Anthony Gismondi: Patience and planning will be rewarded on any Okanagan/Similkameen road trip

Anthony Gismondi has some tips to make this summer’s trip through wine country more enjoyable

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Today we share some notes from a recent Okanagan/Similkameen road trip that may be useful for the many planning to return to B.C. wine country this spring and summer.

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First, it is still possible to drop in on some wineries for the classic, standup, tasting bar visit, but most producers want you to book a time in advance. The last-minute turn-at-the-winery-sign tour plan is quickly dying due to a lack of space and time allotted to pre-booked reservations, and to be frank, wineries want to reduce the flyby, no-buy crowd looking for a complimentary glass of wine.

The upside to reserving a paid visit is that you get a much better experience and you need not feel any pressure to buy wine. The downside is most wineries are charging you to taste their wines. Some are offering food — at a cost — to enhance your experience further and entice you to spend more time and money. Many, not all wineries, will offer a better deal to wine club members, although, in the end, it can be a bit of a pay me now or pay me later scenario.

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In terms of pricing, there are no real deals at the winery. You can expect to pay the going retail price for your favourite wines, and you may have to be a club member to buy the best labels and get a discount. At the moment, there isn’t enough wine to go around. However, if you are willing to put some effort into a visit, expect to get a much better understanding of a producer’s wines, the vineyards and finally, the all-important ethos behind the wines — all critical insights that will enhance your enjoyment of the wine. It also leads to more loyalty, precisely what the winery hopes to occur.

In terms of accommodation, I’m told that many hotels are getting close to being booked out for the season, so if you’re planning on vacationing in the Okanagan Valley this summer, you need to get organized sooner than later. Also, be prepared for some shocking room rates. Many have climbed substantially over pre-COVID rates.

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By the way, check-in times are later, and checkout times are earlier than ever. Everybody is understaffed, and service is not where it should be for the prices asked, so be prepared to slow down, be patient and wait because everything takes more time.

The dining scene is a similar story. Reservations are a must, and waiting for a table is the new norm. You can’t drop in anywhere between 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. without a reservation, and you won’t get one without booking days in advance. Happy hours are packed everywhere, so success depends on planning in advance, not whining at the door.

The good news is there are more and more quality places to eat. It’s gratifying to see the region flourish for its wine and food, but you may have to shorten your stays to stay on budget.

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Apologies for the list but for the many who ask, where do you eat? The following establishments have proven over time to be in the game and are worth considering for lunch, dinner, or a lazy afternoon repast. Operating hours vary widely, so check ahead and make a reservation.

Recommended winery restaurants from south to north include:

The Bear, The Fish, The Root & The Berry Spirit Ridge Resort, The Patio Restaurant at Nk’mip Cellars, Masala Bistro at Kismet WinerySonora Room Restaurant at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, The Restaurant at Phantom Creek Estates, Miradoro Restaurant at Tinhorn Creek, Hester Creek Estate Winery & Terrafina Restaurant, Smoke & Oak Bistro at Wild Goose Winery, Sonetto at Play, Time Winery and Kitchen, The Kitchen at Da Silva Vineyards and Winery, The Restaurant at Poplar Grove, The Bistro at Hillside Winery, The Patio at Lake Breeze, Serendipity Winery Bistro, Old Vines Restaurant, Annie’s Beach Café at Frind Estate Winery, Quails Gate Estate Winery, Terrace Restaurant Mission Hill Family Estate, The Modest Butcher at Mt Boucherie Estate Winery, Summerhill Organic Bistro, Home Block CedarCreek Estate Winery, Garden Bistro at O’Rourke’s Peak Cellars, Block One at 50th Parallel Estate, Chaos Bistro at Ex Nihilo, The Farm Store, Row Fourteen Restaurant at Klippers Organic Acres, 15 Park Bistro Watermark Beach Resort, Jojo’s Café, Oliver Eats, Chef’s Table at Backyard Farm, Pizzeria Tratto Napoletana, Elma, Hooded Merganser, Bench Market, Naramata Inn, RauDZ Regional Table, Sunny’s Modern Diner, Waterfront Wines Restaurant and Pane Vino Pizzeria.

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Weekend wine picks

TerraNoble Reserva Pinot Noir 2021, Valle de Casablanca, Region de Aconcagua, Chile

$18.99 I 87/100

UPC: 7804361000463

TerraNoble is over a quarter-century old, with 300 hectares of vineyards scattered across Casablanca, Colchagua, and Maule. The Reserva Pinot is hand-harvested and goes through a three to four-week maceration on the skins before the fermentation. In addition, 40 per cent of the blend is aged in used French oak barrels to add texture. Look for a tart, but round, red cherry fruited Pinot with a vibrant, fresh, simple character, perfect for grilled salmon sandwiches or mushroom soup. Good value.

Meyer Pinot Noir 2020, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada

$27.99 I 89/100

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UPC: 00808755007172

After the substandard 2019, Meyer Pinot Noir’s white label is back on track. It is an entry-level Pinot that over-delivers for its price, boasting fruit from Okanagan Falls, Kaleden, and Naramata. In 2020 it was fermented on its native yeasts and spent a mere eight months in neutral French oak. As a result, the nose is lightly aromatic and stuffed with the perfect amount of plummy black and red fruit dusted in brown spice and enveloped in a soft robe of tannins that slide down effortlessly. Stock up. Simple, delicious and well priced.

Murphy-Goode Pinot Noir 2018, California, United States

$26.99 I 88/100

UPC: 083722023489

A California wine shop staple, this Pinot Noir hits all the Pinot varietal buttons from its bright red fruits, mouth-filling, earthy, cran-cherry, and soft tannins. Fresh, mouth-watering acidity balances the ripe fruit before a savoury, smooth finish. Ready to drink.

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Moraine Pinot Noir 2020, Naramata Bench, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada

$33 I 89/100

UPC: 626990127833

The Moraine Pinot comes off the home estate Sophia Vineyard on the Naramata Bench, the unofficial sweet spot of the Okanagan Valley. It is clone 777 carefully made from hand harvesting and a whole berry fermentation. Look for fresh, lively, red-fruited, Rainier cherry flecked with floral rose petals and violet, with a brushing of toasted oak. The classic pairing is duck confit, but tuna or salmon work too — a lovely wine for midterm drinking.

Meyer Family Vineyards Pinot Noir Old Block McLean Creek Vineyard 2020, Okanagan Falls, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada 

$44.44 I 92/100

UPC: 808755012985

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The Old Block is one of the original Meyer Vineyard plantings dating to 1994 and is part of the largest block (1 acre) of Pinot Noir at McLean Creek Road. The unknown clone has a steep southerly aspect, capturing the full range of the sun, and it shows in the power and length of this Pinot even at a modest 13.5 per cent alcohol. Winemaker Chris Carson practices sustainable /organic viticulture, but nothing is certified. The berries are gently destemmed via gravity into small open-top fermenters. After a cold soak, the fermentation begins naturally, with the temperature peaking at 30 C. The must is hand plunged throughout and post maceration. The wine ages in French oak barrels (33 per cent new) for 11 months. The attack is vibrant and savoury with plenty of wild dark fruit that spills across the palate, finishing with a silky, long peppery note. Impressive and just beginning to show its stuff. Drink or hold; either way, you will not be disappointed.

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Baked oysters by Roger Ma, Executive Chef of Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar.
Baked oysters by Roger Ma, Executive Chef of Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar. Photo by Leila Kwok

Recipe match: Baked oysters

Inspired by both oysters Rockefeller and escargot, this dish features oysters baked with a savoury, creamed-spinach filling. As creator Roger Ma, executive chef of the Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar puts it, this appetizer or main is “garlicky, herbaceous and rich.”

Baked Oysters

1 dozen medium-sized beach oysters

Shuck oysters, place shucked meat and oyster juice in container, strain and keep oyster juice with a sieve. Clean the bottom half of the shells by boiling in water for 5 minutes, scrub them if needed, after remove and chill, these will be used as the serving vessels.

Creamed Spinach Filling

1 lb (454 g) fresh spinach (washed and leaf trimmed)

1 shallot sliced

1 garlic clove, micro-planed

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1 tbsp (15 mL) unsalted butter

1/4 cup (60 mL) white wine

1 cup (250 mL) heavy cream

1 tsp (5 mL) lemon juice

3/4 tbsp (11 mL) Worcester sauce

1 bay leaf

1 thyme sprig

1 Italian parsley sprig

Zest of 1 lemon

Reserved oyster juice from shucking oysters

Salt and pepper to taste

Blanch spinach in salted boiling water for about 1 /2 minutes at a rapid boil, shock in ice bath, remove when cool, drain and squeeze excess water out of blanched spinach. Chop spinach roughly, set aside.

In a small pot, melt butter and sweat shallot and garlic till soft and translucent. Deglaze with white wine, oyster juice, add aromatics and cover with cream, reduce cream by one quarter. Season with seasonings, cool then add chopped spinach, mix well and chill.

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Garlic Parmesan Breadcrumb

1/4 cup (60 mL) unsalted butter

1/4 cup (60 mL) extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp (5 mL) dried oregano

3 garlic clove micro-planed

Zest of 1 lemon

1 bay leaf

1 small pinch of dried chili flake

2 sprigs of thyme

3 cups of panko breadcrumb (lightly blitzed in a food processor to make a little finer)

1/4 cup (60 mL) shredded mozzarella

1/2 cup (125 mL) Parmesan cheese, micro-planed

Melt butter in large pot, add all ingredients except for the breadcrumbs and cheeses. Allow mixture to infuse on low heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Combine infused butter with bread crumb, mix well until fully incorporated, add cheese, season with salt, pepper, a dash of Tabasco and lemon juice.

To build oysters:

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On a baking sheet, take a piece of foil that is almost double the size of your sheet and crumple it like an accordion and line your sheet with it, neatly arrange the cleaned oyster shells on the foil so they’re stable and don’t move around. Add 1 heaping tbsp of spinach mix in each shell.

Cut oyster in half (horizontal cut, not lengthwise, this will make the oyster easier to eat) and place on top of spinach, squeeze a bit of lemon juice onto oyster. Cover oyster with the bread crumb mix, lightly pack it.

Bake at 400 F for 8-12 minutes, until the bread crumb becomes deep dark golden brown and oysters are hot inside by checking with a cake tester — the tester should be very hot to the touch.

Serves 2-3. 

Recipe match

Baked oysters with a creamed spinach filling and Parmesan breadcrumbs are the perfect foil for B.C. sparkling wine. 

Narrative XC Method 2019, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia $24.99 

Bright and zippy with cranberry, grapefruit, and wild strawberry flavours sure to enliven any baked ouster.

Da Silva Isabella Frizzante Hidden Hollow Vineyard 2020, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia $27.00

Expect a light-bodied bubble with a gentle mousse that finishes bone dry with brisk acidity. Bring on the oysters and Parmesan breadcrumbs.

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