Wine & Travel

Snooth User: GregT

Northwest Wineries

Posted by GregT, Jun 18, 2019.

So on a whim we decided to visit British Columbia. But we flew up to Washington, so visited a few places there too. Totally off the subject of wine, I found an awesome bakery in Spokane and the girl there served me this thing that I thought was a kind of Parmesan cheese foam. In fact it was fermented cashew whip, which was definitely weird, but also pretty good. So cheese-like that if you're a strict vegan, you don't even have to give up cheese, or at least the taste of cheese.

Anyhow, I visited a few WA wineries that I liked and a few that I ended up not liking so much and headed up to Canada. The Okanagan is the northern part of the Sonoran desert, which to someone from the east coast is not apparent. We think British Columbia is all wet and forested and full of grizzly bears. Apparently that's not entirely off the mark because out of four days, it rained for three, and one winery had a big Great Pyrenee that was all wet from the rain and slept right next to the tiny tasting bar, tired because earlier that morning he had run a bear out of the vineyard. So having confirmed my beliefs about the region, we set about tasting as much wine as we could in just under four days.

We managed to get to Adega on 45th, Black Hills, Burrowing Owl, Covert Farms, Castoro de Oro, Checkmate, Church and State, Culmina, Desert Hills, Gehringer Brothers, Gold Hill, Here's the Thing, Hester Creek, Jackson-Triggs/Inniskillin, Lariana, Le Vieux Pin, Maverick, Moon Curser, Nk'Mip Cellars, Platinum Bench, River Stone, Road 13, Tinhorn Creek, Young and Wyse, and a couple others I really can't recall at the moment.

The problem is that most of them only open around 11 and they close at 5, but thank God they're pretty close to each other. You just drive up the road and there are wineries on either side, so you don't need to do a lot of searching or asking Google for directions. We didn't have much time so only made it to the Oliver/Osooyos area and didn't get north into Penicton and beyond. That will have to be a later trip. And the first day we got there late so only got to two wineries. You figure that the wineries are usually pouring a minimum of five wines - that may be some kind of regulation, I'm not sure. But we usually got through some ten or twelve when we started talking and they wanted to show something special.

One of the places I really wanted to go was Nk'Mip Cellars, which is owned by the Indians in the area. I liked the concept of it and was dubious about the wines, but wanted to try them anyway. They're smart folks since they have a golf course, shops, hiking and horseback trails, high-end restaurant, winery, and time-shares. It's a pretty expensive place all in all. But the wines were not overly expensive at all and much to our delight, they were pretty good. They could have easily produced some plonk and made their money on the tourism activities, but they actually put out some really good wine at reasonable prices. And a word about the restaurant - the chef came from Toronto and was given a first-class restaurant to run. It had been French, Italian, Continental, and whatever else. He had the idea of using the native cooking elements, which for me was a first. So I ordered pasta made from chestnut flour, which was common before chestnut blight, with foraged mushrooms and wild hare and sumac and other local herbs and spices. My wife had bison basted with spruce and some root vegetable that I can't recall at the moment. And it paired really well with the Syrah. I think that restaurant would do well in any spot, and it was nice to find there.

Wherever we were, we asked the wine makers who we should visit and mostly we took their recommendations, but that didn't mean we couldn't stop at every place along the way.

Gehringer and Gold Hill both made Cab Franc that I wanted to try. It was fair. Desert Hills had a Zin and a Gamay I wanted to try, and those are probably not things I'd hunt for too hard. Moon Curser had a Tannat and a Tempranillo but they weren't pouring the Tannat when I got there. However, their wines weren't bad. We kind of interrupted a special tasting some girls were having but the winemaker talked to us about his vines and wines. I planned to go back the next day and taste the Tannat but didn't make it.

We were told that Burrowing Owl is quite proud of themselves. It turns out with good reason. Their wines are quite nice and the help was too. No pretense, just poured wines. And when one of them was corked, I pointed it out and the pourer opened another one. His boss showed up and pulled him aside to ask what was happening. There was some conversation and he poured some of the wine and shook his head. The kid pouring was smart though - he poured some of the good bottle into a second glass and gave it to the boss man. You could see the light go on in the boss man's head and as he walked away I could have sworn his head was illuminating the room.

There's some guy named John Schreiner who reviews BC wines and has written a few books on Canadian wines. Everyone was touting any score they received from him that was over 90. Of course I had no clue who he was so didn't really care too much about his opinion, but I like his approach. If you think about it, he's not trying to cover the whole world. He's been tasting those BC wines for many years and if you don't know where to start, he may be someone to pay attention to.

The one thing I did agree with him about was Checkmate. He gave one of their wines 100 points and everyone talked about it. We headed up to see for ourselves. It's kind of an isolated thing on a hill. First thing I noticed was that while almost all of the other wineries save one or two had Riedel glasses, these guys sprung for Gabriel Glas. One of the girls was a bit surprised that I had any idea what Gabriel Glas was. We started talking and it turns out she'd gone through one of the wine courses - WSET or something like that, so she knew a bit about wine even though she wasn't the wine maker. I was happy and figured we'd end the day there - hilltop view and attractive smart girls who were friendly and liked wine. What more could you want?

Maybe good wine?

And they came through like champs. Checkmate wines were some of the best we tried. They make a series of Chardonnays and these were crisp, clean, lightly oaked and quite delicious. I would love to put them into a blind tasting with some Chablis. Classy wines for sure.

Overall there were a lot of good wines and the prices were great when compared to what you get from places like Napa or even Sonoma. The region focuses on the Bordeaux varieties, which I understand because that's what people buy, but I think they could do more more diverse grapes. Many of them agree - there's interest in Tempranillo, Aglianico, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Gamay, Cab Franc, and others. It's still a learning curve for many of those and maybe some will never be anything to write home about but you don't know until you try. There's also plenty of Pinot Noir, but I didn't find any that stood out. Maybe the best wines were Syrah. There seemed to be a lot of it and because the place is so dramatically sloped, with a valley floor and steep mountains to either side, you can find all kinds of really interesting micro climates to plant a specific variety. The same vineyard may have wildly varying temperatures and diurnal temperature swings, and whether you're on the east or west of the valley will determine your sun exposure.

The Okanagan is truly a beautiful and dramatic place and I have every intention of going back. There's talk of making a national park there, and some stiff opposition from the wineries. That was a surprise to me until I talked to some of them about their thinking. The place is beautiful right now and still very rural. Nobody is trying to build hotels or golf courses. But they're concerned that the park will restrict their vineyards and until that's sorted out, there is likely to be some contention, so my advice is to avoid discussing the issue.

Since we only had one twelve pack shipper, I only brought back twelve wines.

Here are a few pics.

Clouds and fog over the vineyard.


More clouds and fog


One winery that wasn't too bad at all and they had great bread. In fact, they did a bread and wine pairing. They made the bread on the premises and it's usually sold out by noon. That was the second outstanding bread bakery I found on this trip so it was a success bread-wise. And the wine was good so we bought some.

Some Checkmate Merlot:


From Nk'Mip





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Reply by GregT, Jun 19, 2019.

Some wines.

A Gruner Veltliner. Not bad. It would be interesting to see more of this grape planted up in BC.


There were a few good Syrahs. The grape seems to lend itself to the region's diverse microclimates. I tried as many as I could.


Vidal. Not many people were doing this grape. I bought it mostly for pedagogical purposes but at the same time, it wasn't too bad.



This is from Checkmate, one of the best. It's a really tasty Chardonnay and I would have bought more if I had a way to bring them back. First class wine.


One of many good wines from Burrowing Owl. And they don't have a tasting fee per se, they ask for a donation that's devoted to helping the burrowing owls.


These guys were pretty good too. They are or were affiliated with Jackson Triggs, which is also affiliated with Inniskillin in BC. Inniskillin is based in Ontario, where they're known for their ice wine. Out in BC, they make some very different wines. Sunrock was a specific site on the side of the mountain where the grapes seemed to be better than in some other places, so they spun off the winery as a separate one, although it's part of a larger group. Most of their wines were pretty good.


So there's a Desert Hills Winery in Washington, and an unrelated Desert Hills Estate Winery in BC. We didn't taste them side by side, but the BC version does a nice Syrah, so we brought back one of those too.



And there's this. The guy pouring the wines was great. Somehow Schoenberg came up in the conversation, and I mentioned that he was a composer. "Not a very good one," the guy muttered under his breath and my wife and I just burst out laughing. Only someone who was a real musician would have the temerity to say that, as a mere music fan wouldn't make such a comment. I asked him what instrument he played. Cello. He was a real musician indeed. So we spent a lot of time talking to him and consequently missed out on a couple other wineries. But it was worth it - he was smart, good company, and we tasted over a dozen wines with him. And I had to buy this grape, which you guys introduced me to.

Reply by dvogler, Jun 19, 2019.

It's about bloody time! ;)

Great story Greg.  I'd start off saying that 2019 seems to be off to a cool, damp start.  Weird though because I was watching the weather and it seemed to be 80's and sunny.  How was the "not rainy" day?  John Schreiner is a great guy and a wealth of knowledge of the BC wine industry going back to its infancy.  The only drawback is he's too generous with his ratings.  There's another guy, Anthony Gismondi who is punitive almost with his BC ratings, so I sometimes do an aggregate of the two if I need some accuracy.  I have a Deutsch Grammaphone CD of Schoenberg that I listened to once.  Don Triggs (of Jackson Triggs) has a winery called Culmina.  Did you try the Nk Mip "Merrym"?  The Talon is one of the basic tier, then they have a second level called Qwam Qwmt and the Cab sav and Syrah are quite good for $25.

I'm glad you had a decent time.  Next time, maybe go for September.  I'd love to meet up.

Reply by dvogler, Jun 19, 2019.

Here's an article, by John Schreiner about Vidal, AND right under it one about Don Triggs' wine (no reds this time though)

Reply by GregT, Jun 19, 2019.

It wasn't cold, but it was raining a lot. Everyone said it was really strange and not normal. When the rain stopped it was absolutely beautiful. I asked about flowering, etc., but nobody seemed too worried. I think it's a west coast thing though - I heard the other day that this is the coolest and wettest spring on record in the LA area. At least the water levels are back to normal so there's no drought warning this year.

I gather that Schriener knows his stuff. I wanted to meet him because that's my mother's maiden name. Her father was also a writer, although not about wine. Who knows, we may be distantly related. I know she had an uncle up in the northwest.

The wine folks were surprised that I knew about Vidal, but it's common on the east coast and midwest, and in Ontario. I was a little surprised to see it out here. They grow it out east because it's really winter hardy and also has high acidity. I actually think they should try it in more places as it can make some decent wine, but people seem really prejudiced about grapes outside of the top ten.

I want to head up further North next time. It's a really great place, prices are great, and the wines are worth tasting.

There's a guy who has bought into a half dozen wineries. He's letting them all keep their independence, but wants to use them as a group to break into the US market. The irony is that all those wineries are up there because they lost their earlier US market in apples when NAFTA came around. They needed something else so they came up with wine. Now they're going to try to get back in, but with things the way they are, who knows.

Another thing that was interesting was that there are actually a couple of wineries right on the US border. In fact, on the other side of the fence is the customs stop. But there's not single winery in Washington up there. You would think that since the BC folks have done a good job promoting their region and a lot of people drive up from the US, there'd be a logical follow-up market on the US side. There's water and obviously the climate is good. But there's nothing.

Reply by vin0vin0, Jun 19, 2019.

Greg, nice write up, thanks for sharing and glad to hear you enjoyed your trip!  Now you have me wanting to go.

Looks like you were able to taste a couple of 2014s, is that normal for a BC winery tasting or were these some of their library wines?

There is a good bit of Vidal here on the East Coast but in my opinion it gets better the farther north you go.  It can be very good to excellent in the NY area but less so in VA and NC.

Reply by GregT, Jun 19, 2019.

Honestly I don't know about the 2014s. First time ever to the wine region of BC, so I know pretty much nothing about it other than what I was able to glean over a few days of conversations. Only a couple of people had library wines that they showed us, so I'm assuming that the 2014s were on the market. But I really didn't ask about it - good question.

Reply by dvogler, Jun 19, 2019.

I suspect Washington will end up with more wineries closer to the border. 

Typically, there are mostly 2015, 2016 and just now 2017 reds available in stores, but there are some 2013 and 2014's also.  Why they'd serve 2014 is a bit weird, but it was a very good vintage.  Road 13 makes a big blend called The 5th Element that's really spectacular, but I don't think they pour it at the winery, which sucks. 

Here's a link to Gismondi's site.  You can click on wine search and enter a winery and/or the wine name and he most likely will have tasting notes for many many BC wines from several vintages.

I have the Moon Curser "Dead of Night" 50/50 Tannat-Syrah.  It'll be here until you come back again Greg!

Reply by GregT, Jun 20, 2019.

Yeah that's the kind of stuff I wanted to try. I liked Moon Curser. 

We found a couple of wineries in WA up close to the border, but not close enough to matter. Those guys were, like the BC guys, apple growers. One guy showed me his vineyard across the street. Completely flat. I didn't get it until he told me he'd ripped out all of his grapes. He says they can't get enough customers up in the area and they don't have the clout to entice any wholesalers.

It's the kind of thing you wonder about. In the end, it's a business and if you can't generate the revenue, the romance isn't going to help.

Reply by dmcker, Jun 20, 2019.

These are farmers up there, whether they're growing wheat or onions or apples or grapes, with their feet firmly in the dirt, often for many generations. Of course they're going to be realistic about whether they can sell their crops, feed their families and so forth. 'Romance'? Maybe some's crept in by now down in Walla Walla, burbling up from Napa then Willamette. But generally that's had very little to do with life in eastern Washington for a long time.

Nice recaps, Greg, thanks for taking time to write them. This is just a drive by for me and I'll take more time in the next day or two to reread your posts and maybe ask a question or two. Would be nice to have a Snooth get together in the Okanagan, it's seeming....

Reply by dvogler, Jun 20, 2019.


You're absolutely right.  It's all about the earth and things these people can produce from it.  I'm grateful for those who still grow food because that's becoming more of a Con-Agra business than a farmer type operation.  There is a very talented winemaker on the Naramata Bench in Penticton named Robert Van Westen and he has a good bit of property still as orchard.  I doubt many of BC's vineyards will go back to fruit trees mainly because the land that can produce and ripen vinifera is finite.  Washington has exponentially more of this suitable land.  I don't think they're being pushed to the corners of the state looking for the next great AVA, although it is creeping.  When I raced in Leavenworth and Wenatchee last year, there were wines from places I'd never expected.  Lake Chelan is doing well now...that's probably the northernmost cluster of Washington wineries.   I'll have to prompt Lucha Vino to chime in!


Reply by GregT, Jun 21, 2019.

So there are a few of them up in the northern area about a half hour or so south of the border, but they're scattered and still doing other farming. They have to make a living, as pointed out, and really, if they're not making good wine, why bother? There isn't enough of a tourist trade like they have down in San Diego to support Temecula wineries, and wine clubs aren't going to do it for them if they can't get the customers to stop in.

I definitely want to go and visit some more places in the Okanagan region though - they seem to have gone all in and the wines are generally pretty decent. Going to head back to Paso in the near future and do some more exploring there.

Reply by jackwerickson, Jun 21, 2019.

For those of you that have Wine-Searcher or access to it there is a great article on the okganaga valley and that list the wineries I noticed several that were visited it appears Burrowing Owl was one of the best

Reply by zufrieden, Jun 21, 2019.

I haven't read everything folks (but I promise I shall).  However, Greg's review is really a measured analysis and perhaps there is something there which need not depend on pettyfoggering.

My compliments!



Reply by GregT, Jun 22, 2019.

Zuf - it's mostly just rambling!

Jack - just looked at that article in WS. I wonder who wrote it. The Black Sage and the Golden Mile are like the east and west sides of Napa Valley. It's interesting to see a relatively new area coming into being. There's still a mix of hippie types, corporate types, old line farming families and new ambitious people making their first foray into wine. I wonder if it will be like Napa in 15 years. Hope not.

Reply by dmcker, Jun 22, 2019.

By 'article' are we talking about this blurb? Then there's Winesearcher's list of 'the best' Okanagan wines....

Jancis did a couple iterations of an article on the region recently. Here's the version on the FT. And here's the version on her own website.

And here's Tyler Coleman ('Dr. Vino') with his take on the region.

Still seems like coverage is light. Greg, wanna do a book together on the different regions of North America and their efforts to do more than Cab & Merlot?  ;-)

Reply by dvogler, Jun 23, 2019.


That Jancis article was fantastic.  I recommend people check it out.  I think Greg tasted some of the wines she mentioned.

Reply by GregT, Jun 23, 2019.

Yeah I tasted a bunch of them. And that Chinese mystery billionaire is talked about all over, but may not be the best thing for the place. He's sinking a lot of money into a new big huge place. Right now it's charming and still rural. A couple who bought a few acres and decided to make some wine isn't an uncommon thing. That guy is creating the first Las Vegas/Napa tourist attraction and will probably make a lot of money but it will change the area for the worst. He should invest in Singapore instead.

"John Skinner was told by his California distributor that his Painted Rock wines, some of the most respected in BC, were too cheap for US wine buyers to take them seriously."

This is some BS. People love high-quality low-priced wine. This distributor doesn't want to cannibalize his US wines. I can sell those wines.


Reply by dvogler, Jun 23, 2019.

Greg!  Maybe you could do just that!

I know you did in the past.  Or is it not something you'd be terribly interested in again?

Reply by zufrieden, Jun 26, 2019.

Well, Ramble on.  For us, that can sometimes mean analysis; after all, there's slim pickins to be had.

BTW, by all means, sell those Painted Rocks, Osoyoos Larose et al.  Pass on the savings. The more buyers, presumably, the more (re) investment.




Reply by dvogler, Jun 27, 2019.

Actually, as there's finite product, often in the hundreds of cases, maybe 1000, the result would probably be higher prices and we wouldn't find Red Icon on our shelves at all.  I think the Osoyoos La Rose could handle some export and satisfy local demand.

Greg: If you click on the link above (John Schreiner BlogSpot) the latest article is an Icon Syrah blind tasting contest in Vancouver and the results. Your Road 13 is top 3.  Although you got the "Jackpot" and this tasting thing just said Road 13 Syrah.  The Jackpot I think is a reserve thing.

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