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Celebrating a B.C. Odyssey

IF there's a bigger wisecracker in the B.C. wine industry than Gray Monk's George Heiss Snr, I've yet to meet him or her.

IF there's a bigger wisecracker in the B.C. wine industry than Gray Monk's George Heiss Snr, I've yet to meet him or her.

That thought always comes to mind when I encounter a bottle of Gray Monk Odyssey ("reserve") wines - mainly because it recalls one of the few times we've managed to "get one back" on George.

In the spirit of the occasion, where the usual jokes, bad and not so bad, were already flying, as he showed me the then new label, I quipped: "You Oughta See the guy who made this wine!" - and more mirth ensued.

Well, it was funny at the time . . .

The latest Odyssey to cross our palate adds up to a wonderful expression of just what Gray Monk is all really about.

- Gray Monk Odyssey Brut Rosé. A blend of Pinot Meunier and Gamay Noir, with a gorgeous salmon colour and stream of lively bubbles, you'll catch more than a hint of fresh rhubarb on the nose, followed by a very appealing, broad palate with red berry hints such as strawberry, and a touch of melon, before a clean finish that tastes drier than it is. In true Gray Monk style, the fruit rules, but there's also no shortage of polish and structure; BCLS / VQA $26.99.

I suspect they'll be cracking more than a few bottles come mid June, when the Heiss family will be marking a few milestone anniversaries.

George and Trudy Heiss celebrate their golden wedding anniversary - but equally significant is that it's 40 years since they embarked on their great adventure of being pioneer growers (along with Trudy's father Hugo Peter), planting their vineyard on the steep slopes above Okanagan Centre in 1972. The winery, one of only a handful in the valley at the time, followed a decade later.

Today, with new wineries arriving at the rate of about one a month and the Okanagan's ascending star by many taken for granted, it's hard to fathom the risk involved in such a venture. But as John Schreiner reminds us in his excellent, latest Okanagan Wine Tour (Whitecap, $19.95):

"The Heiss family has had a profound impact on Okanagan wine growing. They were the first to import clones of Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and Auxerrois from Alsace. They facilitated the Becker Project, an eight-year trial of German vines that, by its conclusion in 1985, proved the viability of varieties now among the most important in the Okanagan."

Over the years, Gray Monk has been instrumental in developing and maintaining the fruit-forward style in those Okanagan white varieties. In short, the steady stream of visitors that continues to beat a path to the door of their (now significantly grander) winery and vista-kissed Grapevine Restaurant underscores their success in staying the course.

With the next Heiss generation - Robert (operations manager), George Jr. (winemaker) and Stephen (marketing manager) - now fully involved, Gray Monk remains firmly in the founding family's hands. And while George Sr. and Trudy may not always be there, you can be sure they're never too far away.

Okanagan bound this summer? If you haven't been, it's a must visit, made even easier with the just released Gray Monk free app for iPhone and Android.

- Gray Monk Odyssey White Meritage 2011.

Layered and nicely textured with sensitive oak balance, this is a more 'modern' styled meritage that blends Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc to deliver some tropical hints with a touch of grassiness on the nose with citrus and kiwi on a rich but balanced palate. Think anything with a good cream sauce but scallops and lobster for sure; $26.99 BCLS.


A few years ago I found myself in Melbourne, widely regarded as one of Australia's best dining cities, with a free evening. Somebody had suggested checking out a small Thai fusion spot that sounded good, adding that I could pick up some wine at a bottle shop on the corner of the same block. I did just that, had an excellent meal and took half a bottle home, all of which struck me as being incredibly civilized and normal. And absolutely illegal to do back home in B.C.

Well, we've made some progress. At least we're allowed to take a half finished bottle away from a restaurant now. But it's still against the law to BYOB in B.C.

But maybe not for long. If you're a Tweep you might know (you should know) about #BCWineChat, the weekly Wednesday evening discussion (started by uber tweeter Tinhorn Creek winemaker Sandra Oldfield) that revolves around, well, what else but wine. Sometimes the discussions are happily geekish (but always informative) and occasionally they touch a nerve.

Last week's topic, tagged #BYOB4BC, unleashed a tidal wave of 140 character opinions, leaving no doubt that, once again, B.C. liquor laws are stuck in the last century on this issue. And that most in the community of winemakers and tasters think it's high time that we on the wet coast caught up with the likes of Quebec and Alberta (not to mention Australia, the U.K. and elsewhere) and be allowed to bring our own bottles to restaurants - who would charge corkage for the privilege. In fact for a while it trended (the most talked about Vancouver topic on Twitter).

BC Restaurant and Food Services president Ian Tostenson says his association is all for the idea.

"We've had some conversations with (the B.C.) government and have actually written a formal letter to advise the minister that we totally are in favour of it," he advises.

"I think it will get more people out to restaurants, especially if they can bring their favourite bottle of wine with them. And in terms of the wineries and VQA stores, if they can be innovative it can be a real plus."

"The only thing that we ask government to do is to make sure the restaurant has its own ability to set whatever corkage fee it wants to set, and not prescribe that," he says.

It also makes sense for visitors, suggests Tostenson, who says people who come here from places such as California, where BYO is often the norm, find it strange they can't do the same here.

We also believe allowing BYO could ease the burden considerably for some smaller restaurants who really don't want to be bothered with maintaining a extensive cellar and wine list.

Word on the street is that Victoria is open to moving ahead on this. Stay tuned.