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The first edition of the Tour Guide, my 10th book devoted entirely, or at least in part, to the wines of the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys, was published only a year ago. By mid-year, it was obvious that an immediate update would be required for 2007 just to stay abreast of new wineries.
I continue to be surprised (and delighted) by the explosive rate of change since The Wineries of British Columbia appeared in October, 2004. This second edition of the Tour Guide includes more than 30 wineries that have opened, or begun development, since that earlier book appeared. This book profiles a total of 108 wineries, 16 more than a year earlier. In my first wine book in 1984, The World of Canadian Wine, now out of print but hanging around in used book stores, there were only 13 wineries in all of British Columbia.
I began touring the Okanagan about 30 years ago and have returned there more frequently than to any of the world's other wine regions (and I have visited many). Obviously, it is closer to my North Vancouver home than most regions, but there is much more to the Okanagan's appeal than accessibility.
First, of course, are the wines, which have improved steadily and rapidly in the last decade. Bradley Cooper, now the winemaker at Township 7's Okanagan winery, but formerly a journalist, made one of his first Okanagan wine tours in the early 1980s. He wanted to select a mixed case (12 bottles) of wines to take home, but found only 10 he liked well enough to buy. Today, he observes, you can fill a case with good wine at almost any single winery. This is my experience as well. Now, even when I am notresearching a book, I travel to the Okanagan and Similkameen several times a year to taste and stock up on those interesting, limited production wines that seldom make it to local wine stores.
Equally appealing is the winery aura. I understood perfectly when Mick Luckhurst, one of the owners of Golden Mile Cellars and a former housing developer, told me there is romance in growing grapes and making wine not always found in other agriculture. If, he said, his vineyard were a potato field, he would be doing something else. It is nice to hang around with people who spend their days seduced by the grape. They are passionate and interesting, proud of what they do and always ready to talk about their wines.
In most of the tasting rooms I have visited, everyone is having fun, especially during wine festival time. During the Okanagan's spring wine festival in 2005, I was lounging on the deck at Jeff and Niva Martin's La Frenz winery, savouring a glass of Shiraz, when I struck up a conversation with a wine tourist from Seattle. A first-time visitor to the Okanagan, he was visibly impressed by the region's people and wines, and by the scenery, which he acknowledged with a sweeping wave of his arm toward the view of Naramata Bench spread out in front of us. And, he added, the wine prices are so reasonable. I appreciated hearing this from an outsider because some British Columbians, even including a few winemakers, grumble that our wine prices are high when they have not encountered the sticker shock in Washington State's (admittedly fine) wineries.
The scenic and ecological values of British Columbia's wine regions enrich wine touring immeasurably. The self-guided tour at the Burrowing Owl Estate Winery provides at least as much information on the fragile environment as it does about what happens in the winery. The interpretation centre next to the Nk'Mip Cellars winery provides a glimpse into the history of the Osoyoos Indian Band. The tranquil gardens at the Pacific Agri-food Research Centre near Summerland offer the perfect spot to relax between winery visits. The Kettle Valley Trail ascends from Penticton and leads along the upper border of the Naramata Bench, providing stunning vineyard panoramas. The Golden Mile Trail on the hills above unborn Creek winery offers breathtaking views of the south Okanagan.
Again and again, you will come across views throughout wine country that are fit for landscapes, postcards and calendars. An image of the beautiful Blue Mountain vineyard south of Okanagan Falls, one of the most photographed in the valley, once served as a computer screen saver. Many of the wineries display and sell the work of fine local artists in their tasting rooms. Do travel with your camera, in spite of the risk of leaving it behind in a particularly jolly tasting room.
Being a writer gives me the opportunity to dig for all manner of information about the people behind the wines. As you read these entries, you will find that most people disclosed their ages and birthplaces. I ask such intrusive questions for good reason. In the Old World, the people running wineries usually come from families that have been doing the same thing for 300 years, give or take a century. But the Okanagan and Similkameen are very young wine regions, with wineries full of people who gave up careers elsewhere to join this youthful wine industry. I think it adds texture and colour to winery portraits and enriches the wine-touring experience to know where these entrepreneurs, growers and winemakers came from and what inspired them to change occupations.
There is the familiar story of George and Trudy Heiss, who sold their successful hair salons in Edmonton, planted an Okanagan vineyard and ultimately established Gray Monk Estate Winery. Neighbouring winery, Arrowleaf Cellars, is run by Josef Zuppiger, formerly an Alberta dairy farmer. The recent crop of wine industry freshmen include Orofino's John and Virginia Weber, transplants from Saskatchewan where he was a teacher and she a nurse. Or Twisted Tree's Chris and Beata Tolley, formerly of Calgary -- where he had a software business and she was a chartered accountant. Another Calgarian, Noble Ridge proprietor Jim D'Andrea, juggles a senior position in a law firm with wine-growing. Silkscarf Winery at Summerland has just been launched by the Manoff family from Israel, one of whom was a fighter pilot.
One of my favourite stories involves Hollywood & Wine Vineyard, a new Summerland winery being developed by a charming retirement-age couple, Neil and Betty Massey. Betty is an accomplished painter; some of her favourite canvasses are displayed around the Massey kitchen, where she told me this story. A male high school teacher once caught her doodling in class, sketching figures of pin-up girls. He detained her after class -- and had her sketch more pin-ups for him. The Massey kitchen rang with laughter at her recollection of an original, if vaguely disturbing, approach to discipline.
Why do I put such tales in a wine book? Who, other than a laboratory technician, would find the Brix and the pH of the Massey's Pinot Gris at harvest as interesting as Betty's story? I am writing for consumers, not technicians. Wine is not a clinical product to be separated from the compelling people who grow it. The art in wine is what attracts both consumers and wine growers. Betty Massey reflected this when she told me, "Right now, my vineyard is my canvas."