You’ve gotta visit: Hugging Tree

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

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

IMG_7026Why you should go there

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

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

What to expect

IMG_7025

Brad Makepeace

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

IMG_7027

The wines

Viognier

Rosé

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

Moonchild Merlot

Vista (65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Syrah)

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

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

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

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.

DSC_1480

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

Corcelettes Moves to the Upper Bench

Jesce and Charlie from Corcelletes

Jesce and Charlie from Corcelletes

Celebrated garagistes Corcelettes Estate Winery in the Similkameen Valley have graduated and are on their way to becoming a larger production winery with the recently announced acquisition of the Herder Winery and Vineyards. Corcelettes also has a new ownership team which will now include Charlie Baessler, his partner Jesce Walker, Charlie’s parents Urs and Barbara, and their new partners, Gord and Diane Peters, long-time friends of the Baessler family.

20140625-101026-36626035.jpg

Charlie Baessler

The tasting room and production is all planned to take place at the former Herder location on Upper Bench Road. Located next door to Clos du Soleil, down the road from the historic Grist Mill, and around the corner from Robin Ridge, Corcelettes will be ideally situated for wine tours and offer a spectacular views among other innovative experiences. With Clos du Soleil’s new building that is scheduled to open in 2015, that area of Upper Bench Road looks like it will become the hot spot for wineries in the Similkameen.

So, inquiring wine nerds want to know: What’s going to happen to Josephine, Herder’s iconic red blend? According to their recent press release, Jesce Walker, Co-owner & Sales and Marketing Manager explained, “Although we are in early days, we are in discussion to brand the infamous Josephine red blend and perhaps other Herder trademarks under our Corcelettes brand.”

If you’ve toured the Similkameen wineries and Keremeos and are not familiar with the Herder property, you are probably not alone. It was a small production and limited visibility on maps meant that only people who were aware of it even noticed that it was there. That will likely change for the better with Corcelettes moving in and also joining the Similkameen Wineries Association, which promotes the region as a whole through tourist maps, online campaigns, and events such as the Similkameen BBQ King Championship. In fact, Corcelettes could now be the closest winery to the BBQ King event since it is within easy staggering distance from the Grist Mill. I sense an after-party in the works…

(Actually Robin Ridge may be closer physically, but I won’t knit-pick.)

In any case, this is an exciting new development in the Similkameen winery scene and one that I will be closely following as it progresses. However it develops, put Upper Bench Road in the Similkameen on the itinerary for your next wine tour.

Urs Baessler, Barbara Baessler, Jesce Walker, Sharon Herder, Charlie Baessler

Urs Baessler, Barbara Baessler, Jesce Walker, Sharon Herder, Charlie Baessler (photo supplied)

Past articles and podcasts on the Similkameen Valley.

BBQ King 2014

BBQ King 2013

BBQ King 2012

BBQ King 2011

Similkameen Wineries Association podcast

Corcelettes Trivium 2013 podcast

 

 

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

Podcast 147 – Similkameen BBQ King 2014

20141108-193751.jpg

This little piggy went to Burger 55…

20141108-193943.jpgWhat can I say about the Similkameen BBQ King that I haven’t already said before? For starters, in this podcast at least, I just shut up and started listening to what others had to say. Other media people and other attendees at this year’s competition. As always, it was tons of fun. As always, the food was top notch. As 20141108-193911.jpgalways, it was the most entertaining food and wine event that I’ve ever been too and nothing has really matched it in my mind. There were a few new competitors this year and the weather couldn’t have possibly been any better. Yes, it was hot. But we here in the Okanagan find that normal and enjoy it when it cools down to 32 degrees. All of this made this year’s BBQ King the best one that I have ever attended.

This podcast contains lots of people – chefs, attendees, and media types. I actually managed to corner Anthony GismondiAnya Levykh, and Kayla Bordignon who all offered their own unique perspectives on Similkameen wine and the experience of attending the BBQ King.

Sit back, relax, and enjoy the sounds of the Similkameen’s best (and maybe BC’s best) wine and food competition. For the complete multimedia experience, pour some BBQ sauce into a small dish and smell it occasionally as you listen.

Or don’t. You know, it’s just an idea.

20141108-193829.jpg

Podcast 143 – Courcelettes’ Trivium in the Similkameen

20140625-100901.jpg20140625-100924.jpgThis week’s podcast is all about the new wineries in the Similkameen valley, which seems to be where my motorcycle takes me frequently for some reason. It also features a new winery from the Similkameen Valley called Courcelettes. It’s the Baessler family’s vineyard and winery, which is named after their home town of Courcelettes, Switzerland. They are not new to the BC wine world and if you’ve been a fan of the Pinot Blanc from Clos du Soleil over the past few years, you should really be keeping your eye out for Courcelettes’ wines in stores. Click over to their website for more information about their wines and history.

20140625-101026-36626035.jpg

Charlie Baessler

Charlie gave me this wonderful bottle of their Trivium and that’s the wine that Calli and I are tasting in this podcast. I also bought a bottle of their red blend called Menhir with the intention of using it for a podcast or video but somehow it got imbibed for dinner with friends and, well, that’s how it goes.
Since recording this podcast, I noticed that they have their own ‘official’ highway sign up on Route 3 going through Cawston. Just to give you an idea as to where it is, it’s in the same neck of the woods as Eau Vivre but on the other side of the highway. Their website says that they are open from Thursday to Monday 11-5 so try stopping in on your next travel through the Sim. I know that’s where I’ll be heading as soon as I can.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

TINAWR Forbidden Fruit Merlot 2010

TINAWR – This Is Not A Wine Review – As loyal listeners / readers of my podcast / blog know, I’m really not big on wine reviews and tasting notes. Yes, they might be useful for learning about particular wines and perhaps they might be interesting to read in magazines now and then. But as a method of critical evaluation (usually concluding with a ‘ranking’ of some kind) I find they always fall short and reflect only how close or far a particular wine comes to the personal preferences of the reviewer. I can’t say that my own preferences won’t intrude on these either but my goal is to simply tell you about wines, wineries, and people that I discover on my journey while working and living in wine country. Even if you never get to visit these places, I hope that you can at least gain a little insight into what makes them tick and perhaps make them a part of your next journey in wine country. At the very least, maybe it will bring out another dimension in the wine that you may have not been aware. As always for me, I am always amazed at the memories that can come back when I taste of bottle of wine that I might have purchased years previously and perhaps that will make for some interesting reading. So here goes…

20131018-192518.jpg

Bright red fruit, sour cherry candy, violets, brick dust, and cocoa are the big aromas and flavors I get on this wine. It is a thousand watt merlot that blended from Similkameen and Okanagan fruit, all sustainably and/or organically grown. Forbidden Fruit Winery, through owners Steve Venables and Kim Brind’Amour, are very aware of the way farming practices can influence the wines that they produce as well as the environment. It’s something that they’ve been doing way back before buzzwords like ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ were cool. They’ve been growing fruit on their property, Ven’Amour Organic Farms, since the 70’s and have made a name for themselves with fruit wines until recently when they began to dabble with grape wine that they release under their Earth Series brand. As Steve has told me before, “Grapes are actually just fruit!”

I’ve been fortunate to visit Steve at the winery on more than a few occasions over the last few years for interviews for local wine publications as well as a feature podcast here on Wine Country BC. From our conversations it is clear that Steve is committed to growing fruit, crafting wines, and building his business in ways that take into account the needs and ecological capacity of the land on which he lives along with the impact his business may have on the world at large. He has an awareness of the world that I admire and it is reflected in the business decisions he makes. Somehow he is able to create this little oasis of calm and tranquility that I absolutely love to visit whenever I can. It’s such a quiet and peaceful wine tasting experience and it’s something that I think I can taste when I drink Forbidden Fruit wines.

When I recorded the podcast with Steve a while ago, it was a beautiful sunny and warm day in February. The wine shop is right on the Similkameen River with a picnic spot between shop and the first row of apple trees to the north. Usually when I record podcasts on location, I’ll use the tasting bar to set up my recorder because they are at a good height for capturing the conversation. Some wine shops have very good sounding ambiance which makes for an interesting recording. In speaking with Steve about Forbidden Fruit and organics, it seemed silly not to capture that conversation without making use of the natural soundscape of their location. As a result, I was able to capture our conversation with the sounds of the the wind, eagles hunting overhead, and the Similkameen River flowing in the background.

They have expanded the Earth Series wines to include other varieties (including a wonderfully aromatic Sauvignon Blanc) and have a large selection of fruit wines (from dry table wines, sweet and fortified dessert wines) which makes for a most challenging tasting bar experience. After a day of tasting grape wines, the refreshing qualities of the fruit wines seem to cleanse the pallet and challenge my vocabulary at the same time. Spend a day tasting everyone’s Pinot Gris, Chardonnays, Merlots, and Cabernet Sauvignons, and the same descriptors will keep creeping in. Taste a sample of the Plum Noir and suddenly all of those words you’ve been leaning on until then will simply not apply. I’ve probably made up more words with Forbidden Fruit’s wines just to describe some of the new tastes that I was expeiencing.

I purchased this bottle of 2010 Merlot on one of my visits to Forbidden Fruit WInery in the Similkameen Valley and these are some of the thoughts that I recall from this bottle. 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 130 – BCWine 101 The Similkameen Winery Association

The view from Seven Stones Winery south of Cawston.

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.

The Similkameen Valley is beautiful, and not in an easily identifiable, normal way. There’s something about this valley that is almost other-worldly.

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

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

I actually find it distracting to drive through it. The mountains are so shapely and imposing that I cannot take my eyes off them, in any season. This becomes a problem when I’m the only one in the car and must concentrate on keeping the wheels on the winding roads. (Except in Cawston, in the middle of the Similkameen’s vineyard area, where there is probably the longest, straightest stretch of road anywhere in BC’s interior.)

It’s difficult to really explain the place that the Similkameen Valley occupies in terms of BC’s wine industry. The terroir is not as studied as the South Okanagan and the reputation does not precede it like the Naramata Bench. Just like the wineries of the Columbia Gorge AVA from last year’s Wine Bloggers Conference, the Similkameen Valley is the little region that is often overshadowed by the more renowned neighbor and only people in-the-know understand that there is an amazing party going on there with wines that will blow you away.

The Similkameen also happens to be the home of one of my all-time favorite wine and food events – The Similkameen BBQ King Championship. I’ve recorded a podcast at each of the last two events (check out 2011 or 2012‘s posts and podcasts) and each time, the beautiful location of the historic Grist Mill heritage site, the amazing collection of local wines, and the Okanagan and Similkameen’s top chefs competing for bragging rights makes for an unbelievable event you won’t soon forget.

Even driving through the Similkameen is unforgettable. Imagine what the wines taste like from this unique place.

Joining me in this podcast are Similkameen Winery Association Chair George Hanson and Marketing Director Kim Lawton.

The Similkameen river from the patio of Forbidden Fruit Winery.

The Similkameen river from the patio of Forbidden Fruit Winery.

Wineries of the Similkameen Winery Association:

Cerelia Clos du Soleil Eau Vivre
Forbidden Fruit Orofino Robin Ridge
Rustic Roots Seven Stones Sage Bush Winery

Other Wineries in the Similkameen Valley:

St. Laszlo

Crowsnest Vineyards Herder Vineyards Little Farm Winery
Wine shop breezeway at Orofino, and winery built with straw bales.

Wine shop breezeway at Orofino, and winery built with straw bales.

DSC_1476

Vineyards in the Similkameen.