I’ve just returned from 8 days in Penticton, BC. A blue-collar town of about 30,000, Penticton is in the heart of the Okanagan Valley, which is where roughly 90-95% of all the wine in BC is produced. Not by coincidence, I was in town for the 2008 Canadian Wine Awards. This year’s competition was a doozy – a record 1000+ entries from 5 different provinces. And the competition went off without a hitch.
We flew in 16 judges from across Canada, some from as far away as New Brunswick and Quebec. Each day, panels of 4 judges would blind taste their way through a hundred-or-so wines, soon paring the field down to about half, and from that down to a quarter. These finalists would be tasted for a fourth time to determine the best varietal winners (ie: best Cabernet Sauvignon, etc) and best wines in show. 1000 entries is quite a sample – I believe that Canada only produces somewhere around 5000 different SKUs, so these results are really quite indicative of where Canadian wine is these days, and which amongst them really is the best.
Outside the rather rigorous 8-hour days of tasting, setting up and tearing down (spent entirely in a dry, over-air-conditioned convention space), I enjoyed being treated well at several functions set up for our prestigious judges, many of whom are Canada’s greatest palates and critics. The first major event was also the most spectacular – a vineyard tour and dinner held at a cottage (notice I didn’t say “the”) of Anthony Von Mandl, proprietor of Mission Hill Family Estates winery. Mr. Von Mandl owns several vineyards in addition to his $40 million showcase winery near Kelowna, and this cottage, which was described to me as ‘modest,’ is on the shore of Okanagan Lake at the end of a remote dirt road amongst Mission Hill‘s Paradise Ranch vineyard. How apt. While Mr. Von Mandl wasn’t himself present, a full compliment of his service staff were ready and waiting at the conclusion of our vineyard tour, and Mission Hill’s award-winning Executive Chef Michael Allemeier (formerly of Teatro in Calgary) was busy grilling locally farmed rainbow trout, lamb and chicken, and had prepared a sumptuous feast of heirloom tomato salad, rustic potato salad, mixed greens, and even homemade pepper spiced cornbread. The dinner was unbelievable and certainly ranks amongst my best ever.
Our second extraordinary evening was hosted by the British Columbia Wine Institute at Burrowing Owl Vineyards and Guesthouse, where 60 winemakers and winery owners showed up to mingle with our judges. Perched high above the valley floor, the scenic poolside setting provided a 180º sunset and great food prepared by Burrowing Owl’s own Chef Bernard Casavant. Our final evening together was hosted by the tourism commission of Penticton and held on God’s Mountain, above Skaha Lake, at a very interesting and beautiful B&B. Joy Road Catering prepared a simple and entirely local harvest-style meal that was unanimously enjoyed, which was held outside, on a long table that seated all 30 of us on the edge of the cliff overlooking the lake. Nothing was over-complicated and everything was delicious.
Several evenings continued late into the night. Our judges rarely assemble into one big pack, so many of them don’t see each other except for our events, and this infrequency provided all the excuses necessary for some rowdy evenings on the hotel patio.
One other highlight of the trip which was not wine-related, was encountering Stockwell Day in the hotel’s fitness facility. Unfortunately, there were too many people in the gym at the time, otherwise I’d have perhaps hit him with a dumbbell (joking of course, but…).
After a long week of hard work and success, I’m happy to be home again.