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What's happening in BC wine country? A BCWineLover/CityCaucus.com cross-post
2011 was a watershed year for BC's young and evolving wine industry. Once again cool weather would test the resolve of both veterans and newcomers alike. The mild springs and hot summers British Columbia got used to during the last decade are doing a disappearing act, forcing wineries to adapt to much lower grape yields and in some cases causing inconsistent output.
On the bright side, however, BC wine seemed to shift into a higher gear in terms of its overall quality, and the industry gained respectability and influence both at home and abroad. It's easy to overlook our successes and lose track of the events that are helping to shape BC's wine industry, which is what brings me to write this industry retrospective.
What were the biggest events which impacted British Columbia's wine industry? I present them in ascending order of significance.
#15 Culinary experiences expand in the Okanagan
Two years back BC Wine Lover interviewed local wine pioneer Harry McWatters about what he felt the industry could do to add value to the wine travel experience in our province. His advice – seen in this short video clip – was to increase the number of culinary attractions. "We've had a deficit in great culinary experiences historically, and we're starting to see now a broader range of accommodation," remarked McWatters, who goes on to say the challenge is to expand beyond just the traditional (summer) seasonal business.
To that end, 2011 was the year Okanagan wine country saw an increase in choice for fine dining. In recent years the Naramata Bench has had a couple of options at Hillside Estate Winery and Lake Breeze Vineyards where wine travellers could pair with delicious dinner and lunch dishes.
Bill Eggert with Stacey and I visiting his barrel room
It's been a while since we've featured a cross-post from BCWineLover.com on CityCaucus.com. With the holiday season in high gear and more than a little wine flowing, we share the following look back at our BC wine experiences in 2010.
There is no doubt that Fairview Cellars Bill "The Bear" Eggert is one of the most colourful characters in the Okanagan wine scene. Somehow I feel that Bill would have been right at home with the folks who pioneered the land above Oliver, BC where his luscious grapes ripen in the sun. Eggert's winery is a very small operation, but the quality of his wine leaves a very big footprint.
Famous for his reds – a Merlot, an exceptional Cabernet France and a to-die-for series of Cab Sauv's – Bill wandered into white territory to produce a very distinctive Sauvignon Blanc which is usually sold out.
Our visit to Eggert's wine farm this past summer was too brief but one of two really wonderful experiences for us. The other was another brief visit further up the Okanagan Valley on the Naramata Bench. Van Westen Vineyards is another very small winery driven by a lot of heart of its two proprietors – Robert Van Westen and his lovely wife Tammi.
We literally were at the end of our day and the doors were about to shut at Van Westen's cinder block winemaking facility tucked along Aiken's Loop. When we arrived with a pair of friends they told us they didn't even have a glass to pour any wine in – but lucky for us we carry a set with us!
In both of these visits, one in July and the other at the beginning of September, we were invited to taste from the barrels of each of their cellars. In Bill's case we tried out his upcoming Cabs, and one left me weak in the knees. He smiled and said that one's not quite ready yet, but he knows it's special.
Visiting Rob's barrel room was similarly snug. He opened a barrel of Malbec that was a real treat. Apparently wine writer John Schreiner tasted it and said to Rob, "somewhere an Argentian is weeping."
Visiting the Naramata Bench is like a ride in the country but with benefits. Naramata is the bourgeoning "sub-appellation" of the Okanagan Valley that features some of BC's very best independent winemakers. We visited some of our favourite wineries on a glorious sunny day last week. Whenever it's possible to speak with one of the proprietors for a few minutes, we get a quick download on what's happening with their business and the surrounding region.
As we always only visit a maximum of four wineries (three is preferred) we settled on Lake Breeze Vineyards, Marichel Winery, Hillside Estate Winery and Nichol Vineyard. Lake Breeze and Hillside are more substantial operations and big wine tourist draws. Each has an accompanying eatery staffed with a professional chef and very pleasant servers; lunch at either venue is highly recommended.
By comparison both Marichel and Nichol Vineyard wineries are comparatively small operations. Both are run by a husband and wife team who pour their souls into what they bottle. Interestingly, both of these small wineries feature the Syrah (or Shiraz) grape as one of their core varietals. It's a grape that requires the summer heat that the microclimates of the Naramata Bench provide. Both Nichol's and Marichel's Syrah wines are simply some of the best bottles of BC wine you will taste.
Lake Breeze Vineyards hold the crown for the most consistently fresh and crisp Pinot Blanc wine in the province. Achieving "double gold" medals and Lieutenant Governor Awards hasn't let them sit back on their laurels, however. Lake Breeze are stepping up their efforts on red wines as well. In fact, it's a point of pride for co-proprietor Gary Reynolds that visitors are now making Lake Breeze reds their reason to visit.
Banée – a tradition begun in France is growing in the South Okanagan
Our BC wine travels have taken me and my family regularly to the South Okanagan, and each year we return to find the industry maturing, and the wines evolving into something great. Many have worked hard over the years to improve their wines, and you can see from the quality of their work that they give a whole new meaning to 'learning on the job'.
For example, Stoneboat Vineyards was recently recognized by Wine Press Northwest magazine – a Washington state-based quarterly – as BC's 'winery to watch'. Then there is Okanagan Inniskillin, owned by the Vincor group. At our house we worship at the Temple of Sandor Mayer. Mayer is Inniskillin Okanagan's winemaker of the past 18 years, and one of the great wine craftsmen of the region. His rich reds (especially his Merlots) are one of life's great pleasures.
The South Okanagan is also home to other fine winemaking establishments like Burrowing Owl, Road 13 Winery, Quinta Ferreira, Jackson Triggs Okanagan, and the standout Fairview Cellars run by Bill Eggert.
Those who cherish the wines of the South Okanagan, or anyone who just wishes to know more about them are invited to the 7th Annual Banée (April 16-17, 2010), which was previously a closed event only for wine industry types. The Banée offers a selection of winemaker dinner + accommodation packages (ticket info further in this post). What you get next weekend in Osoyoos, BC is a behind-the-scenes experience, and an opportunity to mix with the folks who make the wines. My wife and I will be attending and we plan to share some of our observations on BCWineLover.com.
Modeled after Burgundy’s famed Banée de Meursault, a wine industry celebration that marks the end of pruning and the beginning of a new season, this festival will feature exquisite food and wine and will surely create a lasting tasting memory. Originally a small gathering of South Okanagan winery owners and winemakers enjoying a wine-focused, no-frills forum to taste local and international wines, exchange ideas and share meals, the Banée has grown and word has spread but the concept remains the same – good food, delicious wine and great company.
Another participating winery is Nk'Mip Cellars, who were recently profiled last Thursday on KBCS-FM which is the Seattle-area affiliate of the Pacifica Network. The independent station focuses on progressive politics and culture, and their feature story by reporter Toby Nelson looked at how First Nations casino projects were struggling in the current economy. They contrast that situation with the success of the Osoyoos Indian Band and their Nk'Mip winery. They speak with Lindsay Anderson, who I interviewed as part of our 2010 Updates. Toby interviewed me for some local thoughts about Nk'Mip, and I'm heard near the end of the piece. You can here the clip here:
Winemaker Rob Summers (r) with Marie Hebrard of Hester Creek Estate Winery
During the 2010 Games we saw an opportunity to expand our horizons as far as subject matter, including adding some new writers at CityCaucus.com whom we'll be hearing from in the days ahead. The Games gave us an opportunity to celebrate what makes BC special, and that included some great people, delicious food and celebrated winemaking.
BCWineLover.com – a blog established in 2007 – is a place to share news and profile several of BC's wine personalities, to describe our province's many wine destinations, and of course to revel in the many fine wines produced in our region. As a regular wine traveler to the Okanagan, Similkameen, and occasionally the Fraser Valley and Gulf Islands, it's important to us that we let our readers know the best places to discover, and what pleases our palate.
CityCaucus.com will now feature a weekly segment cross-posted on BCWineLover.com called Weekend Wine. Given that we're nearing the end of a long weekend, my first WW post features Oliver's Hester Creek Estate Winery. Located approximately 5 km south of Oliver and 16 km north of Osoyoos on the desert slopes known as the Golden Mile Bench, the winery was purchased in 2004 by businessman Curt Garland. Since this acquisition the vineyard has had new plantings and drip irrigation has replaced old overhead systems, reducing water consumption by as much as 70%.
Social media is increasingly used as a platform to promote small independent wineries like Hester Creek, and it was a pleasure to be invited along with other bloggers to meet winemaker Rob Summers and sip a few of his wine selections. Summers has worked most of his life making wine. He hails from the Niagara wine region, and has been Hester Creek's winemaker since 2006.
The first vineyards were planted on the site in 1968 and were one of the earliest plantings of European grape varieties in the South Okanagan Valley. Previous land owner Joe Busnardo had brought dozens of varieties to try, including some from his native Italy. One of the original varieties planted by Busnardo, Trebbiano vines are now over 40 years old and remain to this day. Another grape variety legacy Summers describes as a "mystery Merlot" – just one of his challenges as he works to improve the quality of fruit grown on the site.