April 12, 2013 – Upper Bench Estate Winery
Without being too cheesy, this post is a bit of a love story. A whole lot of love between people. A whole lot of love of artisan wine and hand-crafted cheese.
Forgive my romanticism, if you’d like, however, I’m sticking to my story and it’s a bit of a fairy tale unfolding.
Once upon a time, a talented young woman (Shana) born in Nova Scotia, Canada decided to explore career options. She spent time working in Montreal and then was drawn to Penticton to visit her Aunt. She ended moving with her five cats across the country and settled into a rental at the original Poplar Grove Winery site. She found herself working there and developing her skills in cheese making with the original Poplar Grove Cheese artisan Sandra Chalmers.
As fate would have it, a young man (Gavin Miller) born in the United Kingdom came on a vacation to Penticton in 1995 and met the lovely and talented Shana. Smitten, the two soon married and moved to London. It was partly due to their dedication to homebirth because London was more progressive in seeing that as a natural process. Today, son Max is in Grade 11 and proficient in cheese cutting and daughter Chloe is in Grade 9.
The pull of Penticton, the magic of Naramata bench, put a spell on them and they returned to the Okanagan in 1997. For Gavin, the wine industry had particular allure and he studied at Okanagan College, first working in the vineyard at Lake Breeze Vineyards, the cellars at Hawthorne Mountain Vineyards, and the tasting room at Sumac Ridge Estate Winery. The siren call of winemaking summoned him first at Poplar Grove and then to award-winning success at Painted Rock Estate Winery.
In time they began to dream of expressing their passion for cheese and winemaking in a place they could call their own. Gavin shared this aspiration with friend Wayne Nystrom and within a twinkle, Gavin and Shana were in partnership with Wayne and his wife Margareta. (Okay, maybe not a twinkle. A winery property had to become available. We might call it the dark days in the Okanagan wine industry when the Holman Lang properties went bankrupt and the former Stonehill Estate Winery property became part of a court-supervised auction. However, this is after all my fairy tale so good won over evil and their dream was fulfilled and they dubbed it Upper Bench Estate Winery.)
Lest I be accused of oversimplifying the saga, let me add that as new owners, the partnership had much work to do in bringing the vineyards back to health and completely renovating the facility to add the cheese making capacity. Now, if you’re there on the right days, you can peer through the glass to the cheese room and watch the hard work unfold. Or look back into the vineyards and you just might see Gavin roaring down the rows in his bright orange tractor. Oh, and another sure sign that their true love lives on? It’s got to be love when it’s okay for your husband to call you “The Big Cheese.”
Did I mention there is also love of British Columbia’s fruits? In the summer months, not only can you sip on great wines and nibble exceptional cheeses, Wayne’s daughter Tessa Sjöblom (who handles marketing and administration for the winery) offers Tessa’s Tree Fruit on site so you can pick up fresh fruit as well.
You can bundle all of the bounty to go, or linger in their kingdom to enjoy the view from their scenic deck while enjoying cheese, fruit, fresh bread and wine. (Imagine how nice relaxing here is in the summer.)
Fair warning though that once you’ve had a taste, you’ll fall under the spell, and want the magic to continue. Just ask Jennifer Schell, a talented local writer and champion of local farmers, chefs, winemakers and other artisans. When she heard about the amazing 20th anniversary initiative of the remarkable ACE Bakery, she urged Shana to submit a profile. The Artisan Incubator is ACE’s celebration of “artisan food, the importance of local and sustainable food producers, and the vital contribution of artisan entrepreneurs to communities across Canada”. And those inspiring folks at ACE along with their Tastemakers (a team of brilliant artisans, chefs, authors and otherwise notables in the culinary world) also succumbed to the spell. Shana is one of the 20 selected artisans to be “recognized at a June showcase, promoted nationally and have the opportunity to share in the insights ACE has gained over the last 20 years”.
Oh yes, and what fairy tale is complete without adding a wizard or two? Shana will also get to work with another of our Okanagan favourites – Chef Mark Filatow, Waterfront Restaurant & Wine Bar, to develop recipes for the cheese she selected as part of the Artisan Incubator showcase.
I have thoroughly enjoyed all of the wine and cheese from Upper Bench. Personal favourite pairings are the luscious Pinot Noir with the bold blue King Cole and the buttery Chardonnay with the creamy Gold collection. My most recent visit was with my food-blogger friend Val Harrison on a cool spring day before we were treated to a tantalizing lunch by another member of our informal Chicks Who Wine group, Jennifer Cockrall-King (foodgirl.ca).
Sadly, our fourth member, Judi Frizzle Stowell (thelastwonton.com) couldn’t make this outing. Val and I even had the privilege of touring the cheese room! By the way, be sure to check out Val’s post on our visit. An inspiring recipe awaits: http://morethanburnttoast.blogspot.ca/2013/04/blue-cheese-walnut-crackers-and-visit.html
Check out the list on the website for the delightful slate of options. Passionate about their craft, each other and their family and friends, they are always perfecting their products and making new creations when it makes sense.
Lucky for me, Upper Bench Winery and Creamery is another of the spectacular wineries of the Naramata Bench Wineries on my way home. Even if Shana, Gavin or Tessa are busy, you might get served by a princess such as the cheerful Andrea Duckett.
And they all lived happily ever after! (She says licking the last crumbs of the King Cole carefully off each finger.)
Located at 170 Upper Bench Road South, Penticton, BC V2A 8T1
Did I mention there is a Wine and Cheese Club you can join?