On The Road With Fork & Glass For South Okanagan’s Banée…
I’ve just returned from four days up in the South Okanagan digging Banée, the annual celebration of the area’s of food and wine, and a visit to Miradoro, the new restaurant attached to Tinhorn Creek starring the skills of former Aurora Bistro owner/chef Jeff Van Geest.
The new restaurant is a welcome injection to a section of the valley that hasn’t enjoyed great fortune in the food department. Van Geest is cranking out high quality Mediterranean chow, everything from housemade chorizo to superb pizzas. It’s rare to get a capable room with a view even in Vancouver (too many nautical pubs and deep-fried clusterfucks), so to see another one shining up there was awesome. The patio overlooks the winery’s cool amphitheater (starring K-OS and The Odds this summer), and on a still clear day one can probably see as far as Guatemala.
Van Geest’s supper, paired with Tinhorn wines from start to finish, was outstanding. I missed his short tenure at Diva, so it had been a couple of years since I’d eaten any of his food. There may have been some inconsistency to his pizza crust (scant variant thinness from pie to pie), but damn if it wasn’t still first class (made with “00″ Caputo flour). I haven’t been to the Sonora Room at Burrowing Owl for over a year, but if memory serves, Miradoro has it beat. From the chorizo consomme with peas and grilled amputation of octopus to the forno chicken and sweet closing of deep fried custard, Jeff was ably swinging for the fences, and it was great to be a fence. It was also a fine thing to see owner Manny Ferreira happy about it. It was a long time coming (a few years in the making, for sure), but it was well worth the wait.
The rest of the trip was an enjoyable and informative whirlwind. Myself and a dozen or so other writers from Western Canada, Ontario, Alberta and the American Northwest found ourselves happily sequestered at the waterfront Walnut Beach Resort. The weather was typically indecisive for the time of year, lashing us with rain, spikes of titillating heat and even a timid flurry, so not much time was spent idling on the raked sandy beach or swimming in the pool overlooking the lake (it’s April in BC, so go figure).
Much of our itinerary saw us getting down in the hotel, and this included a speed tasting that bordered on the cruelly unusual, wherein we bruisingly lipped, spat or swallowed some 42 wines in less than two hours, spending just five minutes with each winemaker or winery principal (and boy is my palate tired). It was nevertheless swell to see some old friends and better to make new ones, but the format – led by a loud bell ringing the close of each stunted conversation – tickled my patience, making me want to constantly yell out “But I’ve only just met this person!”
Later that night, Tim Martiniuk of Stoneboat Vineyards provided us with a branding and messaging session over dinner, in which the region’s new marketing campaign was presented in a powerpoint demo. They’re going with the straightforward, geo-specific tag of “Oliver-Osoyoos”, which has a nicer ring to it than the less romantic “South Okanagan” of old. The logo, a double ring of bottles in red and orange mimicking the sun on a mustard background, looked purdy.
As fascinating as Tim’s talk may have been (and it was), whenever he put down the microphone I had to keep half an eye on my phone to catch the Canucks lay absolute waste to Chicago’s bantam efforts while sipping on four deep regional flights of mostly whites paired with food from Walnut Beach’s chef Justin Paakkunainen.
The next morning, we rose early to tour Hester Creek, sampled some very good snippets destined for their upcoming restaurant, Terrafina (open by summer); returned to Tinhorn for a terroir investigation with winemaker Andrew Moon; visited Tim and his parents Lanny and Julie at Stoneboat; hit up Silver Sage for fair sips and giggles, and then tucked into a tidy, “unusual varietal” lunch at Osoyoos’ still new Watermark Beach Resort.
A jaunt in the sunshine at the Desert Research Centre followed, which proved to be my favourite hour of the trip. They’re working with local wineries to restore local plants to their properties, developing indigenous seed mixtures and the like. Really, it was just fantastic fun to be out in the desert in the Spring sun, soaking up some Vitamin D and information that I never knew I wanted (my new knowledge of sage bushes and coyote poop will doubtlessly serve me well at some point in life).
The grand finale of the weekend was Saturday night’s Banée dinner and auction at Spirit Ridge. The sun was setting just as we arrived, so I ran in to steal a bottle and then torqued it to the top of a nearby hill, wine glass and camera in hand. Twas a lovely bit of business!
Back inside, the food was shockingly good for a resort banquet (courtesy of the adjacent Passo Tempo), and was served family-style with plently left over for seconds and thirds. Hundreds of bottles of SOWA wine were consumed during the course of the evening, with every guest invited to mingle around the room, bottles in hand, swapping them for others as they saw fit. Tongues were loosened with ties and belts; always a good time in these parts where the people – so earnest and generous with unsolicited opinion – know how to unwind.
At the end of the night (and every other night), many of us gathered to deconstruct the day and down several sleeves of lager in tour leader Sue Alexander’s suite. She’d had the foresight and presence of mind to bring up enough beer to turn the blue lake brown, so much fun was had.
The real takeaway that I gleaned through many conversations (sober and not so much) was how disparate the Okanagan Valley’s wine regions really are, as much in messaging as they are in their respective varietal strengths. Like the Naramata Bench Winery Association, SOWA (South Okanagan Wineries Association) looks to be positioning its products and region by branded differentiation in order to maximize (among other things) their already burgeoning cellar door traffic. Though such moves are good for the collective, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it’ll take before the Okanagan is properly, “officially” Balkanised into distinct sub-appellations, and whether or not that will be helpful or confusing to the end consumer. I suppose anything that informs us better about our own backyard is a net positive, but I’m not smart enough to have a learned opinion on the matter. For that, perhaps my friends over at Cherries & Clay can fill in the blanks. Psst! Kurtis and Jake…help a dumbass out!
As has been the case with just about every working trip I’ve made to the Okanagan, I left with more questions than answers, an angry liver and a rudely depleted bottle of Advil. But no regrets. Thanks to all who made my stay an enjoyable one.