Friday, February 29, 2008

Harry McWatters: BC Wines Visionary

After four decades in the wine industry, Harry McWatters, the spirited, fun-loving, and sometimes outspoken president of Sumac Ridge Estate Winery in Summerland, British Columbia, is stepping down.

Harry’s accomplishments are legendary. He helped found the British Columbia Wine Institute, Wines of Canada, VQA Canada, the BC Wine Information Society, and the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society. In 2003, he was a recipient of the Order of British Columbia and is considered instrumental in propelling British Columbia’s wine industry onto the global stage.

But even more important, Harry is known and loved for his tireless commitment and enthusiasm. To be in a room with Harry, is to be instantly caught up in a contagious passion for all things wine-oriented. His wit is razor sharp, his smile impossible to resist, and few can match the sheer depth of his knowledge.

But there’s clearly no slowing down on Harry’s immediate horizon. Effective May 1st, 2008 – the day after he officially steps down as president of Sumac Ridge – Harry intends to begin work establishing The Okanagan Wine Academy, an educational program offering in-depth wine educational programs primarily to consumers. In addition to providing consulting services, he will also continue on as president of the Black Sage Vineyard.

And he’s going to finally be able to devote some time to completing his cookbook, Wine Country Cooking, British Columbia, a project he says “has been talked about and gathering dust for several years.” He smiles with that characteristic twinkle in his eyes. “This is by no means retirement, but an opportunity to find new reasons to get out of bed in the morning and shift gears, as I plan to remain active in the future growth of this great industry.”

Like everyone who has ever had the privilege of meeting this incredible man, we wish Harry every success and look forward to seeing what shifting gears will bring. We’ll also be first in line to try out some of his Wine Country Cooking recipes.

(Photo taken at the BC Wine Appreciation Society's Christmas party where Harry poured some of his Steller’s Jay Brut.)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Romance with 2002 Zinfandels

Okay, it was actually a few days before Valentine’s. But clearly our uncharacteristically small group of Vancouver American Wine Society members who had gathered to compare a horizontal flight of ten 2002 Zinfandels were jumping into the spirit of romance.

Here they come in the order we tasted, and although it would be fun, we can take no credit for the final “heartfelt” evaluations of the ten offerings – each was delivered from an appointed, if sometimes reluctant, spokesperson at a different table.

Wine #1: Paso Robles Westside from Peachy Canyon Winery
Thin, weak, and presenting surprisingly little fruit either on the nose or the palate. This wine is like a ghostly and somewhat disappointing lover. Neat tasting room though as seen at the right.

Wine #2: Alexander Valley Todd Brothers Ranch from Dashe Cellars
Made with 4% Petit Syrah, the general consensus was that this wine was approaching – or perhaps even past – its prime. Tannins were still a bit coarse, and there was definite sediment. This wine was ranked as a dark and sultry, if a bit over the top lover.

Wine #3: Sonoma Valley Rhinefarm Vineyard from Gundlach Bundschu Winery

Softer and with a better balance than the previous one, most people agreed this wine showed coffee, chocolate, and mint overtones. The finish was longer, smoother like a well-oiled lover – apparently appealing as this wine was ranked Number One of the evening.

Wine #4: Amador County Grandpere from Renwood Winery
Made from old vines though from a newer winery (shown right), this wine was deemed somewhat austere. Oak on the nose but light in fruit, this wine – according to the table’s spokesperson – would not be finding its way onto her table nor into her bedroom even on Valentine’s Day.

Wine #5: Dry Creek Valley from Chateau Souverain
Not offensive, merely flat and faded from time with not enough fruit remaining to be worth mentioning. This wine is one lover who simply doesn’t deliver – even after midnight.

Wine #6: Dry Creek Valley from Foppiano Vineyards
Although we knew this vineyard specializes in “affordable,” this vintage was rather like stuffing your face full of penny candy in the general store. A fickle lover – even on a one night stand, first he thought he loved her, then he didn’t, then he did.

Wine #7: Napa Valley from Napa Wine Company
Like a chameleon, this wine exhibited the most dramatic amount of change of any poured this evening and garnered second favourite in the process. On the palate cedar, tobacco, and barnyard. In bed, an almost schizoid lover – but definitely one you’d happily suggest a roll in the hay with.

Wine #8: Napa Valley Old Vines from Fife Vineyards
Simple and somewhat nondescript but still comfortable, this wine is from old vines. Good for mindless quaffing on an open-air patio. A lover wearing nothing but flannel pajamas.

Wine #9: Napa Valley from Ravenswood Winery
Although this wine didn’t open as much as many of us had expected, it was “no wimpy wine.” Brawny and well structured, a few people found a hint of cream soda. This one is a somewhat reticent lover but definitely well built lover – perhaps even a redhead. (Note: these guys have a really fun website and a terrific sense of humour. Here’s an excerpt: At Ravenswood, there’s no pinkie raising, Brie eating, wine spitting wimpiness. Oh no. At the home of No Wimpy Wines, you’ll get to taste mind blowing zinfandel, witty conversation with our behind-the-bar staff and, if you so choose, private or group tours of the winery aka Zinfomania Central.)

Wine #10: Napa Valley from Rutherford Ranch
Controversy swirled around this wine as it became clear there was an almost unbelievable amount of bottle variation between each of the three that were poured. Some felt theirs was corked, others said “no, it’s just the style.” Was it a Madame wearing pancake make up and a feather boa or a great lover who hadn’t showered for a week? Few could agree.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Ponderings on Points, Amarones, and Arias

I have been traveling back and forth across the country for the last two weeks and have been working long days for months. In between flights and endless delays in airport waiting lounges, I try to make study time for my WSET exam coming up all too soon in a few days. After a grueling, four-city tour, tonight I feel justified in picking something special to celebrate a clean desk and being home. A bottle of Amarone is definitely appropriate. The bottle I decide on is an Amarone Negar 1961. Yes the vintage is right, 1961.

It was a great year for Italian wine in 1961 – rain and sun in perfect balance. John Kennedy was president of the USA. The Berlin Wall was under construction. Maria Callas was 38 and at the height of her career. Sophia Loren was starring in El Cid, and I was all of nine years old.

The label is a little worn and torn. The fill level looks promising – still mid neck – although there is a little sediment. The cork seems to be okay – solid and removes easily without crumbling. Should I decant and risk adding too much air? I pour a glass to see what has happened to this 40-something wine.

The color is amazing – dark red, with a little orange and brick red on the rim. The nose is equally remarkable – still lots of fruit left on the nose, black cherry with truffle, and a little sherry oxidization odors in the background. A few swirls of the glass and the oxidative aromas disappear.

The taste and finish on this wine is surprising, still full of black cherry, truffles, and forest floor with a finish that lasts for minutes. The tannins are like silk, and there are not enough descriptors to describe the mouth feel and full body. The acidity must be holding this wine together.

Now, there is a caveat to this story. We both love Amarone, so there is a built in basis here. But points and ratings have no relevance to this wine. It is, quite simply, a great wine. It is like the Callas aria playing on the stereo – powerful yet filled with grace and finesse. It is an Amarone at its heights. Yes, 1961 was a good vintage year for Italian wines. I am going to lay down some bottles for the future.


This Amarone is a perfect example of why Frank and I both hate the point system. Is this a 98 or only a 97 point wine? After all, how do you define the difference of a single point? Or has this venerable liquid actually achieved the enviable position of 100 points despite its initial hint of oxidation? It is only two additional points after all.

And if we were to rate it as a 98, would that make it comparable to the 2004 Cabernet Blend IX Estate from that received a 98 point nod from Robert Parker? Hmmm, let’s see. A three-year old blend of 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc, and 6% Petit Verdot from Napa Valley versus an Italian Amarone with almost half a century of love, care, and passion in its provenance. Somehow, the comparison just doesn’t work – although I suppose one day, some scientist, somewhere in the world, will come up with a formula that proves you can actually make a meaningful comparison between apples and snow peas.

(Photos of Maria Callas and Sophia Loren are both dated 1960, only a year before this wine was produced.)