Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas at the BC Wine Appreciation Society

The mood was festive, as it always is, at the BCWAS Christmas party and tasting. Plenty of sparkles and bling were in evidence as our usual gang of suspects gathered to check out a selection of Christmas offerings from around the province.

Naturally, there was sparkling wine to start the evening – Steller’s Jay from Sumac Ridge and as you can see at the right, owner Harry McWatters himself was pouring. Wonderfully yeasty and a perfect complement to the freshly shucked oysters that were part of the smorgasbord of delectable nibbles. And Frank said he was going to be late… snicker. So of course, I just had to check that particular pairing again on my own.

During the course of the evening the food seemed endless and conversations delightfully varied – wandering from the newest VQA stores in everyone’s ’hood to the emerging trend of creating strata housing developments amid the vines of established wineries to which grape varietals are best suited to BC and how that varies between the Okanagan and Vancouver Islands. But always, we came back to the main event – the wines themselves. Picking a favourite was, as expect, a tough call, but by the time Frank got there, it seemed pretty much narrowed down to two.

From one of our favourite Gulf Island Wineries, Morning Bay, Keith (shown below with Francis, BCWAS' financial wizard) and Barbara had brought an unannounced bottle of their new release Bianco. Crisp and clean, with medium plus intensity of citrus with a hint of floral on the nose, Frank’s eyes took on that glint of appreciation when we went back to this one, and he was soon deep in conversation with Keith about the four strains of yeast used – one for each of the grapes that make up this summer sipper blend: Schonberger, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and a touch of Riesling. All are vinified separately with the Riesling adding just a touch of orchard fruit. Made in a bone dry, Alsace style, Frank’s first thought was oysters or shellfish – especially if you can’t find a Muscadet. At that point I didn’t have the heart to tell him about the earlier nibblies he’d missed.

A highlight of the evening, one that had attracted a huge amount of anticipation was the 2004 Nota Bene from Black Hills. Considered something of a cult wine among BC wine fans, this Bordeaux blend (43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc) is filled with black fruit plus a hint of cherry with cedar and pencil shavings. We agreed it was well balanced with fine-grained tannins.

Unfortunately, if you’re thinking of nipping down to the store to grab a bottle or two, think again. This wine sells out year after year – unless you’re on their list, you likely won’t find any unless you can snag a bottle at a local restaurant or visit their Okanagan winery for yourself. Admittedly it was quite delicious. Still, at $35 seemed a bit pricy and in many ways remains an example of one of the biggest issues many (both of us included) believe the BC wine industry in general needs to consider carefully as it continues its evolution onto the world stage – how to be competitive in an increasingly savvy, discriminating marketplace.

PS: Happy Birthday to Leah. Thanks for pouring on your special day and you did a great job with the candle on your cupcake.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wine in the Digital Age: Cyber Surfing Nightmares

I’ve just spent a few hours researching some wines Susan and I are tasting next week. Well, attempting to research would more appropriately describe this exercise in frustration. I’m still astonished how many winery websites are hard to find, poorly laid out, and then give little or no information. Sometimes I dig through page after page after page and finally discover a two-line tasting note – how exciting.

To all you wineries, if you think this amount of information will have wines flying off the shelves, think again. First of all, by the time most consumers are looking up a wine on the Internet they’ve already tasted it, so they’re after more detail than “black cherries and leather.” And could you include just a few words on your different vintages? Your 2001 tasting notes are getting a little dated. Besides, I’m sure your 2006 will taste different – different weather, different harvest conditions, different wine.

How about a little technical information? French Oak or American Oak for example. A few lines covering pH, harvest dates, Brix at harvest, and residual sugar would be nice. Wine geeks will love you and talk up your wines – free promotion.

I’d also think you would have your labels available for download – after all, your design person’s already done the graphics in digital format, so just get a copy. Buyers could then print the label and take it to their favorite store as a reminder of what they’re looking for. Wine reviewers would be able add a label to their review or blog – more free promotion. People could share copies with their friends and family: look at this great wine I just found. Even more free promotion.

People viewing your site aren’t usually there to read all about the owners and how wonderful they are – at least not at first. Surprise – top of most people’s hit list are the wines themselves. What grape varieties? What quantities in your Bordeaux style blend? Can we have a little story on the style of wines you are trying to produce? Who is the winemaker and what’s their philosophy, experience, and technique. What does your winery look like – a picture or two might be nice especially for the folks buying your wine who live across the country.

Oh, and some way of getting a hold of you would be nice – an email address or phone number would be cool. How can you except to answer questions – like “where do I buy your wines?” Or maybe you just like seeing your wines sitting in the warehouse.

None of this actually takes that much effort. Really, it doesn’t. All you need to do is spend a little time and money on your website to make it stand out among the rest. If you want to see what I mean, here are links to a couple of websites that get it right.

Arrow Leaf Cellars in BC’s Okanagan has a site that’s easy to negotiate and includes a contact list, newsletter, pictures of the vineyard, and a great tech sheet. There’s even info on screw caps with a link to the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative – just in case you haven’t been converted yet.

Down under, Peter Lehmann Wines has another fantastic site – history, descriptions of the area, info about the winemakers and the wines. After spending time on the site, you want to buy rush out to the store and buy a bottle or two.

And to the winery in Australia who will not put info on their web site because it is too “techie,” it’s time to get with the Digital Age. You say you’d rather have people come to the cellar door to get info than surf the Net. Yeah, right. I’ll just hop on a plane from Canada right away. Lots of luck selling wines in our local market and no reviews from this quarter.


I confess, I have a severe love/hate relationship with the web. I admire Frank’s ability to search through layers and layers until he comes up with some nugget of information, but I certainly don’t share it. No results after a couple of Google searches and I’m on to something else. And sites that give me no contact information put me into orbit – Frank usually doesn’t even bother telling me about them any more because then he has to listen to my usually loud, always colourful verbal tirades.

However, one interesting thing did come out of his visit to the “We don’t believe in an Internet presence” Aussie site. Our debate on whether the owner was simply stupid or was being blatantly arrogant was lively, thoroughly entertaining, and will certainly keep them at the top of our “Do Not Visit or Buy From” list for a long, long time. FYI: arrogant won hands down.

Note: Photos show the Arrow Leaf Cellars' vineyards and porch area. Wine bottles show Arrow Leaf's Zweigelt and Peter Lehmann's Semillon. Enjoy.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Taste of Argentina: Two Wines from Patagonia

This was originally going to be one of those quick and dirty reviews. Two Argentinean wines, a snack provided by Chef Tim (that would be Tim Ellison, one of our favourite local sommeliers and co-founder of the BC Wine Appreciation Society), followed by a fast dash through the Cambie Liquor store to stock up on a few winter staples like Cognac and Champagne. Oh well, things change.

Uncharacteristically for a Saturday, there was plenty of parking – must be something to do with the snow. Vancouver + Snow = Mass Panic.

Tim and I do our usual three-kiss-on-the-cheek greeting – that’s right cheek to right cheek, left to left, and right to right in case you’ve ever wondered. The beef he’s carving with Melissa Popp from Hills Foods smells wonderful and the Chimichurri Sauce looks even better. Both wines on offer are from Bodega del Fin del Mundo from Patagonia, Argentinean – Southern most White and Southern most Red. Hmmm. White and Red. That tells me a lot, but what the heck.

Turns out our white is a 60/40 Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay blend. Surprisingly crisp with a pleasing length to the finish – not huge but pleasing. Today, however, this wine seemed just a bit too citrus without food – or maybe I’m just cantankerous from the snow. Still, at the price point of $12.95, this is one worth stocking for when you need a sipper with light nibblies. I’m already thinking summer sailing and it’s only December.

The red is 70/15/15 Merlot, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Once again priced at $12.95, this is one good value. A hint of tobacco and a nice, round mouth feel. I was surprised I liked it as much as I did. And it went fabulously well with the beef – although I had to check that particular pairing twice just to be sure. Tim and Melissa Popp from Hills Foods were happy to provide a photo op for the results of their combined cooking talents.

Tasting Aftermath at the Computer

Arriving home, I thought it would be fun to find out more about a winery located – literally – at the end of the world. One thing lead to another – like good surfing usually does. I spent, let’s just say “a while,” including a browse about through the Hills Foods site (who generously provided today’s beef) – some great recipes and cool organic meat products. But here’s the summary about the wines.

Bodega del Fin del Mundo was founded in 1999 when the owners planted vines on a deserted plot of land in Patagonia, Argentina. First problem – no water. From the pictures on the website, there’s not only no water, there isn’t much of anything here – think bleak, windswept, and desolated. Twenty kilometers of irrigation canal with computerized pumping system later, there was water, but now each plant needed its own windbreak to protect it from the gales that swept across the land on a seemingly daily basis. These folks clearly have plenty of the stubborn gene.

In 2002, their first vinification produced 30,000 bottles and netted a silver medal for Malbec. The owners began constructing a new, contemporary winery so they could move out of the small warehouse they’d been using to date. By 2004 were winning gold and silver medals at the Brussels Wine Expo and the Mondial du Pinot Noir in Switzerland, and their list of medals gets longer every year.

Also interesting, Bodega del Fin del Mundo continues to consider itself an experimental vineyard and is researching the viability of grape varieties seldom associated with Argentina – Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Aspirant Boushet, and Viognier.

And here’s a bonus, Tim even shared his recipe for his Chimichurri Sauce. Check it out. Thanks Tim!


A light oil and vinegar sauce with chopped parsley, cilantro, and garlic. Use as a garnish on your favourite cut of grilled beef. Makes 1 cup and would be wicked with fish and chicken too.

1/2 cup vegetable or olive oil
1/4 cup red wine or sherry vinegar
1 med white onion, minced
1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp cilantro, finely chopped
2 tbsp oregano, fresh, finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1/4 tsp chili pepper flakes
1/4 tsp black pepper, coarse grind
1 tsp lemon juice
salt to taste

Whisk together oil and vinegar in non-reactive bowl.
Add the rest of the ingredients and combine thoroughly.
Season with salt to taste.
Cover and refrigerate for 2-3 hours to allow flavours to develop.
Serve as a garnish with all types of grilled meats and fish.
Will keep covered in the fridge for 2-3 days.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Chateau Petrogasm: Visual Wine Tasting Notes

Over the weekend we revisited a site we discovered in the summer. Based on the classic premise of a picture being worth a thousand words – yes, we know it’s a cliché, but it’s still valid – Chateau Petrogasm uses images to convey both the experience of drinking and the impression of a wine. Some are concrete – crème brule for a Montrachet or a moldy strawberry for an Eschzeaux. After all, if a wine smells overbearingly like honeydew, then we must trust that honeydew will stain one’s imagination and thus the image.

Some stretch the imagination – ocean waves crashing against the coast for a Taittinger Champagne or a sultry brunette for the Sicilian 2005 Tenuta di Trinoro (yes, the contrast between the image from the ’40s and ’60s created some interesting debate).

Dr Debs, who we discovered runs an intriguing blog focusing on wines under $20 (that would be $20 in the States unfortunately), notes “visiting Chateau Petrogasm has become my preferred morning brain exercise. It beats Sudoku, no question. It gets the old synapses firing better than caffeine. And it’s the only wine review site that can put forward a reasonable claim that philosophers from Plato to Wittgenstein (were they still living) would vote for it in the American Wine Blog Awards.”

While we were both originally equally entranced, some of the later entries seem to be getting “out there” simply for the sake of being “out there.” Still, it’s a fun cruise around – especially on a snowy, winter afternoon like we had today. Be sure to check through the archives for some of the images that initially captured our attention.