Tuesday, May 11, 2010

BCWAS Black Hills Dinner

This evening must have been one of the most anticipated events that the BC Wine Appreciation Society has ever hosted. For the last couple of weeks, if I bumped into anyone that had any association with BCWAS, I was asked if I was going to the Black Hills dinner.

Indeed I was - and I, too, was looking forward to it immensely. West is one of those names that continually tops "Best of..." lists for Vancouver restaurants. I've given gift certificates to the restaurant previously, but I've never actually eaten there myself. Boo, unfortunately, had to work and still wasn't going to be able to attend and see what all the fuss is about.

I wasn't about to pass on the opportunity though. This sounded like a great chance to try out the restaurant and to get a thorough tasting of what Black Hills is up to at this time. As far as winemaker's dinners go, this sounded about as good as it gets.

As I've written in the past, Boo and I were lucky to run across the old Black Hills quonset hut winery pretty much right after it opened. We were just driving by, having visited nearby Burrowing Owl. At that time, we had no idea that Black Hills would become just as iconic of a fixture on the BC wine scene as Burrowing Owl already was. In fact, in some aspects Black Hills may have overtaken its neighbour as Nota Bene has far more of a cult status than any one particular Burrowing Owl wine.

Things have changed a lot since those early days. There's been the syndication of ownership that has capitalized on the celebrity of investor and actor Jason Priestly and there's a big, new winery. I have to admit that my fondness for the old winery has dimmed somewhat over the last so many years. Like many others, I used to sit at the computer and order a case of Nota Bene immediately upon release. You had to. Word had it that the 2006 vintage sold out in 47 minutes. We still have a good assortment of Nota Bene in our cellar, but in some ways, the bloom is off my rose. Nowadays, I hum and haw whether I want to pick up a bottle or two. I saw a bottle available for $65 the other week and passed. I still might reach out if I see another but it sure isn't the automatic purchase that it once was.

Tonight, I was hoping that having a glass of each of the winery's offerings, matched with some leading edge Vancouver cuisine, would help give me a better understanding of just how I'm going to approach the winery in the future.

BCWAS had arranged for Glenn Fawcett, one of the Directors and Partners of Black Hills to attend the dinner and to talk to the assembled guests about the winery and its outlooks and aspirations. I mentioned that this was a "winemaker's dinner" earlier in the post. Mr Fawcett isn't the winemaker and, accordingly, I think his presentation came across as a tad managerial. For the most part, his discussion of the wines consisted of reading the winemaker's notes. Forgive me, but I could have read those notes myself. I would have liked some hands-on discussion of the "why, how and what" was involved in the making of the wines. It's fair that he needs to tailor his discussion points to the general knowledge of the crowd and to the matters that he's most familiar with. All the same, I found this to be more of a corporate board room presentation. Bring me the passion that the winemaker brings to the table any day.

Now that my peanut gallery commentary is out of the way, we had the opportunity to enjoy a five-course meal and nine wines. The first two courses saw a goat cheese and celery "cannelloni" paired with the winery's 2008 Alibi, which is a classic Sauvignon/ Semillon blend. I still enjoy the Alibi, but, once again, I don't go the whole case route any more and it can be difficult to find individual bottles and the thought of a $35 BC white causes me to pause and think about adding it to my buy list.

The second course was trout served with the 2008 Chardonnay. Unlike last night's Orofino Chardonnay, I found this wine to be a bit heavy handed on the oak for my tastes. It's not that the oak was overpowering, but it was far more noticeable and that's just not my preference when I have a choice.

The third course was smoked squab and it was accompanied by the '07 and '08 vintages of the single varietal Carmenere. Black Hills had originally planted their Carmenere simply to add to the Bordeaux blend that is the flagship Nota Bene; however, they felt that the fruit was so distinctive that they've bottled a small amount on its own for a number of years now. Single bottles are very difficult to come by and tonight's glasses were the biggest pours I've ever had of the wine. I really want to like this wine - particularly since I believe it's the only Carmenere vinified as a straight varietal in BC - but it just doesn't seem to capture my imagination. Perhaps that might be different if we were to sit down with an entire bottle at dinner and see it evolve over an evening.

My guess is that, for most of the guests, the star course of the evening was the lamb entree, served with a three year vertical of Nota Bene. Although I don't think it was the lamb that had people clamouring for tickets. For most, Nota Bene is the raison d'etre for Black Hills. Nota Bene is Black Hills and Black Hills is Nota Bene. Latin for "take note," Nota Bene has always been a Cab Sauv-dominant Bordeaux blend. Given that Okanagan climate doesn't readily guarantee fully ripened Cab on an annual basis, that can be a bit of a risk. Consensus is that the winery consistently pulls it off, year after year however.

The opportunity to try the '06, '07 and '08 vintages side by side was novel opportunity - and reaction at our table was somewhat mixed. Although I didn't find enormous variation between the wines, each wine was the favourite of at least one of the dinner guests at our table. I was a bit surprised in that I found the 2008 to be the most approachable despite the fact that it had only been recently released. I had heard that the '08 vintage was supposed to be very drinkable right from the start and I definitely found it to be so. I don't know if this flowed as a result of a new direction from a new winemaker or whether it was simply vintage variation. Questions like that weren't posed to Mr. Fawcett though.

The evening was topped off with two pours of the winery's late harvest wine Sequentia. I don't think every table was lucky enough to taste both vintages, but we were sitting right by the bar and we had the opportunity to try both the 2000 and 2002 vintages. Sequentia is rarely produced - primarily because it uses the same grapes as does Alibi and there just aren't enough grapes to go around. I don't know if the winery has even produced any since 2002 and I'm sure that haven't seen a bottle for sale for years. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the wines had aged as well as they did - still lots of honeyed fruit and acid.

Overall, I thought the dinner was a great success. There was some grumbling at our table about how the chef seemed to be more concerned about molecular gastronomy and foams and schmears than about portion size, but I was fully sated - and it was a tasting menu after all. Yet, there might have been a bit of truth to the comment, from one of the guests at our table, about how the dessert was the biggest course of the night.

I suppose it's tough to have the status and press of a Black Hills or a West. Being placed on a pedestal, like both restaurant and winery have been, can result in expectations that may not be easily met by all patrons. I look at both as being firmly ensconced in the "splurge" category and, ultimately, the value for money question inevitably raises its head.

I truly enjoyed the evening, but (and there's often a "but") I don't know that I'd return quickly to West for another dinner. And, what's more, I'm no closer to deciding whether I love the Black Hills wines and truly feel that they're worth their current prices or whether I'm just getting sucked up in the hype and history of the cult. It's clear to me that Nota Bene is hardly grape koolaid, but I think I may have fallen off the bandwagon. I'll look forward to events like this and I'll never turn down a glass from Black Hills, but all this talk of "investment syndicates," "next level expansion" and new price structuring leaves me thinking its become all a little too corporate.

And, to boot, I don't even get to add a bottle to The List since we didn't actually enjoy a full bottle at our table. The other guests tried convincing me that, collectively, we'd easily finished off a couple of bottles - but "rules" are rules, even when they're mine to make and break. I've got some future plans for the Nota Bene waiting for me at home though.

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