Canada Day in Kelowna, Winery Tours, and Penticton

Deciding that the weather here had become too unbearable to stand for another weekend, let alone a long weekend, Allison and I opted to abdicate the Lower Mainland for places sunnier.

At least, that was the plan.

I booked Friday off (don’t you just hate it when the holiday lands on anything but Friday or Monday?), we packed a few things into a cooler (namely the two tonnes of fruit we received in our organic vegetable delivery — yes, I know I’m turning into a hippie), and started driving towards the Okanagan.

Within a couple of hours, we noticed that the rain was beginning to slowly subside. At first, we managed to elude Mother Nature. Every time I said “Look, there’s some blue sky!”, she figured out where we had disappeared to, and covered over all vestiges of the sun.

Arriving in Merritt shortly after noon, we stopped for lunch and a rest break. Having been chastised for jinxing the weather earlier in the trip, I had not said one word about the conditions. As a result, Mother Nature lost track of us again, and the weather was warm and bright. A bit windy too, so we ate lunch in the car for fear of blowing away with the tumbleweeds.

Leaving the Coquihalla highway behind us, we headed towards the Okanagan Valley. This trip, roughly an hour from Merritt, is plagued with many dangers: Severe Winter Weather, tight corners, and many examples of “driverius moronicus”. One particular specimen opted to pass three cars (of which I was the lead) right in front of on-coming traffic. The on-coming traffic had to bolt over to the shoulder to prevent a head-on collision. If I had not noticed this happening, we could probably have been in an accident. Had I been a bit quicker, I would have gladly jotted down the turkey’s license and turned him into the RCMP…

Arriving alive and unscathed in Kelowna around 1:30pm, we headed in the direction of my relative’s home. While in Kelowna, we were staying at the luxurious Chateau Tisdale, situated near the shores of Lake Okanagan. Thinking that both my aunt and uncle were working, I thought it best that we show up a bit later.

This gave us the opportunity to sight see a little.

Our first stop was the Kettle Valley planned community. This is a development that some genius thought up a few years ago. On a rather large chunk of land just south of Kelowna, developers are building a very large community, complete with town centre, schools, and character homes. In fact, the entire development is full of character — Victorian-style homes currently dot the area.

The development is far from complete. It will probably take 20 years or more to finish the development. But it will be very nice when it’s full of families.

We stopped into the office and one of the show homes to see what it was like. In addition to being considerably cheaper than homes in the Lower Mainland, the homes were high quality, and very nice. We were a bit surprised that none of the salespeople gave us the hard sell. We weren’t sure if it was because that was their style, or if it was because we looked too young. (We always get the hard sell out here.)

From the Kettle Valley development, we headed back towards my aunt and uncle’s home. Along the way, we opted to stop into the Summerhill Winery. (So we found out, it’s a law that all tourists have to stop into at least one winery while in the Okanagan. We had somehow managed to avoid it the first couple of times, but didn’t want to run the risk of a large fine for breaking the law this time.)

As we rounded the corner, we saw the winery’s piece de resistance … a large white pyramid. I’ll get back to that in a moment or two…

We pulled into the parking lot, and quickly found two things: 1) There was a free “sparking wine” tour, and 2) We missed lunch by about 10 minutes. We stuck around for the 3:00pm tour.

Our tour guide, so we figured, was a ski hill enthusiast working for the summer. (Another weird BC law states that the wineries, in return for getting mandatory visits by all the tourists, also has to hire all the ski bums who can’t ski during the summer.) She was a good speaker, I will admit, although she did exhibit a bit of attitude.

She took us around the winery, showing us the grapes Summerhill grows, the machines used to press the grapes … I’m going to pause here a moment. Interesting things to know about pressing grapes:

Summerhill presses their grapes to roughly 65% of their volume (this is called the “first pressing”), then mulches the left overs (including the stems and leaves of the grapes), and puts it back out in the field as fertilizer. Other wineries go to a second pressing, and even a third pressing. The guide expressed her disdain for additional pressings, saying that other wineries weren’t concerned about quality if they went to these additional pressings. Although she wouldn’t name names, she did say that the third pressing was usually referred to as the “rotting grape”. ‘Nuff said.

(Additional note, which I’ll add before Allison does: Fourth pressings usually become grape juice, and the leftovers are turned into fruit leather. Summerhill, obviously, does not do this.)

Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, we saw the machines used to press the grapes, and then we went into the winery building to see where all the magic takes place. Sparking wine (technically, it *is* champagne, but because “champagne” is trademarked for wineries in the Champagne region of France, no-one outside that area can use the term “champagne”; look for “methode classique” instead) is a work-intensive beverage.

After the wine is left in vats to ferment for a while, it is bottled and capped with bottle caps. They are then shelved for three years while the yeast eats up every scrap of sugar in the wine. (This is why champagne is so dry.) Then they have to “riddle” the bottles, which is the laborious part.

First, the bottles are whacked against a rubber tire to loosen up all the yeast (which is now caked to one side of the bottle). All 10,000 bottles of a batch are placed in special riddling racks, which starts the bottle out roughly horizontal. Each day, the riddler comes along, gives each bottle a quarter-turn, moving the bottle a little more vertical. (A riddler can riddle 10,000 bottles in 55 minutes.) By the end of the process, the yeast has collected in the neck of the bottle.

Then the bottles are put into a glycol solution (only the first inch or so of the neck) to freeze the contents, including the leftover yeast. Then comes the fun part — removing the bottle cap. The caps keep the contents of the bottle under the pressure generated by the yeast’s by product: Carbon dioxide gas. 125 pounds per square inch of it.

Needless to say, it’s a very messy process.

The bottles are then topped up with a “dosange”, which guarantees 750ml of sparking wine, a little bit of sweet wine and a touch of yeast, and then the hasty corking (with a hefty cork, I might add).

Definitely not a home-brew kind of project.

Following bottling portion came the warehouse … the pyramid (told you I was getting back to this). It seems that the guy who set up the winery is a huge believer in the power of pyramids. (What can I say, other than the west coast attracts the weirdos.)

There’s a theory that says a properly-designed pyramid will even out of the flow of tachyons (particles that move faster than the speed of light) and tardyons (particles that move slightly slower than the speed of light). Supposedly this is what causes the power of the pyramid. Instead of going sour, milk turns into yogurt; dull razors sharpen; meat petrifies rather than rots. Our guide suggested that was the reason why all the mummies in Egypt were petrified. I was about to suggest that it was because the bodies were drained of all decay-causing fluids, and then sat in natron (salt) for 40 days to dry it out — not to mention that most mummies were never in pyramids. But I kept quiet (yeah, I know, it’s a rarity).

Supposedly, this makes the wine taste better. The winery had held taste tests a couple of years earlier, testing out the theory. Everyone who tasted a wine aged in a pyramid and the same wine aged normally chose the pyramid wine. Can’t tell you if it was fixed, but that’s what we were told.

Then came the best part … the tasting. We were instructed how to taste wines (something which I had only partly known). If it’s a sparking wine, the first thing you do is look at the bubbles. They should be very small and fast-moving. This is the sign of a good sparking wine (or champagne). If the bubbles are large and lethargic, then you have something called “Baby Duck”. Yeah, it’s fake. If you don’t have a sparking wine, go to Step 2…

Look at the clarity of the wine — it shouldn’t be cloudy. If it is, put the wine back in the bottle, take it back to the store, and have it replaced. You don’t want to be sucking back any yeast (that’s the cloudy stuff). It’s not lethal, but you’ll be wishing it was.

Swirl the wine. Look at the film left on the glass. It should split into rivulets as it drains back into the wine. These are called “legs”. The thicker and slower the legs, the sweeter the wine. It’s not a precise measurement, but it’s not too bad.

Look into the glass, where the wine meets the glass itself. This thin barrier is called the “meniscus” (something I remember from Grade 7 science). If it’s a greenish colour (in white wine) or a brownish colour (in red wine), then the wine’s oxidized. That’s what you get for not drinking the whole bottle in one shot.

Next you smell. I don’t know why, you just do. Assumedly, you’ll know if it smells bad.

Finally, you get to taste it. But not really. Your first sip is rolled around in the mouth, covered all points and corners. You don’t pay attention to the taste, mostly because you have to orient your mouth to the new flavours of the wine. When you take your next sip, you’ll get a better idea of what the wine actually tastes like. You aerate the wine by (quietly) slurping it. I don’t know what this does exactly, but listening to 20 retired tourists do this is kinda funny.

After you’ve done all this, you can finally drink the silly thing. You have to go through this process each time you switch wines, or you won’t get the full effect.

Of course, that’s assuming you give a flying fig about all that…

After the sparking wine (which was quite tasty, I will say), we tried two red and two white wines. Our favourite was the Gewërztraminer. It’s a sweeter wine, and goes very well with spicy foods. Allison and I also tried their icewine after I made an inquiry as to whether they had any.

Most people drink wines that vary from 0 to 2 in sweetness. Most people I know won’t drink anything above a 5 — it’s too sweet. The Summerhill Riesling Icewine is an 18. None of the wine-tasting techniques work on icewine, incidentally. And if you drink icewine, don’t try to drink anything else for about 30 minutes — you won’t taste a thing.

Luckily, we weren’t close to being inebriated, so we could leave shortly thereafter. We arrived at the Tisdale’s around 4:30, and were promptly hugged to death by my aunt (she wasn’t working that day, as I had thought she might). No sooner than we were sitting in the kitchen did my uncle show up, claiming that their computers had crashed again, and he didn’t see the need to stick around any longer.

We talked for a couple of hours before setting into dinner mode. The barbequing duties fell on myself, which meant I had to try and not burn the steaks. I got lucky, although they were a bit too much on the well done side. (Thick steaks on an unfamiliar barbeque make for difficult work.)

After dinner, we headed out for the fireworks. This entailed driving down to Kelowna’s downtown, finding a place to park, and then walking to the appropriate viewing place.

So we walked.

And walked.

And walked.

And walked.

Did I mention we walked a lot?

We walked.

Finally, we stopped not far from the north end of town (or so it seemed), just as the fireworks got underway. Not the most spectacular show I’d seen, but it was far better than the slop Vancouver had put on the year before. It was no Symphony of Fire, but it wasn’t too bad.

Following the show, we fought through the 50,000 or so people who turned out to get back to the car, and back home. We passed out within moments of hitting the pillows.

We woke up the next morning to the sound of “Breakfast!” being bellowed by my uncle. We crawled out of bed and worked our way into the kitchen, to a meal of fried eggs, oranges, toast, superbly-cooked bacon, and cherries. It was a great way to start the day … especially since Mother Nature had found us again, and clouded everything over.

Before I knew it, my uncle was gone. It wasn’t long before it was our turn. We bade my aunt good-bye, and then hit the road.

The trip to Penticton is only about 45 minutes, and is a nice drive. Upon arriving, we hunted down our motel — the Majestic Motor Inn. Yes, the name is cheesy. So’s the interior of the room. The building was put up in the early 60’s (by my estimate). The interior hasn’t changed since then. It was almost fun (except our next door neighbour was a bit freaky).

One of the reasons we were going to Penticton was to meet up with our friends, Lisa and Miran. (Lisa one of Allison’s best friends; Lisa and Miran being an item; I know Miran from university, since before I met Allison. [Insert clip of “It’s a Small World, After All” here.]) Finding their room, we found that they were nowhere to be found. So off we went.

Lunch was of the order, as it had been a few hours since breakfast. We stopped at a place called “Joe’s on the Beach”, which specialised in New Orleans-style cuisine (at least, as much as the fare of a beach-front greasy spoon could be called “cuisine”). For $15, we were certainly not in the complaining mood — the meal was tasty, although large.

Returning to the outside, we couldn’t help but notice one thing: Penticton was dead. Here it was, the Canada Day weekend, and the vacation town of the Okanagan was deserted. There didn’t seem to be any real reason for it.

We walked down the length of Lakeshore Drive, almost to the Peach (a refreshment stand on the waterfront). Deciding we needed some refreshement, not to mention some money, we headed down Winnipeg St. towards the downtown. In a few moments, we hit upon a 7-11.

It had been a really long time since I sat in front of a convenience store, eating a creamsicle and drinking a slurpee. It was kind of like being a kid again. It felt good. It felt free. It felt really really cold when I drank the slurpee too fast and followed up with a large bit of the creamsicle. Lousy brain freeze.

On the way back, we stopped into the Visitor and Wine Information Centre (Penticton is roughly in the middle of the entire wine-making area, so gets the coveted Info Centre as a result). We looked around, picked up a few brochures, and then headed back to the motel.

We got together with Lisa and Miran that night, under the guise of going to a barbeque at the Lake Breeze Winery, in beautiful downtown Naramata. (For those of you who don’t know, Naramata is some dinky little place on the eastern side of Lake Okanagan. I don’t think it has anything but vineyards and orchards, let alone a downtown.)

After zigging and zagging around the countryside a little, we came to the Lake Breeze Winery, only to find that the supposed barbeque wasn’t on. No explanation, no nothing. I got the feeling that we were the only ones who didn’t know.

We stopped briefly at a lookout hill on the way back, which turned out to be the mountain that bears the large “Penticton” sign, visible from Highway 97 on the opposite side of the lake.

We had dinner that night at Salty’s Beachside. It tries to take its ambience from the Caribbean. I stress “tries”. The food was decent, although nothing really to write home about (which is why I’m not really mentioning anything other that we ate there).

Following dinner, we retreated to Lisa and Miran’s motel room to share a bottle of wine. I believe it was a Cabernet Sauvignon from Sumac Ridge, but I could be wrong. Either way, the wine and a discussion of the pyramid at Summerhill led us to one of the weirdest conversations I’ve ever had.

Miran and I attempted (and mostly failed) to properly explain Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. For about two hours, we tried to explain properly why for a stationary observer, time seems to slow down for someone moving close to the speed of light. (It stands to reason that the person travelling at the speed of light will, in comparison to the stationary person, age less.)

Finally giving up trying to explain it fully, Allison and I went home to sleep.

The next morning, we rose slowly to weather that could be best described as “spotty”. Lisa and Miran were off to Oliver to find more wineries, so Allison and I opted to check out Sumac Ridge. The primary reason was because we liked the sound of the lunch we could get at their Cellar Door bistro.

And believe me — that lunch is something to write home about. Pecan and cornmeal encrusted chicken breast with apricot chutney, served with fresh baby greens with a red wine vinaigrette. Based on a suggestion, we had a glass of 97 Gewurtztraminer. The meal was preceeded by a basket of fresh breads which were absolutely scrumptious. (There’s a word I’ll bet you didn’t think I’d use.)

Unfortunately, the wine had one minor problem … we were in no condition to drive anywhere. So we hopped onto the winery tour to work off the alcohol. We found that Sumac Ridge was one of the wineries Summerhill frowns upon — they do multiple pressings. (If you purchase Sumac Ridge, aim for bottles marked with “Special Reserve” — this is the batch from the first pressing.)

Then it was through the coldest room I’ve ever been in. Allison and I nearly froze while our guide (another skiing enthusiast) explained why the wines were chilled to near freezing. They were settling out the yeast and a susbstance that sometimes is used in making tartar sauce. The weird things you learn at a winery…

We purchased two bottles of the Gewurtztraminer (as you might expect, we really liked it) and two small bottles of icewine (at 50ml apiece, there wasn’t much) — one was for Lisa and Miran.

We stopped through Summerhill on the way back, eventually buying a small bag of chocolate-covered dried cherries. Very tasty.

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing. This was, of course, a vacation — there was no need to work ourselves silly by trying to be too many places at once.

Lisa called us at 6:30 to see if we were ready to go out. The first order of business was the mini-golf. Despite the fact that I quadruple-bogied a few holes, I still managed to beat the others … by a single stroke. In fact, there was a spread of only four strokes between all of us. (In short, we were all roughly the same calibre when it came to golf … although one of us was more apt to flinging balls into bushes.)

Dinner was the hard part. We strolled right down the main strip without finding anything decent. We kept walking right until we were at the other end, checked out the Pentiction Resort, and finally settled on Mambo’s, the Italian eatery overlooking the lake.

Dinner was supplemented by a large pitcher of sangria, but was (so I’m told) bland overall. My risoto wasn’t too bad, but the others’ meals weren’t great. Dessert more than made up for it. While Lisa and Miran shared a tiramisu, Allison and I shared a meringue and vanilla ice cream platter with (real) whip cream and strawberries. Very tasty.

We opted to skip the Relativity discussion that night, and made directly for bed. Getting home, I suddenly realised that Allison’s sunglass case was missing the sunglasses. Somehow, since the time Allison had given me her sunglasses (magnetic clip-ons for her regular glasses) at the mini-golf, I had managed to lose them.

As you can imagine, I felt a bit like a heel that night…

Mother Nature was annoyed — because we’d been moving around so much, she hadn’t been able to put clouds over us properly. She figured she’s do the job right on Sunday, though — she blanketed the entire province with clouds. And so our trip home would be a dark one.

After quick checks of the mini-golf, Mambo’s, Penticon Resort, and all points in between for the missing sunglasses, I resolved to be less the cost of the replacements, and we headed towards home.

Instead of the usual Coquihalla route, we tried taking Highway 3 (aka the Crow Foot trail, or some such name). After going up and down about a hundred times over the next few hours, we decided that all trips to the Okanagan would take place via the Coquihalla.

Depression set back in once we reached Hope. The clouds were dark and oppressive, and the landscape looked its usual bleak green. After fighting our way through Lower Mainland morons, we pulled into home and rested from our weary trip.

Ironically enough, today is full of the S-word I dare not speak, for fear of jinxing it again. With luck, it’ll hang on for a while longer…