August 29, 2014

Sandhill Wines, Peller Estates and Calona Vineyards

The photograph over a doorway in the impressive sales and tasting centre in downtown Kelowna is one of the few reminders of an amazing past for this group of wineries. That the three notables in the picture might look a wee bit suspicious is not a concern.

Calona is the oldest continuously operating winery in British Columbia with roots going back to the 1930s. Financially it was backed by the Capozzi brothers and became famous for its imitation of the successful Gallo Brothers in California, right down to the gallon jugs. Thankfully that image changed over time, though memories, and some labels, persist, including Schloss Laderheim, once Canada's best selling white wine.

The Capozzi family, including the shades, sold the winery in 1971 and several owners came and went until Andrew Peller Limited bought the operation in 2005.

Since 1997 the diamond in the operation has been the Sandhill brand under the direction of winemaker Howard Soon. Sandhill wines are all single vineyard wines and while blends are made, they are only made from grapes of the same vineyard. All the wines are good with the Small Lots program being excellent.

The labels on the bottles, and the picture wall of notables hanging in the tasting room, prominently show the winemakers and the growers; the owners being somewhat less important.

Soon's influence and expertise has probably influenced the other brands too and the Peller Estates range provides some excellent values.

The tasting room is large and breezy and showcases Sandhill wines of course, but other "rooms" offer tastings of the two other brands, and they are worth the visit if only to discover a surprise, like the 2010 Syrah from Peller Estates at an exceptional price. We should have bought a case.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2014.

August 28, 2014

Nk'Mip Cellars in Osoyoos

The signs are different at the sprawling campus that includes Nk'Mip Cellars that overlooks Osoyoos and the lake. The land is owned by the Osoyoos Indian Band, as are the various businesses which include a resort, winery, golf course, and much more.

The band became involved with growing grapes in the late 1960s at their Inkameep Vineyard in Oliver. A more aggressive business model was the result of the election of Chief Clarence Louie 25 years ago and his single minded focus on job creation for band members. Ten years ago Mr Louie told an Alberta conference on aboriginal development: "My first rule for success is, 'Show up on time.' My second rule for success is, 'Follow rule number 1.' Our ancestors worked for a living," he told the gathering, "so should you." What followed has been a major development scheme that generates wealth and employment beyond the band itself.

Amidst the condos and conference facilities is the original Nk'Mip Cellars winery, wine tasting room and restaurant. Throughout Nk'Mip and its related enterprises, there is a dedication to service, and that service is exceptional: highly professional yet casual, and always centred on the customer. While the wine tasting room was busy during our visit, the servers were devoted to the task, encouraging and educating with every pour. "No" seems not to be a word used at Nk'Mip; every effort is made to find a way to say "Yes."  I also heard a tremendous sense of pride in what was happening here, and in being a part of that success. There are many businesses that could learn a few things from this place.

And the wines? They have always been consistently good and some are truly fine indeed. I like the Talon and the Merlot, and their Chardonnay is affordable and elegant.

Nearly every winery has a "reserve" range of the best wines they produce. Nk'Mip has that upper-tier too, though the "reserve" word is not used and understandably so. Here it is called Qwam Qwmt and the Meritage and Syrah are personal favourites.

The patio restaurant is, not surprisingly, a delight too, with an appropriate focus on the wines of course. The setting is fantastic, the food nicely prepared and presented with friendly and polished service.

And the meaning of Qwam Qwmt? The words come from the Salish language and mean "Achieving excellence." Nk'Mip and the Osoyoos Indian Band are on to something.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2014.

August 26, 2014

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery

Long a favourite of ours, the Burrowing Owl Estate Winery invokes Tuscany.

This is a marvellous place at the northern most tip of the Sonoran Desert. Rattlesnakes are native to the area as are the owls which give the winery its name, though the only creatures bothering us on our visit were a few fruit flies.

Conservation is important to the owners, Jim Wyse and family. All tasting fees go towards the winery's Conservation fund, which has raised nearly $600,000 since 1994. Mr Wyse is a supporter of plans to create a National Park in the area, in spite of arguments against by a number of local land owners and the provincial government, which tells us more about Christy Clark and company.

Much has changed here since Burrowing Owl's beginnings in the 1990s. The tasting room is more elegant, the restaurant offers fine, casual dining with a view overlooking the vineyards and a luxurious guest house and pool (we were staying in the somewhat lesser Spanish Inquisition).

Our lunch in the Sonoran Room was relaxing and delicious. The peach "soup" for dessert was refreshing and sumptuous.

All the wines are excellent and some are simply outstanding. The setting, the care of the land and a dedication to wine making make for a great experience.

Photos by Jim Murray (view of estate from website). 
Copyright 2014.

August 25, 2014

Dirty Laundry Vineyard

Dirty Laundry Vineyard is located near Summerland and first opened in 1995 as Scherzinger Vineyard, the dream of a former German woodcarver named Edgar. He retired in 2001 and the new owners enlisted a marketing company to create a new image.

The marketing guy had previously turned Prpich Hills Winery into the more exciting Blasted Church branding. His research uncovered the story of a Chinese railroad labourer who opened a laundry in Summerland over 100 years ago. It quickly became a front for a bordello, and the washing business became known locally as the "dirty laundry."

The theme of laundry, and the naughty bits, overwhelms the current business. There is a script running here from the moment you leave your car and enter the tasting room.

That nudge, nudge, wink, wink thing is a bit much and detracts from the wines. Names include Bordello, Woo Woo, Hush and Secret Affair. A few years ago the winery's Reserve Chardonnay wasn't selling well enough and the name changed to Naughty Chardonnay. Apparently the oak can be a wee bit "knotty." And so it goes. Marketing is important here, and it works. Big time.

Whatever else, Dirty Laundry is popular with tourists and the tour bus operators that rumble down the Okanagan's highways. I think the theme has been taken too far, right down to the clothespin you are given as a souvenir, though they sell a great many bottles. Marketing, branding and imaging are front and centre, not the wines, though the whites are somewhat interesting, especially the Threadbare Gewurztraminer, which we enjoyed as a patio wine and Jeem was doing his laundry.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2014. 

August 22, 2014

Osoyoos Lake, the beach and an apocalyptic sun

Osoyoos Lake is Canada's warmest fresh water lake, with summertime water temperatures averaging 24 degrees. It attracts tens of thousands every summer.

For some reason, southeastern British Columbia is popular with people from Alberta. Not that there's anything wrong with that, nor with people from Alberta. The license plates seen at the Spanish Inquisition are mainly from Alberta and the accent often heard in coffee shops and pizza parlours in Osoyoos is Albertan, and there isn't anything wrong with that either, though visions of tar sands and bursting pipelines filled with goop, tend to come to the minds of those from the southwestern coast of BC. Some of us drive around in great big SUVs too, far too many of drink coffees from disposable cups, and according to popular belief we all seem to be wearing yoga pants. All of which probably irritates people visiting from Alberta, especially the part about yoga pants.

In any event, the lake is warm and wonderful, though full of motorised craft. Speed boats and personalised water craft speed up and down and all around, mainly in circles to impress someone on the beach. This is not Idabel Lake, nor is it St. Mary Lake either.

Our afternoon at the beach was hot and muggy and there was taste of smoke in the air. What began as a clear morning in Osoyoos turned into a darker midday, the sun hidden at times behind clouds and smoke. While there were a number of forest fires burning in BC, this smoke was actually coming from fires burning across the international boundary in the US.

At times, the sun turned a brilliant red. The darkness on the beach caused many to look up from their phones, however briefly, to view what might have been described as an apocalyptic sun. What else could it be? The ear-splitting drone of high speed mechanisation on the water, the soundtrack from the best of the 60s, 70s and 80s booming in from the parking lot of the Spanish Inquisition, and hundreds of people on the beach, each staring at a personal hand-held device, oblivious to the world around them.

The end is near. Possibly in Alberta though just as likely in lululemon land.

 Photos taken between noon and 3:00p.
Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2014.

August 21, 2014

Osoyoos and the Spanish Inquisition

After the pure pleasure of Idabel Lake, we managed to wend our way to Osoyoos, visiting a few wineries along the way. Osoyoos is a desert community at the southern part of the Okanagan Valley. It's population of slightly less than 5,000 swells in the summer months and on this 38 degree day near the beginning of August it seemed as though another 15,000 had arrived at the same time.

Of course most people travelling at the height of summer and on a weekend make some sort of a reservation for accommodation. Not so for Jeem and the writer. "We can find something when we get there." and "It will fine. There are lots of nice places on the beach."

Well. It wasn't quite that easy, and Jeem will know better next time. We did find a place and it was on the beach. It was a little rough around the edges and when later we looked on-line we noted some reviews and observations on tripadvisor and similar sites: "Worst motel in Canada." "I wouldn't recommend this place to my enemy let alone someone I cared about." My favourite comment: "...the person behind the front desk seemed annoyed when we checked in" which was our exact same experience. He knew we were not his kind of customers and that we would probably complaining the moment we saw the room, and he put us off as best he could. We were determined however and somehow we were finally granted a key to number 17. On the second floor. Hasn't been updated since 1982. A queen size bed that might have originated around the same time, and a Magnavox television from 1987 at best. We didn't complain. Number 17 might have been the last room in town.

In the end it wasn't all that bad. Some of the reviewers obviously had a less than satisfying experience, including the noise level. True, we couldn't hear our neighbours through the paper thin walls because the clanking of the room's air conditioner made human interaction within our space almost impossible, never mind hearing the snores from next door. Probably a good thing. It was a great place about 25 years ago.

Many of the motel's patrons are regulars and have been coming here, according to Jay, "the person behind the front desk," for years. In fact, when Jay warmed up to Jeem and the writer (when we were leaving), he said the motel is almost fully booked through the summer and almost entirely with repeat customers.

These regular patrons like spending their vacation sitting in the parking lot, or as near to their pick-up trucks as possible, with classic hits from the 60s, 70s and 80s booming in the background and the beer almost cold. Never mind that the beach, where the water was a wonderful 24 degrees, was only a few metres away. Smoking on the beach is not permitted, hence setting up in the parking lot, or in the doorway to their rooms, blowing smoke into what are supposed to be smoke-free rooms. None of this mattered.

We enjoyed the time-warped reality situation, and the beach was lovely. Jay even suggested we would be welcome again anytime. We've made the regulars list it would seem. Somehow I don't think so.

As for the Spanish Inquisition: the name of this wonderful establishment is Spanish Fiesta. It only seemed like torture.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2014.

August 12, 2014

Supermoon at Centennial Beach ~ August 10, 2014

After a long, hot summer day the sun slowly disappeared. Many people were leaving the beach but a large number remained.

People were in the water and on it too.

Photographers attended to whatever it is we do: adjusting things, checking other things. Waiting. Mostly waiting.

It was to be the best supermoon of the year and as the writer and I waited, on the beach in Tsawwassen, I wondered when the term supermoon began, and why. I didn't recall hearing the term growing up, nor do I remember it being discussed in astronomy books I might have read.

Apparently, and we have time since we are still waiting, the name supermoon was coined in 1979 by an astrologer of all people. Richard Nolle defined it as a new or full moon which occurs with the moon at or near (within 90%) of its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit.

The term supermoon is not used by astronomers, which prefer to use terms like perigee-syzygy or perigee full.

Somehow supermoon sounds better.

Eventually, the moon began to appear, slowly at first, seemingly ejecting itself from the very body of Mount Baker. There was an noticeable "ahhh" from the assembled congregation on the beach, possibly some are into astrology and certainly all were keen to see this supermoon.

It rose and for a moment or two seemed as if to dwarf the mountain, bright and bold and big. Like something super.

And soon enough it was just another full moon:
bright and bold and big, and providing enough light to stay on the water just a bit longer.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2014.