Where there’s a wine, there’s a way

Hey BC wine-lovin’ folks, how’s your new year been going so far?

You’ve probably been wondering just what they heck is up with Wine Country BC these days? If you haven’t, well, I’m going to tell you anyways.

I am busy. Busy like I’ve never been busy before busy. Podcasting took a lot of time and that’s gone by the wayside since 2014 even though I was hoping to get to it in late 2015. But now blogging itself has been taking up more time than I have to spare. So it’s been getting the back burner treatment now for the past 6 months. Which is unfortunate because it is something that I really enjoy doing. However, I’ve found lately that there are a couple of things that I enjoy doing even more.

No, not motorcycling, although that was a big part of the past three summers. My kids are older and more independent now, so it’s not them. And no, it isn’t either of my day jobs that are taking up all of my time. It is two things with which I am having an absolute blast and love every minute of each of them.

One of them I will be able to share with you when it finished. The other will get me a certificate and probably another little pin that I will probably never wear.

I have been studying for my WSET Diploma since late 2014 and this should be my final year. My last exams are in June and the studying for this particular unit is hardcore. It deals with wine. All wines. Made anywhere in the world. I’ve got to know about them and be able to evaluate twelve of them blind and be able to answer questions about the industry worldwide. This has been my distraction for the better part of the past couple of years and it is all coming down to these last 6 months.

The one I will be able to share with you will not be released until sometime in 2017. I am writing a book about BC wine that is to be published by a familiar Canadian publishing company and it is not something that I ever thought I would do. But here I am researching like there is no tomorrow; spending time buried in public archives, traveling across the province interviewing industry pioneers and legends, and writing about the most new and interesting wine region in the world on the cusp of its debut on the world stage of wine. It’s exciting and I can’t wait to share it with you. I hope you like it.

So, as the studying and research gets compiled and the words get strung together into cogent thoughts, I will be posting here when I can but not often. Calli is also busy as she pursues her studies in Ontario to become a winemaker and will likely not have any time to contribute for a while either.

Rest assured that this is not the end of Wine Country BC, but simply a pause in the program – a grand intermission in the oenophile’s opera. Or at least a pause for this commercial message. I enjoy the medium too much to just let it go and will always be around.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

VQA Store Model is Changing

On Tuesday, November 17th, the BC Wine Institute (BCWI) issued a press release that took many in the wine industry by surprise. But it really shouldn’t have been a surprise. The real surprise might be coming later.

The new rules on alcohol in BC that were implemented in April 2015 allow wine to be sold in supermarkets. As someone who grew up in Quebec, where wine and beer can be sold in supermarkets and 7-11 corner stores, this seemed like a logical move. But B.C. has always had a bizarre way of dealing with alcohol throughout the province’s history and, true to form, this recent change was no different. In Quebec (or Washington State for that matter), it is certainly convenient to be able to purchase wine with groceries but from my experience in both of those places, the wines sold there are never considered “top quality” wines. To have VQA-only wines in supermarkets here seemed at odds with what I’ve previously experienced.

Ok, so what’s the harm in trying? There’s only one way to find out if this will work and that’s to just do it. From what I’ve heard, the four Surrey locations are blasting through amazing amounts of wine and that the whole Save-On-BC-Wine thing is going to be very profitable. That means that the VQA licenses in outlying areas might be better used in more profitable locations and that is always going to be the Lower Mainland.

What shocks me about the closing of the VQA stores is how little coverage it is getting in the media. Tracy Gray of Discover Wines was on Kelowna’s CBC this morning being interviewed about the closure and was very diplomatic about the whole thing. Too diplomatic for host Chris Walker’s taste at times which seemed to inform his seemingly off-the-cuff question about whether or not Gray had been coached by the BCWI in advance of the interview. Gray, always a professional and an excellent and elloquent speaker, responded to all of the questions calmly but with an air of detachment that seemed at odds with the facts. Discover Wines, her twelve and a half year-old business and the number one VQA store for sales every year, was going to be shut down Arthur Dent-style early in the new year to make way for a hyper-profitable retail chain. Even if Gray didn’t show it outwardly, Walker understood what it is that we stand to lose: Our wine culture. The interior will lose out on those great stores filled with passionate, knowledgeable, and helpful staff members who know the wines better than anyone except the winery staff themselves. They are front-line contributors to local wine culture.

And of course this comes with a disclaimer – I used to work at a VQA store and understand how it functions differently than a regular wine store. I also currently work for a winery that sells wines to those VQA stores. Since 3/4 of them in my territory are closing, I stand to lose out on a little chunk of commission. Yes, it will be a owee. But there are bigger things at risk in the longer term.

The light media coverage so far shows me what I already knew beforehand from my own recent experience. People (the general B.C. public that buys wine) have forgotten what VQA means in the first place. It didn’t dawn on me until I worked this past summer as a wine tour guide. I was amazed at how many times that I had to explain to people from B.C. what VQA stood for and what it meant. I’ve had to explain that to people in wine shops and wine stores more and more over the years since I started in the industry. It’s like the industry just assumed that people knew what it was all about.

Here’s a bit of the backstory:

When the wine industry as we know it today was in its infancy in the 1980’s, estate wineries had an uphill battle to prove to consumers that it was fit for human consumption. Canadian wine had a bad reputation. The Vintner’s Quality Alliance was an industry-lead quality assurance DSC_5124program that acted as a “seal of approval” from the industry. The VQA logo on a bottle of wine meant that this wine was considered to be a quality product.  By 1996, the BC Wine Information Centre opened in Penticton (with wines from over 24 wineries!) and was the first stand-alone VQA store. Other stores followed effectively with a mandate to sell B.C. wine and be the defacto community resource for people to learn about their locally produced wines.

It worked. VQA wine sales shot up. Wineries opened throughout the 1990’s at a furious pace. Predictions in the early 90’s that by the end of the century, that B.C. could have at least 100 wineries! Imagine that! Of course at the time, there were only a quarter of that so it seemed like a lofty goal. The optimism in the industry then was a result of VQA and was a complete 180 from only a few years prior when Free Trade was supposed to wipe the industry out  completely.

But something happened in the intervening years. The wine industry continued to grow but not everyone was on board with VQA. Jeff Martin was noticeably absent from VQA when he started La Frenz. (For a great interview with Martin and his thoughts about VQA, check out Calli’s podcast on the subject from 2014.) Other producers followed as the need decreased for VQA to convince consumers that quality wines could be produced in B.C. Consumers knew that B.C. wines could be good already and smaller producers didn’t feel the need to pay the added cost to be a part of the program.

I can see both sides of that argument but that isn’t the point of this article. My point is that over the almost 25 years that we’ve had VQA in B.C., the vast majority of casual wine buyers still do not know what it is and likely have never set foot in a VQA store. Thus, the quietest of media uproars over the recent VQA store closures in the Okanagan.

The issue here is profits. Wineries are businesses and have to make money to survive. The Vancouver is where the customers are and most wineries’ allocations are sent to the Lower Mainland anyways. Having them in a Save-On is far more profitable there than having a nice stand-alone store in the Okanagan where people who do enjoy local wines can (and sometimes do) go right to the winery to buy them. Only time will tell if the new Save-On-BC-Wine model will work in the long run (and who it is that will actually profit the most from it) but I think it’s safe to say that wine will follow where the money is. This BCWI list of VQA stores will have few, if any, locations on it outside of the Lower Mainland in the not-so-distant future. How will that effect the wine culture in the interior of the province where most of the wine comes from and where tourists expect to find it? I guess we’ll all find out in 2016.

Cheers from wine country.

~Luke

Progress

Ok folks, this big news in wine country this morning. The BC Wine Appellation Taskgroup has released their final report. This is the media release that just showed up in my inbox. I will be commenting on this further because, well, there is a lot to comment on and frankly I really never like to just send through a press release verbatim on this site. Check out the information for yourself and look back here in the coming days for comments on it. 

~Luke

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE — November 5, 2015

BCWATG logo

New Wine Regions,
Regulatory Reforms
Proposed by BC Wine Task Group

A stronger “sense of place” will strengthen BC’s reputation among domestic and international wine consumers

Vancouver, BC – A BC wine industry group released its final report Thursday after a seven-month comprehensive consultation on the future of British Columbia’s system of appellations. The BC Wine Appellation Task Group – an independent ad-hoc committee of leading representatives of the industry from across British Columbia – has developed a set of 13 recommendations that are being described as a “turning point” in the growth and increasing reputation of premium winemaking in our province.

Group 1“Around the world today wine makers and wine enthusiasts are increasingly interested in the soil and climate conditions of where the wine is grown,” says Ezra Cipes, Chair of the BC Wine Appellation Task Group. “Our recommendations will help to strengthen a sense of place for our wines that is uniquely about British Columbia.”

The Task Group has submitted its recommendations to the British Columbia Wine Authority (BCWA), the regulatory authority to which the Province of British Columbia has delegated responsibility for enforcing the Wines of Marked Quality regulations. BCWA will be responsible for conducting an industry plebiscite in the coming weeks to approve the Task Group’s 13 recommendations to reform the regulations.

The Task Group recommendations include:

  • Creating 4 new appellations: Thompson Valley, Lillooet-Lytton, Shuswap and Kootenays to add to the current list of five officially designated wine regions (Okanagan Valley, Similkameen Valley, Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, and Gulf Islands). (see map Appellations – Emerging BC Regions)
  • Creating a framework for 15 sub-appellations within the Okanagan Valley from Vernon in the north, down to the US border (see map Okanagan maps – Terroir boundaries)
  • Harmonizing the audit process between multiple government agencies to enhance quality standards and reduce regulatory red tape
  • Ending the use of taste panels to access faults and strengthen product health and safety

The BC Wine Appellation Task Group was supported by the BC Ministry of Agriculture, and conducted in cooperation with the BC Wine Authority and BC Wine Institute.

“British Columbia is increasingly becoming known for its premium wines across Canada and around the world,” says Hon. Norm Letnick, Minister of Agriculture. “I would like to commend the Task Group for dedicating their time and their passion in creating a strong, unified vision for our wine industry.”

A report titled Wine Industry Turning Point describes the effort to reach out to stakeholders in every winemaking region of B.C. – from Vancouver Island, the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys, the Fraser Valley and BC’s emerging regions. In addition to town halls and other one-on-one consultation, the Task Group conducted a successful industry and consumer online survey with over 800 participants.

For a copy of the Task Group report and the maps, survey and other appendices, see the links below, or visit www.bcwinetaskgroup.ca.

In Memory of Aaron

DSC_7565 It is with a sad heart that I write this. The wine world is generally a very positive one filled with happy experiences around a shared bottle of wine or two. The loss of one of those friends makes it all the more difficult.

The world lost Aaron Olfert on last weekend. Aaron and I worked together at the BC Wine Information Centre VQA store for the 3 years years that I was there from 2009 to 2011. He had been there since 2006 and continued to work there until his recent untimely passing. Regular customers appreciated his deep knowledge of B.C. wine. The many return visitors in that store knew him from there and recognized him when they came back. His personality filled the spaces between the thousands of bottles in that store. I first met him that way – as a customer looking to spend my birthday money on a nice bottle of B.C. wine.

DSC_3285The genesis of this website and the podcast owes its existence to him. Without him there would have been no conversation about B.C. wine criticism, no banter about wine critics, and no comments about the quality of the wines that we tasted. In the first 4 months that I worked with Aaron, we talked about wines, wineries, and the people we knew that work in the wineries, all of the time. We laughed over Wine Library TV and discovered amazing new wineries. This constant conversation back and forth evolved into the idea of doing a podcast. We recorded the first three episodes in my basement in late August 2009. He appeared in many more podcasts over the next 4 years and even wrote a couple of articles.

A memorial service is being planned and I will post information here when it becomes available.

DSC_8782

DSC_3732

"I drank WHAT???"

“I drank WHAT???”

 

This year’s BC book harvest

I originally started this post back in early August because it was the first time that I could actually sit down and do some proper writing here. Jobs and other large projects had occupied my time up until that point. 

And then the fires started and priorities changed pretty quick. Since then of course, more books have appeared including Jennifer Schell’s coastal sequel to her producer-appreciation cook book “The Butcher, The Baker, The Wine and Cheese Maker” called (deep breath) “The Butcher, The Baker, The Wine and Cheese Maker by the Sea“. I have not picked up the new one yet but it is on my “To buy” list. Until then, there are these two fine BC-produced books to check out:

photo 2Two books have been appearing not inconspicuously on wine shop shelves this year and as a lover of B.C. wine for many years, I have developed a reflex to buy them as soon as a new one comes out. I have even bought some books twice or even thrice as gifts or when a new edition are released. The thrill of reading about the people, places, and wines never gets old for me even though at this point in my career I now know many of the people personally. So while I am freely open to admitting that I can go for days without having to take a sip of wine, it is a rare occurrence when I can make it through a day without reading about wine. Wine books are almost more addictive for me than wine itself.

The two new books this year are “Naramata Bench Vineyards and Wineries” by Garth Eichel and Taryn Liv Parker’s “Okanagan“. Both are regionally-focused and both contain stunning visuals with real experience-based descriptions of the profiled wineries. By that I mean that they don’t just simply review the wines and tell the ‘official’ story of the winery. Instead they try to tell you what it would be like for you to go there. This is a crucial difference from most region-specific wine books which offer a spew of generalized information – facts ‘n’ stats – about the history of the region, the terroir, the wines, and the producers of the area. This experience-oriented style makes both of these books approachable and in my opinion a more honest representation of what the reader will experience if they go to visit the same winery. The drawback is that that at times it can lack depth for people who might want to know some of those specifics.

Let’s begin with Eichel’s “Naramata Bench“.

photo 1Producing a book about a visually stunning place like Naramata and having it not be equally visually stunning would have been ridiculous. That is not the case here as the book is loaded with great photos and excellent layouts. The trick with photographing any wine region is to make it look interesting in a new way. Of all of BC’s wine regions, Naramata has probably been photographed more than any other so the onus was entirely on Eichel to show us something new and avoid clichéd shots that any tourist can capture.

He accomplishes this with diversity. Sure there is scenery – that’s unavoidable – but there are close-up details (Therapy’s weather vane), portraits of owners and wine makers, contributed older photos (Bob and Tim from Kettle Valley with their sons as toddlers), and action shots (Jay Drysdale sabering a bottle of bubbly with an axe) that make each layout exciting to look at. There’s a predictable rhythm to it and a lot of repetition (there is always a photo of someone pouring a wine at every tasting bar) but it works and shows the setting for the winery’s experiences accurately. And just like the landscape clichés, there are no “super-serious” photos of squinting winemakers holding a glass up to the light to “examine” it. Eichel thankfully has avoided this with excellent creativity with the camera. My favourite feature however is that each photo is also suitably captioned with details specific to each photo – wonder but often overlooked element in a lot of wine books.

The text rolls along fluidly and is easy to read. Interviews with the owners are the basis for the text and Eichel uses lots of direct quotes in his narrative. The wineries will tell their stories when visiting the shop in person so paraphrasing is probably not the best way to communicate the experience so this technique is refreshing and fits into the experience theme upon which this book seems based.

photo 3If Eichel’s “Naramata Bench” is Sgt. Pepper’s, full of colourful characters and stories, Parker’s “Okanagan” is the White Album, absolutely anchored to its time and place. It’s physically huge and heavy with a hard cover giving it the same imposing effect of strength similar to large pillars on the façades of banks and courthouses to denote security and authority. The blank white cover simply and elegantly adorned with the word “Okanagan” suggests something epic while the small subtitle near the bottom acts as a perfect tease to the book’s contents. Rather than loudly advertising the fact, Parker’s cover is subtle and uncluttered and let’s the colours inside the book explode more vividly when flipping through the pages.

To me, this book looks and feels more Okanagan. The rough texture of the pages, the high-contrast photos, the light sand-coloured text boxes and highlight squares throughout the book all appear more like something produced in the Okanagan to me. If anyone from around the world wants to know what it’s like to be in the Okanagan, this is the book that I would send them. The layouts give me the impression of a high school or university year book (Oh, there’s a photo of Mike! Hey, there’s Virginia!) which I believe is a perfect form for conveying that very sense of time and place. When I want to relive how I felt working in this industry in 2014-2015 (when this book was in production) I will absolutely pull this book out. It is truly a temporal work of art.

Her attempt to look at the region as a whole entity of the Okanagan not just through the obvious physical elements like geography, but also through time – history. To my delight, Parker seems to be aware of the Okanagan’s past and appreciates its influence on the present. No other B.C. wine book that I’ve read has ever included a photo of Velma Sperling, grand-daughter of Giovanni and Rosa Casorzo. Giovanni was hired by Father Charles Pandosy to work at the Oblate mission. Velma is a living link to that era of our history that roots today’s wine industry and continues to help it grow. The same land is still in the hands of the Casorso family and Velma’s daughter Ann Sperling, also photographed in this book, has a highly distinguished career as a winemaker.

Each winery’s entry gives a snapshot of their style. A list of the property’s signature wines, key varieties, and vineyards are an quick guide for anyone interested in specific varieties. The section “The Property Experience” is a point-form listing of events and special offerings. Every winery has a tasting bar, we all know that. Parker tells us more about what makes each winery unique. For those wine lovers looking for that special experience, you will find one for you while thumbing through “Okanagan”.

The biggest question I have of both books is how the wineries were chosen to be included in each one? Eichel’s “Naramata Bench” has a small section on “Other Wineries” while Parker’s “Okanagan” just doesn’t mention some wineries at all, leaving awkward holes in some of the regions. There is section on the North Okanagan but strangely, no wineries listed there. Eichel’s “Naramata” includes a near phone book of listings for places to stay, places to eat, tour companies, and travel information – all helpful items but curious for a printed book considering Google is now the de facto go-to resource for most people. Both books are self-published and must be financed somehow. However I sometimes get the impression that I’ve bought into very large advertisements, especially turning to the bizarre two-page spread on Greyback Construction, a local construction company that happens to have built many wineries. Neither book purports to be objective guidebooks or anything like that however it makes me wonder if or how the financing may have influenced the content.

This media literacy (or paranoia?) comes to me courtesy of my own “question everything” personality (or disorder?) and perhaps isn’t shared by many others, nor perhaps from the Millennial generation who care about it differently than I do. (A short stint at Simon Fraser’s Communications Department probably didn’t discourage that behaviour either…) Both books are extremely well planned and well executed highly recommend you pick up both as soon as you can. Sometimes regional books don’t make it to a second printing so don’t pass on either of these two if you see them.

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

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:

IMG_1044

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…

IMG_1043

…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:

IMG_1041

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:

hold-the-line

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.

~Luke

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.

~Luke

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.

Fab5

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!

~Luke