Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bus Tour Preliminaries

It's the Friday before the BC Wine Appreciation's Annual Bus Tour kicks into gear and the Wine Grrrlz and I have the day to do a little training - and, much to Boo's dismay, maybe even a little pre-buying. The Grrrlz spent all of yesterday purchasing wine for the BCWAS cellars and they still had a few wineries that they needed to hit today on the Golden Mile and Black Sage Road. They asked me if I wanted to tag along - an offer I readily accepted since the wineries scheduled for the morning were already on my list of "I'd like to get to" destinations.

Today's tour isn't going to result in my being able to add many wines to The List right away, but there are definitely a few that were picked up today that will make it on The List soon.

Boo's last words as I left for the Okanagan were "Remember you're on a leash." Regular readers will know that I have a penchant for buying wines a little faster than we drink them and Boo has devised the "No Buy Leash" that is regularly tugged on to remind me of this unfortunate fact of life. I responded that "I'm driving a sports car; how much wine could I possible fit?" He'd already considered this and tersely exclaimed that "I see two cases in the trunk and one on the passenger seat. We don't need anywhere near that!"

I reminded the Grrrlz that Boo gave them full permission to tug on the leash if need be.

First stop on our tour was Fairview Cellars. Open since 2000, I've wanted to visit the winery but was never able to find it. Owner/winemaker, Bill Eggert, has never posted a directional sign on the local highway and I just never had the skill or time to fully search it out. Without a doubt, Bill is one of the Valley's most colourful personalities. He can pull out a story to fit any occasion and his wry sense of humour and self-effacement is enough to captivate anyone.

Thing is, he makes wines that earn accolades from virtually everyone that tastes them. I recall the first time that I'd heard of his new ventures. It was another Okanagan winemaker at a group tasting and he advised that "Bill Eggert was a winemaker's winemaker" and highly recommended that we try his wines.

I've no intention to go into tasting notes on all the wines that we tried but I will say that I can't wait to open a bottle of The Wrath. The story behind this one-off wine is definitely worth telling and the Amarone-like red just adds to Bill's reputation as a maker of big wines.

I will, however, always have to chuckle to myself about "strong coconut notes on the nose" of all his wines. For further clarification, you'll have to ask Cockney Queen about her evocative sunscreen.

Our next stops were the sister wineries of La Stella and Le Vieux Pin. On the scene now for five years, I haven't really run across their wines much except to see them in local stores. That is, until a tasting earlier this Spring when the La Stella wines knocked my socks off. I definitely wanted to make this first visit before heading back to Vancouver.

If you haven't run across either winery yourself, the owners, Saeedeh and Sean Salem, decided to set up separate wineries so that one could concentrate on an Italian style while the other strived to make wines with a French flair. Take a guess which winery matches up to each style.

There are two physical wineries and tasting rooms as well despite the fact that neither winery produces more than 3000 to 3500 cases. The two operations "share" the grapes from seven different plots; however, they try to produce single vineyard wines as much as possible. They also virtually dry farm the vineyards and this minimal irrigation leads to very low levels of cropping and to intense flavour profiles. We were advised that La Stella's iconic Maestoso is harvested at only 0.7 tons of grapes per acre. I generally look at 2-3 tons as being low yielding. Such limited production comes at a cost though - and Maestoso clocks in at $90 a bottle, making it one of the most expensive BC wines on the market. Good thing for Boo that the winery sold out of the current vintage the week before I arrived.

Considering the Grrrlz and I just walked into the tasting room like any other tourist, I was impressed by the time and knowledge that our hostess had to spare for us.

Our visit to Le Vieux Pin was equally intriguing. We were invited to take a look out back since their crush pad was about to start work on this year's Muscat harvest. After such a late start to the 2011 growing season, it was both surprising and welcoming to hear that the late summer heat had put most of this year's harvest back on schedule. This was the first picking of Okanagan grapes that I'd seen any sign of. I'll also admit that the grapes I tried were very tasty.

I'll be interested to watch Le Vieux Pin's future vintages. We were advised that their intent is to produce more Rhone-based wines as their vines mature. As it was, I bought one of the last bottles of Pinot Noir they intend to produce and one of their initial vintage bottles of Syrah.

One of my favourite stories from the day was the explanation of the chicken coop out back. These were some fancy looking chicks and we asked about their purpose. Turns out, the chickens play a rather novel role at the winery (at least as far as I've run across) where they are allowed to wander the vineyard rows as the grapes reach a certain degree of ripeness. The chickens attract local hawks and other raptors that, in turn, scare off the smaller birds that come by to eat the grapes. With such low yields, the winery doesn't want to lose an inordinate amount of fruit to the snacking birds.

And speaking of "snacking," our morning tastings (and spittings) had now extended until well past noon. We decided to visit near-by Burrowing Owl, grab some lunch at their acclaimed restaurant, The Sonoran Room, and have a sit down to finish a full glass of wine or two.

924. 2008 Burrowing Owl Pinot Noir (VQA Okanagan Valley)

If the early years of quality wine production in BC saw the development of a cult status for Burrowing Owl wines, I was a willing devotée. Not so much anymore. There's no doubt that, for years, I was a fervent member of the Church of Burrowing Owl. In fact, there are over a dozen of their wines that have been added to The List - with still more to come. My rapture for the winery, however, has diminished as much of the local industry has caught up to their early standards. The days of my buying a couple of cases a year are pretty much behind me now - and it's not just because of the No Buy Leash.

This isn't to say that I no longer find or enjoy any Burrowing Owl wines. That's definitely not the case. In fact, we enjoyed the Pinot Noir enough at lunch to order a second bottle and the restaurant meal was delicious. The wine drank true for the varietal and had a nice complexity to the fruit, body and acidity. I found it to be a nice way of capturing some of the Okanagan's signature fruit without pushing any boundary into over the top extraction.

Our little group wasn't nearly as enamoured with the remaining wines that we tried in the tasting room though. Or maybe it was just the tasting room experience itself. Don't get me wrong, Burrowing Owl's tasting room is one of the nicest in the Okanagan; however, I'm thinking that the persona might have become one that's more of a tasting room and less of a winery. The young lady that assisted on our tasting didn't seem to know much about the wines or the production - what little she recited came directly from the tasting notes that were in front of us. I suppose I can forgive that, but she didn't exhibit any desire or interest in finding out anything further either. The other wineries we visited showed a much deeper interest and knowledge in their wines.

And, as trivial as this might seem, I also found it cheeky of the woman at the cash register when she told me that she would have to charge me for one of the 6-pack boxes featuring their logo because I was only buying four bottles. Rather than say that I had donated more than their suggested tasting fee because I like their efforts to assist the burrowing owl's recovery or that I was just about to go to lunch and buy more wine, I simply left with a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth.

Maybe Burrowing Owl has become more of a brand than a winery for me. I'll still give them the benefit of the doubt, but I have to say that they've lost a little of their past lustre.

Love 'em or leave 'em at Burrowing Owl, it was time for the Grrrlz and I to part company. They had a few more BCWAS errands to run and I thought I'd take in a few additional wineries that I didn't think I'd get a chance to visit otherwise. Taking a little loop of Black Sage Road up to Oliver and back down the Golden Mile to Osoyoos, I fit in visits to Stoneboat, Quinta Ferreira, Gehringer Brothers, Hester Creek and a new winery, Rustico. I won't go into any detail about the wineries because they were pretty quick tastings, but I did get at least one bottle from each so that I can post a bit more about them later.

Today's tour didn't exactly result in my being able to add many wines to The List right away, but there are definitely bottles that were picked up and will make it on The List soon.

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