Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Vineyard Dinners Hollywood-Style

Many moons ago I watched a tedious TV movie that perpetuated the glamorous stereotype of the winery business. It was the story of a wealthy Italian winemaking family whose endless and tiresome dramas I’ve long thankfully forgotten.

What did stay with me were the visually stunning scenes when everyone from the patriarch of the family to some winery hand’s third cousin twice removed gathered around a mile-long table set up in the vineyard during harvest and feasted heartedly and drank liberally as the sun set brilliantly behind them.

It was a romantic and appealing, if not entirely honest, depiction of winery life. In truth, most proprietors have neither the means, nor the time – particularly during harvest – to put on such a spread. But at my impressionable age at the time, I bought it all and fully expected that such displays would greet me at any winery to which I paid a visit. You can imagine my disappointment.

While wineries today are answering to the call for alfresco dining with superb facilities and cooking staff, it’s been hard to shake the vision of a long, single table around which a group gathers to celebrate food and wine – gifts the earth provides. It commands a greater respect and connection with the land.

Last week, I got the opportunity to have such an experience – perhaps not as elaborate as the Hollywood version, but one that far exceeded my expectations nonetheless.

During the summer months, Joy Road Catering and God’s Mountain Estate Bed & Breakfast host two series of alfresco vineyard dinners where guests convene around one large table overlooking Skaha Lake and nosh on freshly prepared foods beautifully paired with wines.

Like the scene in the movie, there is something enchanting, yet down to earth, about this type of open-air communal dining. And though virtually all the guests at the dinner I attended were strangers, it encouraged a comfortable intimacy that no typical restaurant can hope to achieve. No awkward silences, no tedious small talk – just a group of people who loved and appreciated food, wine and their surroundings, which inspired an easy flow of conversation.

Of course, Mother Nature’s hand had something to do with that. Despite, a rocky start to the spring/summer of 2008, we were greeted that evening with a balmy clime and brilliant sunshine reflecting off a glass-flat lake below. You couldn’t ask for a prettier sunset behind the hills on the Westside of the lake. It might have been a very different experience had Mother Nature chosen to be her more temperamental self.

And what can I say about the setting? Perched high above the valley on sandy cliffs, the views are panoramic, stretching unparalleled distances on a clear day over vineyard, lake and communities below.
The B&B itself is something altogether different – part Spanish hacienda retreat, part museum with, how one individual put it, a “labyrinth” of rooms. Indeed, you would enter one and not know where you might end up, as it was a seemingly endless maze.

And though the places boosts no televisions or radios in the place – which is fairly isolated – there is no shortage of things with which to entertain yourself. In fact, you could spent a week alone studying all the unusual antiques and objects owner Sarah Allen has amassed and jammed into the place. And Allen admits to having plenty more she has yet to unpack…after five years on the property.
All this helped lend itself to the conversation, as did the various guests at the table. On of my dinner mates was a gentleman visiting from Bowen Island, who works for a large hotel chain and has had much opportunity to travel to eclectic places. He regaled us with stories of his trips to Dubai where he was privy to the extravagant lifestyles of the ridiculously wealthy.

But it was the food and the wine that stole the show. The evening I attended was the first of the Winemaker’s Culinary Series, held every Thursday through September 4. Each week, Joy Road chefs Dana Ewart and Cameron Smith prepare a four-course menu to suit the wines of a particular Okanagan winery – in this case, Naramata’s Poplar Grove.

Their menu was full of seasonal and regional ingredients, such as the English pea soup, for which Ewart spent hours earlier in the day shelling fresh pods. It tasted of pure springtime and was ideal with the Poplar Grove 2007 Pinot Blanc with its fresh grassy, gooseberry aromas and flavours.

That wine was also stunning with the fresh bread and Amelia olive oil from Umbria, Italy, served for dipping. The oil’s earthy, herbal flavours are a departure from what people have become accustomed to in supermarket brands, but it’s price of $25 for a litre makes it surprisingly affordable.

The second course was an antipasto featuring regional goodies such as Oyama salamis, Poplar Grove tiger blue cheese with local dried pears, wild arugula with roasted peppers and a tasty slow-cooked pork rillet (which has a pureed-like spreadable texture) handmade by Smith. The wine chosen to pair with that was 2005 Syrah which picked up on the spicy, herbaceous notes on the platter.

Charcoal grilled guinea fowl-legs with roasted garlic and baby Zeebroff potatoes made up the third coarse, served alongside lemon pepper grilled radicchio and a broccoli and pine nut salad with a surprising anchovy and Marjoram sauce. The dish was decidedly savoury and beautifully matched with the Poplar Grove 2004 Merlot. Winemaker Ian Sutherland commented that grapes will often pick up flavours from things growing around it and in the case of this Merlot, it gathered savoury characteristics from nearby sagebrush.

Sutherland added that people need not pre-occupy themselves with finding the perfect pair for wine and food every time.

“Sometimes it doesn’t have to be a marriage, sometimes it can be just a date.”
Vineyard dinners are held every Sunday and Thursday starting at 6:30 p.m. Advance booking is a must. For the full schedule, reservations and contact information, visit:

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