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In the South Okanagan, a Standing Ovation for Seated Tastings

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At Phantom Creek Estates, guests can leisurely lounge as they sample wines while gazing on the panoramic views of Oliver and Osoyoos in the heart of British Columbia’s wine country. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

After 52 years in business, Hester Creek Winery found a new way to improve its customer experience and boost its sales — and it took a global pandemic to surface the opportunity. Director of hospitality Roger Gillespie says in 2020 the winery has seen greater sales from its tasting experiences despite having far fewer customers because of COVID-19.

After the initial lockdown phase, Hester Creek reopened in June with seated tastings that required reservations and limited occupancy within the tasting room. No longer was there a swarm of walk-in visitors who would sample a splash of whatever was pouring and then quickly head out to the next stop on their tour of the wineries in Oliver and Osoyoos, the leading viticulture region in British Columbia. The result was a far more pleasant experience for both guests and staff, Gillespie says. Hester Creek patrons could sit on the patio, physically distanced from other guests, while a knowledgeable server walked them through the wines made on the Golden Mile Bench vineyard, imparting education while learning about guest preferences.

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Hester Creek Winery, which opened in 1968, has many options for where it can conduct its tastings for customers, including its Tuscan-inspired barrel room. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“It has really been eye-opening and mind-boggling to see. We have sold more wine and more wine at higher price points than we ever have. I think it is really going to change how people operate in the wineries in the area,” says Gillespie, who credits Hester Creek’s expansive space and vineyard-facing patio for his team’s ability to smoothly transition to public-health protocols that help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Hester Creek’s on-site restaurant, Terrafina, also gives guests another way to explore the property and its wines before or after a tasting-room visit.

“What we found was our staff weren’t feeling the pressure of what’s happening in the tasting room, which can really be overwhelming when you have so many people coming through the doors. When we went to reservations, we found we were able to provide a more educational experience and even if there was a line-up to come in, we could give people some attention while they wait with a little pour of wine, and they were totally fine with that,” he says.

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For the time being, Hester Creek has paused the seated tastings because of COVID-19 concerns but hopes to resume the practice in the summer. It has also halted the reservations process until the pandemic eases, limiting visitors to a tasting of five wines at its bar. But its learnings from June’s seated tastings echo across the South Okanagan Valley. For years, touring wine country has been as much about witnessing sloppy stagette parties and booze-saturated private vans that race guests from rosé to rosy cheeks at a blistering pace. If those days are gone, the Okanagan Valley experience may be redefined.

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Road 13 Vineyards has adapted to the realities of the pandemic with reservation-only seated tastings on its lawn and patio, which has one of the finest views of the South Okanagan. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Up the highway from Hester Creek, Road 13 Vineyards, recently purchased by the Mark Anthony Group that owns Mission Hill Family Estate Winery, reports “sales per customer and sales by price point are up dramatically” from 2019. The winery, known for its castle at the top of its namesake road, normally sees more than 40,000 visitors a year but may host less than 20,000 guests in 2020. Yet, it has sold more wine, thanks to its reserved tastings and a sharp increase in online sales. Road 13 charges $16 for a flight of three wines, and a welcome glass, during its one-hour tasting experience on its patio with views of the valley that deserve to be bottled themselves. A more immersive vineyard-and-cellar tour ($25) showcases the winery’s pioneering history in the area.

Just south on Road 13 is fellow Mark Anthony Group winery, CheckMate, which serves its tasting in a gorgeous new building that’s a fit for some of the finest wines in Canada. CheckMate produces only one line of white varietal (chardonnay) and one red (merlot), and prices range from $80-$125 per bottle. The wines, particularly the chardonnays, are a connoisseur’s delight.

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CheckMate Artisanal Winery continues advancing its footprint on the Golden Mile Bench. Its tasting room opened in 2020 and its sleek sign overlooking its grapes was installed in September. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

The $35 tasting runs 45 minutes and includes four chardonnays and two merlots, and a view of the vineyards and the Black Sage Bench, located across Highway 97 and beyond the lovely Okanagan River, along a stretch of road where some of the grapes are harvested for CheckMate and many other wineries.

Among those winemakers on that eastern side of Oliver is newly opened French Door Estate Winery, which sold out of all 2,000 cases of its products within one month and had to close its tasting room on July 27. Along with the quality of the wine, estate manager Jake Achorn credits the seated tastings for the success.

“It was very unexpected,” he says of how quickly the wines went out of French Door. Located on a hill overlooking the dry desert mountains and colours of the vineyards that will lull you into thinking of landscapes far away from Canada, French Door was launched in 2019 by Audra and Jason Shull. The owners completely renovated the previous winery, Montakarn, and replaced it with a sense of Provence, with clean, white design and farmhouse-style architecture. As in France, the tastings are not rushed. They’re inviting and hospitable, which clearly resonates with guests.

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Among French Door Winery’s sold-out vintages is the Syrah-dominant 2017 Héritage, which can be sampled while on the patio. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“Our tastings are education-focused,” Achorn notes. “The patio and the and space we have allows us to structure our tastings differently, and makes it easy to accommodate for all the COVID protocols. We tell you a little bit about the wine and leave you alone with it and that view.”

French Door is nearly doubling its output for the coming year, though it will remain a boutique winery, unlike its most talked-about neighbour on Black Sage Road. The new magnet to the South Okanagan is Phantom Creek Estates, a $100-million project that opened to the public earlier this year. It features world-class art, including a Chihuly sculpture commissioned specifically for the winery’s cellar. From the outset, the winery provided seated tastings and, as estate director Ian Scromeda, predicts, “people will probably never go back.” [Read More About Phantom Creek’s Construction]

Scromeda plans to still open the winery’s tasting bar in 2021, with physical-distanced tastings, but the emphasis will remain on encouraging people to stay, savour the wines, and take in the scenery, which includes a glimpse of the northern tip of Lake Osoyoos.

Phantom Creek plans to offer a tasting of five wines paired with canapés and charcuterie this fall, along with its current wine-only option of six wines ($20). There’s also a $50 winery tour that includes opportunities to learn about the art. To see the Chihuly masterpiece, you’ll need to reserve a Founder’s Cellar Experience ($255) that includes wine-and-food pairings.

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Phantom Creek Estates makes it easy to physical distance and enjoy the surroundings of BC’s premier wine region. The winery’s amphitheatre can be used for entertainment, although it works just fine as an addition to the scenery. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Although some wineries (including Hillside on the Naramata Bench north of Oliver) are maintaining the practice of offering a refund of the tasting fee with the purchase of a bottle, guests will find such ways of doing business have rapidly become antiquated. The trade-off is more comfort, far better hospitality, knowledge to inform your purchase, and a story to take home, one that likely accompanies the bottle you’ve selected. After lingering over your options and contemplating the blue-sky vistas, now more than ever wine consumers can have confidence in their purchase. In some cases, the choice is even a concession to the effort made to reach this point of the pandemic.

“One of the reasons we’re selling these higher-priced wines, I think, is because people are giving themselves permission to spend,” says Gillespie of Hester Creek. “They’re reward wines for what they’ve gone through and the stress they’ve dealt with this entire year.”

MORE ABOUT VISITING THE SOUTH OKANAGAN

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Walnut Beach Resort offers an inviting location on the shores of Lake Osoyoos. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Where to Stay: Walnut Beach Resort features a private beach and large pool deck overlooking Lake Osoyoos. It is located a few minutes’ drive away from downtown Osoyoos and close to some wineries in the town. The wineries of the Golden Mile Bench and Black Sage Bench are about a 20-minute drive away. The hotel features guestrooms that all have full kitchens — ideal for families and those who want to limit interactions during the pandemic. The rooms range from studios to two-bedroom units. Room Rates: Based on a recent search of the resort’s website, a weekend night in November is available starting at $129 for a 447-square-foot studio.

COVID-19 Wine-Tasting Protocols: Along with requiring you to make a reservation, wineries have added numerous other anti-virus practices. These may include hand-sanitizers at the entrance of tasting rooms, plexi-glass barriers between servers and guests for tastings that do occur at a bar, limited occupancy inside of buildings, and physically distanced patio seating.

Note: Vacay.ca editors and writers are creating a series of articles on the Okanagan Valley, which has handled the pandemic exceptionally well and maintained a strong culture of hospitality while adapting to the realities of COVID-19 and still introducing new experiences.

A MAP SHOWING THE WINERIES MENTIONED

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Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.