Upper Bench Winery and Creamery tops on the Naramata Bench

Sometimes you have a craving for a good glass of wine and a selection of fine cheeses on a wine country patio on a beautiful summer day. It should be an easy fix if you’re in the middle of Okanagan on the Naramata bench.

Sadly, however I transversed the bench searching for such a combo and at winery after winery I came up empty handed.At the last winery on the bench I came up with the jackpot at Upper Bench Winery where I meet with winemaker Gavin Miller and cheese maker Shana Miller. The main building is divided between the cheese making facilities and the winery itself.   A fabulous and very tasty cheese platter arrived as I sat down with Gavin.Gavin explained that as winemaker for Painted Rock for four years he was searching for a winery to call his own.  A former winery, Stone Hill was in receivership and Gavin and partners were lucking in outbidding everyone for the new winery they renamed Upper Bench.

Gavin inherited an unusual combination of nine different varietals on seven acres. The perfect scenario for blended wines you may conclude, however Gavin had other ideas, utilizing minimalistic winemaking techniques to craft premium, single varietal wines.

Gavin crops his yields very low and his team of dedicated vineyard workers takes great care in the vineyard which provides outstanding fruit for these premium selections.

For the latest releases check outcheese-case-at-upper-bench-winery-creamery:



Your holiday wine and cheese party made easy


One of my favorite activities is to plan a wine and cheese gathering. I traveled to one of my local cheese maker, Golden Ears Cheese in Maple Ridge to purchase some cheese for a tasting. When I thought about  matching wines it occurred to me that there is a lot of information on the web regarding ideal matches but because they are typically from the US or Europe they feature suggestions that are not easily available here in British Columbia.

To assist fellow British Columbians I have created wine and cheese selections that are widely bought at most grocery stores and local wine shops. After all it’s very frustrating to have a list and find that most are not available with 100 kilometres of your home.

There are four basic categories of cheese and so I will recommend the cheeses in those categories and the matching wines that are easily purchased:

Soft cheese: These include goat cheese, Camembert and brie which are the perfect foil for Sauvignon Blanc, a lightly oaked Chardonnay or a refreshing Prosecco.

Semi-soft cheeses: Cheeses in this style include popular selections such as Swiss, Colby, Fontina and Havarti. Riesling, Pinot Grigio and sparkling wines like Spanish Cava and German Sekt are value driven wines that will deliver great taste.

Semi-hard cheeses: favorites like Cheddar, Sonoma Jack, Gouda and Blue reside in this category. Look to reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chianti Reserva or Ruby Port to impress guests at your next gathering.

Hard cheeses: Gruyere (look for the Swiss version), Edam, Manchego and Asiago pair well with Sauvignon Blanc (yes, a white wine!), Rote du Rhone (a value blended French wine) and Rioja from Spain.

These selections will make it easy and fun to plan your holiday party and as a note many of these wines and cheeses are crafted right here in our own province. More reason to shop and buy local.

California Zinfandel – A Mysterious & Fine Tasting Wine


When someone mentions Zinfandel you probably think about the easy drinking off dry, blush or white Zinfandel style that party goers love to drink. These wines account for over ten percent of all wines purchased in the United States. However there is much more to the Zinfandel grape than this popular version and it has an interesting history to boot. Zinfandel can produce a deep dry, rich red that can be as complex as any world class red.

For years wine vineyard experts believed that the Zinfandel grape originated from Italy where it was known as Primivito, a grape cultivated in the south of Italy where it still makes good wine to this day. However DNA testing by world renowned vine expert Carole Meredith at the University of Davis in California, identified the vine origins to a very obscure vine from Croatia named Crljenak Kastelanski.
The vine was first transported in the Boston area in the States around 1820 where it flourished as a hot house grape that produced sweet table grapes for the local market. Locals later made these grapes into wine and discovered that these wines were quite good. The name of the Croatian grape became Black St. Peter, probably due to the fact English speaking American had a hard time pronouncing the original name (and who could blame them?).
A botanist named Osborne took these vines to California in 1857 during the gold rush and planted them in Napa. They proved to grow well and ripen early and became quite popular as a wine producing grape until 1920. Prohibition slowed down the wine industry considerably but at home wine making was not prohibited during this time and the Zinfandel vine survived as a popular grape.

During the years from 1933 to about 1974 the grape languished as a grape that produced everyday table wine. However the California wine industry began to create some world class wine in the mid seventies and looked to the Zinfandel grape as a possible candidate for quality wine.
Early pioneers such as Sutter Brook, who first produced the blush style, continued to research and improve the quality of Zinfandel. Today the grape is firmly established as the native red grape of California that can produce outstanding wines.

In cooler regions of California such as Somoma Valley, the wines exhibit red berry fruit, spice and a bright lively acidity. In warmer climates such as Amador and Paso Robles, rich black berry and round soft wines are prevalent.
So put away that Cab Sav and Shiraz and reach for a Zin next time you shopping at your local wine store.

Can this be Vodka, made from 100% Honey?


I love watching facial reactions when people sample spirits. When men try a shot of commercial vodka like Smirnoff or Alberta Pure they grimace and then grin when it finally goes down. Women just usually violently shake their heads and mutter no, no!
It was a pleasant surprise recently when a distillery from Comox Valley named Wayward Distillation House sampled their vodka and gin. Reaction? Both men and women smiled, swallowed and ummm’s came out of their mouths.
I had to try it; smooth and velvety, full bodied almost creamy and pleasant, slightly sweet nose. Talk about a game changer, this vodka and in fact all spirits from Wayward are made from 100% honey.
Their gin is a Canadian twist on the classic London Dry style, with cedar and citrus notes along with the usual juniper. Equally amazing it makes the ultimate gin and tonic. Beware , it’s so good it could get you in trouble!
The ultimate coffee martini is made from their Espresso spirit which is crafted by soaking freshly roasted beans to capture the true essence of espresso in a glass. Not sweet just damn good!
These spirits deserve our support, 100% BC ingredients and hand crafted products that can stand up to the finest spirits in the world. Available at your favorite private liquor store or check out their website at http://www.waywarddistillationhouse.com. It doesn’t get any smoother than honey! Salut.

My review of the 2016 #1 Whisky in the world, Northern Harvest Rye

I’m a big fan of high end whiskys’ whether it be single malts, bourbons or blended. Upon hearing that Jim Murray,the number 1 whisky critic in the world stated; ” too call it a masterpiece is an understatement” and to give it 97.5 points the tie for the best whisky ever, well I had try it.

I was actually surprised, for a $30 whisky it had a rather complex nose, spice,and fresh grain rye nuances. On the palate subtle rye flavor,oily and clean and smooth. Wow for $30 I would buy this all day long.

The best in the world, to be honest I’ve tried better, so I would say an amazing whisky for the price but not what I would consider the best in the world.

A marketing ploy?, you be the judge!

nothern rye

This girl isn’t meaner, she a refreshing change.

girls are meaner
Gewürztraminer or “girls are meaner” is usually a limp, sweet, tropical fruit bowl wine with little acidity that adds freshness. So in trying the 2014 Backyards Vineyards Gewürztraminer I was pleasantly surprised to find a ying yang balance of sweetness and acidity. Mix a bit of lychee, spice (not the cooking type but the baking type) and a dollop of peach and apricot. There you have it, the girl is no longer meaner and you can take her anywhere.Check it out http://www.backyardvineyards.ca/

Carmenere, a bold new grape to discover by John Gerum

Merlot is a red wine that is a safe choice for most people; it’s fruity with low tannins and acid which make it soft, smooth and easy to drink. However many wine drinkers are now venturing out of their safe zone and are exploring new varietals and wine. I am asked quite frequently about the Carmenere (pronounced Carmen-AIR) grape and the type of flavours associated with this wine.


It is quite an interesting story. Carmenere was originally planted in Medoc, France over two hundred years ago. It was used primarily as a blending grape alongside Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. In the 1850’s vine disease affected the region and the Carmenere grape never really made a comeback, today very little is grown anywhere in France. However the vine was imported to Chile where most of the Carmenere grape is found today. The vines love the sandy soils and the dry warm summers and Carmenere has found a successful place to grow and make good wines.

Over 5000 hectares is planted in the Maipo and Elqui Valleys in Chile where dry conditions favour the growth of the Carmenere vine. To create a more structured and full bodied wine, Carmenere is sometimes blended with Cabernet Sauvignon in Chile. A small amount of Carmenere is also grown in California and Washington.
elqui valley
Carmenere is, for the most part, a smooth wine due to manageable acid and tannin levels. Its’ profile includes red and dark berry flavours and spice. Many feature an attractive smoky cedar bouquet that is due to aging the wine in toasted oak barrels. The tannins are soft and the colour is rich and deep. Carmenere has a silky texture and is best drunk young, usually within five years of the vintage date. So don’t be intimidated and try it the next time you are selecting a bottle.

A fabulous introduction to the potential of Carmenere is the 2012 Falernia hailing from the Elqui Valley for around $20. A big wine, ideal for fall and winter dinner, this wine features big, ripe, fleshy, warm black cherry and blueberry mingled with forest floor and a delicate touch of smoke. Full bodied and rich wine perfect for roasted meats and rich gravies.

The next time you reach for a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Shiraz stop and try a Carmenere. A whole new world of flavors await you.

BC wines from plonk to world class in forty years. by John Gerum

You’ve come a long way baby! That famous advertising line from the 1970’s pretty well sums up the growth of quality of BC wines from the early 1970’s to present. We often take for granted the type of BC wines we enjoy now such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Forty years ago British Columbians’ had to endure sweet sparkling wines made from Concord grapes and fortified wines whose alcohol levels disguised the off flavours and foxy aromas. If you wanted a good bottle of wine you had to buy imported French or German wines.


It was only in the mid-seventies that grape growers backed up by government research grants began to experiment with premium vinifera grapes that produced world class wines that mostly came from Europe at that time. Thousands of different vines were planted and only a few showed promise. The vines selected were producing predominately white grapes. A few brave souls ventured into growing and producing top quality wines in the late seventies lead by such wineries as Sumac Ridge and Gray Monk. These wineries along with eleven others was the sum total of wineries in 1984.

In 1988 Canada signed the North American Free Trade agreement and the BC wine industry lost their long term government subsidies. Without these subsidies the wine industry as it stood could no longer compete with imported quality wines from around the world. Many left the business but a few pioneers realized the potential of the Okanagan and persevered.

Fast forward to 2015 where over 240 wineries now call BC home. 900 hundred different wines are released every season and the list keeps growing every year. BC produces some of the best aromatic style wines in the world lead by Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Ehrenfelser, Kerner and Siegerrebe.Reds are also strong with Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon leading the pack.

Find out how far the wines of BC have come by attending BC Uncorked Wine and Food Festival in Port Moody on October 24th.The festival is raising funds for cancer research. http://www.bcuncorked.com


It’s not very often you can experience the birth of an iconic winery and get invited to tour the vineyards with one of the founders of the modern BC wine movement. I was fortunate to be invited to discuss, tour and sample wines with Harry McWatters at his newest project, TIME Estate Winery, in the Okanagan Valley on the Black Sage Bench near Oliver, BC.
Harry has been involved in the BC wine industry since the 1960’s and has 48 vintages of experience under his belt. After touring the vineyards and winery with him I am convinced this winery will set a new standard in quality and sheer wow factor in years to come.

We began the tour by hopping in Harry’s truck and surveying the vineyards that have been owned by Harry since 1992. TIME Estate has a large variety of Bordeaux grapes growing on the 115 acres of prime wine real estate. Harry and long-time vineyard manager Dick Cleave – who himself has 35 years of grape growing experience – are able to coax rich aromas, strong tannins and full flavor from these vines by placing the vines at the correct angles to gain maximum sun exposure, and spacing the vines to produce large quantities of outstanding grapes.

The Sundial Vineyard is an ideal site to grow premium grapes with a southern exposure and stone free sandy soil which drains the root system of the vines very efficiently. This meticulous attention to detail and decades of experience results in red varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc reaching ideal ripeness levels. They also plant Carmenere, a rarer varietal that seems to respond well to the climate and soils of the Black Sage Bench. White wine grapes grown here include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Semillon that seem to pick up more tropical nuances than the rest of the Okanagan.

These vineyards are so ideal for growing vinifera grapes that TIME was able to harvest Syrah grapes from third leaf which is unheard of in most of British Columbia, or any other wine producing regions. Every detail is explored including changing the traditional east west planting of the vines to a more advantaged north south position, experimenting with irrigation systems and reducing yields to encourage maximum flavor development and sugar content.

The tasting room and winery are in a temporary building on the property, but the foundation of the winery is complete. Harry and I toured the cavernous underground facility that was originality designed in a more vertical fashion. However Harry decided that the vertical design was too intrusive and commissioned a more vertical design that is buried deep into the side of a hill.
The lower portion of the future winery is complete with a sparkling wine vault and riddling room as Harry plans to craft only the finest sparkling wine using the traditional method found in fine Champagne wines. On the upper levels the tasting room, a hospitality suite, four guest suites and commercial kitchen are planned. There will be no restaurant at TIME Estates but they are planning many food and wine pairing events that is sure to delight visitors.
TIME has released wines since the 2011 harvest and I had the opportunity to sample vintages with Harry ranging from 2012 to 2014. These are no starter wines; they are outstanding in quality and would stand up to some of the world’s best wine region offerings. When TIME Estates is in full production they will craft approximately 30,000 cases of wine a year.

The 2013 Cabernet Franc is already sold out and I would expect the entire portfolio to be sold out soon due to the excellent price points, quality and small case production. Here are some notes on the wines I tried at TIME Estate Winery.

Sundial White, 2013
A successful blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc this 100% cold fermented wine results in a mixed fruit basket of pear, apple, melon and citrus flavors. This slightly off dry white has a surprisingly creamy and complex texture for a wine at this price point. To balance this texture the wine displays angular acidity that leads to a racy, fresh finish. 88 points. $20
Chardonnay, 2013
Partly fermented and aged in oak this wine defines the modern Chardonnay style of balanced fruit to oak ratio. A combination of pineapple, melon and citrus fruit greet the nose. French oak aging adds complex touches of toasty vanilla and caramel flavors. A very well balanced Chardonnay, worthy of five to eight years cellar ageing to bring out potential tertiary flavours. 89 points. $28
(White) Meritage, 2014
If you have never tried a white meritage this would be the one to try! This wine is a classic blend of two thirds Sauvignon Blanc to one third Semillon. Partially fermented in oak, the creamy mouth feel of the Semillon blends seamlessly with tangy Sauvignon fruit. It features a perfumed nose that includes sweet melon, orange blossom and nectarine. The finish is extensive; I could best describe this wine as opulent. 91 points. $25
(Red) Meritage, 2012
This blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc charges out of the glass with red and black fruits, plum, sage and toasty clove spice. Complex, extracted and well-structured this Meritage will age well for eight to ten years. A price of $30 makes this an outstanding cost friendly candidate for your cellar. 91 points. $30
Syrah, 2012
Only 100 cases of this bold and complex Syrah are available. On the nose jammy blackberry, blueberry fruit with hints of eucalyptus, nutmeg and pepper. The Syrah grapes were fermented on the skins for three weeks which extracted maximum flavor and color from the grapes. This is a warm climate Syrah that delivers quality and complexity. Another cellar candidate, I would age for five to eight. 92 points. $35

I thanked Harry for his generous hospitality as he had a flight to catch. Harry is a busy man with a talent for creating a series of successful wineries and an ambassador of British Columbia wines. The new winery will be a crowning jewel in Harry’s career as time will tell.