2015 Wildfires in Oliver – A Recap

I usually don’t get to post that much over the summer since traditionally it is a busy time of year here in wine country. The high season was generally pretty good and wineries that I got to talk to as the summer progressed were pretty optimistic about this vintage. They still are that way as the harvesting has been going on in bits and pieces for about a month at this point and is probably one of the earliest that I’ve ever heard of a grape harvest in the modern era of B.C. wine.

Regardless of how busy everything gets, it was still my intention to keep the posts going as regularly as possible. I even had a few of them nearly completed. There’s one that was hoping to have out earlier in the summer about two great new books about the Okanagan that were released this past spring.

And then August happened. I came home on August 14th to see this outside of my bedroom window. IMG_1045

About an hour later, the whole ridge that was visible from my house had burned and continued to do so for the next couple of days. Strong winds made the fire spread extremely quickly and wineries along the Golden Mile (starting at Road 13 Winery and heading south) had to figure out how to defend themselves. They did and with the help of the Oliver Fire Department, no wineries or structures were lost in that initial wildfire.

The Oliver Fire Department had more than just one fire to deal with that evening. The Wilson Mountain Fire just north of the town itself had been sparked and quickly threatened the houses that backed onto Oliver Mountain. Friends’ houses in that neighborhood were evacuated and I rushed around bringing extra boxes, cat carriers, and anything that might be needed along with making our own preparations to leave just in case. To give you an idea of just how fast that fire started, I had just driven by from Penticton at 5:45 , checked my mail at the post office, and then saw the first fire truck screaming by heading north. Only then did I see the small smoke plume coming from over the mountain. In an hour, the whole mountain would be lit up.

Then the winds changed and started blowing from the south. This stopped the wildfire’s spread towards Richter Pass. But suddenly the south Okanagan (and much of southern BC) was engulfed in smoke from the fires in Washington State. The smoke hung low like valley cloud does in the dark Okanagan winters. The worst part was that we all knew the Testalinden fire was still burning, but we couldn’t see it and the deafening silence of grounded helicopters made for a long end of August.

The winds calmed and we were able to at least see where the fire had spread. It had gone north from Testalinden Creek and spread to Hester, Tinhorn, and eventually Reed Creek in the north. Calmer winds and bizarrely cooler temperatures for that time of year meant that the forestry crews could really get to work. I counted at least nine helicopters at the Oliver Airport at one point. They were taking off and landing constantly. It was loud but necessary.

By September 9th, the forestry crews had decided that conditions were good for controlled back-burns. This was the result of the first one just behind Tinhorn Creek Winery:


It was started by helicopters dropping little ping-pong ball-sized spheres of accelarant along with forestry firefighters with torches that burned up the ground cover. Fast. This made everything look a lot worse and quite quickly. But it was all for a good reason as the next morning there was noticeably less smoke coming from the mountain for the first time since the fire had started. Taking the dried grass ground cover removed the fuel from the fire before it got there and, reaching the burned out sections, the main fire had nothing left to burn. It was truly amazing to watch the forestry firefighters and helicopters at work. The next day, they burned up another section to the north closer to Fairview Cellars. Then suddenly one morning…


…there were more clouds than smoke for the first time in at least a month. It was quite a welcome sight to see.

I tried to find a “before and after” photo and came up with these from the mouth of the now infamous Testalinden Creek, site of the landslide from 2010.

IMG_1039The top left was taken on the day of the slide in June 2010. The water is still running fast. The bottom left shot is after one year had past in June of 2011. Even after a wet spring, the brown sage-covered hills contrast with the irrigated farmland that begins on the slope. The photo on the right was taken Sept 15th, 2015, the dark green and brown hillside is now turned to matte black. Most of the mountain is that color now. This is above Hester Creek. The Hester Creek Villas are the red roof buildings on the bottom right:

IMG_1040Tinhorn Creek Winery got close to the action as well:


Road 13 Vineyards was in the thick of it on the very first night of the fire on August 14th.  IMG_1042The red marks on the hillside on the top right of the photo are strips of fire retardant that they managed to lay down to stop it from spreading north.

The Oliver Fire Department had begun a fundraising campaign to help out with the victims of the Rock Creek wildfire. We were extremely lucky here with our wildfire situation but Rock Creek was not so lucky and a lot of people north of that town lost their homes. The OFD’s fundraising is now focused on purchasing a wildland firefighting unit (similar to this one) for the Rock Creek / Midway fire department. The OFD has two units and found them both to be “invaluable” in the fire fight on August 14th and in the days after that. They can easily be mounted onto a pickup truck. The Rock Creek fire department apparently does not have one of these units so the OFD is now trying to help purchase one for them. They will be selling t-shirts to raise money. This is the artwork:


Click on the photo above to go to their facebook page for more information or search facebook for “OFD T-shirt Fund Raiser 2015”.

Thank you all for your concerns and thoughts to us in wine country this summer, through tweets, messages, and posts. It was a wild one for sure. The hills may look a little different next time you are in town but we’re all still here working hard in the wine industry among others. Cheers to you from wine country.


Oliver Fires 2015

Every place has its ‘thing’, a natural danger to inhabitants that occasionally make life a little more uncertain. Visiting grandparents and uncles in Florida, I was surprised to find a channel on the television that was dedicated entirely to hurricane warnings. Living in Montreal, massive snow storms that would cripple most cities or have them call in the army (I’m looking at you Toronto). It only meant that we got to school slower than normal. Wherever humans live, every place has something that will challenge us.

photo 2In the Okanagan, it is wildfires. It’s not a secret but they don’t usually put it in the tourist brochures. Fire is a natural way to cleanse the forest and being that the Okanagan is a dry place, fires can start easily (by lightening or human activity) and quickly get out of hand. By quickly, I mean within minutes. This past Friday, I drove back to Oliver from Penticton in a ridiculous wind storm, the likes of which I have never been on the road to witness in the Okanagan before. I’ve never had a gust of wind force the front of my car down and to the side the way a school bully would push you on the shoulder trying to start a fight. I got into town just before six and saw the smoke in Testalinda Creek. That’s also when I noticed a firetruck, lights on, heading in the other direction and heading to where I had just come from only minutes before. I turned around a saw a large plume of smoke starting up from behind Sandy Mountain. It only took a few minutes for it start and get that big.

IMG_7500-0Friday, August 14th was a scary night in Oliver. Homes in town were directly threatened from the Wilson Mountain fire as it spread over Sandy Mountain towards houses that backed against it. I spent the evening packing things, bringing boxes and cat carriers to friends who lived closer to the danger zone than I did. I did not think that we were going to be evacuated but I also knew that I didn’t want to be unprepared. We stayed glued to Twitter, Facebook, and an online radio scanner that broadcast the radios from the Oliver Fire Department. (Forget cute cats and food, social media’s greatest benefit is as a communication link in times of disasters.) Even with social media, our best source of information was standing in our front yard where we could see the inferno itself. From our back deck, the Testalinda fire appeared to double in size in hours.

Just after midnight, the fire on Sandy appeared less fierce. The winds had calmed down and the smoke lessened. Only by daylight the next morning was it a little more clear what we had been seeing. Sandy mountain is only sparsely covered in vegetation. Rock and sand do not burn and as most of the faces are covered more with rock than with trees, there was soon no fuel left to burn.

Road 13 Winery was close to the action.

Road 13 Winery was close to the action.

The Testalinda fire was another story. Higher elevation means more trees and the winds were pushing the fire south and downhill towards the southern part of the Golden Mile. Road 13 winery was almost directly below the fire. Owner Mick Luckhurst gathered his troops to do battle to save the winery. They filled any empty tanks with water and used winery pumps to drench the hillsides. They flooded the roofs of the buildings and moved anything flammable down the hills away from the winery. Then they got help. A crew from Mission Hill was in the area and showed up to help out in any way that they could. Road 13 thanked them in a heartfelt post on Facebook a day later:

From Mick Luckhurst… I want to thank Mission Hill Family Estate Winery for volunteering their time and equipment in helping us suppress the fire threatening our buildings and farm. Thank you to James Hopper, Ray Gill, and David Millar for showing up with water and hoses and asking “Where do you want us?”. A classy company as represented by their people.

Posted by Road 13 Vineyards on Sunday, August 16, 2015

Folks, that’s the wine industry for you. It’s all about the community.

Road 13 and all of the wineries on the Golden Mile are still open for business as usual. The fire danger is still present as the fire grows but the sections near Road 13 and Rustico are burned out as of today. Maverick, Castoro, and the many vineyards and orchards to the south were seeing the flames directly behind their properties today. With calm winds and cooler temperatures, the speed of the fire’s advance has seems to have slowed.

photo 4 (3)With clearer daytime weather, air support is now a big part of the firefighting action. Except that today at a news conference, Premier Christy Clarke noted that two helicopters were grounded because a drone had been spotted over the Testalinda fire. SOME DORK HELD UP FIREFIGHTING SO THAT HE COULD GET HIS OWN AERIAL PHOTOS OF THE WILDFIRE. The fire might go on for longer and cause more destruction now because of this person’s selfish and useless use of a “technology”. A professional operator would know not to use it over an active fire so this person is obviously not trained or aware enough to know better. Let’s hope this person can be brought to justice.

photo 2 (3)The Premier payed a brief visit to thank the firefighters from the Oliver Fire Department who successfully worked around the clock to keep the town safe. Fire Chief Dan Skaros, with whom I worked briefly while helping bottle at Road 13 years ago, lead the team brilliantly.

So what does this mean for wine and wine touring?

At this point, nothing. It’s business as usual at all of the wineries in the Oliver / Osoyoos region. Highway closures on may occur at any time so it’s worth checking DriveBC for any developments. As for smoke damage, I’m told that a couple days’ worth of smoke in the valley is certainly not going to taint the grapes in any way. There have certainly been more smoky summers here before (2009 being the most recent bad year for smoke). The sunshine and heat continue in this week’s forecast so the possibility of fires in non-burned areas continues with it.

Facing west on Black Hills Road.

Facing west on Black Hills Road.

The landscape will be the thing that most wine tourists will notice first. The light brown and dark green tones that were our hills are now black and will remain so for a while. The scorched areas of the Okanagan Mountain Park fire in 2003 were still evident in 2009 so this will likely be our new normal here for a while. Unfortunately pour Testalinda Creek, the site of a masive debris flow in 2010, may become even more problematic since slope stability could be compromised. Burned out trees don’t absorb any water or hold the ground together anymore. The Vaseux Lake fire in 2003 is cited in a paper by Dr. Dwayne D. Tannant from UBC as contributing factor for a debris flow at Vaseux Creek only one year later. Let’s hope Testalinda Creek can stay calm for a while.

Until then, I shall be doing what everyone else does at this time of year: following the promising 2015 vintage.

Cheers from wine country.


Regional Marketing in BC

Regional associations of wineries (sometimes blandly referred to as “generic marketing bodies” in the wine industry) are not a new phenomena in B.C. They lurk in the background of tastings and marketing campaigns in the Okanagan, Vancouver, and other key markets. I’m not even sure that many consumers are all that familiar with them specifically and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. They are kind of under-the-radar organizations that represent many (and sometimes, but rarely, all) of the wineries within a given geographical region. They publish maps and buy advertising space on behalf of their wineries. When asked to name one of these organizations, I suspect that most wine tourists wouldn’t be able to name more than one or two if any at all. When I produced the “BC Wine 101” series of podcasts and posts about each region in advance of the 2013 Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Penticton, it was the representatives from each of these organizations that I consulted and interviewed for the podcasts. They are great for learning about each region but their real value is promoting all of the member wineries. They are worth getting to know because many host amazing events (Similkameen BBQ King, Naramata Tailgate Party, etc) and some of their websites have lots of great information for planning  your next wine tour.

So, have you been to all of these?

The Associations

Naramata was the first unofficial subregion to begin promoting itself as a destination through the Naramata Bench Wineries Association. As a result, wine tourists who come to the Okanagan are more familiar with or have heard more about Naramata wineries than any other region. It is ironic today that a region is that essentially on a road to nowhere is the first place that people want to go. That’s a testament to the success of the continued marketing behind the Naramata wine brand. It wasn’t an overnight success but has surely paid off well to the member wineries and non-member wineries alike. The Naramata Tailgate Party in September is always a hit and spring tasting events held in key markets ensures that there is never a dull moment for lovers of Naramata wine. It’s a strategy that has worked with the results clearly on display at any Naramata winery on any day of the week during the summer. As a touring region, Naramata probably draws the most people daily because the wineries are conveniently close together and most are within a very short drive from Penticton.

Across the lake the wineries in Summerland’s Bottleneck Drive have organized themselves with some fantastic events to promote their region. The pre-Christmas Light Up the Vines events are a pre-Christmas wonderland of activity that is a rare off-season event in the Okanagan. Wine tasting on a cold winter evening is quite a different experience and Summerland is a spectacular place to do it, showcasing each winery’s unique landscape and Christmas light display. As a touring region, Summerland is a fascinating diversity of landscapes which makes it completely different from Naramata’s views (Oh look – a vineyard. Oh look – the lake). Giants Head mountain is the may poll around which the wine tourists spin, stopping at wineries that could overlook a deep canyon, a bucolic farming valley, or even (yes) a lake.

The Oliver Osoyoos Winery Association represents the largest geographical region in the Okanagan Valley compared to the others and also currently has the largest number of member wineries (36). Hosting events like the Pig Out, the wildly popular Half-Corked Marathon, and Cactus Jalopies, OOWA’s events take place mostly in the early part of the summer from May through to July. The exception is the Winter in Wine Country which is held in late November. As a wine touring region, the Oliver Osoyoos region is big. You can’t see it in a day so don’t try. You will miss wineries so just note which ones they are and try again next time. This is the best place to spend an entire week because you can tour every day and not hit the same winery again, unless you want to. The vineyards are more impressive here because they are bigger and so are many of the wineries. Like the Westside there are boutiques and commercial productions here but many of the wineries are solidly medium size productions. This is the best region to tour at any time of the year since many wineries remain open all year. Vineyards in the winter are every bit as beautiful as they are in the summer.

toplogo-finalThe Okanagan Falls Wineries Association represents the wineries in the region around the town of Okanagan Falls. It’s a town that many wine tourists (myself included at one point) drive through without stopping while on the way to somewhere else. The valley narrows here and wineries are far less visible than in any other region in B.C. Most tourist brochures feature a stunning view of MacIntyre Bluff with Blue Mountain Vineyards in the foreground which is just south of Okanagan Falls so it’s a shame that some wine tourists just won’t get off the highway. The big event is their Party in the Park held in July and is always a great summer BBQ beach party. As a touring region, Okanagan Falls offers diversity. Looking for rich reds, aromatic whites, top notch bistros, or stunning views? It’s all there nestled among the most narrow and geographically bizarre area of the Okanagan. 

The Similkameen Wineries Association brings the thunder at the historic Grist Mill every July with the Similkameen Barbeque King competition. Representing the majority of wineries in this unique valley just west of Oliver and Osoyoos, the Similkameen wineries often get passed by too quickly by drivers on Route 3 who are eager to get to their Osoyoos or Kootenay vacation destinations. As a touring region the Similkameen suffers from being farther away from the Okanagan (where there are more accommodations) and being on the road to the Okanagan. The more adventurous wine tourist are richly rewarded for venturing here however because the valley is filled with small, family run, boutique-style wineries that are making wines on a whole new level.

wineislandsThe Wine Islands Vintners Association represents wineries on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands making it the only association that spans two VQA Designated Viticultural Areas. There’s lots to do here and in my opinion, if the Okanagan is our Napa, the Islands are our Sonoma. Ok, the size ratio is way off but the agricultural focus is not. The Islands are not only focused on wine. There is a lot of food-related agri-tourism integrated seamlessly with wine along with ciders, mead, and other fine beverages. In an area that seems completely odd (aka not dry) for grape growing, creative wines are made here that are finally starting to develop a wider following. As a touring region, there is no way to get through this place in a day or even a week. There are too many nooks, crannies, and ferry schedules to contend with. It’s a great place to explore by following your nose, letting one thing lead to another.

In the far north of the Okanagan (where it is technically not even the Okanagan anymore) is the Shushwap Wineries, which have developed a website promoting wine tourism in their region. It’s not really a new wine region (Larch Hills has been around for years) nor are grapes completely new to the area (first vineyard was in 1907, before Oliver even existed). The northern latitude means that they must use different grapes than in the Okanagan but to me, this is what makes it interesting. As a wine touring region, the Shushwap is convenient for travellers on the Trans-Canada highway but like the Similkameen, has to work a little harder to get people off the road long enough to try their wines. It’s a different style of wine making and it’s a style that I think is unique to B.C. and worth checking out.

And then there’s Kelowna…

Although the first winery in the Okanagan was in Kelowna, it has unfortunately remained the latecomer to the regional marketing game. Confusingly, it is also the most disparate with at four smaller regions represented by associations. (Maybe they need an association of associations?) Thankfully recent years have seen a concerted effort on the part of wineries here to organize themselves into associations to attract wine tourists as that sector grows more competitive. Starting in Kelowna, the organizations loosely follow the compass.

The largest region near Kelowna actually across the lake in West Kelowna. The Westside Wine Trail represents the biggest diversity of wineries (in terms of production size) within the smallest geographical area. There are all sizes of wines from garages and quonsets to large commercial production facilities, organic producers to, well, not organic producers. Mission Hill tends to top the pyramid here as an attraction and literally sits atop of Mount Boucherie. Other wineries are tucked neatly into their vineyards on the slopes looking east. It’s difficult to imagine an organization that can represent the myriad interests of such a diverse group but the Westside Wine Trail does it and apparently quite successfully. As a touring region, everything is relatively close together just like in Naramata which makes it easy to spend the whole day there. Many wineries are also open year round.


Kelowna’s Fab 5 Wineries represents the wineries on the benchland east of Kelowna, historically known as the K.L.O. Benches (named after the Kelowna Land and Orchard Company that subdivided the land in the late 19th century). As the name suggests, there are 5 wineries in this group which is a perfect leisurely wine touring day trip. The wineries are all small, boutique productions and many are quite fun and creative with their marketing image. As a wine touring region, it seems like a completely different world even though Kelowna is so close. The views of the valley and lake are unique and far more expansive than in any other wine region. There is a lot of history here as well since First Nations, fur trappers, pioneers, ranchers, and orchardists all recognized the beauty of this part of the Okanagan.

lakeshoreThe Lakeshore Wine Route encompasses four wineries on the south side of Kelowna. The wineries operate some of the oldest continually producing vineyards in BC. CedarCreek has been operating as a winery the longest while Tantalus’s vineyards are older but has been a winery for less time. The established winery names draw visitors here because, just like Naramata, this is a road to nowhere. People have to want to come here rather than just stop off on their way to somewhere else. They have been flocking there for years which is a testament to the quality of the wines produced there. As a wine touring region, the Lakeshore wine route is geographically small and makes an excellent afternoon tour destination. Eager tourists who head there in the crisp morning will find it even better with less crowds and beautiful views of the lake in the morning.

scenicLast on the scene is the Scenic Sip, an exciting new association that includes wineries north of Kelowna in the area known as Lake Country. Like Summerland, there is a wide diversity of landscapes to see at each stop, making this an aptly named wine trail. There’s a lot of energy here from the younger wineries which pairs well with the long-established wineries like Gray Monk, who have been successfully attracting people to drive up Camp Creek Road for almost 35 years. As a wine touring region, this is the first place that people can see flying into Kelowna. You are literally mere minutes away from your first winery wine tasting coming out of the airport. The higher elevation of wineries like Gray Monk and 50th Parallel mean that there is a much grander view of Okanagan Lake than anywhere else in the valley. The lake itself is more narrow here, more steeply walled, and far more green compared to Osoyoos’s brown. Worth a day trip but it may take you a little longer to get to all of the wineries here in the summer so plan extra time.

“Emerging” regions

kamloopsNewest on the scene is the Kamloops Wine Trail. It’s so new that I haven’t actually visited this region yet. It’s absolutely on my list and I look forward to heading there. With hot summer temperatures, the Kamloops area has a lot of potential for growing grapes. It’s the winters that will make or break this region, not only in terms of viticulture but also for visitors. There has been some great social media promotion and interaction from this region. It’s also exciting to be able to see the early days of a future wine region which makes now the time to see Kamloops.

Other Regions

The wineries in the Kootenays are not yet organized into an association and perhaps it is still too soon in their development. The Fraser Valley used to have a winery association but that quietly disappeared, at least online. Perhaps a new group of winery owners will feel the need to come together and promote their region.

So have fun touring one (or many) of B.C’s wine regions. Let me know about your experiences. Please post a comment if you have any questions. Happy wine trails and cheers from wine country!


Wine Shops: Why do some wineries get it so wrong?

Wine shops are weird places. There aren’t a lot of other businesses where you can go, consume some of the product for free (or nearly free), and buy (or not buy) some of said product. Test driving cars or trying on clothes are both perhaps the closest, except that in both cases the pr20140214-125934.jpgoduct doesn’t get consumed by the consumer in the process. Nobody gets offended if they aren’t allowed to eat the car.

But selling cars is similar to selling wine in that the knowledge needed on the part of the sales person to sell the car needs to be reasonably good. If you don’t know very much about cars, you probably won’t be able to sell them very effectively. So why are wine shops still staffing their front-end tasting bar with people who have little knowledge about the wines they are selling or even wine in general?

I once asked a person behind the bar if they knew how many vintages the winery had ever done of a particular sparkling wine.

“Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t say anything about that on the back label.”


The correct answer could have been;

“This is the xth vintage of this wine.”


“I’m not sure, let me find out for you.”

or simply;

“I don’t know.”

Any of those answers above are perfectly acceptable. I didn’t think that it was a particularly difficult question to ask. I knew there hadn’t been that many vintages of it made previously. I had started a vertical of this wine at home and I wanted to be sure that I hadn’t already purchased it before. I knew I had 3 bottles from three previous vintages already at home but wanted a confirmation that this was or was not a newly released vintage.

Speaking of the back label on a bottle of wine. The back label can have as little or as much information on it as the wine maker or owner deems appropriate for their house style and branding. It does not contain all of the information that there is to know about a wine, nor does it replace the training needed to pour the wine at the tasting bar.

“This is our Chardonnay. You will taste peaches, melons, vanilla, baking spices, and a hint of mango.”

Will I?? I’m going to taste all of that? Wow, I didn’t know that. Thank you so much for tasting the wine for me. Why should I even bother now?

Here’s the problem with telling customers what they are going to taste before they even taste it. They will either:

A) … not taste any of those aromas and feel stupid about it, thinking that they don’t have a good palate. They will effectively give up on trying to focus their sense of taste because they can’t yet perceive the aromas that you said that they would. This is the equivalent of telling a child in the school choir to just mouth the words because they are singing out of tune. That kid will grow up believing that they can’t sing or are tone-deaf and will never try again for the rest of their lives. This is not an exaggeration, this is proven fact from the realm of musical education.

B) … taste everything that you mention, love it, and then go home with a bottle where they will quickly notice that it “doesn’t really taste like it did at the winery.” Due to travel shock, stemware differences, or environmental differences (odours, etc), the sterility of the wine shop can’t easily be duplicated in a home setting. Where you drink your wine will affect how you perceive it.

Either situation (where the person’s self-image or the winery’s image is adversely affected) is completely avoidable. The solution is to simply STOP READING THE TASTING NOTES. Talk about the vineyards, the region where it was grown, the person who made it, or what food you ate when you tried it for the first time. Stop reading the tasting notes and use your experiences instead. This is where creativity can really raise the bar. “This Chardonnay pairs perfectly with buttered popcorn and a Tina Fey movie.”

You mean you’ve never had a glass of the wine that you’re selling? Perhaps you should choose another kind of job.

Stories of your own experiences with a particular wine are the real gold in the wine shop. Stories are interesting and they are unique to each person behind the bar. They do not lead the customer on with “aromas” and “flavors”. They can be funny or informative. Wine shop customers LOOOVE hearing about wine shop staff parties. They think we live THE LIFE here in wine country (we do, right?), drinking wine all the time (well…), and looking at the beautiful views of the valley from our decks all year in the unbroken sunshine. That’s why people have driven out of their way to buy a bottle of wine that they could actually have purchased at a liquor store or VQA shop instead. But no, they drove all that way to visit you and it is your job to give them a good experience that goes beyond the back label.

It comes down to staff training. Most of the training that I’ve seen wineries do is just sad. Wine knowledge is not an easy thing to convey to people who are insecure with their own understanding of wine. The best thing to do is to simply not hire those kind of people. If you were hiring a car salesman, don’t hire someone that doesn’t know anything about cars. Unfortunately the reality of the labor situation in the Okanagan is that this is not always possible. A lot of wineries that I’ve seen so far this summer are cripplingly understaffed. When you need hands on deck, sometimes wineries have to make do with what they have been offered. Even with a staff that is short on wine knowledge, there are ways to make the most of your team’s skill set.

Even a little team building will go a long way. Take a wine tour to visit other wineries. See what they do right or wrong. Talk about it. Did that wine shop seem welcoming? Was that woman behind the bar dressed professionally for their winery? Why or why not? What can our wine shop do different than what we saw on our wine tour together today?

Simple stuff really.

20111206-164434.jpgThe other obvious (and easy) thing to do with new staff is to taste the wines with the wine maker. Not the winery owner, not the marketing person, not the tasting room manger, the wine maker. Nobody knows the wines better than they do and this is a winery’s best resource for teaching “wine 101” to the people who the winery is trusting to be their face for the season.

Give wine to your staff. Some wineries I’ve worked for are downright parismonious with their own wines when it comes to providing them to staff. There has to be a few perks to working at a winery and this is one of them. But it’s important because it allows the staff member to have their own experiences with the wines at home so that they can use those experiences to sell it in the wine shop. “Oh, I had that Riesling with a pulled-pork sandwich last week. It was so good…” It is selling the experience and not a wine that simply tastes like peaches, melons, or vanilla.

In short, hiring staff and giving them very little training is an obvious quick and easy way out. You might think that you are saving money by not giving them wine, not hiring a consultant to train them, or not sending them out on a day-long wine tour. Ultimately however, you will lose more money in lost sales or opportunities than you will save and you will likely never even know it. Customers will be able to figure out pretty soon that if you’ve taken the quick and easy way out with your staff. Maybe you’ve also taken the quick and easy way with your wines as well?

Customers can will figure that out pretty quickly too.

You’ve gotta visit: Mocojo


Located just east (uphill) off Naramata Road, Mocojo is easy to find. Just look up the hill after entering the Naramata boundary and follow the signs. The actual address for you GPS people is 1202 Gawne Road but I think it’s much safer to keep your eyes on the only road to Naramata so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it.

Why you should go there

IMG_0999The view is stunning. There are lots of views in Naramata for sure, but not always with so few obstructions. Owners Dianne and Kon are welcoming and absolutely wonderful to chat with. They are true garagiste wine makers, meaning that their winery is located in an actual garage. When so many wineries go out of their way to build a fancy tasting bar with lots of cute gifts to buy in it, Mocojo is refreshingly down-to-earth and authentic. They sell wine and t-shirts. Kon grew grapes before making his own wine so it’s no surprise that the wines he makes reflect that attention to detail in the vineyard more than any splashy wine making techniques.

What to expect

IMG_0998Expect to be welcomed like you were a long-lost family member, except that not everyone has family that can make wine like this. The wine shop is sparse but comfortably shaded so even when it is hot, it is still comfortable. All of the wines that they have available for sale are also available for tasting although one of them had sold out after only my first visit there.

A word of warning though: Staring at the view for too long has caused more than one person to seriously consider a career change just so that they could move to the Okanagan to have a view like this. It is that good.

The wines




Marichel Foch


IMG_1002The view is distracting but the wines will hold your attention for sure. Aromatic whites and sleek, powerful reds are the focus here. I have not yet been able to taste the whites but the reds are absolutely solid. The Malbec (sold out at the winery but available in a few private stores – I know one in particular near me and I’ll tell you where it is but only for multiple non-sequential, unmarked bills) is truly beautiful – dark, smooth, and deeply flavored as all good malbecs should be. The Foch is also dark and distinctly fruity as only Foch can be with a complex nose and a uniquely dark tangy quality. Foch is an acquired taste that some people never acquire, which is fine. To each their own. But don’t pass up the chance to try it in the tasting room.

Make this a definite stop on your next trip down Naramata Road. Cheers from wine country!



You’ve gotta visit: Synchromesh

IMG_0992Located on McLean Creek Road just east of Okanagan Falls, Synchromesh is on a flat area just behind Peach Cliff (that big rock that you see can towering over the town of Okanagan Falls. It’s about a kilometer out of town and it’s on the left just past Meyer Family Vineyards.

Why you should go there

IMG_0993If you’re going to visit them, you’d better do it quick. On my recent visit, 3 of the Rieslings were sold out and only one red was left. They are not expecting to make it through the summer with any inventory intact so the sooner you get there, the better. Sometimes it’s a race to get to these small producers when they have their best wines available and that’s what boutique wine touring is all about. And the prices are surprisingly reasonable.

What to Expect

IMG_0991Allan Dickinson doesn’t wear shoes while he’s on the job, or at least he wasn’t wearing them when I first met him earlier this spring. Perhaps it keeps him rooted (metaphorically) to the earth that grows his grapes. Perhaps it was just one of those shoe-less days. Either way, he is firmly attached to terra firma and he walks the walk when he talks the talk in the wine shop. You will get an elucidating, convivial tasting experience that borders on a religious experience and is devoid of any of that bland “you will get hints of apples and rosemary…” banter. Alan is down to earth, the real deal, and he talks about his wines that way. He comes by it naturally so if it happens to be Alan’s dad, John, in the wine shop, your experience will be very similar.

The Wines

There is Riesling. A lot of Riesling. Check it out;

IMG_0994Bob Hancock Vineyard Riesling

Thorny Vines Riesling

Four Shadows Vineyard Riesling

Storm Haven Riesling

Riesling (blend of all four vineyards)

Cachola Family Vineyards Cabernet Franc

Turtle Rock Farms Cabernet Franc

Turtle Rock Farms Tertre Rouge (blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot)

Riesling is the big one here and even though they have won a Lieutenant Governor’s Award for one, they certainly aren’t one trick ponies. The reds that I’ve tasted are at the same high level as well. These are seriously amazing, grand cru-level wines (although as per my criteria stated previously, I can’t call them an official grand cru yet…) I have personally witnessed experienced tasters and neophytes all recognize this so I know it’s not just me. Their emphasis is on single-vineyard wines which, confusing as they can sometimes be brand-wise, are a perfect platform to demonstrate Riesling’s (and Cab Franc’s) uniqueness and potential. Want to really understand what the word “terroir” means? Taste all five Rieslings in one sitting and you will never forget it.

The growing number of wineries and wine lovers that are turning their attention towards high-quality Riesling shows that this variety has a promising future in BC. Alan and Synchromesh have almost guaranteed that.

Cheers from wine country!



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?


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!


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.


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


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




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!


You’ve gotta visit: Corcelettes


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)


Oracle Rosé (Zweigelt)


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.


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.