You’ve gotta visit: vinPerdu

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

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

Why you should go

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

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

IMG_0936The Wines

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

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What to expect

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

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

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

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

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Mullings Over Wine Pretentiousness in the Digital World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning your trip to wine country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip #3 – Have someone drive you

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

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

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

Tip #4 – Large groups have different experiences

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

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

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

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

Tip #5 -You will buy more than you planned

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

Ok, stop thinking about it.

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

Tip #6 – Put the phone away

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

Tip #7 – Have fun

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

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

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

Tip #8 – Plan local

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

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

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

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Restaurants and Wine: A Love Story

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

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

Le Wine Mark-Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le Wine List

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

BC VQA Golden Mile Bench now a reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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