Thursday, August 19, 2010

Wines of the Okanagan: A Diplomatic Overview Part 3

Our diplomatic correspondent moves south and expounds not only on wine, but some of the customs surrounding its sale. Stay tuned for part four!

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The following day we visited Quail’s Gate restaurant for brunch. Plates of excellent Eggs Benedict were washed down with an excellent white, oddly given that the Stewart Family are rather proud of their Pinot Noir vines which were first planted on the site in 1975. Unfortunately we did not have the time for a tasting here but the white we enjoyed at brunch – a 2009 Chasselas, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris blend (12%) – was superb.

Our next stop was at a new, small winery called Silkscarf. The owner, Roie Manoff, is an interesting fellow. Born in Argentina, he grew up in Israel and spent twenty years flying combat jets for the Israeli Air Force – hence the name of the winery which depicts the traditional neckwear worn by pioneer pilots. Given the limited size of Silkscarf’s operation, we were most impressed with the wines. The 2009 Viognier, their Pinot Noir and the Cabernet Sauvignon were all very good although I found the Cherry dessert wine disappointing. A rosė from Merlot grapes was a little sweet for me and at 14% truly powerful. Watch this winery; it shows a lot of promise.

The name 8th Generation reflects the number of generations of wine growers in co-proprietor Bernd Schales’ family. They moved from Germany to the Okanagan in 2003 bringing with them an antique family wine press which proved vital in 2007 when new machinery failed to appear before that year’s grapes had ripened. The German influence in this estate is reflected in their excellent range of Rieslings. The Pinot Gris is interesting but the taste of the Pinot Meuinier rosė did not match its nose. The pick of the reds were a blend (“The Red One”) and their 2008 Merlot.

Later that day we arrived at the Motel 5000 in Penticton where we spent a couple of nights. The first evening, given our superb brunch, we snacked in and the second we visited one of our friend's – and since Vancouver – ours too, favourite chain of eateries - White Spot. With no Canadian wine on their card we had to glug a rather over-priced and average Italian bottle. It can be really tough out in the wilds!

Let me break away from our itinerary for a moment to reflect on a few things Beryl and I learned from our Canadian tasting experience. The size and standard of the tasting rooms varied enormously. This is, perhaps, not surprising given the wide disparity in the acreage, production and revenue of the various Okanagan estates. Large producers (eg Mission Hill, Jackson-Triggs, Hester Creek, Burrowing Owl) provided magnificent premises reflecting their success. Others (eg Camelot, Silkscarf, D’Angelo, Rustico) showed their wines in small, minimally furnished rooms which indicated their newness on the scene and the need to reserve overheads.

In almost all of the 21 wineries we visited, we were made extremely welcome. A couple of exceptions occurred where rooms were packed. Our worst experience was at La Frenz. When we finally found a gap at the bar, we were promptly charged for a tasting and bid goodbye. Politely, we had to explain that we had not yet imbibed, nor even been given our glasses. To create a good impression to visitors, tasting room staff should be on the lookout for all new arrivals and acknowledge them even if it is simply with a “Be with you in a moment, folks”. Being ignored is a real turnoff for a potential buyer.

Most tasting room staff were female; and, almost to a man – if that is not a contradiction in terms – they were excellent. The younger ladies were keen as mustard, often well qualified and enthusiastic. An oddity was the pleasant lady at See Ya Later who admitted she could not stand red wine! The older ladies were experienced, chatty and talked up their products persuasively. An exception was Township 7 where I detected a ‘take it or leave it’ approach but, given their wine, perhaps this was understandable.

Apart from Rustico – where Bruce Fuller entertained us royally for over an hour – the male presenters we saw were a disappointment. A few seemed to give the impression that what they were doing was rather beneath them and we were not particularly impressed.

There was a significant variation in the volume of the tasting measures poured. I understand the need for the smaller establishments to cut down on their losses but to judge a wine the sample needs to be sufficient to give off a nose, ample to provide a decent swirl in the glass and enough for two or three decent sips. Most pourings were perfectly adequate but occasionally – and I regret that I failed to record the presenters who were seriously over-economical with their servings – some offerings did little more than cover the bottom of the glass. Perhaps the BC wine authority should establish a standard optic measure. Too much is clearly a waste but too little is no encouragement to purchase.

My own bête noire was with those presenters who would pour and immediately return the bottle to fridge or shelf. I enjoy seeing the variety and the quality of artwork on a bottle’s label, reading the producer’s comments and noting the alcoholic content, a detail invariably omitted from tasting notes. The best presenters pour the wine and stand the bottle next to the glass. All should be advised to do this.

A word about hand-outs in tasting rooms. The large wineries score well in this regard as they can afford to provide potential customers with souvenirs. I think particularly of Jackson-Triggs attractive and informative book marks and Hester Creek’s small but glossy wine notes. Most of the rest provide nothing more than a business card or BC’s local literature. I do not advocate excessive giveaways but we would like to have seen postcards of each estate or of their wine labels for sale. I would gladly have purchased cards showing Blasted Church’s wonderful labels but was not prepared to pay C$50 for their poster.

And finally in this section a moan about the general lack of recognition for the non-alcohol drinking drivers who visit. At our first tasting, St Hubertus, unsolicited, provided a fruit juice for Jo, our driver. We thought this would prove to be common practice, but we were very wrong. Despite telling every other winery we visited that only three of us would be tasting as the fourth was the driver, only a couple of others offered Jo even a glass of water. Most completely ignored her. I saw a notice at Hester Creek that some twenty wineries have a helpful policy towards designated drivers. This shows that the vast majority, therefore, do not and this is unacceptable. Many pubs in the UK provide designated drivers with free soft drinks. The majority of BC’S wineries need to shape up.

So back to the trip. We started the next day along the Naramata east coast of Lake Okanagan with a call on Township 7. The original Township 7 opened in 2001 on a farm just south of Langley and was sold in 2006. This estate opened in2004. To say we were underwhelmed by their wines is an under-statement. The first to be tasted, an 07 Semillon, was so poor I believe the bottle had corked. Their Viognier was sharp and the other whites were no match for what we had already tasted elsewhere. Their Merlot and Merlot-Cab were average and the earthy, peaty flavour of the Syrah was not unpleasant. But this was, by far, the poorest tasting we experienced.

Standards after this could only get better – and, indeed, they did. The view inside the D’Angelo Estate Winery tasting room was extremely attractive. And there was quite a good view outside too! Sal D’Angelo has run a winery in Windsor, Ontario since 1989. Buying a peninsula on the lake in 2001, Sal and his family have set to work on their 27 acres to try something different, eg they are the first in the area to plant Tempranillo, the grape used for, probably, the best sweet wine we tasted. They cannot call it Eiswein as they do not yet have the licence. The tasting was given by a member of Sal’s family and her pride at his achievements and the family’s efforts were truly heart-warming. Their Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, and Merlot/Cab. Franc (at 14%) showed real promise and will be something in a year or two. A blend, call Sette Coppa – a nickname of Sal’s grand-father - was excellent. A really good tasting!

Poplar Grove is definitely worth a visit. Great site, nice wines and they sell good cheese. In addition to their top wines, this winery started producing value wines under the Monster label, a name inspired by the legend of Ogopogo, the Okanagan Lake’s resident monster. One of this labelled wines was RSVP Manmade, a blend, which was very good. So was their Pinot Gris, Syrah and Cab Franc but a wine called Legacy was, we thought, over-priced. There is also a sheep-dog here which loves a game of chase-the-ball. Very entertaining!

Our next call was to the Hillside Estate, a winery started in 1984 by two employees of the Czech state airline who defected to the West. The original premises were a modest farm house in a postage stamp vineyard with a pantry for the tasting room. They have come a long way. They now have an excellent room for sampling and a 160-seat bistro. In the 1990s the estate was taken over by 90 Alberta investors but ownership is now in the hands of a group of 22. Their 40 acres produce 12,000 cases of wine a year. Their present wine-maker is Kathy Malone, a New Yorker, who previously made wine for Mission Hill before deciding she needed a more hands-on experience. The 13.9% Pinot Gris was excellent; the 09 Riesling even better. Their Muscat Ottonel – the only Ottonel output in the region and from vines originating in Czechoslovakia - was superb; all apricots! The 06 Syrah (at 11.5%) was a bit under-powered for me, the 07 Merlot held its taste well and the 07 Cab Franc (14.6%) was good but not exceptional – nice to see a straight Cab Franc rather than in a blend though. On another trip perhaps we might lunch at Hillside. It looked a classy joint.

Moving north up the Naramata, we called at Black Widow Winery, a gravity flow winery which the owner, Dick Lancaster, designed himself. The building is finished in tawny-hued stucco. I read in John Schreiner’s excellent guide on Okanagan Wine that, for 16 years, Dick was vice-president of Imasco, western Canada’s largest stucco manufacturer. Black Widow launched in 2006 with 7 acres and a target production of 1,200 cases a year. The 08 Pinot Gris and the Gewurztraminer (13.9%) were pleasant. Oasis, a blend of Schonburger, Gewurz and Muscat was unusual and good and a Port-style Merlot called Vintage One was good enough to attract a purchase. I thought it great to see small entrepreneurs such as this taking a risk with a new business into which they were throwing their savings and all their effort.

And now for something completely different. The next stop, Elephant Island Orchard Winery, produced fruit wines. You could argue, of course, that a grape is a fruit but, at this establishment, grapes were not on the menu. In contrast to the normal practice of using water to dilute a mix when making fruit wines, Elephant Island use only undiluted juice. They produce dry, sparkling, sweet and iced fruit wines. Perhaps our taste buds had been hardened to the more traditional liquids we had been supping but I found these fruit wines hard to get a handle on. The Pear had a nice nose but I did not think the taste shone. The Cherry was quite dry and even at 11%, stronger than I had expected. The Blackcurrant came across a bit sharp but would be fine with a Riesling or Gewurz as a Kir. Much better was the Crab Apple which would have been superb with any pork dish with its sweet finish. An Apricot dessert wine was delicate but the 16% Cassis hit you right between the eyes. A similarly strong Framboise was liked by all four of us and a purchase was enjoyed on ice cream, yoghurt and even cornflakes, I seem to recall!

Last call of the day was at La Frenz where we had our unfortunate non-welcome experience. The Sauvignon Blanc was very acceptable – and went down nicely during a picnic in the park at Nelson. Their Reisling and Tempranillo were all right and the Malbec was quite nice. The poor start to the visit, the lateness of the hour when the staff were clearly a bit weary and the ability only to taste four of their output meant that this visit does not stand high in the memory. But we had visited seven establishments during the day, the weather had been fine and the scenery superb. In short, it was a wonderful day.

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