Church & State Wines: The tasting that never was

Nothing satisfies a former journalist like me more than checking back over my notes and discovering that I did, indeed, write down that nugget of information that forms the crux of my argument.

That nugget happens to be about a bottle of syrah and the price tag that was attached to it. Or, rather, the price tag that, to me, seemed just a little bit high.

Continuing with my theme of documenting my trip to the wineries of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, today I am discussing Church & State Wines. I have wanted to try this producer’s wines for quite some time but for years I was put off because of a run of mediocre reviews.

This is a winery that was founded in 2003 just minutes from where I grew up in Victoria, B.C. Originally known as Victoria Estates, it was given the usual assessment that people from Vancouver Island attach to such venture: ambitious, but in the wrong location. It was sold in 2005, the name was changed and the operation became much more serious. For starters, they started making wine in the Okanagan. That was a good decision. However, by that time I have moved to the UK and had access to their wines only when I returned to Canada for a visit.

When I planned my visit to the Okanagan, I did a little research and discovered that, according to the now-defunct Wine Access magazine, Church & State makes the ‘best red wine’ in Canada. That wine, the Coyote Bowl Syrah 2009, was what I was after.

The Church & State tasting room sits off the beaten path among the winery’s vineyards in Oliver, a small town between Osoyoos and Penticton. There isn’t much there other than a small modern winery and tasting room with few frills. The main entrance isn’t even signposted. I give them credit for keeping things simple and without too much pomp and circumstance.

IMG_0208This is pretty much the only photo I have from the winery, so brief was my visit…

When I visited, I had the benefit of being the only person there. Excellent, I thought, because this meant I could have a proper chat with the staff. But when I said I wanted to do a tasting my heart sank. Before my lay a laminated sheet upon which circular place markers had been printed for each of the wines they were going to let me try (for a purported $10, although this might not be correct).

Missing from this tasting was the Coyote Bowl syrah I wanted to try. So I made a point of saying that I really only came for the syrah and could I please try it?

To which the reply was: No.

My notes tell me that this was because the wine was in high demand and they could not possibly open a bottle for tasting when quantities are so small. This isn’t entirely abnormal, but I recall the wines that they were offering to open for me were their more mundane offerings. This was not enough to entice me to stay.

And so I walked out without tasting anything and, crucially, without buying anything.

I appreciate that it can be difficult to open bottles for tastings when commercial pressures require them to be sold. However, I was even more aghast when I discovered how much the price had risen after the award was given.

When Wine Access magazine said the Church & State Coyote Bowl Syrah 2009 was the best wine in B.C., they reported that the retail price was $26. That’s a reasonable price for such a highly acclaimed wine.

When I asked the woman at the tasting room for a price on the 2009, I was told it was $50 per bottle (although the website currently says it was $35). If I wanted the 2010, it was $35. That’s a hefty jump on the original price of $26. I guess this is the effect of being an award-winning wine and being high in demand. Although I note that other wineries with great wines, such as Sandhill, tend not to raise their prices as demand increases.

Even better, if I wanted the 2009 and the 2010 together in a special edition wooden box, the price would have been $90 for the pair.

Bargain.

To this day I still have not knowingly tasted a wine from Church & State.

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Incomprehensible vineyard name: Nk’Mip Cellars

Wine could very well be one of the few products that can have a confusing name and still sell well.

This goes against the ethos of most branding experts. Our supermarkets and department stores are bursting with products whose creators went to great lengths to find the easiest, most recognisable names. Nike. Arm & Hammer. Apple. Google. Tesco. You get me.

But look at most French, Italian or Spanish wines. Unless you are fluent in all three of those languages, there is a strong chance you have been flummoxed by a winery name, the name of the wine itself, the name of the region where it came from or the name of the grape used to make the wine. And if you hit the jackpot, you were confused by the lot.

Yet you still bought it. Why? Because it’s wine. Because no one can pronounce most Italian words anyway. Because no one really knows where the Cotes de Blaye appellation is but they know it’s probably drinkable. And that’s all that matters.

Now, for us Anglophones you would have thought most of the English-speaking New World would offer us a welcome respite from the confusion all those foreign labels have created.

Then the Canadians come along and decide to screw with our minds…

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Ignore my bald head for a moment and focus on the sign in the background.

Nk’Mip.

Now try to pronounce it. Think you got it right? Probably not.

It goes like this: In-ka-meep.

Nk’Mip is a First Nations word from the Okanagan language that means ‘bottomland’ and refers to the area where British Columbia’s Okanagan River flows into the north end of Osyoos Lake (where you’ll also find the town of Osoyoos). Founded by the Osoyoos Indian Band, Nk’Mip Cellars was the first aboriginal-owned and operated winery in North America. And they’re no slouches. The winery is part of the greater Nk’Mip resort project, which includes a golf course, resort and spa, as well as a desert cultural centre. It’s a serious business.

The winery/cellar door is in a modern building that on one hand is impressive and new, but on the other seems a little soulless:

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But there’s no denying that this is in a beautiful setting. Here we see the rolling hills just outside Osoyoos:

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And here we see views of Osoyoos Lake from the winery looking over the vineyards:

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Like any good winery, they have a restaurant and patio. It turns out this is how you make big money in wine country:

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Not to be outdone, their tasting room is large and spacious. And if you’ve ever watched Sideways or been to Santa Barbara County, you might find it to be in the same spirit as the Fess Parker winery (known as Frass Canyon in the film), complete with cheesy souvenirs that fit in with the vineyard’s theme:

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Yes, that’s me looking a little bit lost in the cavernous tasting room:

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Now to the wine. I managed to work my way through quite a few of Nk’Mip’s wines and overall I found them to be fairly pleasing. They arguably make the best chardonnay in Canada and, being that it’s the only wine of theirs I’ve actually bought and dragged back to London with me, you could say it gets my seal of approval. It is Burgundian in style but not too oaky or flabby like so many New World examples.

Anyway, to the tasting notes, which had to be fished out of my recycling bin a few weeks ago. If the little stars that I drew on my tasting sheet are to be trusted, I was particularly fond of the winery’s Winemakers Series Riesling 2011 and Chardonnay 2011, as well as the Qwam Qwmt Series (Kwem Kwimt) Chardonnay 210, Pinot Noir 2010, Syrah 2008 and Meritage 2008.

The Winemakers Series Riesling 2011 is from their basic range of wines and sells for $17.99 Canadian. But it isn’t a slouch. It has a classic gasoline/petrol nose, has plenty of citrus and has a grassy, chalky palate with a pleasing minerality. For the price, you probably can’t go wrong, although I accept that there might be better examples from Australia and of course Germany and Austria – albeit for more money.

The basic Chardonnay 2011 is predominantly aged in steel (60%) but it also sees (40%) French oak to give it some much-needed depth. It had hints of vanilla from the oak, was medium-bodied and also had a mild creaminess. Not at all bad for the price, but it left me wanting more.

My favourite wine of the tasting might have been the Qwam Qwmt Chardonnay 2010 ($24.99). This sees 10 months of new French oak and extended ageing on the lees. It is a nutty wine of medium body and acidity with just enough hints of vanilla to be pleasing without going overboard. I found it to be aromatic, full of citrus fruits and minerality, as well as a long-lasting finish.

Other wines on offer included a fabulous Qwam Qwmt Pinot Noir 2010 ($29.99) that reminded me of a pinot from New Zealand’s Central Otago region. Plenty of red berries, mild oak, caramel, along spices and earthiness. It was quite a bold pinot, but also enjoyable.

The Qwam Qwmt Syrah 2008 was also a top wine and, if I’m not mistaken, earns high scores from critics. It seemed reductive on the nose, but I could have just been imagining things. It displayed the classic pepper and spice you’d expect from a syrah, but also seemed to have some sort of scent of tree sap or pine, which many people in the Oakanagan believe is a characteristic of some wines there. Whether or not this is truth or fiction remains to be seen.

Critter label love: Burrowing Owl Estate Winery

Sometimes rules are meant to be broken, mantras cast to the wayside.

For the most part, I am a staunch enemy of so-called critter label wines, the sort that use a cute, cuddly critter as part of their branding. The number of sub-standard wines with an enigmatic animal on the label far outnumber those that are genuinely worth drinking, so I have made it a rule of life not to give them much attention.

But this is one of those times when that rule was not only broken, it wasn’t even acknowledged.

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery is regarded as one of British Columbia’s best, based in the semi-arid southern reaches of the Okanagan Valley, a region unlike the lush rainforests I came to know growing up on Vancouver Island.

The landscape here is as close as you can get to desert-like in this part of the world and, in fact, is a northern extension of the Sonoran Desert. There aren’t many trees in these parts; instead, there are grasslands, small shrubs and brush, plenty of rocks and an abundance of loose soil. The bright green orchards and vineyards are all a creation of human intervention.

So, without further ado, let’s get to the critter love. This is what you see when you turn off the main road and onto Burrowing Owl’s long driveway. The road is much steeper than this photo suggests. And those tress on the hills are a lot smaller than they seem. Like I said, trees are not abundant in these parts. But grapevines are, which is good for us.

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In case there was any doubt, this is indeed Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, as the sign on the wall says. Complete with faux adobe winery-cum-cellar-door-cum-restaurant-cum-hotel.

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It looks pretty good in the sun. But it also reminds me of wineries in California’s Santa Barbara County. And perhaps Sonoma. And maybe some estates in Napa…

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It has a dazzling pool, though. And those vineyards you see in the background? Yup, those are Burrowing Owl’s. Well, except for the vines that Sandhill Estate bought from Burrowing Owl a while back. After several years of leasing the plots, Sandhill decided buying them outright might be a good idea. The result? Two wineries that share a terroir; perfect for us wine drinkers. Of course, Sandhill is easier to acquire, more of which later.

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Obligatory wine barrel shot…

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More vineyards belonging to Burrowing Owl. As you can see, they own a large piece of land, which is pretty ideal if you want to make a lot of money by making wine.

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Not to be outdone, they had a pretty big tasting room with plenty of wines on show. See, this is one of their better wines, the 2020 Athene, which is a field blend of syrah and, um, something else:

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More wine on show:

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For a brief moment while I was writing this entry, I thought I was going to have to cut things short and not say much about how the wines tasted. This is because, in my infinite wisdom and due to my stunning organisational skills, I wrote my notes for Burrowing Owl’s wines on the tasting sheet they supply at the winery rather than write them in my notebook.

And then I threw said sheet into my recycling pile.

However, because I’m slow when it comes to taking out my recycling, I managed to repatriate my notes from the bin so I can present them to you here.

And here they are….oh…

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Okay, so there aren’t going to be many notes on this occasion. But what I can say is that Burrowing Owl is probably most famous for its merlot, which unlike California does not illicit quite the same caustic response as Miles from Sideways.

But beyond merlot, Burrowing Owl does a good trade in syrah and cabernet franc. The 2010 Burrowing Owl Cabernet Franc nearly ripped the skin off my upper palate thanks to its 14.5 per cent alcohol level, but this is not to say I didn’t like it. It had some excellent acidity, red berry aromas and flavours, and just enough oak treatment to round things off. It has more body than a Loire/Saumur example, likely because the climate in Osoyoos is just that much warmer.

The other wine for which I have reasonable notes is the 2010 Burrowing Owl Athene, which my notes claim contains syrah and cabernet sauvignon in something of a field blend. It is peppery, rich with black fruits and has this warm, baked aroma and flavour that makes you think of warm climates like the Rhone Valley. It has a spicy, oaky nose, but nothing too overpowering. It also has plenty of acidity and rounded tannins that will allow it to age.

Sadly that is where my notes end.

So, in closing, not all critter labels are a bad thing. In this case, we have a superb producer dedicated to making quality wines. They aren’t the easiest to find because their distribution to retail stores is limited (most is sold direct from the vineyard or through restaurants and hotels), so if you can get your hands on some, don’t hesitate. But don’t be surprised if you almost never see this wine outside a restaurant wine list.

Then again, many of Sandhill’s wines are made from what was once the other half of Burrowing Owl’s vineyard land, but are much easier to find in retail shops. So you might consider just buying that instead.

Vineyard visit: La Stella Winery, Osoyoos, B.C.

Earlier this month my father and I went on a three-day tour of vineyards in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Years ago it was maligned for its jug wine output, but with advancements in global warming and improved winemaking techniques, it’s starting to turn heads.

My father played the role of begrudging gracious designated driver and photographer during our trip, while I did all the talking and tasting. On a few occasions I think the vineyard staff thought he was some sort of security detail.

Anyway, the first place I visited was La Stella Winery in Osoyoos, a vineyard whose wines are not exactly the easiest to acquire if you do all your shopping in government liquor stores. Their distribution is mainly limited to VQA shops and restaurants.

So, La Stella. A Canadian winery making Italian-style wines from French/international grapes. Not that there is anything wrong with that, because what they’re making is actually very good – and the prices reflect that fact.

From the outside, La Stella was more impressive (and, ahem, commercial in appearance) than I had expected:

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Built in what looks like some sort of Italian-villa-meets-missionary-revival style of architecture, the winery actually matches the arid Osoyoos desert climate quite well. But let’s not be mistaken: this is not a part of the world where there was any Italian or Spanish influence on culture or architecture.

But none of this seems to matter in the New World of wine production, where history is manufactured and vineyards can make wine in any style they want. In this case, La Stella is a winery with an Italian bent. And not just any Italian bent, but one of a Tuscan variety – a *super* Tuscan variety. Which means you’ll find wines made mainly of merlot and cabernet sauvignon when you were probably hoping for sangiovese, nebbiolo or barbera. Oh well.

Now that we’re here, let’s look at a few more photos. Like all wineries claiming to be prestigious, La Stella has the obligatory stack of expensive oak barrels in its driveway:

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Meanwhile, the tasting room was, unsurprisingly, a carbon-copy of what you might find in Napa Valley or Sonoma County:

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Sadly, the prices on the chalkboard seemed to be out of Napa or Sonoma as well:

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That’s right, their bottles start at $21 and crank up to $100 for the top offering. It would have been nice to see a mix of whites and reds in the $20-$30 range, but instead their reds start at $35 and soar in price from there. But this is the New World, after all, and they have oak barrels, new vineyards and flashy tasting rooms to pay off…

But hey, their vineyard is beautiful and lies in a prime location overlooking the west shore of Lake Osoyoos:

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Now, to the wine. Well, despite my snarky comments so far, it was enjoyable.

The best value of their bunch in my opinion is their Fortissimo Selezione di Famiglia  2010, which sells for $35. A blend of merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and just a splash (8% of the blend) of sangiovese (at last, an Italian grape!), there is a lot going on in this bottle.

And it’s a good bottle, too. Aged in Slavonian and French oak, it has a distinctly Italian feel to it. It has a freshness, some firm tannins and the kind of acidity you would expect from a wine made in this style. It was genuinely enjoyable to drink, although I still bristle at its price.

It could be difficult to sell to the average wine consumer at this price, but genuine wine fans who want an Italian-style wine made in Canada with French grapes might think it’s worth the cash.

photoIf only I could convince them to carve their own path and drop the whole Italian ideal they’re trying to adhere to, then we’d be onto something…