Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
July 30, 2009
I am standing in a gondola car 1,427 feet above the Canadian backcountry. Staring though a glass observation window in the floor, I intently scan the forest below for bears. I could be on my way to hike or to bike, or, if it was winter, to ski or snowboard, but I am commuting to, you guessed it, a wine tasting.
Such is life at Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia, a resort where people are as passionate about wine as they are about the outdoors. Well, close.
The Peak 2 Peak Gondola is a marvel of technology that ties the tops of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains together, bridging a 2.7-mile canyon. Smooth as silk, the 28-passenger car of this Doppelmayr gondola is unquestionably the most dramatic transportation to a tasting found anywhere in the world.
Once the 11-minute ride (too short, I contend) across the canyon is completed, my destination is the patio at Steeps restaurant for a sampling of wines from the Okanagan Valley of central British Columbia. Set up as a joint venture between the Intrawest-owned Whistler Blackcomb resort and the Canadian wine producer and marketer Vincor, Steeps “tasting room” serves up spectacular views of distant peaks, mountain lakes and massive glaciers along with surprisingly good wines.
The surprise results not from the origin of the wines – the Okanagan Valley is known to be a terrific place to grow grapes with great soils, hot days and a long lake to modify both the summer heat and the winter cold – but from the scarcity of the wines here in the lower 48. Because of a number of factors, limited production being the one most cited, these wines simply don’t get sent south of the border.
Graciously hosted by the remarkably wine-savvy Wayne Ascott, a guy who came to ski Whistler 20 years ago and stayed to become a fervent ambassador for the wines of Canada, we tasted through three separate flights of four wines each. The wines, marketed by Vincor under a collection titled the “Great Estates of the Okanagan,” showed the breadth of this emerging region. They ranged from German aromatic varietals (Riesling, Viognier Gewürztraminer) grown predominately in the cooler, north end of the valley, to Bordeaux blends and Syrah hailing from the hyper-hot southern portion of the region.
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Perhaps more illuminating than the wines, however, was that listening to Wayne reinforced the notion that Whistler, much like Aspen, may be a ski town, but underneath its fleece there beats the heart of a great wine town as well. That thought first occurred the night before as I sat on the patio at the Fifty Two 80 restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel perusing Riley Krieger’s inspired international wine list.
While I am an easy target for anyone who says their favorite wine pairing is pulled pork and Mendoza Malbec (he names same on his CV), I was none-the-less struck by how sophisticated this precocious young man (he just turned 25) from Regina (that’s in Saskatchewan) is about wine.
It turns out he, too, came for the skiing, actually snowboarding, and found a job that turned into what will likely be a lifelong avocation. Actually, love affair is more like it.
Riley’s list included a broader selection of British Columbia wines than did Steeps, particularly by the glass, and showed depth and width with wines from Bordeaux to Marlborough. There was even a Petite Sirah from LA Cetto in Baja California, Mexico, indicating that he has the cajones to try something a little different from what would normally be found on a Four Seasons list. Riley is studying for an advanced certification and has organized events in the Whistler village for other sommeliers as a means of creating a more cohesive wine community. Young, inspired and driven, he epitomizes the new breed of wine professionals.
Over at Araxi in Whistler, which is part of a superb collection of Vancouver and Whistler restaurants that specialize in fine dining using locally sourced ingredients, the story was much the same. Wine director Samantha Rahn, a former professional boardercross racer on the NorAm circuit, has also committed herself to a life in wine. Delightfully low key but intensely serious about her global list, she was equally passionate as Wayne and Riley when she spoke about the wines of the Okanagan.
Though I did not catch site of any bears on my trip from peak to peak, I did capture a sense that British Columbia and Whistler are homes to both a promising new wine region and an inspired collection of wine enthusiasts.