Friday 21 June 2013

BCWAS Tasting: Gray Monk Gamut

Last night the members of the BC Wine Appreciation Society enjoyed our final tasting before the summer hiatus. Steven Heiss and his wife Dawn joined us from Gray Monk Estate Winery to sample a broad range of wines produced by this long-time family-owned winery. Steven’s parents George and Trudy started Gray Monk over forty years ago when they planted their first grapes north of Kelowna. Now he and his two brothers – and their respective families – oversee most of the winery’s operations and winemaking, with Steven focusing on sales and George Jr. acting as head winemaker. It soon became clear that working so closely with one’s family keeps things exciting for Steven, as he recounted many hilarious and engrossing tales from the vineyards and cellar!

Steven Heiss sets the tone with a story!

Proprietors George and Trudy originally met in Edmonton, a city which seems to have an unusual draw for the Heiss family (Steven himself spent time there as a musician before returning to BC in the mid 1990’s). It would seem the couple met in the course of Trudy’s tenure as a hair model, on whom George could practice his hairdressing skills. After marrying in 1962, they eventually left the surprisingly vibrant Edmonton hairdressing scene for British Columbia, where they bought the land that would become Gray Monk in 1972. The purchase of a single book on vine grafting helped the burgeoning self-taught viticulturists establish a series of “suitcase vines” brought over from Europe, with a strong focus on Pinot Gris, known as “Grauer Monch” in Germany. Steven shared the fact that his parents originally sold their grapes to others, but the wine that was produced after all their hard work in the vineyard was distasteful to say the least. As a result, by 1982 Gray Monk’s winery had been built in order to facilitate estate winemaking.

We began our tasting with samples of hard-to-come-by 2009 Odyssey Traditional Brut, a new wine released last year with a unique “Celebration Edition” label. The very worthy celebration being noted was Gray Monk’s 30-40-50 Anniversary: 50 years of marriage for George and Trudy, 40 years of vineyards, and 30  years of winemaking. The Traditional Brut complements the winery’s existing Odyssey White Brut, a more off-dry blend of Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay Musque, and Riesling which I recently enjoyed courtesy of some friends with good taste. The Traditional Brut is quite naturally a more traditional champagne blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier, with a toasty, yeasty nose and a fine mousse. It was well liked, particularly as an ideal start to the evening!

Gray Monk Odyssey Traditional Brut

A series of Gray Monk’s many white wines came next, beginning with the (reserve) Odyssey Pinot Gris and regular Estate Pinot Gris. The 2011 Odyssey comes from vines originally planted in 1978, which are treated with special care as they approach middle age. Intended as a drier, more food-friendly wine, it showed off a complex palate and rich texture with plenty of ripe stonefruit flavours. The 2012 Estate was recently named Best Pinot Gris at the Okanagan Spring Wine Festival, and was awash in ripe fruit salad and floral aromas, with a strong peach focus and a sweeter palate than the Odyssey edition.

Following the Pinot Gris, we enjoyed 2012 vintages of Gewurztraminer, Pinot Auxerrois, Siegerrebe, and Ehrenfelser. My personal favourite, and that of many it seemed, was the Ehrenfelser, with an extremely fresh flavour profile and rich fruit salad characteristics. Unfortunately, Gray Monk’s Ehrenfelser vines are still recovering from their earlier use in icewine production, and so it remains a winery exclusive production at present. The Siegerrebe is apparently Trudy’s favourite wine, with a softer canned fruit salad profile that favours pears and peaches, plus a slight perfumed aroma, while the Pinot Auxerrois came across as fairly subdued in fact. The light body and low acid of the Auxerrois followed the highly perfumed Gewurztraminer, which although possessing pleasant lychee aromas ultimately exceeded my own personal preferences in terms of floral intensity – to each his or her own however!

Gray Monk Siegerrebe

A couple of Gray Monk’s Odyssey series red wines were also available, giving us a chance to see how the winery is expanding beyond their traditional focus on aromatic whites. The 2010 Odyssey Merlot comes from Oliver and Black Sage Bench fruit; it provided an intriguing hint of sausage on the nose that carried through on to the dry palate. The 2010 Odyssey Meritage was said to be all Black Sage Bench fruit (a blend of Merlot and Cabernets Franc & Sauvignon); it was even drier than the Merlot, with more tannin to boot, but showing bright fruit flavours and hints of meat and leather on the palate.

A couple of highly enjoyable treats served to cap the tasting, beginning with Gray Monk’s Odyssey “III” Port-style fortified wine. This Merlot-based wine is fortified with spirits locally distilled from Gray Monk’s own grapes, with a focus on retaining the original flavours. The “III” has been produced in a solera-style since 2005, and came across as full-bodied but only moderately sweet (51 grams per liter of residual sugar), no doubt making it more versatile when it comes to food pairing. Flavours of cherry and chocolate would make it an ideal companion for homemade Black Forest Cake.

Gray Monk Late Harvest Kerner

An unexpected surprise from Steven was a sample of 2001 Late Harvest Kerner, held in the Gray Monk wine library for quite a while, and very valuable as an educational experience. On the nose there was an initial funky character (and in fact a couple of the bottles were somewhat corked), and aromas of ink and linen that reminded me of a printing press. Over time apples and honey aromas emerged as the wine warmed up, where it seemed to show better in fact. Altogether it was less impressive on the palate, but a fascinating study of the variety and style. The winery still produces a varietal Kerner, but no longer differentiates based on harvest dates: the 2012 vintage possesses nearly 70 grams per liter of residual sugar, so customers are hopefully purchasing it with some advance knowledge of what to expect.

Although his superb history of the winery came at the beginning of the evening, Steven’s highly enjoyable commentary was a feature throughout the tasting. The details he provided for each wine, and his willingness to answer questions truly enriched the experience, and left everyone talking about how much fun we’d had, above and beyond the well-crafted wines! Many thanks go to Steven and Dawn, and the entire Gray Monk family, for sharing so much with the BC Wine Appreciation Society and the many local fans of Gray Monk.

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Wine Bloggers Conference 2013 – Part III

The Wine Blogger’s Conference in Penticton concluded last Saturday night, but instead of heading home to Vancouver on Sunday we decided a more relaxing agenda was in order. I had been wanting to visit the luxurious villa suites at Hester Creek for some time, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity for my wife and I to refresh and reconnect after the busy days apart during the Conference. A night in the southern Okanagan could be followed by a more leisurely drive home on Monday, with the fringe benefit of course that we could visit a few more wineries at a slower pace. So after a hearty breakfast we packed up the car, made sure to visit our friend Jeanette’s delightful little art gallery in downtown Penticton, and struck out for another day in sunny wine country.

By early afternoon we arrived in Okanagan Falls and stopped for a light lunch of ice cream cones at Tickleberry’s. Fun Fact: you can have ice cream for lunch when you’re on vacation. Soon we passed by McIntyre Bluff, marking our entry into the south Okanagan, and swung off the highway to route through the Black Sage Bench and the many excellent wineries there. Immediately upon us at the head of Tucelnuit Drive was Jackson-Triggs’ massive production facility, and we took the opportunity to visit the JT tasting room for the first time. I’d already picked up a couple bottles of Jackson-Triggs reds at the Penticton VQA Store, but appreciated the opportunity to taste both the 2010 Sunrock Shiraz and Grand Reserve Cabernet-Shiraz-Viognier in person to confirm my selection. Our next stop was at Quinta Ferreira in Oliver. I sought out the winery’s Best of Class Cabernet Franc and Malbec, and added a couple more bottles to the multi-case collection in the trunk. Quinta Ferreira’s picturesque vineyards also offered me the opportunity to capture a photograph looking back north.

Quinta Ferreira View Northward

Travelling further south along Black Sage Road we faced the difficult choice of where to stop, having to skip over a number of intriguing and excellent wineries for the sake of time. It doesn’t hurt to leave something for next time as well! We couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the gorgeous tasting room of Church & State; at the very least I needed to continue my vertical of the winery’s icon red blend “Quintessential”. We always enjoy the sleek architecture and stunning views at Church & State, and the staff’s thorough professionalism never disappoints. Down the street the superb customer service of Black Hills was the next to impress us, in particular due to Jeff Stewart having joined the team after showing us a great time last year at LaStella. Jeff walked us through a leisurely and thought-provoking tasting of the entire Black Hills portfolio outside by the “water feature” (i.e., after-hours pool), including the marvellous, complex 2011 Carménère. Back on the road, and approaching the northern end of Osoyoos Lake, we needed to visit Burrowing Owl for their newly released 2010 Meritage and Syrah, both of which are sure to sell out promptly.

Black Hills "Water Feature"

Winery visits complete for the day, and needing some time to reorganize the many boxes of bottles joining us, we looked forward to what would surely be a soothing evening at Hester Creek. Even our optimistic hopes were easily surpassed after driving up the exclusive path through the vineyards to be greeted by friendly Villa Manager Melissa McLaughlin and shown to our immaculate room. A complimentary bottle of the winery’s Character White helped us relax even further as we unpacked the car and admired the expansive views as the sun slowly set behind us. With no more driving necessary until the next day it was nice to enjoy a generous glass of wine after a few days of responsible tour tasting.

Hester Creek Villa

The reason we could park the car for the night was because of our dinner reservations at Hester Creek’s Terrafina Restaurant, a very short walk down the hill past the Tasting Room. In fact, Terrafina occupies the space originally devoted to the tasting room, before the new winery and guest centre were built in 2009. We made sure to leave for dinner early enough to first visit the (new) tasting room, where we methodically sampled all the wines available, with the advantage being that we were the only guests right before closing. The always fascinating Trebbiano made an impression with orange blossom focus, along with the toasty 2011 Merlot and the spicy new Cabernet Franc Rosé. The Rosé is a winery exclusive release, of which a couple bottles were sure to find their way home with us.

At Terrafina we settled into a comfortable vineyard view table indoors, although a number of very nice patio tables beckon guests as well. Just as predicted based on past experiences, dinner was superb, particularly the wild-harvested morel mushroom appetizer on special that day. A crisp salad, delicious vegetable pavé, and a crab & corn pizza from the restaurant’s wood-fired oven rounded out the meal to our considerable pleasure. We walked back to our Villa room with glee – given how rare that opportunity arises – and enjoyed a very relaxing night’s sleep on the massive king-sized bed in air-conditioned comfort. Sunrise breakfast on our private terrace the next morning continued to impress, and it was easy to muse about spending more time at the Villa in the future while we packed up to depart. Still, it was shaping up to be a spectacular day in the Okanagan, and we had a number of wineries to visit before we headed home via the Similkameen Valley, and more of our favourite venues.

LaStella Vineyards

After a stop at the Hester Creek wine shop to stock up on some favourites, we proceeded down the road a couple of minutes to Road 13, always a must-visit winery given so many great memories there. Road 13 has also come into the habit lately of releasing a bevy of small lot wines, so there’s almost always something new or up-and-coming when we visit. Recent releases include the Jackpot Viognier-Roussanne-Marsanne and the very hard to find Old Vines Chenin Blanc, plus a Jackpot Reserve version of the same. The stocking up continued, plus we got to watch the upcoming 2010 Sparkling Chenin Blanc being labelled and prepared for release within weeks. We even got the chance to say hello to recently-married Joe Luckhurst (son of owners Pam & Mick), who shared with us a sample of ridiculously-ripe Similkameen Merlot destined for a particularly great wine in the years to come. I’ll be waiting to see what comes out of it in the end, with my fingers crossed for just a little bit of vintage Port!

Further down the road towards Osoyoos we zipped in to LaStella, with our focus being olive oil in fact: LaStella’s importation of fine Sicilian organic olive oil is almost more exciting than their incredible wines! The olive oil is available only at the winery, and we have learned never to leave the Okanagan without acquiring some, not only for ourselves but as a great gift for others. Of course, adding some fresh Moscato D’Osoyoos and LaStella’s gorgeous Merlot to the mix also made plenty of sense. The growing collection of bottles was joined by a few more from Moon Curser before we left town as well, where we got the chance to snag plenty of new release reds, including their first varietal Cabernet Sauvignon. Even better was the chance to obtain what is likely Canada’s first varietal Touriga Nacional, of which only a meagre 60 cases were produced!

Similkameen River at Forbidden Fruit

Finally it came time to head west back towards home, and fortunately that route took us directly through the picturesque Similkameen Valley and the many wineries we enjoy visiting there. At our first stop, Forbidden Fruit, we enjoyed lunch takeout we’d picked up in Osoyoos, while sitting by the Similkameen river and watching a family of deer cavorting on the opposite bank. Up the road at Seven Stones we stopped to offer thanks for a wonderful dinner during the Conference excursion, and to pick up a bottle of Syrah for good measure. Next was our umpteenth visit to Orofino, where we ensured John & Virginia Weber’s venue remained our “most-visited” winery of all time. Despite my upcoming mixed case of wine via the new Orofino Collector’s Club, we needed one more bottle of delicious Moscato Frizzante for good measure.

Although many more great Similkameen wineries exist our final stop before hitting the road was at Herder, to catch up and buy what may be some of the final vintages there. Sadly, the entire Herder property is for sale, and although the vineyards should remain productive the Herder label may not be around for much longer. Thus, a magnum of Pinot Noir (among other special bottles) found its way into the car – which would soon make a friend back in Vancouver very happy. All told, we finished the trip in possession of about eight cases of wine – and a great many memories as well – which should keep me quite busy sorting, cataloguing, and writing about in the weeks to come. The scary thing is we’re headed back to wine country in only a couple of weeks for a tour with my mother; good thing there are plenty of potential adventures remaining, and even a few bottles of wine if I’m lucky!

Saturday 15 June 2013

Wine Bloggers Conference 2013 – Part II

After a day spent indoors for most Conference participants there was an eagerness to get outside and enjoy the beautiful Okanagan summer weather. I had already snuck out to visit a couple wineries in the morning, but was just as excited to depart on the bus for our mystery excursion to feature “wine & geology”. To be honest I had already surmised the excursion would be visiting the beautiful Similkameen Valley, and that we’d be dining at a very special new location, which is why I’d hustled to get on board that particular bus! Joining me were my wife and a blogger friend of ours from Vancouver, plus plenty more friendly faces I recognized throughout the full busload. Under the enthusiastic leadership of Kim Lawton from the Similkameen Wineries Association, we took off for Keremeos and our first stop.

After an exciting trip through Marron Valley via Kaleden and Highway 3A we arrived in Keremeos from the north and pulled into the Grist Mill Heritage Site. This functioning flour mill, with original machinery intact, was built in 1877 and is the last remaining site of its kind in Western Canada. Inside the Visitor Centre we were greeted with sparkling wine from Orofino Vineyards and Rustic Roots, along with fresh oysters and other treats to enjoy on our tour of the grounds. The lush gardens and swiftly rushing creek provided for a relaxing venue to chat and begin an introduction to the Similkameen. Still, it wasn’t long before we were off to our dinner destination at Seven Stones, with everyone’s palates refreshed and ready for more!

Seven Stones Similkameen River Valley View

We zipped down the Crowsnest Highway through Cawston to reach Seven Stones, one of the southernmost wineries in the valley (outdone only by Vineglass and Forbidden Fruit, nearly at the American border). At George Hanson’s beautifully-sited winery the entire Similkameen Wineries Association was awaiting us, with such a bevy of wines from the nine wineries one could scarcely count them all, let alone taste them! That’s not to say the group didn’t try, as each winery proprietor was present to convey their unique story and pour in person. The bloggers were divided amongst three groups, and alternately toured the property with George or explored the terrain of the region with trained geologist Dale Wright of Eau Vivre Winery. Tasting through the wonderfully varied wines of the Similkameen – from fruit frizzantes to bold Cabernet Sauvignon – was certainly a cherished moment, yet the high point of the tour was exploring George’s brand new wine cave.

The multi-wing concrete caves extending underneath Seven Stones are nearing completion, and George was only too happy to show off what should soon be one of the premier wine-tourism destinations in the Similkameen. Although one wing will store Seven Stones’ many barrels (and connects directly to George’s home), a second wing has a promising future as a highly desirable event space, including a commercial kitchen and a full suite of lighting and sound. It was in that enigmatic locale that Chef Chris Van Hooydonk of Artisan Culinary Concepts was preparing a tapas feast for dinner. Guests still tasting upstairs needn’t have worried, as every remaining bottle was ferried down to the cave where we could all help ourselves with dinner! As good as the wine was, it was almost outshone by Chef Van Hooydonk’s spectacular spread of food, of which not a single crumb could be found at the end of the evening.

Seven Stones Wine Caves

Amongst a great many thanks and congratulations to our hosts, it took quite a while to round up the bloggers for our departure to a reception with the four other excursion troops. We reunited with our compatriots at Spirit Ridge Resort, home of the celebrated Nk’Mip Cellars, for a rooftop party hosted by the Oliver-Osoyoos Winery Association. As the sun set we cavorted late into the night, and did our best to keep anchored in the increasingly-amusing windy weather. No doubt the staff at Spirit Ridge weren’t amused by how many broken glasses resulted from the table-clearing gusts, but the conditions certainly kept things exciting! Once again we were gracefully chauffeured back to Penticton Lakeside Resort for more after-hours parties and some solid sleep for the wisest among us.

Saturday morning began with a luxurious breakfast in Gyro Park across the street from the hotel, organized by the Downtown Penticton Business Association. With everything from fresh crepes to mouth-watering pastries and savoury breakfast wraps there was something for everyone, regardless of their waking state. I myself fuelled up for the day, given that I would be spending the morning wine touring once again, and had even corrupted a fellow blogger into joining me! My wife was to spend the day gallivanting with several friends on a bachelorette party weekend which just happened to coincide – geographically and chronologically – with the Conference, so we dropped her off in Naramata and set out with shopping list in hand.

Stops at Elephant Island and Kettle Valley produced some key acquisitions, and we even auspiciously spotted Robert Van Westen erecting his road-side sign, prompting another winery visit. Rob was even kind enough to treat us to a barrel sample of his upcoming 2012 Pinot Noir, which should easily match the superb quality found in the 2011 “VD” collaboration with Tom Di Bello. Before returning to the hotel for lunch and afternoon sessions we enjoyed a leisurely tasting on the patio at Laughing Stock, where I picked up my latest Preferred Share Wine Club allotment. Tasting both the 2011 Syrah and Blind Trust Red I was quite pleased to be taking home three bottles of each of these finely crafted and very promising red wines.

Back in Penticton my fellow blogger and I caught the tail end of lunch with Wines of Uruguay, and committed to attending the afternoon sessions, including the enticingly-named “Drink Them Before They’re Famous”. That breakout session hosted by Master Sommelier George Miliotes introduced us to a stunningly good custom Gamay that had not yet been tasted by anyone beyond the development team. An introduction to Canadian icewine from Inniskillin came next, with some remarkable story-telling by guest speaker Randy Picton, Winemaker at Nk’Mip. Randy recounted the spectacular longevity of an open bottle of icewine he kept in his laboratory fridge for years, prompting a few attendees to recork the sample bottles throughout the room and slip them into satchels for later! We immediately moved into the next “Live Wine Blogging” segment, featuring many high end local reds, and of which I was sure to participate in full this time, to much relief and enjoyment. Lastly, New Wines of Greece hosted a lengthy pre-dinner reception featuring a slew of educational opportunities for those of us – myself included – who had yet to taste from grapes with names like Assyrtiko and Xinomavro.

WBC13 Banquet Dinner

The closing dinner prepared by the Resort’s Head Chef Chris Remington required the challenging selection of only four wines from the myriad wineries represented at the Conference. Poplar Grove’s highly respected Pinot Gris was a nice match for the first course of candied salmon, while the second course halibut sang with Hester Creek’s Character White blend. Hopefully those present were able to appreciate the inclusion of the Okanagan’s only Trebbiano grapes (from 45-year-old vines no less) in the Character White, alongside Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc. Penticton’s “in-town” winery Perseus, within walking distance of the hotel, was tapped for their full-bodied Invictus red blend to pair with lamb and lentils. Although I skipped the lamb in favour of more lentils and roasted beets I had no trouble enjoying the dark, ripe fruit found within the predominantly Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon of the Invictus. Our final course consisted of generously portioned cheesecake and the unexpected Lemberger Icewine of West Kelowna’s Little Straw Vineyards. An individual 50mL bottle for every diner revealed delicious fresh, clean berry fruit flavours, and likely prompted some unique wine journal entries as well.

After several hilarious skits and the conclusion of the Wine Blog Awards, some well deserved applause for the Conference organizers acknowledged the passion that brought WBC13 to Penticton in the first place. It was then revealed that next year’s Conference will be held in Buellton, California, where attendees will enjoy the wines of over 100 members of the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association. Just like that the 2013 Conference was over: I’m so glad I made the decision to attend, which in retrospect I can scarcely believe was even in question! Fortunately for my wife and I the adventure was to continue for one more night in the Okanagan, with a luxurious stay at Hester Creek’s Villa coming up next!

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Wine Bloggers Conference 2013 – Part I

After a great deal of lobbying by some very hardworking people in the local wine and hospitality industry, the North American Wine Bloggers Conference came to Canada this year for the first time, setting up shop in Penticton to be precise. For people in the know, this was a very big deal, and a valuable opportunity to provide our relatively small local industry with international exposure. I originally wasn’t going to attend the Conference myself, given that I was unlikely to discover any BC wines with which I wasn’t already familiar. I expected the focus of the conference would be to show off BC wine and wine tourism to those with next to no experience, and I was fine with that approach. However, after seeing how many other local bloggers and industry friends were to be attending I changed my mind. Upon reading the list of events and realizing I would be following all of the enthusiastic tweets from home it became clear I would probably sprain an ankle kicking myself if I didn’t attend.

With a room booked at the Penticton Lakeside Resort and an empty trunk begging for wine in our rental SUV, my wife and I set off for wine country last Thursday morning. My goal was to head north via the Coquihalla Highway, and enjoy lunch at Mission Hill’s Terrace Restaurant, which I had visited for the first time last fall, and was quite eager to share. Upon arrival in West Kelowna the excellent food and the stellar views did not disappoint, and we even bumped into a former staff member from Village Wines Kitsilano; now a Sommelier in the Mission Hill wine shop, she generously walked us through a short but exciting Oculus vertical.

Mission Hill Architecture Spares No Expense

Headed south towards Penticton I knew we had to make a couple of stops along the way. I’d recently been quite surprised to see Summerland’s Silkscarf Winery take home the award for Best Cabernet Sauvignon at the Okanagan Spring Wine Festival, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try it out in person. It being early afternoon on a Thursday we had the tasting room to ourselves for most of our visit, and Proprietor/Winemaker Roie Manoff was more than happy to show off his many wines. While virtually everything was excellent, we were particularly impressed by the reds, having previously perceived Silkscarf as a more white-wine-focused operation. Estate plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Syrah in Summerland must be few and far between, but the Manoff family is producing highly drinkable reds with ripe tannins and intense fruit focus. We left with plenty of wine and new appreciation for a previously lesser known winery – WBC was paying off already!

With the afternoon heating up rapidly and a desire to reach home base in Penticton growing, we elected on only one more stop, although it was already a given we would visit 8th Generation. We’ve both been big fans of 8th Generation’s Frizzante(s) since the very first Chardonnay Frizzante from 2009. Tasting both the 2012 Integrity (White) and Confidence (Rosé) Frizzante we knew it was a particularly good vintage, and a split-case quickly found its way into the car. The Frizzante was joined by several bottles of the 2012 Pinot Meunier Rosé, an annual favourite in our household that has continued to impress this year with mouth-watering fresh fruit flavours.

With more than two cases of wine already rattling around in the car we finally checked into the hotel and picked up our conference badges, settling into our lovely sixth floor, lake view room – very nice! While catching up with a great many friends at the tradeshow we also enjoyed samples of unique Uruguayan wines. The fact that Wines of Uruguay had gone to the trouble of attending – given what must have been mounds of paperwork – was impressive enough, yet the wines being poured were also noteworthy. I learned quite a bit about Uruguay itself, as well as the extremely prosperous and sustainable economy of this little South American dynamo! Just as our stomachs started to rumble everyone was herded onto buses for the trip to our first major event, the opening reception at See Ya Later Ranch in the hills above Okanagan Falls.

Steller's Jay Brut

The crew from Constellation Brands, corporate owners of See Ya Later and several other local wineries, had obviously pulled out all the stops from their deep pockets to welcome the Conference attendees. Upon arrival after the precarious journey up winding mountain roads guests were invited to soothe their senses with crisp Sumac Ridge Steller’s Jay Brut (and freshly shucked oysters for good measure). Constellation made the very wise decision to hire Joy Road Catering to provide the food, distributed amongst several stations spread throughout the picturesque property. The extremely skilled veterans at Joy Road had prepared a bevy of spectacular food pairings for wines from Jackson-Triggs, Inniskillin, Nk’Mip Cellars, Osoyoos Larose, See Ya Later, and Sumac Ridge. Not only was the food incredibly creative and delicious, but each station included live entertainment, from the quaint accordion player at Osoyoos Larose, to the talented Aboriginal drummer and dancer at Nk’Mip’s table amongst the vines.

The party went long into the night, as guests devoured the seemingly never-ending food and enjoyed what, for many, was their first deep immersion into BC wine. The local classic car club had swung by to show off their lovingly restored vehicles, and even Tinhorn Creek President Sandra Oldfield had joined the fun with her beautiful 1957 Dodge De Soto. Upon discovering the De Soto’s trunk was large enough to hold an orchestra a few of us locals giddily staged a series of photo-shoots inside, to Sandra’s delight. Finally, full of wine, including Inniskillin icewine and sumptuous desserts from the final station, everyone slowly boarded buses in the dark for the ride back to Penticton. Constellation made sure no one left without a gift bag however, which surprisingly included a whole bottle of Sumac Ridge’s Black Sage Vineyard Pipe! I hope our international guests found room in their bags to bring home this tasty fortified wine, but I would guess more than a few bottles were enjoyed significantly sooner, for practical reasons if anything.

See Ya Later View Northward

The next morning we slowly emerged from the bed, encouraged by the breakfast opportunities at the Resort’s waterfront restaurant, The Hooded Merganser. For guests who officially decline all housekeeping services, the hotel offers food vouchers that go a long way towards covering breakfast or lunch – an excellent value proposition that I would love to see more often! We enjoyed a tasty breakfast with a gorgeous view of the lake before going our separate ways for the day: my wife had work on which to catch up, and I was about to play hooky from the Conference for the morning! Although I’m sure author and keynote speaker James Conaway kept the crowd entertained, I was busy taking advantage of my presence in the midst of countless superb wineries I don’t visit nearly often enough.

My first stop that morning was actually the Penticton Wine Information Centre, a large VQA wine store which I surmised would carry some of the rarities not often seen in Vancouver. My suspicions were proven correct when I spotted exciting sparkling wines like Haywire’s “The Bub” and Covert Farms’ “Odie” plus a couple bottles of Desert Hill’s port-style wine “The Ambassador”. Unlike many VQA stores, which are often pressed for space, the Wine Info Centre has a wall of coolers from which to sell nicely chilled whites as well; quite an impressive setup overall. There are always a number of wines that don’t show up in VQA stores for various reasons, and so my next stops at Poplar Grove and La Frenz helped to tick quite a few bottles off my to-buy list as well, including several bottles of the latter’s divine Tawny, and Liqueur Muscat. Although many more wineries up the Naramata Bench beckoned, it was nearly noon and I retreated to the hotel for a tasty lunch sponsored by Wine Country Ontario.

Finding Oneself at the Visitor Centre

Tempting as the local wineries were, I took the time to attend the afternoon sessions, including “Creating Compelling Content” with local writer Jeannette Montgomery, plus American contributors Michael Wangbickler and Marcy Gordon. It was an entertaining, informative, and inspiring discussion about blogging and writing in general. Following the afternoon content sessions there was an hour of “Live Wine Blogging” featuring local white wines, of which I regretfully missed out on a good portion. Eager to strike out without delay on the evening mystery excursions I was busy freshening up until halfway through the Live Blogging. Admittedly, I thought the format would involve the bloggers rotating amongst stations, but to my surprise the bloggers stayed put and the winemakers and wines rotated between two dozen tables every five minutes, speed-dating style. As a result I wasn’t able to catch up on the wines I missed when I finally arrived, but I still got the chance to enjoy several crisp summer whites, and watch some very hardworking wine-slingers in action!

At the conclusion of the Live Blogging, the Excursion melee began in earnest, as five buses headed to mystery destinations awaited riders.  Although I had already surmised precisely where each bus was travelling based on the provided itinerary hints and my local knowledge, many conference-goers hadn’t a clue, and once each bus filled up it departed post-haste! Fortunately my wife had finished work for the day and joined me on the bus headed to explore “Wine & Geology”, where we were about to relish a fun-filled evening and spectacular dinner in a wonderfully unique location. To be continued…

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Spring 2013 Wine Awards Season – Domestic

May was a busy month for local wineries seeking to capitalize on their competition successes: no less than four major California-based competitions announced results, on top of those from the prominent Decanter Awards, and the International Wine and Spirits Competition. However, all the international buzz shouldn’t drown out important recognition at home, which came in the form of two well-known competitions at the provincial and national level. The month began with results from the Okanagan Spring Wine Festival, in which fifteen noted judges reviewed a record of 430 BC wines in 23 different categories. For each category the judges noted the top 5% of wines as “Finalists”, with one wine per category being declared “The Best” of the best.

The Best of Varietal Awards can at the very least prompt one to try out a new wine or winery, and can sometimes yield surprising results. While there were plenty of familiar names and expected winners on the list, others have certainly piqued my curiosity and sent me seeking out bottles I’ve yet to delve into. I’d be remiss if I neglected Gray Monk’s Ehrenfelser, having cherished CedarCreek’s version for years, yet somehow regretfully overlooked the other handful of local producers growing this rare grape. Seeing fruit-focused winery Elephant Island noted for their Viognier has got me hopeful I can stop by the Naramata Bench during the upcoming Wine Blogger’s Conference in Penticton. But the biggest surprise for me was witnessing Summerland winery Silkscarf top finalists Painted Rock and (Sumac Ridge) Black Sage Vineyard in the Cabernet Sauvignon category. I’ve tried some of Silkscarf’s well-crafted white wines in the past, but they seem to be expanding into reds more so recently, with wines that include Malbec-Cabernet and Shiraz-Viognier. I hope I can either visit the winery in person soon, or at the very least acquire a bottle or two of these reds via VQA or private stores in the region.

Okanagan Spring Wine Festival: 2013 Best of Varietal Results

With the Spring Wine Festival dominating local industry headlines, and so many international competition results being announced last month, one had to keep a close watch for the outcome of the annual All Canadian Wine Championships. The Championships have been judging Canadian wine since 1981, and BC wines – particularly reds – often show very well. Ironically, after several years of BC domination this year’s Best Red Wine trophy went to an Ontario Cabernet Franc, while Best White Wine was awarded to Lang Vineyards’ 2011 Farm Reserve Riesling. In addition to tasting more than a thousand table wines, the competition judges examine dessert wines, fruit wines, and ciders, which led to several Best of Class awards for BC wineries this year, including the Best Dessert Wine trophy to Mission Hill for their 2011 Reserve Vidal Icewine.

All Canadian Wine Championships: Best of Class Winners from BC

Once again, some of the BC winners were not particularly surprising, but certainly worthy of celebration; while others provided for plenty of surprise indeed. It’s great to see new winery 50th Parallel already being noted for their success with Gewurztraminer, and they should soon come to dominate Pinot Noir rankings now that Grant Stanley has joined the team after ten years at Quails’ Gate. Looking at the Pinot Gris category I’m very happy for little River Stone: this small, family-owned winery triumphed in a category with massive competition: Pinot Gris is the third-most-harvested grape in BC, following Merlot and Chardonnay. In a similar vein, youthful SpierHead was honoured for the best Rosé, after having been open for only a couple of years! Unfortunately, only 155 cases of their first edition (Pinot Noir) Rosé were produced, so it remains winery-exclusive, at least for the 2012 vintage – a great reason to visit their Kelowna property!

Amongst red wines – where BC often performs particularly well nationally, CedarCreek is to be commended for their varietal Merlot win with a very nicely valued $20 bottle (it spent 21 months in French oak!). Oliver’s Tinhorn Creek must be pleased to have scooped the value Cabernet Franc category, what with Winemaker Sandra Oldfield’s oft-heard praise for the grape’s potential in British Columbia. Penticton winery La Frenz pulled off a coup with their $28 Cabernet Sauvignon dominating all others above $25, including what was likely many pricier competitors. Similarly, Quinta Ferreira’s $35 champion “Obra-Prima” red blend likely encountered fierce competition from wines in the $50+ range; I’ll definitely be searching for a bottle in the near future. I was pleasantly surprised to see CedarCreek win the $25+ Syrah category with their Platinum wine, seeing as I wasn’t sure there was to be a 2009 Platinum Syrah – the 2008 is still on the market. I’ll be quite happy to receive a bottle of the 2009 in one of my upcoming Platinum Club shipments. Also worth mentioning is Moon Curser’s brand new varietal Touriga Nacional, almost certainly a Canadian first, and already being praised on a national level.

Later this month the highly anticipated Lieutenant Governor’s Awards will be announced, which annually honour only a dozen (or fewer) BC wines as representing the pinnacle of winemaking excellence in the province. The blind-judged awards don’t categorize winners, nor does the competition charge for entries, which are limited to four per winery. Nearly half the wineries in BC typically enter their wines, so the judging panel often has about 400 bottles to narrow down to a mere 10-12 champions! Just as the Lt. Governor’s Awards are announced, the National Wine Awards of Canada will be wrapping up judging in Ontario. The Nationals replace the highly-respected Canadian Wine Awards, which ceased to be when sponsor Wine Access magazine folded earlier this year. Wine Align took up the torch and quickly organized the Nationals, which will blind-judge over 1,200 wines from across Canada before releasing results in September. Fans of BC wine can expect to hear plenty more good news over the next few months!

Saturday 1 June 2013

Spring 2013 Wine Awards Season – International

The (northern hemisphere) spring is a particularly popular awards season for wine, with several prestigious international competitions announcing their results during the month of May. These competitions include such well-known awards as the London-based Decanter World Wine Awards, and the UK International Wine and Spirit Competition, as well as four California-based competitions: the Pacific Rim Wine Competition, the Riverside International Wine Competition, the New World International Wine Competition, and the Los Angeles International Wine Competition.

The Decanter Awards, held in London, is celebrating its tenth anniversary, and crowns the top wines on an international stage. The Awards are considered the world’s leading wine competition, with judging performed this year by 219 experts, including 75 Masters of Wine. Amongst a field of 14,362 wines entered, only 229 emerged with a coveted gold medal. Seven of those gold medals came back to Canada, including three for British Columbian wines: JoieFarm 2011 Reserve Chardonnay (not yet released), Quails’ Gate 2010 Stewart Family Reserve Chardonnay (sold out), and See Ya Later Ranch 2011 Riesling. The three prestigious Regional Trophies for Canadian wine included Mission Hill’s 2011 Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir (not yet released), and Nk’Mip’s 2011 Qwam Qwmt Riesling Icewine.

The International Wine and Spirit Competition has a long history of not only celebrating the wines of the world, but putting them through rigorous analysis as well. The competition took shape in 1969 after the “Club Oenologique” was founded by wine chemist Anton Massel, with the idea that extensive chemical analysis would reveal aspects of wines and spirits beyond what a subjective judge could detect. As a result, scores in the competition can depend on proportions of sulphur dioxide, acetic acid, sugar, and alcohol, and consideration of how such factors will influence the ageability of the product in question.

The Northern Hemisphere Wine results from this year’s IWSC recognized a small number of Canadian wines as superb among their peers. A total of 208 Canadian wines received medals at the competition, but only six were considered by the judges (and lab work) to have possessed qualities worthy of gold status. Five of the gold medals went to Canadian icewines, including the 2011 Vidal and SLC Riesling from Mission Hill, as well as Inniskillin’s 2011 Riesling. Perhaps most exciting was the news that See Ya Later Ranch was awarded gold for their 2010 “Rover” Shiraz-Viognier, released last July and yet still broadly available for the bargain price of only $25!

Smaller international competitions include the Pacific Rim Wine Competition, which has been judging wines from all across the world in California each April since 1985. The two-day Competition involves blind judging by thirty wine professionals tasked with evaluating about two thousand wines. This year, more than 60 BC wines received medal status, including multiple gold medals, but nine stood above and were declared Best of Class in their particular categories, which are often divided based on vintage and price point. Oliver winery Desert Hills received three Best of Class gold medals, and Naramata Bench property Red Rooster was recognized for two wines, while Quails’ Gate’s marvellous 2010 Chardonnay was recognized yet again.

Pacific Rim Wine Competition: Best of Class Winners from BC

Unsurprisingly, California stages more than one annual international wine competition, with the Riverside Competition also judging approximately two thousand wines annually over the past thirty years. This year Naramata Bench winery La Frenz entered their wines for the first time, and were rewarded with a huge bounty of awards, including being named Best Small Winery alongside Winery of the Year Francis Ford Coppola Winery. Just last year BC winery Wild Goose was honoured with the same Small Winery award at the Competition. La Frenz received two Best of Class–Unanimous Gold “Chairman’s Awards” for their 2011 Viognier and 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, as well as four more gold medals, including Best of Class for their 2011 Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon and 2012 Riesling.

Several additional gold medals went to BC wineries at the Riverside Competition, including another Chairman’s Award to Calona Vineyards for their 2012 Sovereign Opal, and one to Red Rooster for their 2012 Reserve Viognier. Three gold medals went to Bench 1775 for their 2011 vintage “Paradise Ranch” line of icewines and dessert wines, and three to JoieFarm for wines including their 2011 Gamay and 2011 PTG blend – with both wines to be released this September. JoieFarm also achieved a significant coup at the Competition when their 2012 “Think Pink” Rosé was named “Sweepstakes Rosé Wine” – the best rosé amongst all categories!

A third annual competition in California keeps the state’s wine judges well practiced, when it comes time for the New World International Wine Competition, founded by respected wine columnist Jerry Mead in 1990. The competition has a unique focus on comparing wines within price categories to provide greater information for consumers, and all wines are tasted and judged double blind to avoid any bias. For the 2013 competition a number of BC wineries submitted their wines, and several brought home particularly notable awards, including Best of Varietal/Best of Class for Burrowing Owl’s 2010 Cabernet Franc, and for Nk’Mip’s 2011 Riesling Icewine. Double Gold medals went to Desert Hills for their 2008 Mirage red blend (not yet released), to Red Rooster for their 2011 Reserve Pinot Noir, and to Nk’Mip for their (newly released) 2009 Qwam Qwmt Syrah.

Finally, the Los Angeles International Wine Competition also takes place each May, and a number of BC wines received top honours there this year as well. Like other respectable competitions, the LA Competition involves blind judging by “an esteemed panel of judges” (100 in fact), and has been running for 74 years at the LA County Fair. Wines were limited to those from California, and then the Americas for many decades, until 2002 when the competition was opened up internationally. In the 2013 Competition, six BC wines received Best of Class honours, including a recent favourite of mine – Fort Berens 2012 Riesling, estate grown in Lillooet! Poplar Grove took home Cabernet Franc class honours, and Burrowing Owl scoped up Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot prizes, while JoieFarm demonstrated further competency via their upcoming Reserve Gewurztraminer. Lastly, Golden Mile stalwarts the Gehringer Brothers received the nod for best (Pinot) Auxerrois (an oft-neglected variety in the New World, but also produced locally by Gray Monk).

LA International Wine Competition: Best of Class Winners from BC

All this good news for BC ensures plenty of opportunities for local consumers to try out a Best of Class wine, but folks will need to act fast because competition for limited bottles will soon heat up as word gets around. Soon to come, a summary of some important domestic awards ceremonies that recently named a collection of BC’s best!