12. Wine Whine

  1. 01. Minutes of the COCKUP
  2. 02. A Public Service
  3. 03. The 22% Solution
  4. 04. On The Campaign Trail
  5. 05. Athens of America
  6. 06. A Yankee’s Yankee
  7. 07. My Canadian Family
  8. 08. Edmonton? Why?
  9. 09. Prairie Singers
  10. 10. Deconstructing Calgary
  11. 11. My Kelowna
  12. 12. Wine Whine
  13. 13. Fire Mountain
  14. 14. A Stopover and a Popover
  15. 15. Inspiring Victoria
  16. 16. Planet Rosehip
  17. 17. Carry On Grunge
  18. 18. Street People
  19. 19. The Curse of Portland
  20. 20. Mean-Spirited, Powerful Justice
  21. 21. Amtrak’s Jewel
  22. 22. Managing Yosemite
  23. 23. Yumpin’ Yosemite
  24. 24. Parched
  25. 25. Brave New San Fran
  26. 26. Over The Hill
  27. 27. Greatest Again

Things got off to an upbeat start. Matt from Experience Wine Tours picked us at eight-thirty, right on time. The van quickly filled up with ten paying customers in surprising comfort. Matt drove us off towards the Naramata Bench, a fertile hillside that slopes from a clifftop rising from Okanagan Lake, an hour south of Kelowna. Our new companions were a reasonable crew, friendly but not intrusive, interested in wine but neither snobby nor obsessed. These are important attributes for folks with whom I would spend seven hours in a van.

As were headed down the lakeshore Matt gave sparse but informative commentary, a relief since over-talkative tour guides can be most irritating. On the contrary, Matt had us introduce ourselves – something many a second-rate tour guide will neglect to do – and asked almost as many questions as he answered.

IMG_1005A column of smoke marked another wildfire in the forest not far from our destination. For the rest of the day, lake water-skimming tanker planes flew low overhead on their way to pick up and dump huge quantities of water on the blaze, a dangerous business.

Today, though, was all about the wine. I had looked forward to this day more than any other we had planned. To start at the end, I will say I was not disappointed – to the contrary, the tour surpassed my expectations. [For those readers amongst of you who complain that I complain too much, nyaah.]

Since I’m about to embark on a thousand words about wine, for context I will preface it with some commentary about my approach to wine.

IMG_1043I like wine. I drink a lot of it. Too much, in fact. Drinking a lot of wine can be a very expensive habit if one is not continually on the lookout for value. So it is fair to classify me as a “value wine drinker”, not a “fine wine drinker”.

I do not have the most discriminatory of palates. It is an open question whether this is genetic disposition, or an effect from years of taste bud abuse in the form of fiery hot sauce use, or the result of my calculated and mercenary will. Over the years, I have asked many expert wine tasters “Do you think anybody can distinguish wines as well as you? Or does it demand years of training, or a hereditary penchant, or what?” All of them agreed that anybody could do it if they wanted to. This strikes me a bit like an accountant asserting that tax preparation is a snap. The phrase “Easy for you, difficult for me” comes to mind. Then I consider that these are people who seriously rattle off phrases like “lemon grass and saddle leather with a finish of corpulent pear.” Right. So I concede it is possible that I can, but it is factual that I don’t.

Having said that, I do believe I have a reasonably discriminatory palate. With few exceptions, I find any wine under five dollars a bottle should be reserved for cooking, and anyone who says you should only cook with wine you’d drink isn’t going to like my cooking anyway. By the same token, it is something of a waste to serve me any wine priced over fifty dollars retail.

An embarrassingly large part of my life has been spent trying to find decent but out-of-fashion wines. In the eighties, that meant merlot, which was then discovered by the Japanese in the nineties, sending the price through the roof.  Then the Japanese went broke and the movie Sideways marked merlot as crap, so the price plummeted.  Then the Chinese discovered it, and – well, you get the point.

Back in my American days, I loved an oaky buttery chardonnay, a habit supported by a glut of the stuff. Then in 1993 a particular bottle fumé blanc blew my mind, switching my attentions to sauvignon blanc.  Today, the Marlborough, New Zealand style of sauvignon blanc dominates the market, an ongoing glut still outpacing its incredible popularity. It is something of an embarrassment to the Australian wine industry that Australia’s most popular wine is from New Zealand.

These days, an oaky buttery chardonnay makes me gag – how did I drink that stuff? I still love a crisp dry sauvignon blanc, but I am always on the lookout for something different, agreeable and cheap, as a change of pace for now, but in the longer run, as a substitute in the post-glut era sure to come.

My tenth campaign pledge: As President, by encouraging people who love wine but can’t read a financial statement to operate vineyards, I will ensure that the international wine industry continues to have glut of one sort or another for all time.

Now you know everything you need to know about my wine prejudices.  But Matt did not.

“Has anyone got any wine preferences? We can decide which vineyards to visit based on what you like. Anything I should know?” Matt enquired.

Silence. I abhor a void, so I filled it. “I like ‘rip-your-face-off’ dry whites, and with reds, the bigger the better –wines that slap you around a little bit.”

Matt ran our vineyard choices through his head, looking a little perplexed. “Okay…rip your face off…slap you around…can I use that?”

Frank interjected “I like Pinot Noirs…”, which Matt noted.  The other eight guests remained silent, most nodding.  We settled in for a day of face-ripping whites, and slapping Pinot Noirs. Or something.

Of course, wine is a matter of taste, not a value judgement: any wine one likes is a good wine. Also, bear in mind that one can only have so much wine before one likes any or no wine, regardless of all else. Therefore, I will try to comment less on the wines and more generally on my experience of the vineyards we visited. Here you go, in the order visited:

Vineyard Comment
La Frenz IMG_1012Founded by an Aussie couple that fell in love with the Okanagan, La Frenz boasts a most spectacular setting, with a view that was depicted on the back of the Canadian one hundred dollar bill for twenty years. Unusually, I enjoyed their Sémillon and Viognier. A good start.
Laughing Stock IMG_1114Founded by investment bankers who use a money-grubbing theme throughout their operations, I dearly wanted to write horrible things about this place. Unfortunately, I am unable to do so. I was shocked to discover that investment bankers ARE capable of doing something other than spreading misery whilst enriching themselves.Wine-wise, these folks know what they are doing, particularly with the reds. They create infuriatingly unpretentious wines with a sense of humour in another spectacular setting. Tastings are by appointment only, so we had an intimate experience with a friendly and knowledgeable server. I have to put them in the “don’t miss” category. Dammit.
Lake Breeze Another idyllic setting, this time with a full restaurant and patio — I could spend a whole day here just lounging around staring at the lake. It is a pretty big operation, though, and things were rather busy, so while the service was pleasant and prompt, I couldn’t call it relaxed. “Next!” They offer some interesting red blends, and some very pleasant whites, my favourite being a Riesling unusually dry for this part of the world.
Poplar Grove Cheese, and Lock & Worth Winery IMG_1067Our lunch stop, a boutique wine and cheese operation a little off the beaten track. Very personable service. While we tried the products, our guide Matt set up a beautiful spread of local charcuterie, fruits, vegetables, cheeses and breads on a nearby picnic bench. IMG_1076We enjoyed that with a nice bottle of Sémillon. The Cabernet Franc, a varietal I don’t see much of in Australia, was worthy of note, too. At this point, the tour group was lubricated enough to loosen up a bit, bonding to some degree. Sometimes it is nice to be a grown-up. (Not often enough!)
Terravista IMG_1124This was my favourite stop of the day. Well off the beaten track, Terravista is a tiny operation specialising in the “rip your face off dry” whites I really enjoy. The owner himself walked us through the selections. Frank appointed himself teacher’s pet, providing a rolling banter of questions and candid answers on subjects well beyond wine, to include sex, politics and religion. The rest of us, half-drunk and sleepy from lunch, found it wonderfully amusing.
Poplar Grove Wine Not to be confused with the cheese operation by the same name — see above —this was my least favourite stop of the day. It is a big operation, serving some lovely wines, but it was crazy busy and the service was downright surly. At one point, in response to a request for two more glasses, the server barked back “I know! This ain’t my first rodeo!” She then proceeded to focus solely on the single, young, handsome man of our group to the exclusion of the rest of us. To be fair, it is a nice place, and their Cabernet Franc is something special. But if I had a do-over, I’d give this a miss.
Upper Bench IMG_1011Our last stop, we arrived late in the afternoon. Another sizeable operation on the main tourist trek, like the previous stop it was quite busy, even on a Tuesday. The service was more pleasant, but the wines less remarkable. Truth be told, most of our group was fairly tipsy by this point. I can recall little other than a promotion bragging that their pinot noir was “one of the top twenty-five Okanagan Pinot Noirs.” I’m not sure how many pinot noirs the Okanagan cranks out, but that seemed a little like bragging that one graduated in the top seventy-five percent of their class.


Overall, I found the Naramata Bench wineries had done some notable things with the Sémillon, Viognier and Cabernet Franc varietals. In the past I have not been impressed with any of these, which just goes to show that wine making is as much about the wine maker as the grape. In the future, I’ll keep an eye out for these varietals in Australia, where they exist but are not commonplace. Hopefully, they are cheap as a result!

A couple of other general tips on touring cellar doors. First, get started early. Most folks don’t like to start drinking wine at ten o’clock in the morning, but there’s a lot to be said for the leisurely pace and attention given at a cellar door before the hoards arrive after lunch.

Second, it really is worthwhile to join up with a small tour. One obvious benefit is that you needn’t worry about driving after having a few drinks (or more). More importantly, though, the guides know the local wineries, their products, and the wine makers. They should tailor the selection to fit the preferences of the group, as Matt did. Further, the guides know which operations make transient wine tasters feel welcome even if they don’t by a case. It makes for a much more comfortable experience.

Heading back to Kelowna, I noticed the fire near Naramata we had seen earlier appeared to be extinguished.  Most of the troupe fell fast asleep. Well, I did, anyway.  Matt poured us out his van back at the B&B at about 5 pm. Highest marks for Experience Wine Tours.

After a nap to sober up, we walked over to The Train Station Pub where we enjoyed a light supper of salads – and a pint of beer. Even I had had enough wine! Nice place, good food, good service, good craft beer.

One more day in the Okanagan – and I’m just starting to like the place!