Last weekend of October we went to the Okanagan for a wine weekend. It was archetypally fall; cool, crisp, sunny, quiet. Trees had turned, apples were being harvested in the orchards, and the BC Lieutenant Governor’s wine awards had just been released—the vineyards were well stocked with award winners. We ate good food, we drank good wine, there should have been a million November wine posts. There was one, unrelated post. So, here’s a short, er, wordy summary from October.
Above clockwise: Lunch at Poplar Grove, two views from the Naramata Inn, the view from Poplar Grove, Blue Moon on Halloween, 2020, and dinner at the Naramata Inn.
In this post:
- Hillside Cabernet Franc, 2017, LG Bronze winner!
- Van Westen Viscous, 2019, LG Bronze winner!
- Hillside Syrah, 2017, LG Bronze winner!
- Therapy Chardonnay, 2018, LG Platinum winner!
- Ruby Blues Peace Love & Bubbles, not an LG winner!
- Hillside Estate Old Vines Gamay Noir, 2008 (2008! look at us!)
Where to start? Something real, like the size of the Okanagan. It’s a small area (relative to, say, Italy or Spain or the colossus of the US, when it comes to vineyards in production). That means that there will be less good wine than a bigger region, it’s just math, and that good wine will command a premium, and it does, and that good wine will be in short supply, and it is.
When you hit upon some wine you like, on your tasting tours, you are likely to be reminded that the bottle you’re tasting is a “wine club member” bottling only. OK, fair enough. But how many wine clubs can a person join? BC Okanagan wine clubs demand a kind of brand loyalty. What happens if you end up with Sunderland or Watford or Ipswich? I’ll take my chances with Australia and Chile and France.
Let’s go on to something less real, like the BC Lieutenant Governor awards, or LGs. The judges, heaps and heaps of judges, pile into a hotel, then drink hundred of wines in a sitting. Sip after sip after sip after sip. A gazillion Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays and maybe some Cabernet Franc and whatnot. Word was that the hotel staff couldn’t keep up with clean glasses. And then after all that intensive volume sipping they select winners, but not first, second and third, oh no, there is platinum, gold, silver and bronze. Do four wines win? Shurely you jest?
Now, wait for it, there are a lot of winners to take home a prize; it could be junior soccer bootcamp the number of winners. 236 bronze winners alone. Jeepers, what didn’t make the cut? 119 silver. You get the picture. The LG wine awards are a way to highlight the industry and get people to buy more wine; they are like when real estate agents host a banquet and realtors get awarded medallions and then advertise as medallion winners. The intent might be sincere (or in fact pure commerce) but the outcome is somewhere between exaggeration and Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump.
So there we were, able to taste a number of these winners. But back to back, repeatedly, award winners at a vineyard were not always as good as an alternative, at the same vineyard. Which is another weird thing about the LG awards, the vineyards don’t list what they submit, what they don’t.
We stayed at arguably the nicest accommodation in in the south Okanagan, the Naramata Inn (pictured above), which is rustic, and a tad simple, and could use a once over in the bathrooms, and doesn’t have any pool or gym or spa, and even a large room doesn’t have a chair, but it’s beautifully situated and has a sensational restaurant. Just as a comparison, there is nowhere to stay like we stayed in Western Australia or the South African garden route or ate and drank in Burgundy. There is nowhere comparable to Healdsburg in California or the Loire. The Okanagan is lovely, Naramata is quaint and sleepily picturesque, but loathe as I am to say it, a touch of gentrification for visitors would go a long, long ways.
Here’s an unexpected surprise: Ruby Blues sparkling. It’s nowhere near the better bubbles available across the Okanagan, but it’s lively and fun, it’s not too dear. Plus it comes in brunch-ready half bottles. When we were tasting a woman walked in and bought a case. I can think of no better way to Zoom socialize Covid-style and share the love around. It’s Goldie Hawn on Laugh-in, half naked and adorable and with zero pretense.
Start to finish Hillside wowed (which was a little weird given that what’s available “OTC” if you will, in Vancouver, is rarely their best). First, their restaurant was just plain satisfying, deeply satisfying, from the bread to the olives to the archived treasures you can purchase on the way out (but be cautious: wines you buy after dinner end up on the restaurant tab and will incur your tip). We drank an absolutely drop dead 12 year old Gamay Noir at dinner and went home with two very appealing, food friendly reds, a Syrah and a Cab Franc, the former spicy with an acidic nip, the latter, with air, a decent mellow barnyard funk. The tasting room is a tad robotic, but very well set up and decently diverse.
Over at Van Westen, at 11 a.m. in the morning, their tasting room gave us pours of such generous proportion I was an inch away from a siesta. I liked, but didn’t love their reds, but the whites were lively, nuanced and felt lovingly crafted. There are silly names (the V for viscous is a Riesling), and the rustic-ness of it all might not be every wino’s cup of tea (witness the moose head above the bar; remember when Moe opened up a family restaurant and Marg walks in and sees a moose head with sunglasses and proclaims “A moose wearing sunglasses. Now I’ve seen everything.” Well, it’s a bit like that), but there was nothing shabby chic about the wines.
The outrageously spectacular Poplar Grove restaurant, cliffside, it’s like climbing Mt. Rushmore in North by Northwest. Zsa Zsa would have adored the view. The food was good, the tasting corporate, and the wine a tad ho-hum, comparatively. It was the only vineyard we passed on a take away purchase.
Therapy stunned us with their Chardonnay, but even here I’m not going to say it was an award winner better than so many other wonderful Okanagan Chardonnays. Even the base model Meyer is good, the Blue Mountain lovely, the Burrowing Owl reliable, and of course Ridge Vineyards Santa Cruz Chardonnay, now we’re talking platinum.
So there you have it. A lot of good wine, some very good food, great weather, friendly people. Then we came back to Vancouver and spent less money on older Rioja and more refined whites.