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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North Okanagan Tasting Tour, Part 3: Okanagan Spirits

IMG_0886If you’ve been to Vernon at all in the past 10 years, then you’ll know why there was no way that I was going to be there and NOT try a tasting at this place. Okanagan Spirits has been going strong for about 10 years now and they are really just hitting their stride. I’ve had them on my radar for a while but have never had the time to stop in, even at their other new shop in Kelowna. Since I was in Vernon (and the kids were behaving), I figured I would take in their tour in their original facility before they moved to a new, much bigger facility very soon.

Along with a newer and bigger tasting room space, the new facility will be able to accommodate significantly bigger stills and allow them to use steam to heat the stills rather than burning wood. It’s going to boost their production and allow them to produce larger, single batches, creating a more consistent product.

But that’s for all you to discover when you go to visit them later this summer – which I highly recommend that you do. For this visit, my co-taster and I were thrilled to try many of their special offerings.

IMG_0883Like at Planet Bee and Olive Us, we were told that there was no real particular tasting order, although our host did recommend finishing with the Taboo Absinthe because it was the “big finish”. I started out with the gin while my wife tried out the Raspberry Liqueur. Their portfolio of liqueurs is astounding and have an extremely natural taste that is hard to find in other similar products from around the world. Most liqueurs I remember tasting have a kind of synthetic quality to them, as if they had been flavoured with ‘natural and artificial flavours’ like a cheap fruit juice in the supermarket. That was absolutely not the case with these liqueurs. Perhaps because we are familiar with Okanagan cherries, it was easy for us to taste them in the Cherry Liqueur and it was beautifully smooth. Whichever ones we tried, there was absolutely no synthetic taste to any of the liqueurs and they were all marvellous.

IMG_0884I moved on to try the Gewürztraminer Marc which is grappa made from Gewürztraminer grapes before trying the Aquavitus, an aromatic spirit that is infused with herbs and spices. Dill and coriander are the dominant aromas in this particular version. I found it extremely interesting because it was almost deceptively delicate for such a strong spirit. If you’ve never tried it, I would describe it as “a little like gin, but with more attitude.” It seems to me like the same idea, but the combination of spices is different. Having not yet tried another similar product from elsewhere in the world, I have no point of reference yet. I will promise I will work on that and get back to you.

Overall, it was an educational and absolutely wonderful experience that I highly recommend. Craft distilleries are becoming more common throughout the Okanagan and and are a great way to cleanse and reset the palate at the midpoint of a winery tour.Or if you are going to be in Vernon, make it the climax of your trip like I did. You will not be disappointed.

So ends my series on the Tasting Tour of the North Okanagan. It’s a beautiful part of the Okanagan Valley to explore and there is a lot of history there to check out as well. Be sure to check out the other places I’ve visited and let me know if you  find any other places that I should get to on my next trip.

Cheers from wine (and booze) country!

~Luke

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North Okanagan Tasting Tour, Part 2: Planet Bee Honey Farm

Someone should really start a honey blog. It’s not going to be me but if you are reading and decide to take on honey as a topic, please let me know because I will totally read it religiously.

I’ve written about honey before and have a bit of a history with it. A neighbour of mine where I grew up had bees and made his own honey and I remember going there to get some with my dad. I learned early on that it was a very natural product but most importantly for at the time was that it was sweet and yummy and I loved it.

Fast forward a few years and I’d moved to the big city (no, not Vancouver – a big city) and honey became something that was served in little plastic bottles shaped like bears or in tiny clear plastic dipping packs with McNuggets. The honey that was available (and affordable) to me was only the highly processed stuff and I never paid it any attention at all. Until one sunny day in Port Coquitlam one fall when we were visiting a farm that sold pumpkins. They offered us a tasting of different honeys made from different flowers and that was it – I was hooked. I had no idea that different flowers produced different flavours in the honey or even that honey’s flavours could vary by so much.

IMG_0875Planet Bee Honey Farm is a short drive west of Vernon on Bella Vista Road. Even if you don’t like honey, the view is worth the trip, hence the appropriate road name. If you do like honey, or honey-derived products (candles, mead, skin care products, etc) then this place is a metaphorical Disneyland. It was a slow time of year and we were able to take our time. We were guided around the displays and told about the bees that live in the two indoor demonstration hives. There was all kinds of information about bees and how honey is made. We learned the difference between honey bees, bumblebees, yellow jackets, and hornets along with the life cycle and hierarchy of the bees in the hives.

IMG_0876Then we got to taste the honey. There were a lot of them. There was no way to get through all of them but by tag-teaming the task with the family, we were able to cover a lot of ground. There was no sequential order to the tasting in the same way that wines are tasted as none of the flavours tended to overpower any other particular flavour. That tendency seems to only exist in the wine world for some reason as I didn’t experience any flavour masking at Olive Us the previous day either. Tasting order just did not matter.

Some of the honeys were infused but most of them were made from different flowers. Pollens on different species of flowers taste different and will yield honey with distinctly different tastes. I found that the flavours of those honeys differed not by a way that is familiar to me as a wine taster. All of the honeys were equally sweet, equally textured, and similarly intense. The only difference that I found was in the retro-nasal, mid-palate flavours that weren’t always immediately apparent. Sometimes it would take a couple of seconds to really get the full effect and on the most complex honeys, they would change slightly as the flavour progressed. This was an equally amazing experience to tasting wine.

And then there was the mead. Planet Bee also makes a big selection of mead and most of it is available for tasting. While I confess that mead has never really drawn me in the way that wine has, it was at least familiar to be standing there with a wine glass chatting about some of the flavours.

Just like grape wine, they ranged in sweetness from relatively dry to very sweet. Of course the discussion turned to which was actually the oldest beverage in the world. Of course mead has a very long history and presumed archaeological evidence puts it in a dead heat with wine in some respects. However I contend that wine is the older beverage since making it requires less intervention. A vessel of grapes will turn into wine naturally and of its own accord without human intervention over time since it already contains all of the necessary ingredients – sugar and water are in the grapes, tannins in the skins and seeds to preserve it, and yeast cells on the bloom (skin) to ferment it. It’s all right there. It only needs some cave man to forget a batch of grapes for a while and then it’s party time. Mead requires obtaining the honey, deliberately mixing it with water, and adding other flavourings. All things that require deliberate human intervention and would not be able to happen naturally.

Of course, we will never know the real story of either beverage’s provenance but I still maintain my position that wine is the eldest of the two. Regardless, the mead was very good – balanced and with lots of interesting flavours. But when it comes to figuring out how those tastes and flavours fit into my family’s culinary world, I was at a bit of a loss. What would I drink it with? Does it benefit from ageing? I have made it a goal to be able to study the world of mead this year and I know that I will write more about it over the coming years.

Our purchases made, we said good-bye to the staff at Planet Bee and kept going on our drive. We were glad to have been able to take out time and see the store at our own pace as it was solidly in the off-season. Being there in the summer with many more visitors and their children running around with access to that much sugar, it’s pretty obvious that the bees wouldn’t be the only thing buzzing around the place.

Planet Bee Honey Farm is well worth the visit and it promises a taste adventure like no other. Do not miss it when travelling through Vernon. They were in the middle of a renovation while I was there so it will likely look a little different over the summer. I absolutely plan on returning to see how it will look.

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North Okanagan Tasting Tour Part 1 – Olive Us and Tita’s

Perhaps there is more to savour than just wine tasting?

This is a shocking statement on a wine blog but it’s true. While I’ve written about other tasting experiences involving things like honey before, whenever I take a trip anywhere I’ve always taken a lot of pleasure from trying local things: cool restaurants, unique stores, and of course wineries. Challenging my taste buds with things that aren’t wine is good because I like to think that it makes me better at tasting wine. It also makes be appreciate wine even more because it reminds me that when all is said and done, wine is still the most complex, nuanced, varied, and debate-inducing thing that humans can consume. However, tasting new things is also just fun.

IMG_0878I recently went on a family trip to explore the North Okanagan, staying 4 days in Vernon, BC. After seven and a half years living in the south, it’s almost shocking that I’ve only managed to come here once before. Like most places in the Okanagan though, this place is a destination in and of itself, meaning that you have actually want to come here in order to appreciate it. While I have travelled through Vernon in 2009 on my way home from a drive across Canada, I never got a chance to stop and try out some local shops and restaurants on that trip. And I haven’t really had a reason to go back since then. There are no wineries in the immediate Vernon area and little in the way of wine culture at most of the restaurants that I was able to visit (with one notable exception – see below).

We really lucked out after we arrived. Within 5 hours we had managed to find two amazing places to challenge our taste buds.

Olive Us is an “olive oil and vinegar tasting room” on 30th Avenue in downtown Vernon. My wife discovered it listed on the Tourism Vernon website as we were planning the trip. We knew we wanted to get there at some point but with our kids in tow, making fast plans was not something that we could count on. However, it happened to be close to where we’d parked so we stopped in.

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Many flavoured salts at the Salt Bar

Refreshingly, the kids were welcomed and had a small chalkboard-painted fun room and games ready for them. My wife and I were told about the amazing selection of olive oils (fused and infused) and vinegars (white and dark or balsamic), shown the sampling spoons, and then let loose in the store to freely taste both. It was a refreshing experience and challenging at the same time. I’m used to explaining bizarre complexities of wine to people and here I was on the other side learning about the bizarre complexities of olive oils and balsamic vinegars. It was an informative and humbling at the same time. There is so much to know about it and I wanted to remember as much of it as I could.

Thankfully, there was no quiz afterwards. Spoon in hand, I tasted my way through an amazing assortment of olive oils infused with ingredients like basil, toasted almond, and tuscan herbs. One of my favourites was an oil that was fused with mandarin oranges. Fused oils, I learned that day, are created by co-pressing flavouring ingredients with the olives, in this case whole mandarin oranges, so that the flavours develop and integrate together right from the beginning. It’s hard to describe the difference between fused and infused but if I had to try, I’d say that the fused flavours are blurred together; they aren’t two distinct flavours that are joined (like infusions) but are rather a unique flavour of its own that has elements of both. I found it harder to pick out the distinct elements of the fused oils. The only exception was the distinctive tang of the mandarin rind that floated over the whole experience for that particular oil.

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Premium pasta selection

The vinegars were equally interesting. There were white vinegar infusions including coconut, peach, and cranberry pear. Dark vinegars had a list of slightly more robust infusion flavours but were equally well balanced, something that I noticed with all of the products in the store that I was able to sample. The Strawberry balsamic got my attention right away (I love spinach salad) and the flavour was pristine. The dark chocolate balsamic was unbelievable, rich as would be expected but not cloyingly so.

Interestingly, they also had the base balsamic (not infused) available for tasting, as well as the base olive oil. I think that this is the strongest testament to the high quality of their products. They are not just simply flavouring sub-standard oils and vinegars so they can synthetically increase its value (or “polishing a turd” as a winery manager I used to work with once called it, referring to wines that had been unduly processed and sold for a much higher price). These are quality products from the get-go and you can buy them in their base elements if you want. They are delicious.

The big kicker for me though was the single-variety olive oils – an amazing opportunity to try unblended oils to find out what the differences are between the varieties. This is commonplace in the wine world and occasionally you can find specialty apple juices in the Okanagan that are made from a single variety of apples, but otherwise this is a rare opportunity. Olive varieties can vary enormously based on polyphenol content (just like red wines) and other elements that make each one unique.

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Olive Us co-owner Ray Morin with the selection of single-variety olive oils.

Since Vernon is not very convenient for me to just go and pick up another bottle of olive oil when my stock runs out, this will really only be a special trip for me. But for you residents of the North Okanagan, and maybe even Kelowna, this place is an absolute gem to frequent. Even occasional purchases here will result in a small collection of amazing products that will enhance any special dinner.

Speaking of a special dinner – We happened upon a small bistro called Tita’s Italian Bistro on 41st Avenue, just off Highway 97. Even the parking lot was cosy. (The parking spaces were perfect for Italian sports cars. Less so for Toyota minivans.) We walked inside and were welcomed like long-lost family. Just getting this far was a victory for my wife and I as our kids are solidly in that picky-eater phase. Once we sat down and saw the menu, things didn’t pick up for them since there was a lot of Italian words that they didn’t recognize. With help from our server and a little bribing with Italian sodas, we found two dishes that the kids would enjoy.

**I should interrupt this ‘restaurant review’ by pointing out that I don’t think I’ve ever done a restaurant review on this site at all, nor am I seeking to make this a regular feature. While I will be the first to point out that absolutely nothing qualifies me to judge restaurants, food, and / or service quality, this place was probably the best dining experience I’ve ever had with my whole family and for that reason alone, I will shout about Tita’s as loud as I can and plan my next trip to Vernon based on their business hours.**

My wife had the special of the day while I had the Filletto di Maiale Pisa. Before the kids had time to complain about anything, the sodas were on the table and there was warm focaccia and dishes of olive oil and balsamic. Soon after that, two unexpected salads with house made balsamic reduction dressing was placed in front of my wife and I. Once the salads were done, the main showed up shortly after that and they were amazing.

71416_TitasItalianBistroSo amazing in fact that my daughter proclaimed that her Fettuccini Alfredo was the best pasta that she’d ever had. She then ate 3/4 of a small adult portion of it, which is far more than the 3, possibly 4, noodles that she’ll eat at home before giving up. (I like to think that this says more about the quality of Tita’s pasta dishes than it does about our home cooking but only she knows for sure.) My son, though being less adventurous in his choice of main, was also enthusiastic about his Spaghetti Bolognese.

As for wine, Tita’s had a small but varied list of quality wines at many price points, including Larch Hills in Salmon Arm. The wines were priced fairly and nothing seemed out of place for the style of cuisine. It was also not populated only by wines from one particular corporation or supplier (e.g. Peller, Constellation, or Mission Hill) that I’ve seen often at restaurants. (Maybe I’ll write more on that subject in another post…)

Essentially, Tita’s over-delivered. We expected nothing more than a plate of food each. Instead we were treated to amazing bread, amazing salads, and amazing food. Based on that, we quickly decided to stay for dessert and guess what? It was amazing as well – Tiramisu for my wife, limoncello for me. I have no photos because I was too busy actually tasting the food and enjoying the experience and I’m glad I did because this kind of thing can’t be tweeted. (I’m not into instagramming my food although I’ve been known to tweet photos of empty plates and pizza boxes.)

So far, it was two amazing tasting experiences in one day and all within hours of arriving in Vernon. This was shaping up to be a great trip.

Part 2 will be coming soon…

Grow the Pie

winecountrybc:

If you buy wine in BC, please read this.

Originally posted on Oldfield's Wanderings:

It has been a very long time since I have blogged.  I no longer feel guilt for that.  Turns out I can’t do it all.  Today was the kind of day that changed that.  I need to get something out there–more of a vent, not a rant.

I have spent so many of my waking hours  since January discussing, fretting, planning. conferencing and lamenting the new BC liquor laws that are just 20 days from enactment.  I’m sick of it all.  Things are going to happen on April 1st and all of us in the wine, beer and spirits industries are going to sit back and watch events unfold.  That being said…

The last 24 hours have been very telling for me.

Yesterday a case of wine arrived from Marquis Wine Cellars  filled with wine I had purchased from fellow wineries who poured at the in-person #BCWineChat two weeks ago.  Right…

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Things are happening…

Hey folks, just a quick post here to let you know that I have not in fact dropped off the face of the earth. After a good couple months of solid activity here on Wine Country BC’s blog, February has not produced the same quantity of thoughts / rants / wine discussion as the previously prolific trimester. Rest assured, my muse still inspires me, however there has been some developments in the form of a large project which I hope to announce in the coming months. This is what has been occupying the better part of my time (along with dealing with people who have been stealing my articles, ostensibly for my benefit through exposure). The articles will continue shortly and I’ll be able to return to my regularly scheduled ranting.

I hope to continue with the podcasts as well however they take up even more time and so will likely be less frequent. (Unless anyone wants to help me out with that? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?… )

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Has Wine Become a Classless Drink?

winecountrybc:

Awesome post from my friend Valerie on her blog that you really should check out. I’ll have more to say on it later (I usually do…) but please read this when you can and then check out Mike Veseeth’s book called “Wine Wars” (which I reviewed here some time ago) which offers some great economic explanations on differences surrounding the philosophy of wine quality. Cheers! ~Luke

Originally posted on The Demystified Vine:

As of late, I have been pondering the question of whether or not wine has become a “classless drink”. I am highly fascinated with how quality plays a role in this question, and if people even care about quality playing a role in whether or not wine has indeed become a “classless beverage”.

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For the record, I dislike the fact that there is a class system in the first place, but that is another topic of discussion. Thus, for the sake of this discussion, I shall use the term “classless”. By definition, this word means “not connected to a particular social or economic class” or “belonging to no particular social class” according to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary.

My instincts tell me that many of you might be immediately driven to the conclusion that yes, wine has become a classless drink. Why? Well, we can infer that many might be…

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Ageing Wines – Why Bother?

Here we go – another off-shoot of my Nota Bene vertical tasting from earlier in January. This is something that I think is an extension of many other articles that I’ve been writing lately. On we go…

Why bother buying a bottle of wine and then waiting 7 years to open it? How ridiculous is that? Why do some people do it?

20140425-193555.jpgI’ve had more than a few customers guffaw at my suggestion that this or that wine can be aged for up to 10 years. The typical reply is something like, “Wine doesn’t last more than a few days in our house!” and then they look to their spouse / friend / entourage for the requisite approving laughter.

Most wine made today isn’t meant for long-term ageing. I remember a wine teacher of mine saying that 99% of all wine produced is meant for consumption within 2 years. Most of it probably will be anyway regardless of the producers’ intent.

So what is the point of ageing wine?

Mature wine tastes different. A well made wine is smoother, more complex, and full of nearly unidentifiable aromas and flavours that would not have been apparent without age. The way that I describe it to customers is that young wine has all kinds of easily identifiable flavours – black fruits, red fruits, cocoa, chocolate, vanilla, campfire smoke, etc. As the wine ages, those flavours will change, mutate, and intertwine into things like coffee, burned almonds, and maybe blueberry teacake. As the wine gets even older, the flavours become less easy to identify. They turn into something that still smells good but for some reason just doesn’t trigger a sense memory as easily. This is where the most bizarre descriptors, that some people like to make fun of, are often used. A very good taster will be able to perceive some of these aromas earlier on in the life of the wine and be able to predict what will happen as it ages.

Up until about 50 years ago, wine making technology had not yet evolved to be able to make a wine that was palatable when it was young. Only certain areas producing softer wine styles (like Beaujolais) were able to produce wines that could be consumed very young. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, mature wine was preferred in the Roman empire and it was also possible that the Greeks aged their wines as well. It was not done in bottles as we know today but rather in casks (barrels and larger vats).

DSC_3031Bottles sealed with corks became available for ageing in the 17th century but this did not become widespread even by the time of Thomas Jefferson in the early 19th century. Bottles were (and still are) difficult to transport safely without breaking so bottling at the destination was common until the early 20th century. Even still, the wines weren’t really ready to drink.

It wasn’t until the invention of certain winery techniques and technology that people were able to make wine that was ready to drink sooner. Protecting the grapes, juice, and young wine from oxygen was a new thing in the 20th century. Fine filtering was new as well. Fermenting the whole berries or even whole bunches of grapes without crushing them first made the resulting wines fruitier with less grippy tannins and therefore, easier to drink sooner. This, I think, is the New World’s biggest stylistic contribution to the world of wine.

20150123-095548.jpgOf course, that march of technology didn’t just end with that. Membrane filters, micro-oxygenation (a technique pioneered by winemaker Patrick Ducournau in Madiran, France to tame the insane amount of tannins in that appellations’s Tannat grapes), reverse-osmosis and spinning cones, yeast nutrients, and bags of tannins, acids, and colouring agents all give wineries the ability to manipulate all kinds of aspects of a wine’s flavour profile so that the wine is smooth, tasty, and easy to drink almost immediately. The result was smooth wine in no time at all. It was wine for impatient people.

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with that at all. We need wine in the marketplace (and to be perfectly honest, in my house) that doesn’t have to be aged. What I am interested in here is encouraging people to try saving some of those bottles that are capable of ageing because I think they are missing out on some truly amazing wine experiences. From my point of view, it’s like watching someone purchase a Ferrari who only plans to use it to get around on slow city streets and never take it above 2nd gear. Buying a top-quality, age-worthy wine and drinking it within the next 6 months is really missing out on a great experience. I encourage everyone who buys those kinds of wines to hold on to at least one of them for a little longer.

It’s not only red wines that can age. We’re very lucky here in BC to have an abundance of natural acidity that Rhys Pender MW claims other wine regions around the world would love to have. It is acidity that helps preserve whites for long-term ageing. He mentioned that as part of the 5 year vertical of Clos du Soleil that I attended a couple of years ago. The complexity of the flavours was astounding and I enjoyed every single wine in the vertical of Capella. (I very much regretted drinking my 2007 white – it wasn’t called Capella then – far too early.)

Here is a list of some BC white wines that I’ve had success with ageing, either on my own or as part of tastings or events (in no particular order).

  • Clos du Soleil Capella (aka White)
  • Tantalus Old Vines Riesling (I’m holding onto a few of these)
  • Orofino Riesling (same with this one)
  • 8th Generation Riesling (and this one)
  • (notice a trend yet??)
  • Domain Combret Chardonnay (at 16 years it should have been salad dressing at that point, but it wasn’t)
  • Painted Rock Chardonnay
  • just about anyone’s Late Harvest or Icewine (the ’93 Riesling Icewine from Lang was beautiful but still not quite ready in 2010)
  • Road 13 Sparkling Chenin Blanc

And reds…

  • Black Hills Nota Bene
  • Clos du Soleil Signature
  • Mission Hill Oculus (and the other 1st generation of BC Meritages – Pinnacle, Osoyoos-Larose, etc)
  • Just about anything from Fairview Cellars or Kettle Valley
  • Hester Creek Cabernet Franc (and many Cab Franc – I think this is a great variety in BC for ageing.)
  • 2nd Generation Meritages (Laughing Stock Portfolio, Poplar Grove Legacy are the ones I’m familiar with)
  • Nk’Mip Syrah (always a staple at their wine maker’s dinners)
  • Burrowing Owl Pinot Noir (the ’97 in 2009 was ridiculous)
  • Painted Rock Syrah (I haven’t tried them all in a vertical yet, but if you check back here next January…hint hint)

I may have forgotten some but it’s a start. It’s not easy predicting which wines will age and which ones won’t. I’m had some go off that I thought would be sure to do well. Unless the winery has been in business longer than 10 years (which is not very many of them at this point), they won’t really know either. They can tell you what they think will happen based on what the winemaker has intended to happen, but that’s not always a sure thing either.

In the end, it all comes down to personal preference. If you haven’t ever had an aged wine, there’s a possibility that you might not like it. If you don’t like the aroma of apples and flowers soaked in kerosene, don’t age your Riesling because that’s very likely what they will become. I’ve had aged Riesling and I absolutely love those aromas so I know that’s what I’m interested in waiting for.

So I encourage you to try, just try, to put a few bottles away of wines that you enjoy and want to see through to maturity. It takes the whole wine experience to another level.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Clos du Soleil in the UK

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Contributed image

It’s so nice to see that we here in the colonies are able to rise to royal occasions and recently Clos du Soleil from the Similkameen Valley has had the opportunity for pouring wine at such an event. The event in question is the official re-opening of Canada House in London, England where where Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II presided over the opening ceremonies.

Spencer Massie

Spencer Massie

“An absolute honour”, said winery Founder Spencer Massie in a press release from London, “my fellow Director’s Winemaker Mike Clark, Les LeQuelenec, Peter Lee and our closely knit team of partners and staff are elated that we are here and able to showcase what Canada, BC specifically, can do.” (You can read the full press release here.)

The wine being showcased is the 2013 Capella, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon that is Clos du Soleil’s flagship white. Capella and other wines from Clos du Soleil have been featured numerous times on Wine Country BC podcasts and posts, notably in a podcast of the 5-year vertical tasting in 2013 that featured the first 5 vintages of Capella and Signature.

This is not the first boutique BC wine to get the royal treatment. Township 7’s Chardonnay 2007 was served at a dinner with the Queen and Prime Minister Stephen Harper in July 2010. However the resulting media around this event may be a little wider reaching in terms of visibility for Clos du Soleil within the realm of English wine media. Perhaps one of the guests has a cousin that works at Berry Bros & Rudd or a friend that works at Decanter?

Historically of course, acceptance and popularity of a wine in England represented success for the wine producer world-wide. While England may not necessarily be the largest wine consumer anymore, they are still a dominant player in the trade. Through respected publications like Decanter and writers like Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, they are also one of the most influential forces world-wide for opinionmongering. Essentially, they’ve got opinions and they’re very good at getting people to read them.

Getting a BC wine on their radar means that BC wine will be on the radar of most wine students and people in the wine trade around the globe regardless of their ability to actually try the wine. Meyer Family Vineyards started distributing with Ellis of Richmond in London a few years ago and suddenly their label appeared in the recent edition of the World Atlas of Wine. Coincidence? Maybe, but like Tantalus in Kelowna (who has been featured in the Atlas over multiple editions) they’re now on the radar of wine lovers around the world because of it and that’s not a bad thing at all. This could prove to be a similar turning point for Clos du Soleil as well.

This could be very big indeed. Congratulations to Clos du Soleil! Cheers from the colonies in wine country!

~Luke

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