On Assignment: 24+ Hours at the Winter Okanagan Wine Festival

On Assignment: 24+ Hours at the Winter Okanagan Wine Festival

When someone says I’m a writer, it conjures up images of Kerouac or Burroughs with a typewriter and a fifth of gin in a dingy hotel room. The scene now might be less beat generation and booze, more hipster café and espresso – but these stereotypes call easily to mind.

For today’s experiential writers (food, wine, travel, etc.), the café can sometimes play a role but I find their pastries distracting. I write at a wobbly desk in a room with one small window. Occasionally, a marketer sends a sample or invitation to an event. This is partly how stories come to you, the reader.

This January I was invited to the Okanagan Winter Wine Festival at Sun Peaks Resort, about 45 minutes north of Kamloops. I’ve written about the event previously for EAT, so this time I want to take you behind-the-scenes and show you what life is like on assignment. It might not be Kerouac, but it can be fun – and sometimes a little messy.

3:00pm Friday – arrive at Sun Peaks

The Okanagan Valley can be glorious, with lakes and mountains and sunshine. In winter, the ‘valley cloud’ (as locals call it) hangs low and seeing that sun means getting above it all at a place like Sun Peaks.

I enjoyed an hour of downtime in my room at the ski-in/ski-out Coast Sundance Lodge before the weekend festivities kicked into high gear. My feet would thank me later.

4:30-6:00pm Friday – Après, Before

Traditionally, après refers to after a day on the slopes – but for me, this was pre-event. I, along with fellow media types, filled reserves with tasty bites like shumai wasabi dumplings and plum tomato bruschetta at the resort’s oldest eatery, Powderhounds Restaurant. True to her reputation as a gracious host, Olympic champion and ski legend Nancy Greene met us for a pint. This après-before was a good call, considering the task ahead.

6:00-10:00pm Friday – Wine Tasting, Ski-Resort-Style

The Sun Peaks Progressive Tasting is a unique experience on the Canadian wine landscape. Over four hours participants wander the snowy village with wine glass in hand, seeking out more than 20 wineries hidden in local shops. My goal: to visit as many as possible in the first two hours because things can get interesting when people drink wine at high elevation, particularly with lots of snow around.

The crowd has an ebb and flow to it early on, and later the village acquires a backyard party vibe. At 9:20, I had to squeeze past a tipsily tottering trio of ladies and into the space occupied by Tyler Harlton Wines – Tyler was out of two wines, but I managed a sip of the beautifully earthy 2012 Pinot Noir before it disappeared.

Time undetermined – the unscheduled snack

Somewhere between sipping an outstanding 2012 Dry Riesling from Harper’s Trail and the elegant Bella Wines 2012 Sparkling Gamay, I visited Mountain High Pizza for a slice.  Thin crust baked just right, it’s classic east-coast ‘za with a west-mountain twist. Boosted by a quirky-cool atmosphere with kickin’ tunes, this rad little hole-in-the-wall also offers meat pies – likely a result of the friendly Aussies living here.

10:00pm Friday-early Saturday – Après the après

What do wine people do après tasting? We drink wine, sometimes beer. When a back vintage Red Rooster 2006 Gewurztraminer or Tinhorn Creek 2006 2Bench White is available – scored from the local liquor store earlier that day – the beer takes a back seat.

10:00am-noon Saturday – Brunch (with more wine)

After early morning writing, it’s time for brunch – with several wineries at the ready in case we missed them the previous night. I revisited Silk Scarf’s Alsatian-style white blend 2012 Ensemble Blanc, reconnected with my host to review the day’s schedule, and enjoyed a plate of fresh fruit with French toast and a big coffee – those hill groomers are loud, and start up at 6am.

12:00-1:30 Saturday – Chocolate and Wine (I know, right?)

Traditionally, seminars involving chocolate use port-style wines. Not so here, and it was educational. Our wine guide Gerrit led us through some less-than-expected wine and chocolate pairings, breaking down preconceptions and translating wine-speak into things we can more easily understand (“calcium and limestone are like crack to grapes”). We paired Ex Nihilo Vineyards 2012 Pinot Gris with white chocolate, and Bartier Bros. 2011 Merlot with 54% dark chocolate.

2:00-4:00 – Play the be-a-winemaker game

At this wine-blending seminar I met Kris and Val, a couple from Kamloops and attending the wine festival for the first time. I assured them they wouldn’t be on camera and we got to business. We used six unlabeled samples, a beaker, spittoon, and fresh wine glasses – finally, we submitted our fifth try for judging to Stag’s Hollow Winery principals Larry and Linda, and winemaker Dwight. Our team didn’t win, but after spitting all afternoon I was happy to finish a small glass of our final blend.

6:00-9:30pm Saturday – Eat and Drink With a Chef

After a brief rest and a lengthy tooth brushing, it was time for dinner. We seat ourselves around large banquet-style tables, with legions of forks and spoons positioned at attention. We used each piece of cutlery and more than a few wine glasses during our five-course wine-paired meal. By the end of a remarkable dinner that included I-couldn’t-make-it-at-home-nearly-as-well beef tenderloin, I had four partly consumed glasses and a half-eaten dessert remaining on the table in front of me. It wasn’t yet time for bed and I was plum-tuckered. But wait – all I’d done today was eat and drink, right? Well yes, and no.

Working these events means paying attention. It’s listening closely as facilitator Gerrit translates wine-speak fear with accessible vocabulary (“Merlot is like a shag carpet – soft and plush”). It’s watching as Kris and Val chat with a winemaker for the very first time. It’s hearing Delta Sun Peaks Food & Beverage Manager Didier Toutain explain (in a delectable French accent) the elegance of Quails’ Gate 2011 Pinot Noir with loving detail and unchecked affection. It’s talking to the ice carver about chainsaws – and later, tasting Chef Paul Paboudjian’s bread pudding while he shares childhood stories.

By Sunday morning, it’s time to go home. I close my laptop, tuck a notebook filled with lines and squiggles into my bag, and we pack the car with my fella’s slightly damp ski gear before bidding the mountain a final farewell. We descend through the clouds and into the valley below, en route for home.

Long after the ice sculpture melts and my teeth return to a normal colour, I sit at that wobbly desk and review my notes. There was so much packed into a short weekend, I had  enough threads to spend the next few months weaving stories. After a weekend on the mountain I’m slightly sleep deprived and still have the week’s laundry to do. Now it’s follow up time: booking appointments, fact checking, making article pitches, and visiting the occasional café. I’ll risk the pastry distraction because there might be another story behind the counter. And really, the laundry can wait. I’m a writer. There’s real work to do.

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Jeannette is EAT's Okanagan writer.\r\n\r\nWith her rural Canadian roots and love of grand experiences, Jeannette is equal \r\n\r\nmeasures country and city. Since moving from Vancouver to the Okanagan in 2007, \r\n\r\nshe quit ...

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