difference from most region-specific wine books which offer a spew of generalized information – facts ‘n’ stats – about the history of the region, the terroir, the wines, and the producers of the area. This experience-oriented style makes both of these books approachable and in my opinion a more honest representation of what the reader will experience if they go to visit the same winery. The drawback is that that at times it can lack depth for people who might want to know some of those specifics.

Let’s begin with Eichel’s “Naramata Bench“.

photo 1Producing a book about a visually stunning place like Naramata and having it not be equally visually stunning would have been ridiculous. That is not the case here as the book is loaded with great photos and excellent layouts. The trick with photographing any wine region is to make it look interesting in a new way. Of all of BC’s wine regions, Naramata has probably been photographed more than any other so the onus was entirely on Eichel to show us something new and avoid clichéd shots that any tourist can capture.

He accomplishes this with diversity. Sure there is scenery – that’s unavoidable – but there are close-up details (Therapy’s weather vane), portraits of owners and wine makers, contributed older photos (Bob and Tim from Kettle Valley with their sons as toddlers), and action shots (Jay Drysdale sabering a bottle of bubbly with an axe) that make each layout exciting to look at. There’s a predictable rhythm to it and a lot of repetition (there is always a photo of someone pouring a wine at every tasting bar) but it works and shows the setting for the winery’s experiences accurately. And just like the landscape clichés, there are no “super-serious” photos of squinting winemakers holding a glass up to the light to “examine” it. Eichel thankfully has avoided this with excellent creativity with the camera. My favourite feature however is that each photo is also suitably captioned with details specific to each photo – wonder but often overlooked element in a lot of wine books.

The text rolls along fluidly and is easy to read. Interviews with the owners are the basis for the text and Eichel uses lots of direct quotes in his narrative. The wineries will tell their stories when visiting the shop in person so paraphrasing is probably not the best way to communicate the experience so this technique is refreshing and fits into the experience theme upon which this book seems based.

photo 3If Eichel’s “Naramata Bench” is Sgt. Pepper’s, full of colourful characters and stories, Parker’s “Okanagan” is the White Album, absolutely anchored to its time and place. It’s physically huge and heavy with a hard cover giving it the same imposing effect of strength similar to large pillars on the façades of banks and courthouses to denote security and authority. The blank white cover simply and elegantly adorned with the word “Okanagan” suggests something epic while the small subtitle near the bottom acts as a perfect tease to the book’s contents. Rather than loudly advertising the fact, Parker’s cover is subtle and uncluttered and let’s the colours inside the book explode more vividly when flipping through the pages.

To me, this book looks and feels more Okanagan. The rough texture of the pages, the high-contrast photos, the light sand-coloured text boxes and highlight squares throughout the book all appear more like something produced in the Okanagan to me. If anyone from around the world wants to know what it’s like to be in the Okanagan, this is the book that I would send them. The layouts give me the impression of a high school or university year book (Oh, there’s a photo of Mike! Hey, there’s Virginia!) which I believe is a perfect form for conveying that very sense of time and place. When I want to relive how I felt working in this industry in 2014-2015 (when this book was in production) I will absolutely pull this book out. It is truly a temporal work of art.

Her attempt to look at the region as a whole entity of the Okanagan not just through the obvious physical elements like geography, but also through time – history. To my delight, Parker seems to be aware of the Okanagan’s past and appreciates its influence on the present. No other B.C. wine book that I’ve read has ever included a photo of Velma Sperling, grand-daughter of Giovanni and Rosa Casorzo. Giovanni was hired by Father Charles Pandosy to work at the Oblate mission. Velma is a living link to that era of our history that roots today’s wine industry and continues to help it grow. The same land is still in the hands of the Casorso family and Velma’s daughter Ann Sperling, also photographed in this book, has a highly distinguished career as a winemaker.

Each winery’s entry gives a snapshot of their style. A list of the property’s signature wines, key varieties, and vineyards are an quick guide for anyone interested in specific varieties. The section “The Property Experience” is a point-form listing of events and special offerings. Every winery has a tasting bar, we all know that. Parker tells us more about what makes each winery unique. For those wine lovers looking for that special experience, you will find one for you while thumbing through “Okanagan”.

The biggest question I have of both books is how the wineries were chosen to be included in each one? Eichel’s “Naramata Bench” has a small section on “Other Wineries” while Parker’s “Okanagan” just doesn’t mention some wineries at all, leaving awkward holes in some of the regions. There is section on the North Okanagan but strangely, no wineries listed there. Eichel’s “Naramata” includes a near phone book of listings for places to stay, places to eat, tour companies, and travel information – all helpful items but curious for a printed book considering Google is now the de facto go-to resource for most people. Both books are self-published and must be financed somehow. However I sometimes get the impression that I’ve bought into very large advertisements, especially turning to the bizarre two-page spread on Greyback Construction, a local construction company that happens to have built many wineries. Neither book purports to be objective guidebooks or anything like that however it makes me wonder if or how the financing may have influenced the content.

This media literacy (or paranoia?) comes to me courtesy of my own “question everything” personality (or disorder?) and perhaps isn’t shared by many others, nor perhaps from the Millennial generation who care about it differently than I do. (A short stint at Simon Fraser’s Communications Department probably didn’t discourage that behaviour either…) Both books are extremely well planned and well executed highly recommend you pick up both as soon as you can. Sometimes regional books don’t make it to a second printing so don’t pass on either of these two if you see them.

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

The 2015 LG’s are in

The results have just been announced for the 2015 Lieutenant Governor’s Awards for Excellence in B.C. Wine. I’ve run the stats again this year and there’s some interesting things happening.

Firstly, congratulations to all of this year’s winners!

50th Parallel Estate – 2013 Chardonnay

BC Wine Studio -2012 Siren’s Call Syrah

Blasted Church Vineyards – 2012 Holy Moly Petit Verdot

Cassini Cellars – 2012 Cabernet Franc Collector’s Series

Church & State Winery – 2012 Quintessential

Enrico Winery & Vineyards – 2014 Tempest Ortega

Ex Nihilo Vineyards – 2013 Pinot Noir

Inniskillin Okanagan Vineyards Winery – 2014 Riesling Icewine

Lake Breeze Vineyards – 2012 Merlot

Noble Ridge Vineyard and Winery – 2010 “The One” Sparkling

Platinum Bench Estate Winery -2013 Gamay Noir Block 28

Red Rooster Winery – 2012 Syrah Reserve

Ruby Blues Winery – 2014 Commune Viognier

Wild Goose Vineyards and Winery – 2014 Mystic River Gewürztraminer

Now if you’ll allow me to get all sports-caster like and let me show you a little of what I’ve found based on the stats that now include this year’s results. I won’t do up charts like I did last year but there were some really interesting things in this year’s competition that included 425 wines from 116 wineries throughout B.C. There have now been 140 LG awards handed out in total over the 13 years that the awards have been held. 14 awards were handed out this year making it the largest pool of winners ever for a single year.

The big news this year for me is that Enrico Winery & Vineyards becomes the very first winery from Vancouver Island to win an LG! To me, this is huge in the same way that Fort Berens’ win last year was huge because it shows that great wine in BC can be grown in places other than the Okanagan. I visited their tasting room in the spring of 2012 and was very impressed by the experience and with the wines. Well done Enrico Winery! The Gulf Islands are now the only DVA to not have an LG award but that may change soon.

Wild Goose picks up another LG for the Mystic River Gewurztraminer, a vineyard that represents 4 of their total of 9 LG awards. Along with their great showing at the All Canadians, this is a nice way for the Kruger family to celebrate their 25th year in the wine business.

Two new varieties receive awards. Enrico’s win with an Ortega marks that varieties debut with a trophy and Blasted Church wins their second with a Petit Verdot. This is Blasted Church’s second LG award with the first coming in 2008 with the 2006 Syrah.

50th Parallel pick up an LG for their beautiful 2013 Chardonnay marking their first ever LG award win. It won’t be there last either. This is also the most northerly winery to win an LG award which I think is also fascinating. In previous years the competition looked like it had completely abandoned all wineries north of Naramata. I think it is great to see wineries from all over the province getting recognition through these awards and particularly from the northern half of the valley. Gray Monk’s win in 2010 for their 2007 Odyssey Brut was the previous northern limit for LG awards.

50th Parallel and Enrico are not the only newbie winners in this competition either. Ex Nihilo, BC Wine Studio, and Platinum Bench are also new the awards and will all be receiving the Honourable Judith Guichon, Lieutenant Governor of B.C. in late July.

As far as the single varieties go, only two changes have taken place in the stats. Viognier has overtaken Pinot Gris in number of wins (6-5) and Gewurztraminer has edges up over Riesling to take 4th place in the top 5 varieties in B.C.

Place Variety LG Wins % Total
1 Syrah / Shiraz 26 24.53
2 Pinot Noir 14 13.21
3 Chardonnay 11 10.38
4 Gewurztraminer 8 7.55
5 Riesling* 7 6.6

 * Table wines only – does not include Icewine 

So what does that tell us about the state of wine in our fair province?

Nothing!

But it’s fun to see what the stats can tell us sometimes. I’m also done studying for my WSET exams at the moment and have time for stuff like this.

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.

IMG_0937

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

IMG_7022

Planning your trip to wine country

50thIt’s that time of year again! The time when Google searches, dog-eared Wine Trails magazines, and copies of John Schreiner’s tour books start occupying all of your reading time in anticipation of your trip to the Okanagan this summer. Where are you going to stay? What are you going to do? Which wineries will you visit this year?

It’s almost as fun to plan a wine country vacation as it is to take a wine country vacation. Some people can plan things down to the minute while others enjoy following their nose to find places. It’s all in hope of finding your next favourite wine, tasting room, or experience. Sometimes it’s fun to revisit places you’ve been before. It all adds up to a lot of fun and based on the number of people that are landing on my Big List of BC Wineries these days, I hope that I can be of some help when it comes to figuring out where you want to go.

So as I work on updating the list to include the most current new and soon-to-be-open wineries in the wonderful wine regions of BC, I will let you in on some locally known tips and advice about wine touring from professional wine groupies like myself to help you get the most out of your excursions. Along with a previous post about Wine Touring Secrets, this should give you a good start if you’ve never been to wine country before or if you’re looking for new ideas. There’s a lot to see, especially in the Okanagan Valley, which leads me to tip #1…

Tip #1 – You aren’t going to see it all in one week, so don’t try.

I’ve lived here almost 8 years and there are still a handful of places that I haven’t been yet. There are too many wineries with too many wines that it would be nearly impossible to get through them all. I’ve been to a lot of wineries for interviews for writing stories, blog posts, and podcasts along with regular wine tastings. I’ve seen some people completely haggled from trying to cram in too many stops on their journey. While it’s nice to cover lots of ground, there’s very little chance that they are able to appreciate all of the experiences at each place. Plus, palate fatigue can really set it making everything taste a little more neutral than it otherwise would and you might miss out on something spectacular. From my own personal experience, I know that on a good day I can hit about 6 wineries before it all starts to taste like mush. 2 wineries in the morning, lunch, 2 wineries, snack, 2 more wineries, dinner. I’ve done days that are longer but it becomes a slog and that’s not what wine touring should feel like.

If you have never planned a day at the wineries, I suggest you plan to visit 3 to 4 wineries on each day that you allocate to wine touring. Start at a winery in the morning, have lunch somewhere (or stop at a winery that has a restaurant), and then two more wineries. Call it a day in the late afternoon and head to the pool or beach before dinner. It takes away the slog factor and you won’t feel burned out after one day.

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Tip #2 – There’s more to taste than just wine.

OMG, did you see what I just wrote up there?? Holy #$%^ I don’t think that’s ever been written on a wine blog before! But I wrote it because there are other fine beverages available for tasting in most regions of BC now. The Okanagan has many other beverage manufacturers including breweries, cideries, and craft distilleries and are as uniquely interesting and worth a stop as any of the wineries out there. Plus it is a great way to refresh your palate mid-tour and get you back in the game for more wineries later on. If you really want to go for a full day and cram in as many wineries as possible, this is probably the best thing to do to keep your palate fresh. I’ve done it a few times and it works great. Check out my list of other fine beverage makers in BC (which I am also in the process of updating). The Vancouver Island and the Okanagan Valley are both starting to see more of these places appearing on the maps. Plan a little detour and check them out.

Tip #3 – Have someone drive you

This should go without saying that driving yourself to multiple wine tastings is a bad idea. Even pros like myself that spit everything can find that wine can have an effect on you and possibly make driving unsafe. From my experience, tasting wine all afternoon makes me hungry. If I forgot to bring snacks or if there is no food stops for a little while, I’m essentially a driver that is distracted by my tummy rumbling when I should be fully alert and concentrating on driving safely. If, like 95% of wine tourists that I have seen, you drink all of the wines that are offered to you, the alcohol can add up quickly. All winery staff are trained through the Serving It Right program to observe customers and we can often tell how “far along” you are before your tasting even begins. Think that winery always pours skimpy amounts of wine? Most tasting bar staff will short-pour for people that are beginning to show signs of the happy-hoopla.

The alternative is to get on with a professional wine tour company that will drive you around. There are tons of options now available for this so check out travel websites to find one that suits what you are looking for.

If you are going to be driving your group around, have someone navigate for you – preferably someone who is actually good at navigating. Valley and island roads are not an obvious urban grid and even the best quality GPS’s give ludicrous route suggestions. Some towns here also have a strange habit of changing their street names every 20 years. Forget the electronic and go with the Wine Route markers along the highway. They are (shockingly) updated quite quickly and often more current than the maps

Tip #4 – Large groups have different experiences

It all depends on what your expectations are but from my own experience as a tourist and as a tasting bar staff member, large groups (more than 6 people) have a wildly different experiences than smaller groups. If having a good time with a lot of friends is what you want to get out of spending the day at wineries, then touring in a large group is going to be fun for you. But if you are really interested in learning about the finer details of the wines, the winery’s story, and maybe more about the region itself, stay on your own in a small group of 2-4 people. You will be able to ask questions a lot easier and wine shop staff will be able to converse with you more directly than having to project the answer to a larger group of people, all of whom (from my experience) will have varying degrees of “give-a-shit” when it comes to actually listening to the answer or adding their own “smart” comments.

While there are some wineries in BC that can handle large groups, many can’t cope as easily. Sometimes it’s a space issue, sometimes staffing, and sometimes it’s a winery that is just too darn popular and gets overrun easily. Wineries that have the extra space will sometimes bring groups into another room away from the main tasting bar area so that they can focus on the group without distracting other people in the wine shop. This is a good thing for both the large group (who are getting special treatment in a way) and the other patrons in the main tasting bar.

Groups get goofier as the day progresses so little can be experienced in that situation. Wine shop staff know this and most inwardly groan at the mere site of a large group because they know that they will have to work very hard but won’t be able to actually sell very much. Many wine shop staff have trouble with groups because it requires a lot of extra energy to keep a group’s attention focused on what they are saying. Using the same sales pitch as a small group on a large group doesn’t work either and so a good staff member will have to tailor their spiel to suite the group.

When I worked in winery tasting rooms, I actually enjoyed presenting to groups because I found it fun, challenging, and was a change of pace from the rest of my day. I was comfortable with improvising so I rarely said the same things twice. I’m sure it also helped that I can be loud when I need to. However I recognized that the experience that the groups were getting was far different from the ones that a twosome would get. At one winery I remember a couple that had been part of a group came back the next day and did another complete tasting. They really enjoyed the wines and wanted to try it but without their friends in the large group. I conducted both tastings and it was completely different because I could answer their questions directly and clearly without the extra distractions.

Tip #5 -You will buy more than you planned

Especially if you hit a series of wineries with especially well-trained tasting bar staff who can really chat up the wine. Wine touring is weird that way because, if you think about it, you are essentially travelling from sales pitch to sales pitch. Imagine cruising down the potato chip aisle at the supermarket with a person representing each potato chip maker there lined up with their portfolio of chips ready for you to taste. It’s a little bit weird if you think about it but wine touring is essentially like that. What other industry relies on product tasting before purchase?

Ok, stop thinking about it.

The point is that you will probably try a wine that you didn’t expect to like, fall in love with it, and buy half a case. You only had two spaces left in the case of wine in your car when you went in but there you are buying more. It happens and it’s not a bad thing at all. (Although you should control your finances – Wine Country BC does not assume any liability for indebtedness incurred by or related to extraneous wine purchases made under the advice of the tips hitherto presented.) It’s what makes wine touring that much more interesting because I guarantee that you will remember your trip each time you open one those bottles.

Tip #6 – Put the phone away

The best way to experience something is not to hold up your phone right in front of it. Contrary to what you would imagine, it’s the older generation that seems to be more distracted by playing with their phones at a wine tasting. Rarely have I seen anyone under 30 not be fully attentive at a tasting bar because they are texting, Faceplanting, or Tweetgramming. Of course if there is something interesting that you like to have a picture of, go for it. There is absolutely no shortage of stunning imagery in wine country. For whatever reason, vineyards are rarely planted in ugly places so capture those memories. But please don’t forget to fully experience standing at the top of the vineyard with no sound except the wind blowing the vine leaves or the woody and fruity smell of a barrel room. These things can’t be stuffed into a phone or camera and I can guarantee that you will be missing out.

Tip #7 – Have fun

Visiting wineries should be fun. If you aren’t having fun at a winery, then leave. It’s as simple as that. There are plenty of wineries out there and you are under no obligation to buy anything. If you aren’t having a good time, then you aren’t going to enjoy their wine and I would even go farther and say that you will never enjoy their wines again. I’ve had bad experiences with a small number of wineries and to be honest, it’s hard for me to enjoy anything produced by those wineries. It’s probably a psychological association but it happens all of the time. That’s why it is so important for wineries to do everything that they can to make sure that their customers enjoy their experience. It’s also up to customers to keep their expectations within the realms of reality and not make silly demands. Unless you already know someone at the winery, demanding a private barrel room tasting with the wine maker for free is not going to get you the status and respect that you are craving.

Customers should enjoy what the winery is offering you and if you don’t enjoy it, move on to one that you do enjoy. Thankfully, not all wineries are the same otherwise it would be a very boring wine tour. Find a winery you enjoy and you will relive that experience every time you open a bottle of their wine or see their label in the store months or even years later.

Wineries should offer more than just a few dribbles, a plate of stale crackers, and tasting bar staff that only offer canned conversation and get their wine information from the back label. Customers don’t travel all the way to your wine shop for that. Time to up your game.

Tip #8 – Plan local

Keep things close to where you are staying. If you are staying in Kelowna, don’t plan a trip to Osoyoos because you will spend more time driving than sipping. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful drive and well worth it, but make it part of the trip and stay in Osoyoos. Penticton, being fairly central in the Okanagan with lots of amenities, is nicely situated with quick access to many different regions – Naramata, Summerland, OK Falls, Oliver/Osoyoos, and the Similkameen.

Another good idea to drive father in the morning and then work your way back to wherever you are staying. That makes for less driving at the end of the day when you might be more tired.

Enjoy yourself on your trip and let me know how it went! Share your touring tips and comments here or on my facebook page.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

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

IMG_0885

Wine Labels in BC: How Wines are Named

There is a lot of information on wine labels. Sometimes deciphering them can be a bit of a challenge. There are strange words that don’t look like they’re in English and it’s probably because they aren’t. I vividly remember walking down the aisles of my local liquor store trying to figure out which wine to buy for dinner and having absolutely no clue about any of them. In this series of articles, I will explore the information behind the labels for wines made in BC.

In general, wines are usually named after 3 things:

  1. The grape variety or varieties used to make the wine (as in Merlot or Chardonnay)
  2. A proprietary name (i.e. a name that the winery simply made up, as in Oculus or Nota Bene)
  3. A place name, usually for the region where the grapes are grown (as in Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Champagne)

If you’ve ever been confused by the things that are written on the labels, perhaps this will help you out when you visit your local wine store or winery. Let’s start with the grape varieties first.

The Grape Variety or Varieties

IMG_6224There are thousands and thousands of grape varieties out there and the ones that we see on wine labels here in BC represents only a small portion of what’s available around the world. There are many families of grapes out there but the one that concerns us the most here is called Vitis Vinifera. Vinifera grapes are the ones that have been the most popular for making wine and some of the names of them will probably be familiar; Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and many others.

Wineries in BC have been making wine from these Vinifera varieties for only the past 25 years, although there were a few intrepid producers who planted Vinifera vines in BC before then. Some wineries make wines using only a single grape variety as the source of juice. This kind of wine usually lists that particular variety clearly on the front label like the Joie Farm Riesling on the right.

Sometimes the wine is a blend of two different varieties, such as Thornhaven’s ever-popular Sauv Blanc / Chardonnay, or Quails’ Gate’s Chasselas Pinot Blanc Pinot Gris. It’s not just whites that get this treatment either. Hester Creek’s perpetual Cabernet Merlot combines the names of the 3 grapes used in the blend (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot).

Sometimes these names get a bit long. So for those wineries interested in brevity, they can use…

Proprietary Names

IMG_6216These are wine names that have been made up out of the blue: Fandango, Legend, Old Main Red, A Noble Blend, Two Hoots, and Beleza. Usually, but not always, these wines are blended with two or more different grape varieties. Sometimes it does get a little confusing as to which ones are the grape varieties and which ones are the proprietary names. Newer wine tourists should never be afraid to ask how the wine is named because it is not always obvious, especially with rare grape varieties. A wine label with the word “symphony” on it suggests that it is a proprietary name when it could also be a wine made with the grape variety called “symphony“. On Vancouver Island there is also a winery called Symphony Vineyards but thankfully they label everything clearly by variety. It helps to look at all of the labels clearly.

Proprietary names may not be able to tell you a lot about the wine but it’s very likely that the winery has a reason for its name and perhaps a story about it. From my experience, it is easier for people to recall unique proprietary names when shopping for wine the next day. A wine called “The Fifth Element” is far more uniquely named and memorable than a “Chardonnay”.

Unique names almost invite the consumer to look into the wine. They are almost forced to examine the bottle more closely and read the back label more carefully. A merlot is a merlot is a merlot and may not garner any more attentive examination than that. A bottle with “Hypothesis” written on it will likely be examined far more thoroughly.

Place Names

Wines named after places are much more common in Europe, or as wine people like to call it, the “Old World”. The 3 examples of place names in BC wine that come to mind use the names of the towns only, but only one of them does it directly. “Calona” is a homonymic spelling of “Kelowna” and Oliver Twist Estate Winery was the first to incorporate the town name of Oliver into a winery name, among other meanings. (They cleverly promoted their use of screw caps – i.e. the twist-off, and of course alluded to the novel by Charles Dickens.) Osoyoos-Larose, a blend (not ironically) of the Groupe Taillan’s most prestigious Chateau Gruaud Larose and the town of Osoyoos, also uses the name of the town as part of the name.

20150102-222119.jpgA critical difference with all of these examples is that these are the names of the wineries and not of the wines themselves. There is no winery called “Chateau Bordeaux”. There are many chateaux (wineries) near Bordeaux (the city) that make wine and we generically refer to them as “Bordeaux” wines based on that.

It may happen here at some point in the future but it seems unlikely to be any time soon that anyone will sit back and relax with a glass of “Penticton” or “Oliver” the way that we do with a glass of Bordeaux, Chambertin, Beaujolais, or Chablis. The local town names here don’t seem right as the dominant name on the label nor do they roll off the tongue as the European names do. That kind of thing isn’t impossible in the “New World” (aka. not-Europe). If I put a glass of red wine in front of you and told you it was a Napa, what would you assume it was made with? Even for most casual wine lovers, Napa is synonymous with big, rich reds and particularly Cabernet Sauvignon. White wines from Napa (aka Chardonnay) and reds from the Willamette Valley (aka Pinot Noir) are also sewing their place names tighter to the variety or style.

A Domaine

We are pretty lucky here in BC with our labels being relatively easy to read. There aren’t too many obscure-sounding names to mispronounce or any “Chateau This” or too many “Domaines de That”. The wine industry here has grown along with a clean and modern style of branding that really seems to prefer uncluttered, easy to read labels. The same can’t be said of wine labels from the rest of the world and any cruise down a liquor store aisle will tell you that (especially in the German section). Burgundy confused me at first but I think I’m getting a handle on it now (after 10 years).

The issue here in BC is this: Will it even matter? I think it is starting to matter, perhaps more than wineries want to admit. I think that there are differences between the north and south of the Okanagan valley that is quickly becoming apparent. Could that one day be a part of the information on our wine labels? Sub-DVA’s like the forthcoming “Golden Mile Bench” are going to put a spotlight on a smaller piece of land very soon. Why can’t that happen to the Black Sage Bench or West Kelowna? Perhaps we need the divisions to build up first before we see them on labels.

Next time you pop a cork, think of the place where it came from. Enjoy your glass of Osoyoos (Syrah)!

~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

Off-Season Wine Touring

No crowds means lots of time to learn about the wines.

No crowds means lots of time to learn about the wines.

Touring off-season is awesome. Here’s why.

  • Lots of winery action to see (in the fall during harvest).
  • No crowds.
  • Special wine tastings.
  • No crowds.
  • Undivided attention of the wine shop staff.
  • Beautiful scenery (colours in the fall, snowy vineyards in the winter)

Sometimes there’s other treats to be had, especially if there’s a regional festival or promotion going on such as OOWA’s Winter in Wine Country or Summerland’s Light Up the Vines.

This biggest piece of advice I can give to anyone looking to tour wine country in the off-season is this:

Call first.

Like, with an actual phone. Call the winery and find out if they are open and what their hours are. Do not rely on Google, websites (wineries are notoriously slow at updating their own sites), app or blog (including this one) to tell you what the current hours are for any winery.  (I had a customer complain to me the other day that Google told her that we were open until 6pm. I told her that we had changed our hours and that we were now open only until 4pm. She then asked why it was listed on Google as being open until 6. I calmly explained that we can’t control Google’s content but in my mind, I face-palmed.) Use the phone and talk to a human.

I used to create a list of wineries that were open in the off-season and some of them are still generally open throughout the year. I’ve stopped trying to update the list since it becomes a crazy case of tracking down information that just isn’t easily available. The general rule of thumb is that the bigger the winery, the more likely it is to be open year-round. They will also be closer to larger towns and on main routes like Highway 97. Some of them may have restricted their hours (again, call first, don’t Google) for the off-season and likely have reduced staff as well. Always book ahead if you’re thinking of arriving with a big group (more than 6).

Wine Availability

It’s important to know that not all wines will be available. If you are looking for that fresh and lovely aromatic white wine in the late fall, chances are pretty good that it will have sold out long ago at the winery. Likewise touring in the early spring might mean that the next vintage of your favourite big red won’t be released until mid-July. Some wineries have set schedules for releasing their wines because they know how their wines react in production and plan accordingly. Others release their wines as soon as the previous vintage has sold out. Very few wineries release their wines only when the wine is deemed ready by the wine maker or winery owner. These last two scenarios mean that any particular wine could very likely be released at any time of the year. The best thing is to follow the winery’s website or through social media in advance of your trip and actually ask them directly.

A new experience

Plan on taking your time. I’ve had some of the best experiences in wine shops in the off-season both as a customer and as a wine shop sales person because I wasn’t in a rush. I’ve had many great conversations and learned a ton of information about wine at these times. I remember going to visit a winery for the first time in July and feeling irritated that there were so many other people around. I didn’t get have even half of the experience that I’d hoped for. It wasn’t the winery’s fault, it was mine because I expected to have an experience that was just not possible at that time of year. I still avoid going to wineries in the height of summer if I can. I also see very little industry visiting the wineries during the summer where I’ve worked.

Be considerate of their time

Also note, if you are going to call your favourite small winery and get them out to open their wine shop for you, you’d better be in the mood for making a big purchase. And just so we’re clear, 4 bottles of wine is not a big purchase at most small wineries. It may be big for some but it’s hardly worth opening up a wine shop for only a few bottles. You should be willing to purchase upwards of a half-case minimum (6 bottles) but a full case is more like it. This precludes the whole ‘shopping around’ experience that is much easier to do in the summer. I recommend only visiting wineries that you are at least somewhat familiar with and know that you enjoy their wines. Nothing is more annoying to a winery owner as opening up a wine shop, talking about and maybe pouring wines for a half-hour only to have the people say thanks and leave. Do your research first and be ready to load up the car. Buy a bottle at a VQA or private liquor store first to see if you like the wine before making the call to the winery.

Have a great time touring wine country in the winter. Don’t forget your camera – it’s pretty here all the time! Cheers from wine country!

~Luke