The 2015 LG’s are in

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

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

50th Parallel Estate – 2013 Chardonnay

BC Wine Studio -2012 Siren’s Call Syrah

Blasted Church Vineyards – 2012 Holy Moly Petit Verdot

Cassini Cellars – 2012 Cabernet Franc Collector’s Series

Church & State Winery – 2012 Quintessential

Enrico Winery & Vineyards – 2014 Tempest Ortega

Ex Nihilo Vineyards – 2013 Pinot Noir

Inniskillin Okanagan Vineyards Winery – 2014 Riesling Icewine

Lake Breeze Vineyards – 2012 Merlot

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

Platinum Bench Estate Winery -2013 Gamay Noir Block 28

Red Rooster Winery – 2012 Syrah Reserve

Ruby Blues Winery – 2014 Commune Viognier

Wild Goose Vineyards and Winery – 2014 Mystic River Gewürztraminer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 * Table wines only – does not include Icewine 

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

Nothing!

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

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Judge Carefully and Get the Facts

This came up last year and for some reason I was thinking about again this year as we in the valley begin to welcome the thousands of visitors over the summer. It was something that I didn’t even really notice at the time but has been showing itself a little more lately.

I was on a tour bus heading to an event last summer. I won’t say who’s or where I was going or why because that doesn’t matter. Most of the people on the bus were from a big city somewhere else and not from the Okanagan. There was a little conversation going on but it was early in the trip and people were a little subdued. I was just looking out of the window watching the scenery that I rare get to see because I am usually driving myself and shouldn’t pay attention to the scenery while driving.

As we passed by a special high mountain lake, I heard someone say something like, “Wow, it’s such a shame what’s happened to that lake. It looks so polluted.”

Further on, we passed a construction site where a large building was going up. It was fully framed and filled it but there were not yet any windows, doors or signs to indicate what it was. It happened to be on land belonging to a local Native Indian Band. “Must be a bingo hall, it’s huge!” is the comment I heard from someone on the bus.

As it happens, the lake in question is endorheic, meaning that the only way that the water leaves this lake is through evaporation. Any of the minerals that were dissolved in the water are left behind and collect in the lake bed. I know of at least 2 other similar lakes in the south Okanagan and there may be more. Even though they are colorful and can reflect light in weird ways that may not look like a regular lake, it doesn’t mean that it’s polluted. That is an assumption.

The “bingo hall” in question is actually the new Band offices for a local tribe. It is not a bingo hall.

I hear and see wine articles written all of the time about the Okanagan from people who, for someone who actually lives here, are obviously not that familiar with the landscape here. Of course, it’s completely unfair to expect everyone to have the same level of knowledge about a region from short visits that may not be that frequent. The Okanagan is a weird looking place and it took me a few years to really figure this place out – how far away things actually are compared to how far away they look. But reading “facts” like this have me questioning all of the books that I have been reading, including the ones currently for my WSET diploma and have read in the past. Most of the authors live in America or England. Who knows how many times they’ve ever been to the wine regions that they’ve written about. One imagines that it is often enough to know the intricacies of the land but how many times is that exactly?

Are the maps that I see in those books as badly drawn as the ‘maps’ that appear in most of the new wine books about BC? A recent book on Naramata has the towns and vineyard areas scattered around almost randomly, nowhere near their actual locations. Keremeos is too far west and is shown as being where Hedley actually is. Osoyoos isn’t near the US border and Summerland’s vineyard area is south of town closer to Penticton. Except that in real life there’s a mountain there and strangely no vineyards. Even casual wine tourists can see this is not accurate. What else in that book is not accurate?

Perhaps I’m being unfair but in some ways I don’t think I am. There seems to be less and less importance put on getting facts straight these days. Since 2000, anyone with a computer and microphone can call themselves a musician without any training in actual music and now everyone with a keyboard can be a writer. This is why I’ve always been hesitant about blogging and preferred podcasting instead. To be honest, I don’t actually read other blogs regularly because I like reading to learn new things and I can never fully trust a blog to tell me anything accurate other than opinions. I hope that you, who are reading this, can properly question what I’ve written here. It’s the debate and the questioning of motives, routines, and structure that I’ve learned to appreciate about blogs and why I still write for this one, albeit occasionally. With every post I always try to make sure that if I put anything truly factual up about anything in wine country, I’ve checked those facts to the best of my ability. It’s not rocket science, it’s wine with a little bit of basic geography. Please do your homework people.

~Luke

You’ve Gotta Visit: 50th Parallel

IMG_0948Located on the newly developed Scenic Sip wine route around Lake Country, 50th Parallel is a little far off the main route on Carrs Landing Road. Various routes will get you off Highway 97 to the shores of Okanagan Lake near Okanagan Centre. Follow the road north until you reach 50th Parallel.

Why you should go there

IMG_0949Because it’s amazing. Stunning. Awe-inspiring. But perhaps I’m being too subtle and understated. I’ve seen a lot of wineries and I’ve seen a lot of new wineries just starting out. This place is unbelievable in the sheer amount of details involved. Nothing has apparently been overlooked. The name 50th Parallel invokes their own latitudinal position and owners Curtis Krouzel and Sheri-Lee Tuner-Krouzel have creatively riffed on that for everything from marketing to design and architectural elements of all kinds. The results are clearly visible in the new building’s architecture (parallel lines are everywhere, vertical windows) and branding but are subtle rather than in your face or over the top.

It is also a vineyard with a past. For BC wine history buffs like me, this was a vineyard planted with hybrid grapes that used to supply wines to commercial wineries until the pull-out program in the late 1980’s. It was never replanted and remained essentially abandoned as a vineyard until purchased by Curtis and Sheri-Lee in 2008.

What to expect

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Winemaker Grant Stanley with Sheri-Lee and Curtis

Expect to be wowed. The tasting room is currently at one end of the winery where all of the tanks and sometimes barrels are located. Sometimes winemaker Grant Stanley might be working on barrels or racking or filtering and you’ll be able to watch the action. At the very least, it smells like a winery should – clean but with a cool, damp, refreshing feel that wine loves as it matures. The tasting bar is made from rafters from their old Quonset hut that used to be the winery for their initial vintages so it has a beautiful curve to it. There are guided tours of the vineyard that are available for a price and must be booked in advance. It’s well worth it if you like seeing where the wines come from along with stunning views of Okanagan Lake like you’ve never seen before.

The wines

IMG_0950Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir Rose

Gewurztraminer

Riesling

Chardonnay

Pinot Gris

Pinot Noir is their focus here along with a collection of aromatic whites. All the wines are solid performers. They’ve been racking up awards with all of them so nothing is “filler material” at all. The Gewurztraminer is a much drier style than most BC wines which brings out a unique aromatic profile. The Chardonnay is what I call a “classy” style – meaning, it has some oak flavors on it but it’s just a part of the complexity rather than a dominant flavor. It is a style that I think does well in BC And if you still write home at all, it’s the Pinot Noir that you will want to mention. Just smelling it in the glass, it made my eyes bug out of my head and I heard that old-style car horn sound (a-ROO-ga) that always sounds funny no matter how old you are. Needless to say, I took that wine home with me that day along with a bottle of the Chardonnay.

I first visited 50th Parallel in the early spring and was blown away by the thought that went into everything that they did here and the ultimate end result is absolutely evident in the wine. Complex aromas and flavors, balanced acidity, and just a general sense of thoughtful artistry is clearly in every sip. I’ve found that sometimes new wineries take a few vintages to really get their style established, especially across the portfolio but I believe that 50th Parallel has really reached that phase early on. When it does happen this quickly, it’s usually by happenstance, coincidence, or just blind luck. But in this case, with the amount of detail that went into the planning of this winery, I have come to the conclusion that this consistency is entirely by design.

I’ll meet you anytime at the 50th. Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

You’ve gotta visit: Corcelettes

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Corcelette’s new winery and wine shop have a prominent physical position overlooking the Similkameen Valley (Another Similkameen winery?? Noticing a trend yet?) from the northern slope which you can see from all over the Keremeos and parts of the Cawston area. It is close to the town of Keremeos at the junction of Route 3 and 3A and is located on Upper Bench Road. Follow the signs for the Grist Mill and keep going just a little further and it will be on the left. Look for the huge stones near the end of the driveway.

Why you should go there

IMG_0897At this point, wine maker Charlie Baessler does not make very much wine and he and Jesce Walker consider themselves to be garagistes although they probably won’t be that way for long. The wines that they make now are beautifully balanced and wonderfully complex made by two of the nicest people in the industry today. It’s kind of hard to explain these things without seeming all New-Agey but the personalities of the people who produce the wines can strongly influence how much you enjoy a wine. If I’m not connecting with a producer on a personal level for some reason (weird attitudes, bizarre methods, or just a “bad vibe”), it’s highly unlikely that I will like their wines. For small producers, personality will go a long way to driving sales and establishing long-term relationships with customers. I think that’s why some people prefer small boutique producers rather than large corporate wineries because they are so far removed from any human element. That’s just a theory though. Regardless of winery size, personality comes down from the top and the gang at Corcelettes are awesome and they let that awesome filter down through everything they do.

The other big reason to go, and go soon, is that they may be sold out fairly quickly and you really don’t want to miss out on the experience of this place.

What to expect

This is a small, boutique winery so expect a small tasting room with only one or two people staffing it. This isn’t a large volume winery with a big tasting bar so while they may not have many wines to taste, they will certainly have a lot of things to tell you about how they were made. Personalized service and lots of stories are part of the fun with visiting boutique wineries. They may also not have everything available to taste when you visit so enjoy the wines that they do have.

You will want to be taking lots of photos at this winery. The view is truly inspiring. It’s perfect for group shots.

IMG_0898The Wines

Trivium (Chasselas, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris)

Gewurztraminer

Oracle Rosé (Zweigelt)

Syrah

Menhir (Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah)

Two whites, two reds, and a rosé in the middle. And, did you notice that first grape variety in the Trivium?? If not, I’ll type it again for you slowly.

Chasselas.

Yeah, that’s right. I typed it. There’s not a lot of that grape variety in BC let alone in the Similkameen. I’ll let you be the judge of how it tastes but if I have to type it again, I totally will.

IMG_7120The style here is subtle complexity that can evolve over time or even as you drink a glass. The Gewurztraminer starts out with a beautiful set of flavors and then, when you aren’t looking, changes into something else beautiful altogether. The Trivium, unique in the Similkameen with 50% Chasseslas (there I go again…), does that to somehow. The Oracle is refreshing without being wimpy while the reds bring a solid fullness without any harsh, unripe tannins. This is what prudent, quality-conscious grape growing can do for making wines. The Baessler family has a history doing just that. If you’ve ever tried the Clos du Soleil Growers Series Pinot Blanc, that wine was grown by Urs Baessler, Charlie’s father, and is what brought them to my attention years before Corcelettes was released.

Go there. Be amazed. Enjoy. Tweet it with #bcwine. Then enjoy it some more.

Cheers from wine country.

~Luke

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

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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”.

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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

You’ve gotta visit: vinPerdu

A new series for Wine Country BC – “You’ve Gotta Visit…” where I will feature new, exciting, and interesting wineries that you absolutely should not miss on your travels through wine country. I get asked a lot where to go for unique experiences and this series will focus on some of the new ones that I notice on my own travels though the Okanagan the rest of BC’s wine country. 2015 is showing a good crop of new wineries and as you’ll see from this first featured winery, they are really upping their game when it comes to bringing out a great experience. Hopefully I will feature a new winery each week, if not more often, so that  you can plan your trips and stop in. Tell them you heard about their winery from Luke at Winecountrybc.ca. Cheers!

IMG_0935vinPerdu Cellars is located mere minutes south of Oliver right on Highway 97 and is on the left as you drive south. They have a large sign right out front and a parking lot that is easy to get into and out of without turning around.

Why you should go

IMG_7023There’s no reason not to stop here and every reason to stop here. Convenient location? Check. (It’s right on the highway.) Beautiful tasting room? Check. Solidly built and unique wines? Big check. Amazing winery experience? Absolutely.

Assistant wine maker Catherine Coulombe and her family have really done an amazing job of creating an idyllic space geared for a real wine experience. Even though the highway is right there, you won’t even notice it because the commanding view of the vineyards really steals the show. Thanks to some amazingly effective landscaping, you won’t even hear it either! Each part of the wine shop is beautifully designed for form and function and even includes a little play table for wee-ones. It is truly a first rate example of a wine shop design that blends customer experience, functionality, and aesthetics brilliantly. All five of your senses will get a treat in this wine shop. As if the beautiful vineyard view out of the windows wasn’t enough, the wine shop is filled with beautiful artwork by Catherine’s sister, artist Nathalie Denise Coulombe.

IMG_0936The Wines

IMG_7021A focused portfolio of wine is available as of spring 2015 – Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Compass (a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon). “French style, approachable wines” is how Catherine describes the wines at vinPerdu. They were tasting quite young when I tasted them on my visit but the style is precise and very enjoyable. There are no powerful, full-throttle, tannic monsters here nor are there aromatic varieties like gewurz, riesling, or sauvignon blanc. What you will find is selection of tasty wines that will get along splendidly with just about any food you can imagine.

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What to expect

In addition to wine, the Coulombe’s have planned catered food pairings to accompany the wines on weekends and terrines available to purchase while enjoying the deck that overlooks the vineyard.

The tasting bar can accommodate 8-10 people comfortably and there is also a private tasting room for small groups. There are relaxing chairs and a shaded deck overlooking the vineyard. It’s not a small room but it isn’t big either. When so many wineries out there look and feel more like bus stations, it’s great to find a place to stop in where you can feel at home.

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

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

IMG_7022

Mullings Over Wine Pretentiousness in the Digital World

Here is what I hear when I read reviews or listen to someone criticize wine shops, wine shop staff, or even sommeliers as being “pretentious”. I hear this:

“Everything I need to know, I already know. Anything that someone tells me that may differ from that is wrong, must be false, and is therefore completely fabricated just so that they can appear smarter than I am. They are just being pretentious.”

It’s like a delusion of intellectual grandeur, perhaps driven by the internet age’s self-serving gathering of “information” – “facts” that conveniently suit the searchers’ beliefs rather than challenging something that they think that they already know. The digital age doesn’t allow us to experience anything that hasn’t been added to our factual playlist. It’s very easy to say, when hearing something new or that conflicts with your previous knowledge or experience, that someone just made something up. It’s an easy defense against something that may differ from your own intellect or perceptions by belittling it or turning it into a joke and laughing at it. And of course, if it’s easy to do, it must be on the internet (or some news channels). Travel websites with reviews (hint: rhymes with “Mip Advisor”) are loaded with these kinds of reviews and, while I admit it’s kind of entertaining to read in a Jerry Springer-kind of way, it can get downright mean and needlessly offensive when the focus of the criticism is directed to your own work place. I’ve seen more than a few co-workers get angry and stressed over some of those more hurtful and ignorant reviews.

Here’s why I think it’s a little unfair to criticize wine professionals in that way, or to belittle them as “pretentious”. People who have spent years studying, learning about, and working with wine will very likely know more about it than you do. They have spent a good part of their lives and a large amount of money studying wine on a level that goes beyond the average consumer or enthusiast. Not everyone that you meet in a wine shop has that training but some of them do. Shockingly, they are not out to make you look like stupid or knock you off your pedestal in front of your friends even though that’s how some people react to it. They are sharing something with you that they love and find interesting and because you are standing in their wine shop or store, they assume that you want to know about those same things.

Mechanics are not criticized for being pretentious. Neither are medical doctors. Both are prized (and well paid) for their knowledge base and skills and we depend on both of them to get things fixed when things need fixing. They have both gone through lots of training and apprenticeships to get where they are and love what they do and do it because they love it. I want the pilot on my next flight to be the one who had pictures of aeroplanes all over his or her room as a kid, dreamt about being a pilot all day as a teenager, and loves every second of their time in the pilot’s seat. I don’t want the pilot who became a pilot because, it’s a job. Thankfully, becoming a pilot is harder than just playing Flight Simulator for weeks at a time and reading wiki articles. Just because you bought a big Nikon SLR and outboard lighting gear at London Drugs doesn’t mean that you are suddenly now a professional photographer. Those “filters” on Instagroan don’t make your photos look professional either – they stand out like a glass of grape Kool-Aid at a wine tasting. Simply knowing facts about something does not compare to years of dedicated training and experience.

I believe that both of those issues – false intellectual delusions of grandeur and de-professionalism – are internet-age personality disorders and are somehow related. Sometimes I think that my awareness of these disorders is part of what has held me back from writing in-depth articles. I know it taints some of the early podcasts when I consciously held back information because I didn’t want to come across potentially as a wine snob or elitist when really I am neither. Perhaps I was tentative to start blogging at all for the same reason. I never read blogs before and still don’t read them that often as part of my daily media diet. Who is this blogger to be so bloody all-knowing? Why do I think my comments are worth anyone’s time to read? What gives me the right?

Truthfully, I don’t know. I’ve been in the industry now for 10 years and have been lucky to have worked in almost all aspects of wine production – vineyard work, cellar work, u-brew, wine sales, wine shop management, and marketing. Maybe that gives me some experience that’s worth something to somebody? After 6 years of blogging, I’ve really enjoyed the interactions I’ve had online, meeting people IRL, travelling to new places, and learning about new things. I think most wine bloggers are similar in this regard. You would think that getting a lot of wine bloggers together would result in massive arguments and heated discussions about wine and technology as they all try to intellectually one-up each other. But after attending 3 Wine Bloggers’ Conferences over the years, the fact is that you’ll never get that many genuinely knowledge-hungry people that love to express their passion for their trade together in a single place without giving them an Ivy-league degree at the end. If anything those conferences are a respite from having to defend your obsessions with wine and wine knowledge against the spectre of being labelled as “pretentious”. Most attendees of the conferences that I’ve been to are nowhere near the classic wine-snob or the knowledge-insecure customer. They are eager to challenge themselves, to be proven right or wrong, and learn from any new experience being offered.

To be fair, the wine world has changed significantly over the past 4 decades, evolving from a formalized Hugh Johnson “Wine Atlas” terroir-based, European-centred approach on one side to meritorious “democratizing” criticism of Robert Parker Jr. and Wine Spectator on the other. The problem with the former is that is has a high resistance to change and has taken years to respect much of the industry outside of Europe. (The Oxford Companion to Wine, which I long ago nicknamed the “Condescendium”, being a prime example and really, who still publishes huge encyclopaedias anymore?) The latter can change direction on a whim and seem needlessly spastic in its focus on the current trends. Supertuscans may have been all the rage one year but almost invisible on the review pages next.

While we currently seem to believe that all knowledge that is knowable is somewhere online the fact is that the digital world is not the “all knowing”. If all you’ve got is “a thousand songs in your pocket” (from Apple’s early promotions of the first iPod), you’re missing out on all of the other music that isn’t in your playlist. There is nothing on your list that you didn’t put there yourself so there is no way that you ever hear anything that will challenge your listening abilities. Of course there is also the argument that mp3’s are only able to reproduce a very small amount of the frequencies of live sound, leaving all kinds of subtle overtones out. Zooming in on the pixels of a JPEG of Tom Thomson’s April in Algonquin Park online are nothing compared to what it’s like to stand in front of the same painting and see the the brush strokes, dead colouring, or craquelure up close. The digital domain can only really hope to reproduce a small portion of the world as it exists in real life. The digital world is not the real world. Information on the internet is not knowledge. Wine can only be experienced IRL, not on a blog, which is the main reason that I don’t do wine reviews here.

Outside of that digital world, there are people who actually have knowledge that can extend beyond the confines of a search engine. Humans have the ability to think beyond the threshold limits of what our little electronic devices are capable of. Let’s not belittle them by calling them pretentious.

Planning your trip to wine country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip #3 – Have someone drive you

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

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

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

Tip #4 – Large groups have different experiences

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

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

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

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

Tip #5 -You will buy more than you planned

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

Ok, stop thinking about it.

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

Tip #6 – Put the phone away

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

Tip #7 – Have fun

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

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

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

Tip #8 – Plan local

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

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

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

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Restaurants and Wine: A Love Story

I’ve had a few questions about restaurants and the wines that they serve. As this was a study topic for a recent WSET exam, I’ve been doing a lot of research about it lately and have some things to say. That said, I don’t claim to be an expert on anything about the decisions that go into creating a restaurant. I have no interest in doing so but admire those that undertake the complexities of an almost insane amount of decision-making that is required to get a new restaurant off the ground and then to keep it afloat afterwards. I’ve been lucky to have witnessed the start of a number of small and medium sized restaurants over the years. Some of the things that I’ve seen restaurateurs do are nothing short of super-human feats of creativity, mental acuity, and sheer mental strength.

Since this is a wine blog, the most frequent questions I receive about restaurants involve the wine list and those mysterious prices that seem to be marked up to the extreme. So what’s the deal with those exorbitantly marked-up wines on the list?

Le Wine Mark-Up

Here’s a shocking fact that I discovered when I first started studying this topic: Some restaurants don’t actually make any money on their food. To me, this is the most bizarre concept but apparently even for some top Michelin-Starred establishments, this can be the case. How can a restaurant make money serving food when the food doesn’t even pay the bills?

In short – beverages – and wine is a huge part of it.

Let me start this off right away with this; If you think wine mark-ups are high, you should see how much the fountain soda pop is marked up. It makes the wine list seem like a bargain. I would say that if the general public knew how little wine is marked-up relative to other beverages, nobody would complain about wine prices ever again. To stay in business though, restaurants need to be able to make money and if the food isn’t going to doing it, wine and beverages are going to be the most important source of capital.

There are many ways that restaurants can figure out how to price their wines. It’s not rocket science but it can be dangerous for a restaurateur to not pay close attention to it. Putting prices out of what their market can sustain is just bad business and no set of rules will work equally for different markets. The same wine at a high-end restaurant in Penticton won’t be able to go for the same price it could get in Kitsilano. While some of the suggestions for mark-ups border on greed while others are far more practical. If they choose to have even a modest wine list, they need to be able to do it reasonably well and there are extra expenses because of that:

  • Storage – Restaurants need to be sure they have enough wine on hand and that means storing the wine. Food items can be stored in a fridge, freezer, or pantry but wines need something more. Wines require a safe place that is free from vibration, temperature changes, and bright light. It also requires added security to prevent theft. Installing a proper cellar temperature- and humidity-controlled cellar isn’t cheap. Some wines will move more quickly while others will potentially be stored for much longer, sometimes years. All of these needs require investment and that requires money.
  • Staff training – You are now reading a wine blog and so therefore, you are probably knowledgeable and interested about wine to some degree. A lot of service staff are not as knowledgeable or interested, and may even be intimidated by it unless they’ve had the opportunity to work at a restaurant that has encouraged them to learn about wine. Staff training costs money for employee time, opening wines, and possibly food costs if pairings are part of the training. The really lucky staff members get to go on wine tours to wineries. I’ve given tours to many restaurant staff over the years and aside from learning about wine, the team building benefits are also huge.
  • Market demand – If people will pay for it, then why sell it for less? Restaurant are fortunate that they have an extra degree of control over their wine prices that wines stores don’t have.
  • Stemware – This is where a lot of restaurants (and wineries) try to save money. Sometimes they can get away with it if they have a reasonable glass that shows the wines well enough. Buying the cheapest ones at a bulk big-box retailer will not only make the table setting look cheap, but in a worst-case scenario also make the wines taste less than stellar. Quality stemware makes a difference, costs a little extra, and breaks as much as the cheap stuff.
  • Faulty bottles – Faulted wines are annoying for consumers but are expensive for restaurants who have to return the bottle to their sales agent or, more likely, simply write off the bottle and take the loss. Conservative failure rate estimates of wine bottles sealed with a natural cork run at 6% while new studies show 1-2% (for TCA-related faults), screw caps, Nomacorc’s engineered closures, and systems like FreshTAP can be saviours for restaurants who want to know that every ounce of wine will be saleable.

Not all restaurants can afford everything that it takes to sell wine properly and some of them may not even consider wine to be all that important to their bottom line. It depends on the market in their particular location. For some places though, the wine list profits effectively subsidizes the food and sometimes even pays for the staff salaries. Regardless of business plan, the mark-up has to match the restaurant. Toronto Master Sommelier John Szabo, quoted in a great article in the Globe and Mail article, said, “When I do get upset is when I walk into a casual place, the wine is served in a tumbler, it’s the wrong temperature, the server knows nothing about it and it’s still a 300-per-cent markup,” What is that mark-up paying for exactly?

Not staff education, that’s for sure. To me, that is the single biggest variable in making or breaking a profitable wine list and I think it’s also the easiest to fix. No service or sales staff member selling anything anywhere will be able to do it effectively without being confident and knowledgeable about the product that they are selling. I’ve given tours to restaurant staff where most of the staff aren’t familiar with wine tasting and aren’t confident in their own ability to taste. Granted, most of them are younger (early 20’s) and haven’t been truly exposed to wine culture yet. When they learn a little of the basics and experience wine in a fun and casual way, I can see the light bulb go on in their minds. I know that from then on they are going to approach their tables with a new confidence that will make selling wine that much easier. Even a small humble wine list can be made profitable with an educated staff getting behind it.

Le Wine List

The wine list itself is another point of contention with some people. Ok, it’s mostly just me but I think it’s more than just a big deal. Wine lists with wines supplied by only one supplier, such as a corporate winery or importer, are particular irksome, to a point where I simply put the list down on the table and order orange juice. It’s like going to family restaurant and being offered the same menu as a fast-food chain. I call those prefab lists “fast-wine”. I don’t want fast-wine because to me they are boring and the wine quality is never as good. I want wine that suits the uniqueness of the restaurant in which I choose to sit down. I understand why restaurants do this but as a consumer, it puts limits on the choices and very likely won’t match the food properly.

The “fast-wine” lists comes from a common technique that sales agents use to sell their products to the restaurants. I learned about it while taking the Wine Sales course at Okanagan College years ago and winery sales reps I’ve talked to since then have filled in more details since then. The sales agent will offer to build a whole wine list for the restaurant so that restaurateur doesn’t have to. It’s offered as a free ‘value-added’ service that takes that whole process off of the minds of the restaurateur who is probably only too willing to have someone help out with a complex task like that. The sales agent then creates a list (to the best of their abilities) that is suited to the menu (to the best of their knowledge of it) and, voilà – a “fast-wine” list.

Of course when selecting the wines, they will select most if not all from their company’s portfolio of wines that they are selling. The sales agent can offer further volume discounts for being the house wine (the least expensive wines on the list that available by the glass, half-litre, bottle, or litre) which is where the real sales volume is. The sales agent may get added commission for selling a lot of product to one place so the incentive is there to sell as much as possible efficiently. The restaurateur gets a full wine list and a single contact to make all of their wine purchases making re-ordering easy. Win-win right?

I would say that the customer is the one that loses. From my point of view, it’s the easy way out for a restaurant to sublet their wine list to a sales agent. Assuming that the sales agent is good at his or her job, they are probably going to have a lot of restaurants in their portfolio. That means that a Greek restaurant in Salmon Arm is likely to have a similar, if not exactly the same, wine list as the Greek restaurant in Vernon. Worse still is that the Greek restaurant could have the same wines as the Italian restaurant and the American diner in the same town and even on the same street. This wine list homogeneity is particularly visible at big restaurant chains that have multiple locations throughout the province. Obviously the food at chains or franchises is going to be the same no matter where it is, but they are far more likely to have one single wine supplier and have better volume discounts on their wine purchases because of it. Larger wineries that are attached to corporations are going to have the economies of scale and will be able to offer even bigger bulk discounts, incentives, and services than smaller independent wineries.

Occasionally I have found some medium-sized estate wineries as house wines at restaurant lists but it’s fairly rare. Those are the restaurants with the best wine lists and I will always try to buy wine at those places. Sometimes wine lists that seem to be diverse are actually not. Seeing Inniskillin, Woodbridge, Monkey Bay, Hogue Cellars, Ruffino, and Mouton-Cadet on the same list seems like a pretty good selection and there is a lot of choice for sure. Except all of these wineries are owned or distributed by one company and it’s very unlikely that there will also be any independent estate wineries on the list.

That’s really where it’s at. A restaurant that makes their own wine list for itself (nobody knows their food better) has put a lot of effort into it and it will always show. Very likely, they will have also put that much effort into other areas of their business – the head chef and kitchen staff, kitchen appliances, staff training, quality ingredients, tableware, stemware, décor, etc – and that will all be far more visible than the wine list. It may not be the easier way but the result will very likely be a better overall dining experience. When I see an estate winery as the house wine on a list, I will always order a wine at that restaurant because I know that if they made the effort with wine, the food is probably worth it as well. If they haven’t made the effort, then all I can say is, “Yes, I will have fries with that.”

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

BC VQA Golden Mile Bench now a reality

They have done it. The Golden Mile Bench can now be used on wine bottle labels starting pretty well right away. It will be seen as “BC VQA Golden Mile Bench”. The wineries that have vineyards within the boundary are CC Jentsch Cellars, Checkmate Artisanal Winery, Culmina Family Estate Winery, Fairview Cellars, Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery, Hester Creek Estate Winery, Inniskillin Okanagan Vineyards, Road 13, Rustico, Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, and Willow Hill Vineyards. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick made the announcement today at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards.

This is a big deal. It’s a big deal because they succeeded after 6 years of trying to clearly and scientifically delineate a unique area for growing grapes.

Part of the reasons for that was discussed on Monday evening at Okanagan College’s Speaker’s Series when the topic for discussion was “Vineyard Soils of the South Okanagan: Defining the Okanagan Terroir” by Scott Smith and Pat Bowen from the Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre . In fact, based on geological models, the Okanagan could be further into other distinct regions along with the Golden Mile Bench: Kelowna, Penticton-Summerland-Naramata (all together), Okanagan Falls, Vaseaux-Oliver, Black Sage Bench-Osoyoos.

20150330-222957.jpg(In my own humble opinion of course, Naramata and the wineries on Skaha Lake should be together and separate from the Summerland wineries, who have completely different geology as well as sunshine. Being on the east side of the valley gives Naramata way more sunlight than Summerland, as anyone who has relaxed in the evening shade on the deck of Local Lounge in the heat of summer can appreciate. Conversely though, Summerland gets the sun first thing in the morning before Naramata which is itself beneficial. Calling the whole region Penticton though is a bit of a stretch since the town site itself contributes nothing in the way of grapes. But I digress. The regions shown on the chart are purposely meant to be general, which is really all we can be at this stage in the evolution of our young wine industry.)

Very interesting to see all of this complex information masterfully distilled into one short seminar by Scott Smith. It brought a good deal of discussion on various topics including marketing. The most moving portion of the presentation however was the projections for climate change where it became clear that the Okanagan will be changing and quite drastically. The audience was a mix of Okanagan College students and interested industry people. Perhaps there will be another announcement from another potential sub-GI in the valley’s future?

As a summary, Scott Smith added what is in effect a definition of our grape growing region.

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