5 Years of Wine Country BC

WCBClogo20120924-232640.jpgHard to believe it’s been 5 years since I started Wine Country BC. Technically the website was registered in July and the first article published July 26th but the first podcast wasn’t released until Sept 8th. I usually consider sometime in August to be the official non-specific blogiversary which, interestingly, I’ve never ever celebrated before or even cared to.

So why now?

Well, as you’ll notice, I’m not actually celebrating. Celebrating something means doing something festive to mark the occasion. Currently the only thing happening is writing this post. That’s not celebrating. That’s just Sunday evening. Nothing special there.

"I drank WHAT???"

“I drank WHAT???”

So much has changed in the BC wine world since 2009. There are a lot more wineries, especially in the south. There are a lot more better-looking wineries that have taken the time to design their wine shops with some amount of care. There are a lot more industry associations (“generic marketing bodies” we call them, sometimes, mostly behind their backs). Currently there is the possibility of BC’s first sub-region – the Golden Mile Bench – which I think will have a fascinating effect on wine lovers (seeking to discover what makes the sub-region so special) and on winery managements (seeking to make their wines special with a new marketing opportunity). Just like wine itself, only time will tell its true value.

There will be more podcasts. There will be more articles, news, rants, and touring information. There will be more tips and tricks, things to look for, and wines to seek out on your travels.

But there will also be some changes. Cosmetic, some of them, but also structural such as a fresh new look to the website. Nothing big but hopefully useful to all you BC wine-lovin’ folks who have been so faithful to this site over the years. A guiding principle in creating this site was to connect people with wine country when they could not be here. I’ve always tried to put up information and stories that I would have wanted to read before I moved here from the coast. Most people visit the Okanagan in the summer and only the die-hards (or fool-hardy) visit in the winter. (The really nuts among us stay here all year…) But there’s a lot that happens between visits and I hope I’ve been able to fill in the blanks a little bit for you with some great new features and content.

So thank you all for reading, listening and sharing your wine country experiences with me for the past 5 years. It’s been a blast!

Cheers from wine country.



Posted by on August 17, 2014 in General, News, Rants


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Podcast 146 – Wine Tour Companies Part 3


Ok, there’s been a lot of articles lately so let’s get back to the podcasts.

Anyone who has toured the Naramata Bench in the summertime will recognize the name Top Cat Tours. Their buses are almost synonymous with wine touring in Penticton. As one of the oldest wine touring companies in the Okanagan starting in 2001, they certainly have connections and offer a full range of experiences all over the south Okanagan. Tour packages include Summerland, Naramata, Okanagan Falls, a “South” tour to the Golden Mile in Oliver, and the “Cross-over” tour of both Summerland and Naramata. Lunches are generally included and there’s always lots of space to put your newly acquired bottles as you go.

In this podcast, I speak with David Brooks, long-time driver for Top Cat and an all-around fun guy who offers his experiences, tips for touring, and how to talk shop with a volcanologist while wine touring.

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Posted by on August 13, 2014 in Podcasts


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Why You Should See “The Lake”

It’s always interesting when worlds collide. For instance, 15 years ago I was employed by the Canadian Music Centre’s Atlantic Region office as the manager and later worked in the Vancouver office after I’d decided to move to BC. The CMC is a wonderful organization that supports Canadian composers by functioning as a library, archives, and record-label that focuses on compositions from composers working in Canada. I still receive emails from them occasionally and I like hearing about news within that community when time allows.

The last email that I received was fascinating though because it mentioned a winery.

Quail’s Gate to be exact. They are hosting a performance of a Canadian opera called “The Lake – N-ha-a-itk”. The music is by composer Barbara Pentland and the libretto by poet Dorothy Livesay. If those names don’t ring a bell then maybe the name of the true-life character in the story might – Susan Allison. Visitors to Quail’s Gate know that she, with her husband John, were one of the first European settlers to live in the Okanagan valley. They built the Sunnyside Ranch (which is now Quail’s Gate’s location) and lived in the ranch house now known as “Allison House” that still stands on the Quail’s Gate property today. It also used to be Quail’s Gate’s wine shop which is where I stopped in for a tasting in 2003.

The story is about what Susan saw in the autumn of 1873 on the lake – Ogopogo, the famous creature that lives in the Okanagan Lake and in the hearts and minds of souvenir shop owners throughout the valley. It’s a fascinatingly accurate starting point for western culture in the Okanagan Valley and the performance is all the more special because, through some freak cosmic alignment, it’s going to be performed in the very place where the story actually happened. The hermenutical musicologist in me is flipping out about the significance of this performance because of this.

It’s culturally significant to everyone in the Okanagan and it’s being represented through music that is there (and has always been there) to do that – show us who we are as people and bind us together in some way. Cultural similarities are what tie us all together. You are reading this article now because you enjoy being a part of the wine culture that emanates from the Okanagan Valley through the bottles of wine that you bring home from the Okanagan or your local wine store. Wine is what binds you to this culture and sharing stories and experiences enriches that relationship. As someone who grew up as an anglo-Quebecer devoid of any real culture to speak of (other than the constant struggle to be allowed to speak our own language – that’s another story I don’t want to get into here), I can tell you it was shocking to move to a place where everyone spoke the same language and knew all the same songs and stories. Culture was something new to me and it’s a notion that I still have to grapple with occasionally but still fascinates me. As a professional wine nerd, I spend countless hours studying the texts of this culture (magazines, books on wine, bottles, photos, etc) in order to immerse myself in it the way that an athlete studies the history, legends, lore, and attitudes of their chosen sport. I’ve been exploring that recently with the sub-culture of motorcycling which has its own set of cultural practices, history, and vocabulary.

Barbara Pentland is probably one of Canada’s most under-rated composers, male or female, and this music is from an earlier stage in her career. I had the opportunity to perform some of her orchestral music with an orchestra I was in when I lived in Vancouver and I remember it being a challenge to play, but enjoyable. I recognize that perhaps “The Lake”, being ‘classical’ music (for the record, I hate that term) may not immediately send you rushing out to get tickets, I urge you to consider doing so because it is a part of our shared Okanagan culture. ‘Classical’ concert music in real life is every bit as powerful and moving (more so in my opinion) as it is in the movies, which is where most people seem completely comfortable with it and perhaps expect it. It can have subtle uses in film and viewers might not really appreciate it in the moment other than it sets the mood or heightens the dramatic tension. I expect the Harry Potter movies would have been far less thrilling had they been entirely set to songs by Katy Perry or Justin Bieber.

The lake moderates our climate so that grapes can grow in Naramata, Summerland, and Kelowna. It provides a means of transportation (remember when Highway 97 was closed for a month in 2008 between Summerland and Peachland?), refreshment (beaches), and recreation (boating, water skiing, swimming, etc.) that unites all of us who dwell between these mountains and who make the Okanagan our home.

And really, we’ve all looked for Ogopogo at some point.

Cheers from wine country!

Tickets for performances August 14, 15, and 16 are available here.

“The Lake” is presented by Astrolabe Musik Theatre and The Turning Point Ensemble. More information is available here.

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Posted by on August 11, 2014 in Events, News, Rants


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The Highway Stars of BC Wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is it a real wine country experience?

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

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

Cheers from wine country!

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Posted by on August 10, 2014 in Rants, Touring Info, Winery Visits


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Domestic Market Pride

20140806-204556-74756105.jpgMy first real BC wine ever was a bottle of Sumac Ridge’s 199? Blanc de Noir sparkling wine. I bought it on my first ever trip to Vancouver where I spent New Year’s Eve 1999-2000. For anyone who is over 30 today, it was an extremely special New Year’s because, if we believed all the scare-hype about it, there was a good chance that planes were going to crash out of the sky and our debit cards might not work the next day because of the buzzword of the time – “Y2K”. So we all partied like it was 1999 and everyone remembers where they were (or at least where they ended up) on that most memorable of New Year’s Eves.

The bubbles from Sumac Ridge were purchased to celebrate Y2K with friends and it was a blast for a lot of reasons. I knew very little about BC (this being my first time in the province) and nothing about BC wine other than that I’d heard that there was wine produced here. One of the big memories I have of the evening though is that the other people at the party all knew about Sumac Ridge and recognized it as a special wine. I felt I’d done a good job shopping for wine (which I was very timid about doing at the time – wine was still very strange to me then) and the congratulatory praise for my purchase was the seed that has since grown into the petulantly stubborn but keenly guided focus that is only slightly tainted by pretentious elitism. In other words, I liked BC wine enough to buy more.

I’m kidding, of course. I’m not that keenly guided.

My point is that without the wine world of Vancouver really getting behind the home team of BC wine, there is little doubt that this industry would exist as it stands today. We don’t need to depend on an export market the way other regions have to (can you say “Australia”), depend on the market whims to keep them in business (will NZ Sauv Blanc always be popular?), or suffer through XXXX years as we await the ultimate doom of a wine that has not been widely consumed for nearly 3 full generations (Sherry). Currently, BC wine is both diversified (absurdly so, for better or worse) and resilient (what downturn?) because the “buy-local” mentality has permeated our daily habits. Events like Orofino’s “1.6 Mile Dinner”, the Similkameen BBQ King, or any of the locavore type events held in the Okanagan would have been nearly impossible to hold profitably a generation ago and would likely have been seen as just a hick country event that no one from the city would care about much less understand the need or appeal.

But somehow, folks from Vancouver and Victoria, and maybe Calgary too have started riding the “BC Wine” train more frequently. I meet people everyday from these places and they are all enjoying themselves as they explore the nearly limitless amount of experiences that they can have when touring through wine country. It’s exciting for me too because I get to share and have a small part in their enthusiams. Wine people love to share. That’s something I noticed when I first starting working in this industry.

But there’s also been a shift towards pride in local producers that extends beyond wine. I don’t know which one has influenced the other but I know that for myself, wine was the doorway to all kinds of other things that I never considered searching for locally – cheese, berries, meats, and vinegars. Take the changes that have happened coincidentally with a place like Krause Brothers Berry farm in Langley. I remembered going there to pick strawberries or raspberries one time in 2001 or something. It was a little building in a big field. It was a u-pick and I remember getting a good amount of something that we made into jams and jellies. I went back a couple years ago and the place was like Disneyland for berry lovers – it was insane! The building and the parking lot were tripled in size from my last visit and there were people everywhere. I was amazed and glad to see that they had become so successful.

Have other businesses like that grown up at the same rate because of the same zeitgeist that has supported the BC wine industry? Maybe. Is it beneficial? Sustainable? I think so. Will I support that in any way I can? I will do what I can. (Thanks for reading.) Was wine the genesis of this particular zeitgeist? Maybe. I’ve written about that before where wine starting with honey and then chocolates but it could easily be extrapolated out from anything grown or produced locally. Wine draws your attention into a particular place because the flavors of the wines are going to be different depending on the location where the grapes are grown. It doesn’t surprise me that people are starting to look around for other things once they get to that place. Have fun looking around.

Cheers from wine country.


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Posted by on August 7, 2014 in Rants


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Wineries Need to Give Wine Bloggers More Respect


I didn’t get to attend this year’s Wine Blogger’s Conference but still somehow feel the need to ‘spread the word’ a little and Valerie has done a great job with this article. You should also read the comments below it for some added arguments pro and con as well as alternative viewpoints. Self-reflection and introspection (or navel-gazing) has, for better or worse, always been a significant part of any WBC that I’ve attended (although interestingly less so in Penticton for some reaosn) and apparently this tradition lives on in the recent conference. More than just applicable to wine blogging though, I really think it’s a bigger part of the zeitgeist – musicians have effectively been deprofessionalized slowly over the past 50 years and writers are in that boat now too. Anyone with a big digital camera can be a “professional photographer” or produce videos easily using nothing but an iPad app. People who may have real talent now have a lot of outlets for it but at what cost? I once had a winery tell me, “Thanks for the free publicity!” as I was leaving after recording a podcast and it soured my outlook on blogging and the work I was putting into creating the podcast. Why was I just giving away my skills and working long hours just to tell their story? My online presence changed soon after that as I moved from a “tell their story”-mode to a “tell it like I see it”-mode. As such, I now rarely introduce myself to new wineries anymore preferring to receive a more ‘anonymous’ public experience of the wine shop (which is what most of my readers / listeners will get) instead of getting whatever VIP treatment the winery can offer. I’m not interested in free wine, I’m interested in *wine* and at this time of my blogging / podcasting life, I will say what I want to say. If your winery has a wine that interests me, I will write about it or include it in a podcast. I can only write about my point of view. I think people who read wine blogs do so because of they know that it’s someone’s point of view and not contrived marketing. That’s where I think wine bloggers need to focus – tell your story, not theirs.

Originally posted on Taking the mystery out of wine exploration!:

Inspired at the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference

I was recently at the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara, California, on a scholarship. During the conference, I attended a number of intensely interesting seminars, in addition to having some serious talks with industry folks about wine. I spoke with fellow bloggers, PR reps, wine writers, winery owners, and even winemakers. Throughout the conversations and seminars, I kept pondering on the relationship between wineries and wine bloggers, and that this relationship needs to be developed and intensified.


Social web network marketing diagram Brands Rousers Luis Gallardo

Now, before you jump on this, read with an open mind. This post is not being written to complain about wineries intentionally disrespecting wine bloggers. The whole point is to create awareness and dialogue of where wine blogging stands, how wine bloggers are helping wineries, and illuminate the not-entirely-functioning relationship between wineries and wine bloggers…

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Posted by on July 20, 2014 in Podcasts


Sunshine Parade 2014

20140712-121626-44186620.jpgFor those that don’t live here in wine country, you might be surprised to find out that there are other things that happen here that don’t involve wine. Shocking as that is, there are lots of fun local events that aren’t based on wine at all. Penticton has a Peach Festival and where I live in Oliver, there is a Sunshine Festival that also includes a parade. Since living in Oliver, I have attended the parade a number of times, walked in the parade twice, and 20140712-121625-44185718.jpgalways had a good time – even when it was raining. The kids get to sit there while parade people throw candy at them, various organizations put on displays, and the local fire department goes berserk hosing everyone down as they bring up the rear of the parade. It’s fun in a small town kind of way and I wouldn’t miss it.

But I’ve always thought that there has always been something missing from the parade. For a town that calls itself “The Wine Capital of Canada”, there has been very little of the wine industry represented in the parade. There are plenty of wineries and wine organizations (where’s OOWA?) that I think could be represented in some way. Like or not (there are plenty of locals who are not thrilled with the wine industry) wine is now a significant part of economic and civic life in Oliver and the south Okanagan. In 2011, Oliver had 3,543.18 acres of vineyards that represented almost 36% of the total vineyard production in BC, more than twice the size of the next region, which happened to be Osoyoos. 58% of the wine grapes grown in BC are within a 20 minute drive of Oliver in any direction. The economic impact of that is not small. For the province of BC, it’s a 2 billion dollar a year industry with 58% of it growing on the vine right here in Oliver.

20140712-121627-44187549.jpgThis year was the first that I remember seeing any particular winery represented in the parade itself. I could be wrong in this since I was walking in the parade for the past two years and did not get to see the whole thing so please correct me if I’m wrong. This year, a grand total of 2 wineries participated in the parade. Big kudos should go to Kismet Estate Winery and Tinhorn Creek Estate Winery for bringing some barrels out to party, showing some civic pride, and representing the local wine industry in our own town for perhaps the first time.

To be fair, I’m not sure where the fault really lies with the separation between local civic pride and the industry that surrounds it, but I know it takes two to tango. It’s easy to sit in a winery office out in the middle of nowhere and feel far removed from the local town and its people. Most interactions and transactions occur with people who are not from here or who are in other regions altogether (sales agents, licensees, club members, etc). There can be very little connection to the local world from the winery’s end other than a few staff members, like myself, happen to live in town. Do the festival organizers seek out participants in the parade? I don’t know. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that these are really two different worlds that just happen to share the same postal code.

As someone who lives in Oliver, Wine Capital of Canada, and is also part of the wine industry, that’s a shame.







Posted by on July 12, 2014 in Events, Rants


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