|On September 3, we declared Woodhaven back with the ceremonial removal of the FL|
We decided to celebrate the return of our house to its normally dry, unmoldy state by leaving it. A long-discussed road trip finally became a reality. With a mostly empty trunk, passports, and a salivating curiosity about ice wine, Rob and I recently trekked up to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. It was delicious.
We were a little wary as we made our travel plans, as the area we wanted to travel through had been in the news quite a bit. Fires. Lots of them. By the time we hit the road, the fires were all at least 80% contained. And hotel room rates were really cheap.
As we drove over some mountain roads, the evidence of massive forest fires was heartbreaking. Deep black terrain, charred matchsticks that had once been trees, the occasional chimney or heap of twisted metal sheeting that had once been a home or car.
We drove through several small towns that still had tent cities occupying their local parks or school fields. Probably both for displaced residents as well as fire crews.
And signs. I saw so many signs. Many of them handmade, some professionally made in bulk, some in front of businesses that would otherwise be advertising a lunch special or sale. Each one thanking the firefighters for their dedication and bravery.
The most touching signs were the handmade ones along the road. In almost every case, a home could be seen in the distance. Probably once hidden by trees but now sitting with unobstructed views of black landscape. It was sobering to see the houses with maybe ten feet worth of unburnt grass around the perimeter, showing where the firefighters had taken a stand to save the home or barn.
It was a reminder from when my parents had a house fire in 2007 of how fire fighters innately understand that while their job is to contain and extinguish the flames, the fire can also threaten people’s homes and livelihoods. They understand the personal impact of their foe and it continues to astound me that they work hard to protect other people’s property in the midst of risking their lives.
Thank you, indeed, fire fighters.
And then we entered Canada and all seemed to be forgotten.
Although we could see trails of white smoke on the mountains, there was hardly any sign of fire across the border. It was rather weird.
We spent the next two days exploring what some say is Canada’s best wine region. Having never explored any wine regions that far north, I can’t confirm or deny that moniker. But I can tell you the Okanagan Valley is beautiful, friendly, and produces some fantastic wines.
All we really knew about the OK Valley before we left Woodhaven was that the area is known for this thing called ice wine.
Ice wine is a tricky beverage because weather conditions have to be just right to produce it. Basically, the grapes grow and ripen like any grape would. But then, if you are lucky, at some point in November-ish, the temperature drops to between -8 and -10 degrees Celsius and the grapes freeze. And if they stay frozen for six hours, you then gather every willing hand you know and pick the grapes as fast as you can.
With these conditions, the water in the grapes freezes and what is left and extracted is very concentrated, very ripe grape juice. Each grape might only have literally one or two drops of liquid to offer, so it can take 30 pounds of grapes to produce one small bottle of ice wine (regular wine typically takes 3-4 pounds to make a bottle). But oh my, that wine is AMAZING.
Ice wine is sweet and thick. It is fruity and desserty. It is heavenly and can last in your fridge for weeks after you open it. Personally, I can’t imagine taking that long to finish a bottle.
Ice wines are typically made from Riesling grapes – in large part because that is a grape that grows happily in areas that get cold enough where ice wine is a possibility. However, we tasted and brought home ice wines made from Syrah and Merlot and Viognier and Tempranillo, as well as grapes we had never heard of like Verglas and Ehrenfelser.
So we went in search of ice wines but found so much more!
The OK Valley is stunning. It is bounded by tall, rugged mountains and there is a long lake in the middle of the valley. Wineries and vineyards dot and climb up both sides of the lake. We drove the length of the lake over two days; it is a 3 hour drive one way. It’s a long lake.
|Taken out the car window, not doing justice to the beauty|
We were hoping to find wines made from grapes we had never heard of. And indeed we did (ever hear of Blaufrankisch or Zweigelt? Yeah, me neither.). But for the most part we were familiar with the varietals we were tasting. But even some we are VERY familiar with – like Pinot Noir (so much Pinot Noir in Oregon…) – they tasted very different up north.
While Pinot Noirs from Oregon’s Willamette Valley are typically light and delicate and demand food to bring out flavors, the Pinots in the Canada’s Okanagan Valley were bold and full of flavor and could be thoroughly enjoyed without food’s help. Much to our surprise, we bought a few Pinot Noirs to add to our collection at home. I thought we were set for Pinots for yeaaarrrrs.
We also found really friendly people. Every single person we encountered in the tasting rooms (called “Wine Shops”) was easy going, friendly, and completely unassuming. We got one of our best winery tips from our waitress at breakfast as she was serving us omelets. No winetude anywhere!
(“Winetude” is a term a few us of coined one day years ago while wine tasting in Napa. It refers to the snobbish attitude that can sometimes (often?) accompany wine tasting where one is made to feel stupid and unworthy and that perhaps $15 is far too little to pay for the privilege of tasting the handcrafted, artisanal wine that just happens to be mass produced. Oh, and please don’t think that logo glass is yours to keep. Hand it over, missy.)
Something else I loved about the Okanagan Valley was that it wasn’t just about grapes. The soil there is apparently really fertile so there is all sorts of stuff growing in the valley. In amongst the vineyards were orchards. The wineries shared the road with produce stands. People were harvesting grapes alongside people picking apples. It was actually a great communal feeling. Everyone seemed to be working hard and there wasn’t a sense of one crop or job being more important than any other.
Oh, and yes, by what I thought was a coincidence but Rob tells me he hoped it would be true, we were in the valley while grapes were being picked. I hesitate to say it was The Harvest because their harvest season lasts for a few months depending on what they are picking since there are so many varietals, not to mention the ice wine.
Nevertheless, people were busybusybusy and the valley had a distinctive grapey aroma. All of that plus the sunshine and short-sleeves weather, well, I liked it even more than some of my favorite visits to Napa and Sonoma way back when. Yes, the Okanagan Valley is that fun!
Another nice find about Canadian wine: the prices. Man, for the quality of the stuff we were drinking, that stuff is cheap! And that doesn’t even count the currently very favorable exchange rate at the moment. Thanks to a strong US dollar, everything in Canada is on sale right now. WHOO HOO!! Buying wine in Canada was more fun than a big sale at BevMo!
Speaking of bringing wine home, that was an interesting experience, too.
Before we left Woodhaven, we did our due diligence and discovered that we could each bring one bottle of wine home duty-free. After that, each bottle was going to cost us a whopping 25 cents in duties. That’s when we decided to bring the car with the bigger trunk.
As we chatted with folks in the Wine Shops, we found out that American winos have it really good. Canadians who want to bring back wine from the US have to pay $10-15 per bottle. Yep, in some cases the duty is almost as much as the wine itself. So needless to say, we were very pleased to have our American accents and Washington license plates.
We also heard that often the US border patrol people aren’t so interested in filling out all the paperwork for just a few buck’s worth of wine duties. Reportedly people are often just waved through. But we weren’t sure where the break-even point was. How many bottles of wine is enough to justify paperwork? Well, we were about to find out.
As we approached the border station, there were four guys in intimidating uniforms hanging out and gabbing. Which is to say they weren’t very busy. Which is also to say, they had plenty of time to do paperwork.
Rob handed the guy our passports and the questions began.
Where are you from? Where are you headed? Where were you in Canada? How long were you there? Why did you go to Canada?
To that last question Rob answered, “We came to taste the wine.”
“Do you have any alcohol to declare?”
The guy then looked into the car at me in the passenger seat. Not sure why us being wine lushes is my fault but whatever.
“Seventy….two…bottles. Can you please open the trunk?”
Rob popped the hatch as the border guy asked us if we had a business or orchard or some other commercial reason to be bringing back so much wine.
“No sir, it’s all for us.” I helpfully added that we wouldn’t be back for years. Mr. Border Patrol didn’t smile like I thought he should.
With our $20 bill ready to pay our duties and receive change, both Rob and I tried to hide our surprise and confusion when our passports were returned and we were told to have a nice day.
So we still don’t know how many bottles of wine it takes to justify duty paperwork, but it is apparently some number greater than 72. God bless America.
|So long, Canada, and thanks for all the wine!|