Wednesday, September 21, 2011
BCWAS Bus Tour Day 2 - Similkameen Valley
There was an offer of a Blue Mountain Brut mimosa to accompany Chewbacca's special Eggs à la Honey C, but, surprisingly, there were no takers. I suppose even the most ardent wine lovers can take a pass at 7.30 a.m. Sunday morning. Besides it wasn't as if we'd have to wait long for our first glass on the day's journey.
Today, the bus made a right turn out of Osoyoos instead of driving straight up Hwy 97. Our destination - the Similkameen Valley - has long been recognized for its agricultural products. Indeed, with 40% of its farms being organic, the region is thought to have one of the highest concentrations of organic farmers in the world. It has, however, largely remained in the shadow of the Okanagan Valley when it comes to wine. Grapes from the Similkameen have journeyed over the local hills and into Okanagan wines for years; however, many of those grapes are now being kept at home and made into wine by the dozen or so wineries that have recently set up shop.
Awhile back, enRoute magazine named the Similkameen Valley one of the "world's 5 best wine regions you've never of" and, for many in our gang, today's trip into the Similkameen was going to a be first. Boo and I are pretty familiar with interior BC's other wine valley due to all the drives we've made through the region to get to the Kootenays. This was going to be the most thorough visit I've ever experienced though since we've usually only had an hour or so at most during our previous outings.
The tour's first stop on Day 2 was Robin Ridge - and this was a first time for me. We were greeted by owner/winemaker, Tim Cottrill, and the balance of his family, including the "guard" turkey, as this was definitely a family-run affair. Tim guided us through four of his wines and advised that their 10 acre vineyard grows both table grapes and enough fruit to produce about 1500 cases. He doesn't see the winery growing much more in production as he's reached the conclusion that, to keep afloat in the BC wine industry, you either have to be small or commit to large-scale production.
One of the more intriguing wines that Tim poured was his Robin's Return, an easy drinking red. What piqued my interest was that the wine was blend of Pinot Noir and Rougeon - the latter being anything but a classic varietal and one that definitely hasn't been added to my Wine Century Club list. It's going to be soon.
Herder Winery & Vineyards wasn't too far up the road and it was our second stop of the day. The bus was split into our three groups again as Lawrence Herder took each group for a tour of the winery facilities and a barrel tasting, Sharon Herder led the groups through a tasting of their current releases and a third component of the visit was a bit of "down time" that allowed us to wander about and try out our swing on Lawrence's pitch & putt.
Herder Winery & Vineyards wasn't too far up the road and it was our second stop of the day. The bus was split into our three groups again as Lawrence Herder took each group for a tour of the winery facilities and a barrel tasting, Sharon Herder led the groups through a tasting our their current releases and a third component of "down time" allowed us to wander about and try our hand at Lawrence's hillside pitch and putt.
This was my first visit to the new Herder winery. Five years ago or so, Boo and I had been to the original vineyard and tasting room that was located further along the valley. These new premises have to be close to, if not "the," envy of the Similkameen. A combination of dream home and working winery, the setting and facilities are impressive. Now nestled against rock cliffs on the valley's upper bench, Lawrence advised that the cliffs act as a heat sink and that his vineyard can be 5 degrees hotter than properties less than a mile away.
Lawrence's explanations of blending and tasting techniques, barrel ratings and tricks of trying to marry the right wood with the different blocks of grapes was the stuff wine geeks live for. I thoroughly enjoyed our stop there and found it interesting that Lawrence doesn't expect to see a whole lot more expansion in the Similkameen. Winter kill and frost issues are still big threats in the valley. Accordingly, he doesn't see that there's much land that's still available and suitable for vineyard planting. If anything, he thinks some current growers may even switch back from grapes to apples.
The No Buy Leash may have prevented any extensive purchases on my part, but I did sign up for their newsletter.
If there's any Similkameen winery that I am familiar with, it's going to be Orofino. I was first introduced to John and Virginia Weber and Orofino about five or six years ago at a BCWAS tasting that featured Similkameen wines for the first time - and their wines have been a regular purchase for me ever since. Indeed, I featured Orofino wines on the blog for one of the 2010 Canucks playoff rounds (unfortunately, not even the wines could propel the Canucks to a series win over the Blackhawks) and The List already has more than a dozen Orofino wines on it. Likely one of the biggest number of wines for any one winery - particularly when you consider Orofino's limited production. And there are plenty more to be added - I've just been waiting for some of the bigger reds to truly hit their stride.
There was plenty of opportunity for Q&A as we toured the vineyard and barrel room. For those that hadn't been here before, the story about the building of and reasoning behind the straw bale construction for the winery was particularly novel.
We also lucked out with the weather and the setting for our lunch that was provided, at the vineyard, by Joy Road Catering - another one of the big culinary names in the Okanagan. Matched up with Orofino's Riesling and Red Bridge Merlot - and the company of the Marvelous Mavens, four sisters and regulars on the Bus Tour - it was a great lunch.
Despite my extensive efforts to resist, I fought through the tug of the No Buy Leash and ended up buying a full case of John's wines. I'm blaming it on his willingness to ship the case back to Vancouver so that I wouldn't have to take any with me. The transaction was long finished before the Wine Grrrlz found out. As such, they were unable to assist Boo in curbing my extravagances. They did try to "punish" me somewhat by bending me over a barrel for a spanking. The picture looks more like they were preparing for a bit a grab rather than a smack down though. Good thing Boo loves Orofino as well.
Next up was Seven Stones and George and Vivianne Hanson. The view of the valley, at the top of the post, was taken from just outside the tasting room. It gives you an idea of the beauty that is the Similkameen. George (to the right of erstwhile BCWAS President Brian) first purchased the 20 acres that now form the vineyard in 1999 when it was still a hay field. Since then, he's been planting and nurturing the vines that produce for his, largely, big reds.
Although the winery/tasting room has only been open for business since 2007, Seven Stones already garnered its share of medals (as have most of the wineries we've visited) including a nomination of its 2006 Meritage as a finalist for Red Wine of the Year at the 2009 Canadian Wine Awards.
Quite the personality, George walked us through a tasting of the seven wines he currently had available - including his premium Meritage 2009 Legend. He chose the best barrels of his Bordeaux varietals to make only 100 cases of Legend - and, to top it off, he was only releasing the wine today - in honour of our visit.
By the time we made it to Forbidden Fruit, our final stop on the Tour, it was clear that a forest fire was blazing - and not too far away. There weren't a whole lot of details about the fire to be had, but the powers that be obviously didn't think that it posed enough of a threat to put the kaibosh on our tasting. The gathering smoke caused a few problems for some of our bus mates though. Our host, Steve Brind'Amour started his presentation by telling us they had 146 acres under production - at least they did before the start of the fire. He was also quick to point, as well, out that we could all just jump into the river if the necessity arose.
Between concerns over the fire, the length of the day and a windy outdoor setting, the attentiveness of our gang was getting a tad suspect for this tasting - and it was another extensive one. Like Orofino, I've been fully aware of Forbidden Fruit over the years. Regular readers of the blog know that I'm a sucker for dessert wines and Forbidden Fruit has an extensive selection of particularly tasty ones. My only problem is that I continue to pick up an assortment when I taste them but I rarely open them once I get them home. I suppose I'll have to work on that.
A number of Forbidden Fruit wines have made it to The List, however, so I won't go over the winery's history in the region again. If you've seen one of the stylish Forbidden Fruit wine labels, you'll know that it's based on Adam and Eve and the Garden of Paradise. Steve recounted that Forbidden Fruit became the theme behind the winery not only for the idyllic setting, but because tree fruit is often thought of as being a forbidden source for quality wine and because the Brind'Amour's early pioneering of organic farming in the Similkameen was also somewhat "forbidden" when they started farming.
One of the wines that we tried was new to me - the winery has released its first sparkling wine. It's made with freestone peaches in the traditional methode champenoise and was initially made as a special wine for Steve and Kim's daughter's wedding. It is called Flirt and I naturally had to pick up a bottle to add to The List down the road.
It was soon time to gather back on the bus and head back to the resort though. There'd still be a bit of mingling in the evening for those who were up to it - and there was plenty of sorting out wines that had been purchased - but the winery visits were now officially over. I'd love to know how many boxes of wine were ultimately purchased by our little gang. I have no doubt that our two days of visits generated a substantial share of sales for the participating wineries. If I were a BC winery, I'd lobby to get my winery on next year's itinerary.
In fact, plans are already under way for the 2012 Tour. A straw vote was held on the bus as we made our way back to Osoyoos. There were votes for the Naramata Bench, for the North Okanagan/Lake Country region and even for Vancouver Island; however, the clear winner was to take the bus and hit the Okanagan Falls wineries. Considering the grand time I had on this year's tour, I think I see a little Blue Mountain, Painted Rock and Wild Goose - just to name a few - in my future. I'll just have to try and empty our cellar a bit between now and then so that the No Buy Leash isn't quite as tight.
All in all, this year's BCWAS Bus Tour has to be considered a great success. I'm certainly glad that I've finally been able to make the Tour. Big thanks are in store for all the organizers and winery principals - and to the Wine Grrrlz for finally making me see the error of my ways in not having jumped on bus previously. The promised cuddles may not have happened but I think we still managed a few laughs and good times.