Print Edition: February 19, 2014
Global TV told us not to go.
According to the weather reports, highway cams, and anyone we talked to, it was supposed to be a treacherous drive to Oliver B.C. — but dammit, it was reading break and we’d won a free trip.
We loaded up the car with the regular provisions plus boots, a snow shovel, snow gloves, tire chains, a reflective thermal jacket, and extra blankets, just in case.
Have you ever wondered who actually wins radio contests? Me too, until the Peak decided to give my husband Shea a three-night stay at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in the heart of Canada’s wine capital.
I love driving in the snow when I’m not the one driving. The flakes always seem like they’re falling faster as you try to stay between the yellow lines. Staring through the windshield at the growing storm, I felt like we were entering light speed — snowflakes seeming like billions of stars zooming past.
Our fellow highway drivers fell into a neat single-file lineup through Allison’s Pass — what was to be the worst part of the drive. We were all in it together, so long as you followed the red tail-lights in front of you. The “treacherous” drive into the Okanagan in winter proved to be safer than a regular snowfall day in Abbotsford, and by Princeton the sun was shining.
Suck on that, Global TV.
We knew we were in wine country when fields of cows and hay bales were replaced with endless rows of grapevines. As symmetrical as lined paper, the dormant plants striped along the highway, wrapped hills, and fenced in the odd house dotting the land. The expert navigator (me) was so busy following the rows of grapes that I made us miss the turn-off.
Tinhorn Creek stands atop a hill overlooking the valley and town of Oliver, which is situated neatly between Penticton and Osoyoos on Highway 97. The winery boasts 150 acres of land, much of it plotted for their various grape breeds. A vineyard that size is considered a mid-level winery in the area, which is a saturated category. However, Tinhorn’s wall of awards over the last 20 years proves they’re a force in the wine world.
We pulled up to the main tasting room in the late afternoon, the car a dull shade of grime, and shuffled stiffly through the heavy wooden doors.
“Tinhorn Creek Vineyards would like to welcome our special guests: Shea Wind and guest,” said the sign inside the vaulted entryway. I, the guest in that duo, was suddenly very aware that my shoes weren’t done up.
We were directed to our guest suite, a modest term for the house we stayed in. And, as is the natural first step to any vacation stay, we snooped in all the cupboards and closets. The place was stocked with board games, Wi-Fi, a wood-burning fireplace, bath robes and extra amenities, plus two bottles of Tinhorn’s most popular wines. There was just enough modernity to feel comfortable, but not enough to suffocate the beautiful landscape framed by the wall-length bay window and French doors looking over the valley.
Tinhorn treated us to a tour and tasting of six of their most popular wines. Being the middle of winter, production was slow, but it allowed us to wander at our own pace. The fermentation tanks are housed in two rooms, two storeys high. The barrel room was home to 1000 oak barrels stacked high. There is also a restaurant (sadly, closed for the season) hanging over the hill and an amphitheatre where Shea drew a heart in the snow with his feet — which is about as close to Valentine’s Day as I’d ever like to get.
After the grapes are grown, they are trucked down the hill and dumped into the crush pad where all the juice is extracted and fed into the building. The mention of crush pad made me think of manually stomped grapes like in I Love Lucy, but instead the grapes are crushed by a large, metal, bladder-like machine.
I found myself wanting to whisper in each of the different production rooms — everything was library quiet. But the off-season didn’t stop the air from smelling of deep red grapes.
Finishing off in the tasting room, it was time to see if my coffee and beer palate transferred over to wine. The menu was speckled with merlot (or perhaps it was a pinot noir), evidence of a well-tasted selection.
“Swirl, smell, sip, slurp,” recited Muriel, our tour guide, as she poured. “Most people dribble.”
I was more worried about choking.
I went into the tasting with pre-conceived notions of white and red. I’ve always liked that white is served colder, but never liked the sweetness, so I usually stay within the red spectrum. Then I tried the gewürztraminer. It was balanced and lean, without an overpowering sweet juice flavour, convincing us to come home with a bottle. We tried their pinot noir, Oldfield merlot, cabernet franc, and Oldfield 2Bench red, but my favourite was still the classic merlot waiting for us at our suite.
I would probably still pick beer for most occasions, but there is certainly something to be said for a glass of wine, a crackling fire and a good book — all of which I took advantage.
While Oliver is famous for its multiple wineries and prime grape-growing dirt, not everyone in the town of 5000 is a white or a red, a merlot or a pinot gris. For the guys behind Firehall brewery, it’s about hops and barley.
We met Sid, Firehall’s brew chief, by knocking on the door with the closed sign. Normally open to the public on Fridays, we figured holiday Monday was a long shot, but he opened up and welcomed us in.
The brewery sits in the basement of Oliver’s original fire hall, though it has long since been transformed into a restaurant on the main floor. The ceiling sags above Sid’s fermentation tanks from years of fire engines parking in the main bay. Everything from the brewery’s logo (a crest featuring crossed fireman’s axes) to the tasting room (“Hydration Station”) has a firefighter feel. Even the beer lineup features fiery puns: Holy Smoke Stout, Stoked Ember Amber Ale, and their newest Backdraft Blonde Ale. It wasn’t long before Sid was sharing his love of the perfect pint and we were invited to a locals-only private cask tasting of their latest experiment. Our evening plans created themselves.
“The main door will be locked, but the side one behind the dumpster is open,” assured Sid in a text message to confirm the time of the event. We walked down the steps as dry snowflakes began to cover our footprints and hesitated at the door.
“Do we knock?” asked Shea, and I was wondering if there was a password or a secret knock we missed. In reality, the door was unlocked and the beer was already flowing.
A well-loved piano sat in the middle of the room, and less than ten folding chairs were arranged in a circle around what looked like the most comfortably broken-in couch ever to be sat on. A man was strumming a guitar. Sid welcomed us in and introduced us to his friends, who had all grown up in town together: Tyler, Cody, Mike, and Guillaume. A few others trickled in and out over the course of the night, but we never got their names. We poured a couple pints of the experimental batch and settled in.
“You think it tastes farty,” Cody said to Sid. “But it’s good beer.”
“Sulphur,” Sid chuckled. Cody, who called himself the “idea man” pointed at Sid and said he was always hardest on himself. The beer was a mix of Firehall’s Backdraft Blonde Ale and apples, which they got from a friend who owns an orchard. Apart from lacking some carbonation, it was a solid marriage between juice and beer.
We were regaled with stories of living in the Okanagan: snowboarding in the winter and hiking in the summer.
“Did you learn to brew in school?” we asked after Sid said he went to Okanagan College for business.
“Not formally,” he said with a grin. At 18, Sid began brewing in his dorm room. A few years later, with the help of friends and family, he bought full brewing equipment from a local bootlegger that was looking to sell.
The evening ended with Sid on the piano and the cask empty.
For three nights atop the hill with snow, sun and wind, Oliver treated us fantastically in the middle of my most stressful semester to date. I didn’t even feel bad reading for pleasure — finally tackling The Handmaid’s Tale, which has been on my to-read pile since high school. I beat Shea at numerous games of Settlers of Catan and even won Scrabble after pulling the Q, Z, K, J, and X from the tile bag.
I learned a thing or two about wine, and deepened my love for craft beer and the Okanagan Valley. We made friends with self-proclaimed hippies — Cody was very proud to say he just got an iPhone. We let a cat walking by motion-sensor lights scare us into thinking there was a bear stalking around outside. I chopped firewood, and ate poutine by firelight. I slept.
As we drove home, taking Highway 3 again, we passed through Osoyoos, Keremeos, Hedley, and Princeton. I only noticed them on the way home; these towns were barely on the map — nothing compared to Merritt and Kelowna and other cities along the Coquihalla. The antique shops and hometown pubs are begging to be explored; the lakes, frozen for the winter, are patiently awaiting for the influx of summer tourists.
There may still be half a semester left, but I’m already looking to our next adventure and a few more tumbleweeds, like the one stuck in our grill when we got home.