Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

One woman’s journey from the prairies to Okanagan wine country.

Part I A seed is planted

The February snows were still blowing cold across Saskatchewan when I booked a week off work for my vacation time in July. The job was proving to be more of a challenge than I’d expected or signed up for and I was really looking forward to a break. A week in Whistler would be just the thing: kicking back in the hot tub, walking the valley trail, people-watching in the village, and enjoying the scenery. Until then, the job was my all-consuming focus and energy-sucker.

June arrives, along with my last week of work, and I’m unexpectedly offered a free ride to British Columbia. How delightful! I didn’t hesitate a micro-second to accept the offer and eagerly prepared for a 3-week vacation. I happily snapped pictures of the trip across the still-dry prairies and through the mountains to the northernmost tip of the Thompson-Okanagan wine-growing region.

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Somewhere between the wheat fields and the vineyards, the idea was planted in my head to look for work in Kelowna. Didn’t seem such a bad idea — I’d grown up in BC and had been missing the mountains and alpine scenery — so I started talking about the idea and getting feedback. The reviews were mixed. “It’s hard to get work.” “Nice place to live.” “You won’t get a job in the wine industry.”Isn’t the economy better in Saskatchewan?” And, with my background in technical editing, the prospects for similar work weren’t exactly stellar.

So I steeled myself for the reality of a slow summer on the hiring front and accepted the reality of accepting temp or part-time work. But behind it all was the desire for FUN! I’d sat at a desk for years, doing the admin thing, presenting the professional image and subduing my own sparkling personality for the greater corporate good. After the stress of a 7-month endurance test at a complex job, I was ready to follow my heart into wine country to explore the possibilities.

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

For the moment, I needed some relaxation, so I visited friends in Kelowna and around Vancouver, and told them my idea for moving and transitioning into something different. But was I really ready for that big of a move? Based on my almost complete lack of formal experience in the hospitality industry, I was sure nobody would hire me.

Bam! Carrie nailed that negative thinking and assured me that my personality would take me where I wanted to go. Then she handed me the card for the Banquet Manager at one of the most well-known hotel chains in Whistler and said, “My boyfriend is a third-level sommelier… I’ll tell him you’ll give him a call next week.” The following week, Mike gave me 45 minutes and a bucket of great advice for getting into the wine industry. The doors appeared to be opening. The more I thought and talked about it, the more real it became. Eventually, I relaxed into the beauty of BC and the idea of another brave move (the previous one had been to South Korea for two years). My vacation week in Whistler ended and I went back to Kelowna, this time with a firm plan to move there and get involved in the wine industry in any way possible.

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Part II An idea germinates

I arrived in the Okanagan on a Sunday night in mid-July, fresh off a 3-week vacation and inspired by the positive input of friends and family who thought my moving to Kelowna was “a great idea!” In my rental car was my luggage and belongings for a vacation — not enough stuff to last me for a work career or through the summer by any means. But here I was, daring to explore the possibilities that might lie ahead by looking for work in a city where I’d never lived, in an industry for which I was untrained but not entirely inexperienced.

Hospitality and wine were both intimate acquaintances of mine: my childhood home came to be known as Simons’ Slumber Lodge because of our frequent guests; and my wine journal was filling fast with labels and tasting notes. That, along with some training in College, formed the basic foundation for my new life in the hospitality industry.

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

OK, so I’ve arrived in the Okanagan, and I need work and want to be involved in the wine industry. What was my plan? (A) Educate my palate. How? Taste a LOT of wines! Learn what I’m tasting; compare to food aromas and flavours; combine with foods; and keep tasting, tasting, tasting! (B) Ask lots of questions, everywhere I go. I had everything to learn about the Okanagan valley: growing grapes, making wine, tasting wine, touring wineries, and the entire hospitality and tourism scene. Armed with a trusty map of the area, I chose the winery that was farthest away. From there, I’d work my way back, one winery at a time. I was on a tasting mission. No drinking and driving for me. I had a lot of ground to cover, a lot of sipping, swirling and spitting to do! Look out wine world, here I come!

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Upon arriving at my first winery, the first thing I noticed was the gorgeous flowers spilling out of the wine barrels. After browsing the aisles of the wine shop, I stepped up to the bar to take part in the offerings. Does it matter what I tasted (two whites and two reds)? The hostess was knowledgeable and pleasant, an ideal representative of the winery and willing to engage with my novice questions. Other visitors stepped up to the counter and the day flowed around us and I moved on.

My next stop was just up the road at a smaller operation that had suffered damage in the devastating Kelowna fires of 2003; there, I also tasted two whites and two reds. A piece of jewelery caught my eye, but reminding myself that I was in research mode, I bought nothing and moved on (after taking a picture of the 1938 John Deere tractor, which I thought my uncle would like).

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Third on my list was Summerhill, home of the pyramid wine cellar and the “most visited winery in Canada”. By this time, I was hungry, so I enjoyed the delicious pureed yam soup and grilled Panini and watched the rain fall. The tasting room/wine shop was busy with a busload of Chinese tourists as I worked my way through four sparkling wines. To my surprise, my server was quite young, but he quoted historical dates well before his time and evidently knew a heckuvalot more than I did about those wines, so I salute him nonetheless.

I think it was about this time — after three wineries, one lunch, 12 wine tastings, some unexpected emotions and the rain — that I noticed some self-doubt. “Becoming a wine expert will take forever!… Man, this valley is gorgeous!… Who’s going to hire me without experience?… Oooohh, the flowers are so lush here!… Where’s the best place to go to next?… Am I asking the right questions?…” And then I remembered a quote from a friend’s Facebook page: “You can tell how big a person is by what it takes to discourage them.” I wasn’t feeling very big at the moment. One more tasting that afternoon, and then the gates were closing.

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

The next day, Tuesday, instead of more wine tasting “research”, I hit the employment resources centre to work on the other part of my strategy: updating my resume and getting my Serving It Right certificate — a necessity for anyone serving alcohol. I drafted a new resume for the hospitality industry that I sent to a few contacts for their feedback and got started on the beverage service course. After a full day of brain work, I was looking forward to some more wine tasting, er, research.

After some more tweaking of the resume, I headed downtown to Rose’s Pub at the Delta Grand Hotel on the waterfront. I was meeting with a college friend and his colleague. We enjoyed a delicious lunch on the sunny patio and talked about our work. We had writing and editing in common, which I was thinking might be one of my sources of income. These two contractors were well-acquainted with the local scene and willing to share some of their knowledge. By the end of our visit, we’d floated the idea of another couple of outings and shared our contact information. I was very happy with how things were going.

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

The rest of my afternoon was spent planning how the next few weeks might ripen. Day 4 in wine country is all about the phone calls. Starting with the largest winery, I phoned a list of wineries to ask if they were hiring in the vineyard or wine shop. From these calls, I also gleaned other useful information: the size of the wineries; expected date of harvest; rate of pay and hours for harvesters.

My ninth phone call was to CedarCreek Estate Winery and I was given an email address to submit a resume. I made another nine phone calls: All tolled, I gathered four email addresses for submitting resumes. A simple cover note and a one-page resume went out, with the expectation that I’d have to send a lot more out and do a lot more follow-up before I would get a job. I was nicely surprised. Within hours, my phone rang. The next day, I met with the Hospitality Manager at CedarCreek Estate winery, had a 30-minute interview and was offered a seasonal job in the wine shop! Life in the vineyard was suddenly a reality. I could hardly believe it: I had a job in the wine industry, doing exactly what I wanted!

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Part III A harvest of experiences

Success! A week after the job offer, I walked into the wine shop at CedarCreek Estate Winery to start my new life in the wine industry. The staff there greeted me with big smiles and began showing me around the shop. The next three days were filled with details about how to do the job: stocking the wine slots; washing and polishing glasses; moving cases of wine from the “cage”; and using the electronic till for retail sales.

At first, I hung back from serving wines because I felt so intimidated at the idea of talking about them. I shadowed the other gals behind the bar, listening intently to their “patter” about each wine and wondering how I’d ever feel comfortable doing the same. Each night, I’d go home and pull out the manual again and read through the tour information, adding to my memory the details of our history and how we make wine at CedarCreek.

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Day Three on the job. I’m alone behind the bar. A customer is approaching. Gulp. Time to put my training into action. I smiled, “Would you like to taste some of our wines?” and offered the sampling menu. Thank goodness the couple chose just the complimentary tasting for both of them, so I poured my way down the list and shared what I could recall about each wine, guiltily consulting the same tasting notes they were viewing.

The following weeks of the summer wine season burgeoned with activity. I shared the shifts at the wine shop with about a dozen other women and was happy that the day didn’t start before 10:00 AM, given I had a 45-minute drive from the other side of the lake. Each day, I listened to my colleagues, asked questions, read and re-read our tasting notes and generally tried to be a sponge. Tasting wine became a daily routine: each morning the wines were tasted (and spit!) to ensure they were still at their peak of quality and had not oxidized overnight.

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Every few weeks, the list of wines being poured on the bar was updated; usually four of the eight wines were changed, so it meant staying current on the wine-maker’s notes about each vintage. At first, between tasting at work and tasting on my days off, I couldn’t have remembered a thing about a wine I’d sipped even hours earlier. Unless I made a note, my lingual memory was nonexistent. I wondered if others had gone through the same maze of dismay as me on their way to feeling like a connoisseur. According to a free online dictionary, a connoisseur is “A person of informed and discriminating taste: a connoisseur of fine wines.” Yes, I can say that I became more informed with each wine I tasted and book I read, and – better than informed – my tastes became more discriminating.

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

On my days off, I toured other wineries. Tasting involved practice, practice, practice, so I fit in as much practice as I could and began to see progress in my own knowledge and sensitivity to the various flavours and aromas of wines. This was fun! For now, I wasn’t buying wines, I was just tasting and asking questions. After each winery visit, I made some notes, usually as much about the decor as about the wines. I had in mind that I’d want to be able to tell tourists about the visuals of the winery as well as the flavours of the wines.

One evening, after a month of working in this new world of wine, I was dining at a local family restaurant and ordered a glass of Merlot. I noticed some sediment in the glass and then began to sniff and sip more thoughtfully. Although the sediment wasn’t a problem of and by itself, my serving was probably the last pour from the bottle. I hazarded a guess that the bottle may have been opened more than a day earlier and therefore at risk of deterioration. I politely asked the waitress whether I’d received the last glass of the bottle and what day the bottle had been opened. When she returned, she had a fresh glass of wine and profuse apologies. The first sip was smoother and fruitier and so much better on the palate. My notes from that dinner called it a “tasting breakthrough” and “I felt like a pro!”.

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Interestingly, the aroma of my food also became more important, and I began to sniff the food on my utensil before consuming it. I became more conscious of the subtleties of flavour: mushrooms, berries, and spices all came through the dishes and made me think of which wine would pair well with each. This being summer, I bought fresh produce with wine pairings in mind and anticipated each meal more eagerly. This wine tasting endeavour was having unexpected side effects! Practice, practice, practice.

The tastings continued throughout the summer on my days off. Between August and October, I visited 60 different wineries from north of Kelowna to the central Okanagan valley around Oliver. As my taste-buds became more educated, I asked different questions and engaged the staff at the tasting bars in collegial chit-chat. It was a good feeling to be conversing with fellow oenophiles who were in the same business (and I didn’t mind the industry discount either).

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Some of the wines I purchased were specifically for cellaring. I’m a fan of “big reds”, so I bought some of those that were recommended for aging a few years. I was also on a personal mission to “shake hands with every Pinot Noir I meet”; I was glad to actually make friends with a few of them.

After having toured several wineries in Summerland, I dined at the waterfront resort’s Local Grille and noted: “OMG, the Beef and Lentil soup is 5-star!” I paired it with Osoyoos LaRose, 2007 Les Petales: “Yum. Black pepper.” Another memorable dining experience was at a restaurant perched on a hillside surrounded by vineyards. I was celebrating a happy occasion and feasted on New York sirloin with local vegetables, 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, and a chocolate pate for dessert.

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

A lot of the fun of touring these wineries around the Okanagan came from simply being on site and witnessing the unique sense of style that’s expressed by each vintner. Every wine shop has its own character and decor, some only hinted at by the name of the winery. Whether flapper-theme feathers, psychedelic labels, or a sword in a stone, there’s no end of visual delights to enjoy. If you locals haven’t visited a winery lately, you are missing out on a lot!

The busy summer crowds gave way to post-Labour Day tourists and those with a palate more discerning in tastes and the time to enjoy them. Winding towards the close of the season was the Fall Okanagan Wine Festival and the announcement of the award winners. It was fun to note who won what from an insider’s perspective, but I knew that my first season in wine country would be coming to a close sooner than later.

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

Prairie Food Chain

A few weeks later, in the cooler fall air, with the vines stripped of their clusters, we wine shop gals enjoyed a potluck meal together, laughed at the good team we’d made and the good times we’d had and said our goodbyes. With a bottle of the best Merlot from the boss in hand, I said goodbye to the wine shop with a profound sense of joy and appreciation for my first season in the vineyard.

By Valerie Simons
Article Source: ezinearticles.com