Any occasion that gives me a break from cooking for my family or myself is a welcome one. It’s not that I can’t cook – I’m certainly recipe-literate. I’m just not one who loves the prep work and mess required to get food on the table.
When I was invited to spend a weekend at Sparkling Hill Resort in the Okanagan Valley with a group of friends, I was of course excited to try out the various saunas and relax with some pampering at the spa. But equal to that enthusiasm was the idea of four whole days where nothing I ate or drank had to be prepared or cleaned up by me. Sign me up!
Adding further to my excitement was news that our group would spend a few hours traveling to three vineyards for an afternoon of
inebriation wine tours. I confirmed in advance that at no point would I have to try to pry a cork from a bottle while being jostled by a two-year old wrapped around my leg (which I affectionately refer to around here as the mom obstacle course).
On our first full afternoon away, 10 of us met in the spa foyer to be whisked away to our first stop, Gray Monk Estate Winery. Greeted by our tour guide who introduced herself as Marilyn Merlot (assuming that was not an alias, with a name like that, you’re probably destined to work at a vineyard!) who then guided us around the facility, and educated us on the wine-making process (which was especially beneficial to me, because I thought magical fairies just delivered it to the shelves of my local liquor store).
From the different lengths of time wine is aged in oak barrels to the harvest and eventual bottling process, and even what a VQA is, it was an informal, yet informative tour. My favourite spot in the winery was the wine library, a room with bottle-lined stone walls, a sitting area and warm lighting. I immediately decided our playroom at home is optional and renovations to create one of these spaces in our basement should begin immediately. And I hadn’t even started drinking yet, so the idea was born of a sound mind.
We concluded our tour with a tasting of some of the winery’s finest, including a Pinot Gris from the Estate collection, as well as the 2010 Meritage and the Traditional Brut (my personal favourite), both from the top-tier Odyssey collection. We concluded with the Odyssey III Port for those who enjoy that style of wine. I picked up a bottle of that for my husband and I to share as he is a big port enthusiast, but more as a peace offering to say “I’m sorry in advance for spending our children’s educational savings on wine today.”
George and Trudy Heiss have created a beautiful spot at Gray Monk, and an even more impressive reputation as one of Canada’s most well-known vineyards. The family-run business is clearly a labour of love and it’s reflected in the staff who obviously love what they do.
Our next stop was Ex Nihilo Vineyards, a place I promptly moved into and am writing at today from my post in their beautiful wine-tasting room. Okay, obviously that isn’t true, but I kind of wish it were.
A few of us may have vocally expressed our delight when we were shown into the tasting room. A large square table had place settings with three wine glasses each, and was dotted with platters of cheese and crackers. It was a similar set-up to my favourite wine store where I attend tastings in Calgary, so naturally I immediately felt right at home.
Our host Josh took us through the history of the vineyard, when founders Jeff and Decoa Harder first visited Napa Valley as a new couple on their first vacation together and were captivated by a carving of Ex Nihilo (Latin translation: “out of nothing”) at a San Francisco gallery. Jeff turned to his then-girlfriend and told her that would be the name of their vineyard together one day.
As we sampled a Pinot Gris, a Riesling, and the incredible Night – a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, named in honour of the cool night air coming from the surrounding mountain range and lakes – owner Jeff Harder joined us to share some of the winery’s past initiatives, including a collaborative ice wine with the Rolling Stones (yes those Rolling Stones) line of wines.
It was hard to leave this little haven, but we had one more tasting prior to dinner. Intrigue Wines was our final stop of the day. The tasting room also doubles as a gift shop with products and treats from local artisans. We lined up across the bar-style tasting counter and our host Michael introduced to their small, but growing collection, which he paired with cookies. Yes, you read that right, cookies.
Their Focus Riesling was paired with a lemon cookie to bring out the lively citrus notes, while the spicy flavours of a Gewurtztraminer went perfectly with a ginger snap (homemade by Michael himself). We were also able to try the “I Do” Sparkling Rose, originally created for a wedding celebration and so popular, it has been added to the winery’s regular lineup, and finally Damitz Good, the most creatively monikered wine of the day and a tribute wine to Rob Damitz, a well-known friend in the Okanagan wine world. A portion of proceeds from this red blend are donated to the Lymphoma Society.
Not only is Michael the provider of homemade cookies, he even had gluten-free cookies for the gluten-sensitive members of our group. Five minutes into the tasting and we were all laughing as if we’d known him for years. He handled a large group of women, who’d been drinking for a couple hours at that point, with charm, grace and good humour.
The vineyard’s Merlot was already popular with a couple members of our group who promptly bought out the remaining eight bottles during our visit. Of the vineyards we visited, Intrigue may have been the smallest in terms of production, but their reputation for producing some great wines is obviously spreading.
With that our wine tours concluded, but it was hardly the end of the evening. From Intrigue, we made our way to Predator Ridge Golf Course, just down the hill from Sparkling Hill.
Is there a really sophisticated, refined way, befitting of a golf course, to say OMG? There really aren’t enough adjectives in Webster’s to describe our evening with the staff at the Predator Ridge Range Restaurant.
Greeted by Cam Craig, Golf Operations Manager at Predator Ridge Resort, we were seated at a long table and introduced to the new restaurant menu, launched that very day. What followed was a lengthy discussion over how to possibly choose between beef carpaccio or shrimp Creole to start. I may have even texted my husband because the decision between a duck confit risotto or prosciutto-wrapped ling cod for the main course was just too difficult for me.
Fortunately our group was saved from ourselves by new executive chef Jeremy Luypen, who came out to introduce himself and suggest he choose the menu and bring us a selection of his personal favourites. Relieved of the pressure of our most difficult decision of the day, we were able to fully enjoy our first course of fennel and beet salad, followed by scallops and pancetta (possibly one of the best moments of my entire weekend), pan-roasted steelhead trout, California cut strip loin and concluding with Affogato, a Cherry Hill espresso coffee and vanilla bean gelato. Each course was paired with a B.C. wine that complimented and enhanced the amazing flavours.
I can probably best sum up the overall dining experience with a Tweet I sent out during dinner:
Everything was prepared to perfection and the service was beyond exceptional. We even had the chance to visit with the resident golf pro, who came out during dinner and invited us back for a girls’ golf weekend getaway. Well, maybe if you twist our arms a little.
Coming back to Sparkling Hill after our first-class service all afternoon and evening, we were fortunately able to take advantage of the resort’s numerous steams and saunas to detox before another day of relaxation and fine dining.
Every stay at the resort includes a free breakfast buffet. I’m used to the standard cold cereal, fruit and yogurt offerings at most hotels, but the selection at the PeakFine restaurant is an unexpected treat. Fresh cucumber, fruit salad, a variety of deli meats and cheeses, oatmeal with numerous topping options, pastries (gluten-free included, as well as numerous hot options such as scrambled eggs, sausage, pork belly one morning and roast potatoes were among the choices. As was unlimited coffee I didn’t have to blindly scoop and measure while still half-asleep. Bonus.
I skipped lunch that day in anticipation of dinner. And by skipped lunch, I mean I ate Hippie Cookies and a snack-sized bag of cashews from the box of goodies GeSnackbox.com provided for each of our rooms. I would have eaten the all-natural dark-chocolate-sea-salt-OMG-why-have-I-never-tried-this-before bar, but I was told that chocolate doesn’t really qualify as a meal. Clearly there are some people who should never drop by unexpectedly for a meal at my place. Ahem.
For dinner the evening after our tasting, we were treated to three courses at PeakFine back at Sparkling Hill. I chose a mixed salad with goat cheese, spiced nuts and dressed with berry vinaigrette; ahi tuna with crispy noodles and a variation of chocolate and orange for dessert, including a chocolate orange caramel mousse I was on the verge of asking to move in with me.
It was another evening of fantastic service by attentive staff, good wine and laughter with even better friends.
Inevitably the weekend ended much too soon and I had to head back to my own kitchen, where nothing is cooked in truffle oil and pasta that doesn’t clump together at the bottom of the pot is practically gourmet. I’m still not giving up on having my own wine library though, even if I do have to dedicate a corner of it to Duplo and Mr. Potato Head.