The Okanagan Valley has become a force to be reckoned with on the world wine front. It’s taken decades, but when you see the accolades bestowed upon our Valley vineyards, in competitions around the world, even the dismissive have to admit that we’ve got a great thing growing here in the Okanagan Valley.
You can get the full wine experience if traveling to the valley during the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival which is now in it’s 36th year with dozens of events happening up and down the entire valley. Long table wine-paired dinners, tasting events, and even grape stomping - it all happens during the wine festival giving the fall visitor so much more than just a wine tasting room experience.
For myself, fall means a new crop of wine is beginning to be made. I wanted to experience what it would be like to be a tourist in my own town and see how I could interact with the wine producers, craft beer makers and get up close and personal with the men and women who pour their heart and labour into making great beer and wine.
First stop … the vineyards of West Kelowna on a cool and rainy morning.
You can tell someone enjoys their work when, even in the worst of weather, they greet you with a broad smile and look like they’re having the time of their lives and that’s what greeted me as I pulled into the small, boutique Coyote Vineyard on Kelowna’s west side.There were no signs to guide me to this hidden gem, overlooking the Valley and the city of Kelowna (I just wish it had been a clear day to take in the vista) which is home to Annabel Stanley and her winemaker husband, Grant Stanley.
I slipped on my rain jacket, covered my camera and headed down to the vineyard to grab some shots of the group of volunteers who were harvesting Pinot Noir grapes.
“Why is everyone here?” I asked a few of the pickers. “We’re mostly friends of Annabel,” Melissa Brown told me. “We just love coming to harvest the grapes … and in return Annabel makes us a great meal with some fantastic wine,” she continued. Dressed in her hand-made toque (Melissa has the “Art of Yarn”), bundled up for the cool, rainy weather, she had a broad smile on her face as she snipped grapes from the vines.
There were friends, family and strangers all working to clear the vineyard on this day. Small vineyard owners, such as Annabel, take whatever help they can get and if you’re interested in getting to know the people who grow the grapes and make the wine, you can volunteer to help bring in the grape harvest … tourists are more than welcome. The experience gives you a better insight into what goes into the winemaking process and it’s an unique experience knowing that you actually helped pick the grapes when you pick up a bottle of wine from the vineyard you worked at.
Annabel Stanley mentioned to me that the winemaker/farmers just up the road a couple of doors were also picking grapes that day. When I heard it was Niche Wine Co., I knew I had to go take a peek. Niche makes one of my wife’s favourite wines and I’d be remiss if I didn’t get a couple of pictures of what they were up to on this wet day.
James and Joanna, the creative farmers/winemakers welcomed me and offered to show me how they were making the wine on this day … which, as luck would have it, was the very wine my wife loves: their Pinot Noir Blanc.
I love how James and Joanna state: “Our wines are made without fancy equipment, and instead benefit from gravity, smarts, and a few strong hands.”
On this day, their helpers included an EMT, a fireman and a police officer, as well as family and friends working up on the hill picking the pinot noir grapes. James, who went to school to study winemaking, loves to keep it simple and says he and Joanna harvest grapes from small batch crops and happily spend long days earning their grape-stained palms and muddy boots.
The farm, owned by their parents (I met “Dad” who was watching the proceedings) was planted back in the ‘80s, is affectionately known as the Hugh and Mary Vineyard.
As soon as the grapes were picked, they were brought down the hill to a small press (not much bigger than what a home press would be) where James supervised a few of his out of town buddies who tossed the grapes into the gleaming aluminum press.
As soon as the grapes were pressed, and leaves separated, they brought a large bin into a small garage-like structure (nicely made with dove and mortise joints) where the grapes were tossed into a wooden barrel. The pink liquid freely flowed into buckets that James strained into the vats that would house what will be, I’m sure, the next vintage of Alison’s (my wife) favourite wine.
Wet, dirty … but extremely happy. These are just a few of the dogs running through the winery looking like they were having the time of their lives. For years, many of these dogs were photographed for a sell-out Winery Dogs calendar and when visiting a winery, don’t be surprised to be greeted by the resident dog. The wine touring experience is really more than just tasting wine - enjoy the whole experience, winery dogs and all!
“Meet me at the 50th” is in reference to the 50th Parallel Estate Winery catchphrase which establishes at what longitude the winery sits. The grapes harvested in the first part of this essay, at Coyote Vineyard, were headed to this winery in Lake Country, just north of Kelowna. Annabel’s husband, Grant Stanley is the Director of Winemaking and Viticulture and would be pressing the grapes as soon as he got his hands on the harvest.
I’ve met quite a few winemakers over the years but few can match the enthusiasm Grant has for his trade. He’s passionate about everything wine. When you speak to him, he’s knowledgeable and lives and breathes wine.
The wines Grant makes are among the best in the Okanagan Valley … no, make that some of the best in North America. He’s also one of the only wineries where tourists (and local wine lovers) can actually watch the process of winemaking up close when they come to 50th Parallel Estate Winery and taste the wines in the crush area. With his music blaring, Grant is no stranger to hard work on the floor and guests to the winery can watch him punch down the grapes, housed in Italian-made French oak barrels. When I asked why he didn’t automate a little of this process, using a bladder-type system, Grant told me he loves to feel the push back of the grapes. “I can tell by what the grapes are telling me, how much longer I have to go in this part of the process,” he said.
This is a winemaker who lines up his product in a row of tasting glasses in his lab and judiciously tastes the wine at each phase in order to maximize the flavour profile he’s after. When I asked him if there was anything proprietary in the room I should be careful not to reveal, Grant said: “They’d have to get in my head … that’s the only way anyone could replicate the unique wines I’m making here.”
If winemaking is an art, Grant is one of the grand old masters who has his own style of painting with the vineyard as his canvas and the grapes his paint.
For the past 20 years Tree Brewing has been making a good array of memorable beers here in Kelowna. Getting off the wine kick for a moment, I headed down to the Tree Institute to meet with brewmaster David Gokiert. Originally from a small town north of Edmonton, David graduated from the U of A with a Chemistry Degree. “I started with Tree in the spring of 1997 and apprenticed my way up the ladder to where I am today. Once I moved to the beautiful Okanagan, there was no turning back for me,” David told me.
As David showed me around the “Beer Institute” located on Water Street in downtown Kelowna, we talked about his beer philosophy. “You need to enjoy what you are drinking. Tree makes very well balanced, yet flavorful beers. Essentially, when you are done drinking one of my beers, I hope you want to have another one.” For me personally, two beers stand out: their pineapple hefeweizen called Mellow Moon and their Vertical Winter Ale …. both hit the David’s benchmark of being able to have more than one. Each has a little different flavour profile and I’ve enjoyed both over time.
At the Beer Institute, locals and tourists can enjoy “tank to tap” beer. What’s made behind sheets of glass just feet away from the bar is pumped to draft taps and arrives right out of the tanks in the back. “In general from the time I brew the batch of beer until the time it hits the consumers lips, it takes about 4-5 weeks.”
David is proud of the fact most of their raw material comes from local sources. “The majority of our malt is provided from Gambrinus Malting which is located just north of Vernon in Armstrong. As more hop suppliers are starting operations in BC and growing their production, we are looking to source more of our hops locally.”
Kelowna is home to many microbreweries, cideries and distilleries where you can taste the passion for their products. If you’re a tourist in town looking for something other than the ‘wine experience’ I would say step on down Water Street, a short walk from the Prestige’s Beach House along the waterfront, and take in the smells and taste of the Beer Institute. And almost around the corner from the hotel you will find the award winning Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery where you can learn about the art of craft distilling and sample a selection of award-winning spirits made from local fruit.
Keeping it “all things liquid” for this photo essay, I was invited to the launch party at the newly renovated Prestige Beach House and their hidden gem of a lounge, Caché. Located just down the hall from the hotel lobby, Cache is now open Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.
It’s a bar with a ‘throwback vibe’ … really cool design with tin ceilings, gorgeous light fixtures, a nice collection of old photos lining the walls and live music.
As their head bartender, Harry Dosanj (a very talented and award winning mix master) tossed martinis and cocktails, the crowd sipped wine and local craft beer and nibbled on appetizers prepared by the West Coast Grill and Oyster Bar, which is located just off the lobby of the hotel.
The lounge offers charcuterie and cheese platters as part of their usual lounge menu. Cache is the perfect spot to gather friends to listen to music, enjoy properly mixed cocktails and enjoy an adult night out!
I loved wandering the vineyards, getting to listen to the farmers and winemakers and speaking with David at the Tree Institute - it was great to talk to the people who actually made the products I enjoy drinking (so many great local beer and wines to be had) but it was time to retire.
Newly renovated room 201 at Prestige Beach House was a welcome respite from the wet morning … here I could take off my muddy boots, warm my toes in the tub and yes, maybe open that bottle of Niche Wine Co.’s Pinot Noir Blanc that just happened to fall into the trunk of my car.