Saturday, 30 June 2012

Wine Club Wine Tour: Naramata Bench

Compared to the expansive spaces in the southern Okanagan, the Naramata Bench is a much more compact wine trail, accommodating quick, almost methodical wine touring (if so desired). As a result, many area wineries have small, efficient tasting rooms that need to focus on selling the wines, with less time to discuss the winemaking techniques and vineyards themselves (not to mention that many have larger vineyard holdings further south). The wineries are accustomed to plenty of tourist visitors making their way up and down the bench, and some have been forced to adopt an assembly-line approach to accommodate crowds (particularly in the late summer). It can be challenging to shift gears when you are used to what seems like a more leisurely pace down south, exploring the vineyards and gazing out across the valley from sun-drenched patios and terraces – hence our two-hour experience at LaStella the day before!

In the face of growing crowds one winery is pushing back by moving to an appointment-only schedule: well-known producer Laughing Stock barred the gate earlier this year as unpredictable car and tour bus traffic began to overwhelm the small parking lot and hamper production activities. Doing much of their business online and via restaurant and retail sales the winery can obviously afford this measure of privacy, but it’s still a surprising development when others such as Blue Mountain are going in the opposite direction. Fortunately appointments are not hard to come by, so we had no trouble booking a 10:00am opening appointment on our final day of wine touring.

After punching in the top-secret gate code for entrance, we arrived as the morning mists were lifting to be greeted by Tasting Room Manager Addy Gowe, who it turned out was a former co-worker of one member of our party! While trying not to get too distracted chatting about shared times at the Vancouver Aquarium, Addy poured us the new release whites, including Viognier, Blind Trust White, and Pinot Gris – follow-up to last year’s Lt. Governor’s Award winner. The second vintage of Rosé produced by Laughing Stock followed, this one to see more wide distribution than last year, where it was served exclusively at Yew Restaurant in Vancouver’s Four Seasons Hotel. Admirably, the winery is continuing to donate $2 from each bottle of Rosé to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

Laughing Stock Guest House?

After enjoying all the new spring wines we tried out some of the definitive Portfolio red blend, and my friends picked up magnums of the current 2009 release, in what is quickly becoming a tradition when we visit! We felt quite lucky next when owner and winemaker David Enns was gracious enough to show us the winery and his many tricks of the trade. David was excited to point out recent infrastructure upgrades that will help improve efficiency in the winery, plus some upcoming treats that will likely greatly benefit members of Laughing Stock’s Wine Club.

With magnums carefully packed away, we set off for the next stop on our agenda to view the new Poplar Grove location further south towards Penticton. Upon entering the large Tasting Room, we were very impressed by the expansive views of Penticton, and felt instantly comfortable amongst the warm natural wood and smooth polished concrete. We were two weeks too early for a chance to try the new winery restaurant, but by the end of June the Vanilla Pod had completed its transition from Summerland to Poplar Grove’s showpiece location. Fortunately it was easy to console ourselves with plenty of excellent wine from the sleek tasting room stations, and this early on a Monday we had the whole place virtually to ourselves!

Poplar Grove's New View

Purchasing some of the delicious Pinot Gris for immediate enjoyment was an easy decision, and I was particularly excited to find that the 2008 “CSM” was still available for sale. Because it is exclusive to the winery, I never expected to acquire this powerful blend of Cabernets, Syrah, and Merlot which I had enjoyed so much at the Playhouse Wine Festival’s BC Paired Luncheon in February. Needless to say I immediately snagged a bottle to join the other 2008 vintages from Poplar Grove in my collection; only the 2008 “Legacy” red blend remains outstanding, as I await its release in September (along with the 2009 red varietals).

After a short detour back into Penticton for some sustenance we took in a the sights and tastes at La Frenz. Getting the chance to finally visit this superb winery was another highlight of the trip. We sampled the wide range of wines, including several excellent new whites, such as the Okanagan Spring Wine Festival Best-of-Varietals Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier. The tasty Tawny and deliciously rich Liqueur Muscat were equally exciting, and it took everything in me not to buy some immediately: you see, the reserve and primarily red half of the spring releases weren’t scheduled to be available until “mid-June”, so I wanted need to wait to order a full (mixed) case. The helpful staff advised me to keep our tasting fee receipts for reimbursement when I ordered the planned case later in the month; at that point I would have the opportunity to get my hands on bottles such as the Vintage Port, Reserve Pinot Noir, and Grand Total Reserve.

We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting some past favourites and new discoveries, focusing on wineries none of us had visited in person before. A stop at Elephant Island Orchard Wines was a fruit-filled treat, and I availed myself of the fortified cherry “Stellaport”, made in a Solera-style from what is now ten years of sweet Stella cherries starting from the 2001 harvest. Down the road we paused for some Therapy, where we brainstormed new wine names for this witty winery; their white blend AlterEgo was delicious with creamy corn chowder last fall. For afternoon refreshments we headed to Kettle Valley, which we’d heard served Gewurztraminer Slushies! The rumours were true and we imbibed in this rare delight, while my friends picked up some Reserve Pinot Noir, and I myself went straight after the “Caboose” fortified Malbec/Petit Verdot. I’ve enjoyed this sweet treat in the past when it was called Starboard, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to add the newest release to my burgeoning dessert wine collection.

With the afternoon rapidly coming to a close we wasted little time in scooting south through Penticton to Skaha Lake, where we once again enjoyed the beautiful views and charming hospitality of Painted Rock. Although enthusiastic Proprietor John Skinner wasn’t available, his equally enthusiastic young assistant Tyson was happy to guide us through the latest releases, which I was eager to share with my companions. The luxurious 2009 Syrah impressed enough to make for some impulse purchases, with the other reds such the varietal Merlot and the Red Icon blend also showing very nicely. I was particularly interested in the new release 2011 Chardonnay, which John has been talking up every time I’ve seen him all year! His excitement certainly wasn’t misplaced, as we all loved the elegance shown in the focused fruit and very well-integrated oak; it demanded a chilled bottle to enjoy further that very night!

As the discussion amongst us began turning to dinner we made one more stop at Blasted Church in the hills above the southern end of Skaha Lake. Three years ago we’d driven home with a double magnum of Blasted Church Merlot, which is still biding its time in a friend’s cellar, waiting for a suitable uncorking opportunity. Somehow he managed to restrain himself this time, as we sipped the many superb 2011 whites recently released. Of particular delight was the Unorthodox Chardonnay, a delicate and memorable Chardonnay Musqué that quickly found a spot in the overflowing cooler; just as the winery suggests, it was expected to make for an excellent aperitif.

Suitably exhausted and appropriately pickled we headed back to Penticton to obtain the evening’s required dinner ingredients: my wife and I had been assigned the task of using kohlrabi, tomato paste, and soy sausage (for the benefit of us vegetarians). After returning to Crooked Tree we got right to work preparing a hearty roasted vegetable pasta dish with side salad while enjoying sips of chilled Poplar Grove Pinot Gris and Blasted Church Chardonnay. Creative inspiration led us to devise an appetizer pairing Painted Rock’s new Chardonnay with buttered popcorn, sprinkled with parmesan cheese – delicious! Having polished off a couple more wines over dinner we got to wondering how many liquid assets we’d actually acquired – all of us having done our utmost to control ourselves. Setting it all out for admiration it became apparent that we were returning home with just about one table’s worth of wine, as good a metric as any and enough to make any wine fan’s mouth water at the sight of it!

The Mark of Productivity

The next morning we miraculously managed to fit all seven of us, plus baby accessories and some very efficiently-packed wine into the SUV for our trip home. With many beautiful photographs, innumerable smile-inducing memories, and plenty of bottles to open over the years to come we will no doubt be remembering this spectacular trip even beyond the next one, which can hardly come soon enough!


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