The Terroir of Tasting

I believe that where and when we taste a wine will have an effect on how we perceive the wine. The physical conditions and environment of the person along with those of the wine will influence perception. I call it the “Terroir of Tasting”. How can wineries better prepare their own wine shops to have better tasting terroir for their customers? The same is true for music – listening to a song at a loud concert with all of the sensory stimulation that comes with it (light show, smells, other people, etc) is very different from listening on an iPod in the dark – so why not for other experiences like wine?

Don’t agree? Try pouring a glass of your favourite wine into the most suitable stemware that you own. Turn on some appropriate music, light some candles, maybe prepare a little food to compliment the wine, and then… take that wine and drink it while sitting on a bucket in a broom closet with the door closed.

Not the same experience, is it?

“The wine tasted different at home than it did when I tasted it at the winery,” said more than a few customers to me over the years while working at a wine store. There must be reasons for that and it may help understand the terroir of tasting a little bit more. It’s not a scientific study or anything (this is a wine blog after all, not a peer-reviewed academic journal) but are a collection of observations based on my own experiences. Just like in Jonah Lehrer’s book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, science generally proves what art has already figured out first. A great article recently in The Guardian also touches on this subject as well.

So, why do the wines sometimes taste different when you get them home? Let’s explore…

1. Travel Shock

Wine bottles get shaken up a lot while they are travelling. While there’s nothing scientific to prove that the wine is somehow different after arriving home, I think it’s always a good idea to let the wine rest for a while (maybe a couple of weeks) before opening it after coming home from your wine country excursion. Just like wine, we can be travel shocked in a way as well. Having a glass of water is a little boring during a meal but I’m pretty sure most people think it tastes pretty amazing after a vigorous run or a workout.

2. Decanting or Ageing

Sometimes wines poured in a tasting room have been open for a little while. They may have been exposed to oxygen for an unknown amount of time and anyone who has worked in a wine shop pouring the same wines each day for years knows that the same wine will change as it is being pour throughout the day. (I always used to feel bad for whoever had to taste the top 2 inches of wine from a freshly opened premium bottle of Cab Franc at winery where I used to work.) It may be that you, as the wine customer, tasted the wine at a point that you really enjoyed.

While I’m on the subject, glassware is also hugely influential on how a wine will be perceived. Notice I didn’t say how a wine will taste. Some styles of wines just show better in some types of glasses. I did a podcast about this early on using a Pinot Noir and the results were astounding even though we were all a little sceptical that it would make a difference at all. I’ve visited a couple of very promising new wineries and been very disappointed because, for whatever reason, they skimped on the glassware or were using glasses that were entirely inappropriate – wrong size or shape for the portfolio, or just plain cheap. I’m not saying that every winery has to have Riedel Vinum XL’s or anything but if the winery plans to sell a $45 meritage as the top end of their portfolio, it won’t show very well in a $3/stem thick-walled wine glass they bought in bulk at Canadian Tire.

3. Palate Fatigue

20141108-213136.jpgEven professional tasters admit to palate fatigue. Everything starts to taste the same and none of it is good. Or at least the distinguishing flavours are a little more blurred than they would have been. Tasting the wines at the 7th winery of the day is going to be different than if it had been the 1st winery that day. It’s not rocket science to figure that out. Wine makes us hungry and after we’ve had food, our tastes seem to settle down a little.

4. Bombardment of the senses

Wine tasting is really a multi-sensory experience. Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer was intently interested in creating works of music that encompassed more than just listening to sound. Schafer (in the late ’70’s) listed the traditional Catholic Mass as a true multi-sensory experience because it involved all of the senses (sight – the beautiful church, smell – incense, taste – communion, sound – music, touch – kneeling) and this was a huge influence on all of his works. His best music had to be experienced in person and some of them sound utterly ludicrous without the proper context. Hearing 12 trombones perform around the edge of a lake in the wilderness is vastly different than listening to the same music on an iPod while waiting for the bus in the rain in Vancouver. (A completely random example that I may or may not have experienced myself…)

A turntable and a large record collection are part of the experience at Culmina.

A turntable and a large record collection are part of the experience at Culmina.

I’m amazed at how little thought goes into the acoustic environment in a wine shop. Live music can make it feel more like a special event and some wineries have really built a tradition with having regular live entertainment. I created a whole project designed for performance in wine shops and have personally seen what adding music to the mix can do to lighten the mood. Thornhaven, Dirty Laundry, and Sonoran in Summerland and Hester Creek in Oliver all have regular music performed throughout the summer months. There are probably others who have live music but these wineries have been doing it for a long time. Does that effect the tasting terroir? You bet it does.

Colours help as well. Is the environment bright or subdued? I’m amazed at how many so-called ‘architects’ or ‘designers’ think that dark brown or black is an appropriate colour for a wine bar. Thankfully we’re seeing this change with the newer, more thoughtfully designed spaces like the bright white spaces of Painted Rock in Penticton and Liquidity in Okanagan Falls. Other wine shops have more earth-toned ambiance that also work well. I love the differences between each wine shop because it really expresses the different personalities of each location. Rustico‘s shop is an old-time saloon, cluttered with wine, signs, and products everywhere and it’s great. Meyer Family Vineyards is surrounded with windows that show the vineyards rising up all around them and it’s spectacular when tasting around that focused tasting bar. Ancient Hill‘s wine shop is a classically grand and has unique views without loosing its cosiness that really contributes an elegance to the wines.

Delhi to Dublin at Festival of the Grape '12

Delhi to Dublin at Festival of the Grape ’12

The only sense that needs to be restricted is the sense of smell. A stinky wine shop will not sell much of anything although neither the customer nor winery owner will be able to put a finger on why. Possibly the only thing aromatic that I can think of that will enhance the experience is a yeasty, cellar aroma which is part of the wine’s own natural habitat anyway. Terravista in Naramata has their tasting platform (it’s a piece of glass across some barrels) in their tank room and it’s a cool experience tasting the wine steps away from where it was made surrounded by all of the sights, aromas, and ambiance of the cellar. I remember tasting the first vintage of Painted Rock‘s Syrah outside of their old, tiny tasting room after it had just rained – the smell of wet earth lifted the syrah right out of the glass. It was an unbelievable experience.

Scented products like soaps or incense have no place in the wine shop to be sold as gifts. Those scents are distracting and can interact quite badly with the wines. I did a test at a wine shop where I worked some years ago: An otherwise beautifully scented soap turned an otherwise beautifully scented Pinot Gris into the pleasant smell of rotting flowers instantly. We opted not to carry that product.

Unless all of those winery smells are exactly the same at home, it’s likely that these differences will influence how you perceive the wine once you are home from your trip to wine country.

5. Context

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

Church and State’s comfy tasting bar

Then there is the context of the wine drinker and the wine itself – where are they in their day? Is there an optimal point for both to get the most out of wine? This is a big part of what intrigues me about what I do in wine sales. Wineries sometimes shoot themselves in the foot by not taking into account the ‘terroir’ of their tasting rooms. They can’t control the timing (when a customer will actually taste a wine or how many wineries they’ve already been to) but they can be aware of their tasting room environment. There is one other thing that can be either beneficial or detrimental to a customer’s wine shop experience and it’s something that I’ve found that I am tolerating less and less the more wineries I visit.

The tasting bar. There’s just something about it that has always bothered me. In terms of efficiency (getting the most customers through the bar quickly) it’s hard to beat. But I don’t have a bar of my own at home and if I did, I’m not sure that I would drink my wine standing up at it. When I go to bars, I usually get to sit down rather than stand. After visiting a half-dozen wineries, I find standing at them to be kind of tiring. None of this occurred to me until I stopped working at a winery with a tasting bar and started at another winery without one (FYI – Black Hills). It was a truly enlightening experience because I realized that the customers were getting an entirely different experience without having to stand uncomfortably at a tasting bar. They could relax, listen, have a proper conversation, and actually take the time to enjoy the wine rather than “splash and dash” through a portfolio of 8 wines in 5 minutes before hitting the road. Black Hills isn’t the only one doing this. Culmina has sit-down guided tastings and you can also sit down at both Church and State‘s and Painted Rock‘s tasting bars. Mission Hill and Hester Creek both have tours or experiences that feature guided tastings in different locations away from the typical tasting bar. Did all of these wineries really put a lot of thought into their customer’s tasting terroir when they deigned their building or set up their wine shop? You bet they did and it shows.

Conclusions

It’s time that wineries in BC start to thinking about how they present themselves a little more. Some wineries have not really given the ‘tasting terroir’ of their wine shops much thought and it shows. I’m sure that most of the successful wineries have already done this and realize how important it can be to presenting their wines as best as possible. It can also be taken a little too far where the experience overshadows the wine by a long shot (where most people remember the experience but can’t recall anything about the wines).

If you are a winery, please take the time to consider how your guests are experiencing your wines. Little changes can make a big difference in sales.

If you are a tourist in wine country, take the time to appreciate the effort that a winery has put into their ‘tasting terroir’. Some of those special touches can be used at home to make your own wine experiences more enjoyable.

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.

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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

 

 

How can a wine be DRY??

**I realize that this article might seem a bit pedestrian for the typical wine-savvy Wine Country BC reader or podcast listener. I write things like this so that these topics can get discussed more often. Sometimes wine knowledgeable people need to be reminded that some things that seem simple are not always obvious to the average person. Also, you might be able to share this kind of thing with friends who may want to learn more about wine.**

There are a couple of things that I’ve noticed that people have trouble understanding about wine. I know this because I am one of those people. Or at least, I was. It’s come up a lot over the past couple of years over the course of my daily work routine at wineries and wine stores. Everyone has their own unique way of learning and understanding the world around them and their own way of communicating about it. Therefore all customers have their own unique ways of explaining how they’ve learned about wine and describing what they like or dislike.

This means that everyone comes to the tasting bar with a different set of parameters about what they like in a wine and what they expect. Pair that with the different experiences and skill levels of whoever the staff is behind the bar and the possibilities of miscommunication or reinforcement of errors is huge. The flavour of oak in wine is one thing that I think many casual wine lovers are somewhat negligent about. (I’ve had customers who state in no uncertain terms that they can’t stand oaked wines praise the lovely cocoa and vanilla aromas in the merlot that I’d just poured for them…) This isn’t as common as the one thing that I’ve noticed that seems to be all over the place in terms of understanding about wine; Dryness in wine.

I always used to wonder why a wine was considered DRY when it was most obviously NOT DRY. Wine is a liquid. Liquids are WET. WET is the opposite of DRY. Right?

Well, no.

Ok, so when I drink a wine and my mouth feels DRY after I swallow it, then that’s a DRY WINE, right?

Again, no. 

Does it have something to do with “after taste”?

No. That is a term that comes from beer ads in the ’80’s and doesn’t make sense for wine. In the wine world, we call it “finish”. Wines can have a short or long finish. But maybe that’s for another article…

When a wine is said to be DRY, that means that there is no sugar in it. It’s that simple. Dry wine is wine that has no perceivable sweetness in it.

Grape juice has lots of sugar in it and tastes sweet. Wine is made by fermentation when yeast will eat the sugar and turn it into alcohol. Eventually, the yeast will eat all the sugar and the wine will be considered to be DRY. At its most basic level, wine is simply grape juice with the sugar completely removed.

Residual Sugar

Sometimes, the wine maker will not want a wine to be completely dry and will opt instead for a wine that has a little bit of sugar left over. This is called “residual sugar” and means that the wine will have some amount of sugar that wasn’t fermented by the yeast. The wine maker may have filtered the yeast out of the wine before it had a chance to eat all the sugar. Alternatively, the wine maker may have added sugar back into the wine after it had been fermented completely dry so that the finished wine has more sugar than it would have had if it were DRY.

A wine that has a little sugar in it may not actually seem to be sweet but may instead appear to be very smooth in texture. A wine with a proper balance of residual sugar and acidity will feel very smooth when you drink it. An imbalanced wine will either be cloyingly sweet (too much sugar) or tart and sour (too much acidity). Some styles of wine are much better with a little sugar (Gewürztraminer here in BC springs to mind) while others are best when completely dry (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon). Most all wines will likely contain at least a tiny amount of sugar since not all of the sugar present in grapes is fermentable.

So DRY wines have no sugar in them, what are wines called when they do have a little sugar?

They are called (creatively) OFF-DRY. Usually off-dry wines won’t appear very sweet at all, if they are done right. They should simply taste smooth. It’s almost more of a texture difference between DRY and OFF-DRY wines. Off-dry wines are great with foods that have a spicy edge to them – Cajun catfish, Thai sauces, southern barbecue, etc. The sugar will offset the heat of the spice and make a wonderful combination.

There are more levels of sweetness in wines that range from DRY, and OFF-DRY. The continuum goes something like this:

  • DRY – least amount of residual sugar
  • OFF-DRY – a little bit of sugar, hardly noticeable to most people
  • MEDIUM – noticeably sweet at this level, great with the really spicy dishes, as an aperitif, or with light desserts
  • SWEET – the sweet stuff – dessert wines, Ports, Madeiras, Sauternes, Late-Harvest wines
  • LUSCIOUS – no other wines are sweeter than this – Icewine, high quality Tokaj

Some grape varieties are great at specific sugar levels but there are some grapes that are marvellous at all sugar levels from bone dry to lusciously sweet. Riesling and Chenin Blanc are two of those grape varieties that we have here in BC that can be made at all residual sugar levels. Riesling’s home is Germany and Alsace but there are many fine examples in BC; Gehringer Brothers (they make 5 different Rieslings at various sugar levels), Tantalus, 8th Generation, and Wild Goose all spring to mind. Chenin Blanc is rarer here but it be made brilliantly at all sugar levels in the Loire Valley and in South Africa.

Balance

This is where the concept of Balance becomes important. Balance refers to the amount of residual sugar and acidity being perceived in balance when tasting a wine. If a wine has tons of sugar (such as in an Icewine) then it must also have tons of acidity to balance it, otherwise the wine will taste cloyingly sweet like syrup. (Every kid growing up in Quebec has, at least once, tried to drink maple syrup. FYI, it’s not as good as you’d think, probably because there is no acid to balance it.) Likewise, a wine with a huge amount of acidity will taste sour and unpleasant if it isn’t balanced with some amount of sugar. When the two elements of sugar and acidity are in balance, the wine will have a smooth texture and be quite pleasing to a lot of people.

Of course there are different styles of wine that make use of tipping that balance to one side or the other. Some wines need to be crisp and refreshing. These wines will be balanced more towards the acidic side of the spectrum. Some people prefer these types of wines while others will find them not enjoyable at all, preferring the sweeter, smoother style. At some point, it simply comes down to personal preference. People who are very wine knowledgeable seem to deride the sweeter styles of wines in favour of the drier style perhaps because of ‘tradition’ or perhaps because sweeter wines are more appealing to the masses and are therefore written off as being ‘simple’. Even within that community, it still boils down to personal preference. For myself, I enjoy a sweeter wine with spicy food or even without food (which I rarely do unless the wine is sweeter) but I do love those very crisp, high-acid wines with meals because I think it pairs better with food.

Most of the time I’ve noticed that to most people balanced wine is like a movie musical soundtrack – nobody notices it at the time but it makes the experience better. A wine without a balance between acidity and sugar is like a movie without any music at all – just kind of awkward and you’re left wondering why you’re sitting in the dark watching a big flash light projecting pictures on a wall. If a wine is good and you like the way it tastes, then it’s good for you. Enjoy!

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

(If you have any questions about wine that you’d like me to tackle at some point, please leave me a comment here or send me a note at winecountrybc(at)yahoo.com, and I will try to answer your question as best I can.)

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

We’ve been forced to close our on-line store – for now.

winecountrybc:

Ok, kids, how does this fit into the grand scheme of things? It seems that the world of “virtual wineries” is under some scrutiny at this point. Wine maker Brad Cooper, long-time former wine maker at Township 7 and now at Serendipity in Naramata, has been producing top quality Pinot Noir under the Black Cloud branding for almost 6 years. He has recently volunteered to take down his online sales site because of a “crack-down on virtual wineries”. There are a lot of virtual wineries out there in BC right now but the line between a “virtual winery” and a “label” seems a little fuzzy. Has anyone ever visited the Prospect Winery? How about Sawmill Creek? OKV? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Many upstart wineries begin their production in other wineries’ facilities using the licence of the established winery until the upstart winery is established and can move into its own facility. Painted Rock’s first vintages were completed at Poplar Grove. Le Vieux Pin’s first vintages were also completed elsewhere. Incubator custom-crush facilities like Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland have multitudes of labels belonging to ‘virtual’ wineries – what will happen to them? Seven Directions, wine maker Daniel Bontorin’s rosé focused label, is another one along with a sundry of other garagiste-type labels that have really made the BC wine scene vastly more experimental and extremely interesting over recent years. Could this be the end of this kind of creative experimentation?

Suffice it to say that “crack-downs” from bureaucrats are usually initiated by outside complaints rather than initiated from within the bureaucracy. While it will be interesting to see how this plays out, this is an unfortunate turn of events for wine makers like Mr. Cooper and Black Cloud leading up to the Christmas Season. Just like on their labels, let’s hope there is a silver lining.

~Luke

Originally posted on Black Cloud:

If you been over to www.blackcloud.ca you will have noticed that the site is down. We shut it down voluntarily after a BC Control and Licensing inspector made it known in no uncertain terms that a crack-down on virtual wineries was happening and that Black Cloud, a brand of Serendipity Winery, was under scrutiny.

According to the powers that be, there is only one kind of winery in BC. That’s the kind that they license, and brands like Black Cloud, operating under the wing of another operation, are not going to be tolerated. They don’t like wine e-commerce to start, and operating a site without direct correalation to our parent license holder is making them, shall we say, concerned.

In a business environment that favours the landed, the financed and the established, it’s getting harder and harder to be an innovator and to create a winemaking environment that is…

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Podcast 148 – Conversation with Marcia Hamm

MeI met Marcia Hamm last summer when I was working at the winery. She and I had a lot to chat about and it became obvious that we just didn’t get enough time to talk. So we kept in touch and I jumped at the chance to record a chat with her in person when she was visiting West Kelowna recently.

Marcia is busy running her own business and wine blog Joy of Wine and has recently become the manager for a new wine store in St. Albert, AB called Hicks Fine Wines which is scheduled to open mid-November (although at the time we recorded this, the plan was to open November 1). She recently appeared on Breakfast Television in Alberta talking about wine pairings – interviewed by a guy in a cowboy hat (is that really how everyone dresses in Alberta??) Selecting a wine portfolio for a new wine store is every wine lovers dream and Marcia is living it. She’s got a lot of diverse interests and is truly passionate about wine.

So sit back, relax, and grab a nice glass of red for this podcast. Cheers!


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Podcast 147 – Similkameen BBQ King 2014

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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.

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End of the Run

20140214-125934.jpgAnd so it goes. Another season is winding down. Time to rest, or hibernate, over the winter until waking up renewed in the spring, ready for a new season. Just hoping I don’t have any big expenses during hibernation.

Oh, you thought I was talking about the grapes? Yeah, them too. You see here in the Okanagan, it’s the end of employment season, when most little worker bees like myself are out of work. In 7 years I’ve lived in the Okanagan, I have had 1 year of full-time employment over the winter and about 3 years of part-time (3/4 time -which I thought at the time was pretty good) employment. It’s the single biggest thing that makes it very difficult to stay here. When I tell people that my music career is really supporting my wine career, the truth is I’m not really kidding. Before moving to the Okanagan, I’d heard rumblings about the “Sunshine Tax” but I thought that they were kidding. They were not. People who live here choose to live here but not because of the money, that’s for sure. Or if they have money, they didn’t get it while they were living here.

When I travelled to Winnipeg last summer, I kept meeting many people my own age who were on vacation with their young families. Aside from the joy of being able to talk to people of a similar age (that doesn’t happen often in the Okanagan), what I got out of most of those conversations was that the Okanagan was not a place where one can easily make a living. It’s a constant struggle sometimes. That was behind the genesis of the Wine Country BC’s podcasts – something to do until another opportunity arises. That’s my theory as to why blogs are so popular right now. They are something for Gen-X’s to do until they can get to do what they really want when the Boomers retire. Unfortunately, the Boomers are retiring but their shoes are being filled with the Millenials that are younger and clearly a safer long-term investment. The question now is, can I really keep things afloat by staying in the Okanagan?

Only time will tell but as things are headed towards the jobless section again this year, I’m rethinking what it takes to make a living in the wine industry here. I love talking and writing about wine. I love helping people learn about it and sharing experiences about it. Hence the outlet for me that is this very blog / website that you are reading right now. However, I’m learning that just like starting a winery, blogging (or writing) is very much like a winery – you can’t really make at any money at it and the people that are able to start it up quickly are the ones who are already generally well off anyway. I’ve seen lots of bloggers come in for free tastings and schmoozing before heading off in their BMW. Blogging is obviously not a career that would pay for such a vehicle so is is it more of a hobby for them? Maybe a pastime?

Wine, fine wine in particular, is sometimes seen as a highbrow beverage that is only appreciated by the richer classes. Certainly there is an element of that but I would argue that that is also true of other items. It used to be cellphones were only for the rich (or perpetually busy) because they were the only ones who could afford them (or needed them). Perhaps in the future, cars with gasoline engines will be only for the well-heeled. That’s not really a stretch to predict that kind of change in our world, but it’s safe to say that there will always be some form of social stratification out there for anything, including wine.

Wine is quite simply food. It is an important food culturally, nutritionally, and socially. Civilization as we know it in the western world sprang from the grapes on the vines. There’s a reason why it’s mentioned in the Bible and other similarly ancient texts. Wine production pre-dates literacy. We drink wine with others to have funny stories to tell our kids. I believe that is, in essence, the meaning of wine in a nutshell. It’s really that simple.

Blogging and podcasting have always been something that have interested me and I will continue to do so even after making my millions. Regardless of what the future holds for me, as long as there is enough fascination with the world of wine and the desire to write about it or record it, I will be posting here from wine country. As long as I have wine to drink, I will no doubt have funny stories to tell.

Cheers!

~Luke