A self-described wine geek and ski freak hits the slopes of Canada's Whistler Mountain in search of remarkable bottles and incredible powder.
When the ancient Greeks felt they needed help, they would climb a mountain, pour out some wine and offer the libation to the gods. So it's altogether appropriate that Steven Olson's wine-education and consulting company is called libations (with an egalitarian lowercase l): This self-confessed wine geek and ski freak also goes up mountains in search of the divine. One place where he knows he'll find it is Whistler, British Columbia. "It's rare and wonderful when I get to combine my two loves, wine and skiing," Olson says. The wines come from British Columbia's up-and-coming wineries, around 65 at last count, most of them in the Okanagan Valley about 300 miles away; the skiing is courtesy of the Whistler-Blackcomb ski area.
Nestled in the Coast Mountain Range about 75 miles north of Vancouver, Whistler has transformed itself over the past 10 years from a sleepy village to an international destination. Cranes jut into the sky as hotel construction tries to keep pace with the avalanche of skiers, snowboarders and other visitorsmore than 2 million in 1999. With 7,000 acres of skiable terrain (Aspen Mountain has only 675), the two greatest vertical drops on the continent (5,280 feet on Blackcomb Mountain and 5,020 feet on Whistler) and food and lodging that range from rustic to five-star, Whistler can handle a variety of tastes. Lately, it has become a place for the rich and famous to see and be seen; the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Princes Charles, William and Harry have joined Whistler's VIP list, helping send prices up to the snowcapped peaks.
But for all the buzz about the snow and the celebrities, it's British Columbia's wines that lured Olson across the border this time. Olson is a 41-year-old Manhattan-based wine educator who teaches with the dramatic style of the actor he once was; he loves to say "I don't drink for a living, I spit for a living." That might be the only thing about his current life that would please his family of teetotaler Lutherans back in Iowa. Even today, his grandmother knows only that he's in the "restaurant business," Olson says. "She would disown me if she knew that I traveled around like this, teaching people about alcohol."
Wine played a role in Olson's first visit to Whistler, in 1988. Though he had come to ski, the people creating the luxe Chateau Whistler Resort sought him out for his wine savvy. (Olson claims to have an "incredibly ridiculous sensory memory.") He offered them strategies for pairing food with wines by the glass and shared his philosophy of using stripped-down language to talk about wine. What the Whistler people gave Olson, in turn, was the run of the slopes at 7 a.m., before the lifts opened, which he calls "the powder hound's greatest fantasy." On his most recent trip, though, he lived out an even more extreme version of that fantasy: heli-skiing. A helicopter whisked him to a stretch of the slopes that no lifts can approach, then dropped him there to leave the first tracks in the virgin snow. It was then, he says, that he realized that Whistler gave him a unique opportunity to combine his two passions and "live happily ever after."
Whistler's rise as a skiing destination has coincided with British Columbia's recent emergence as a wine region worth exploring. At one time, international wine circles dismissed British Columbia as a source only of cool-climate whites; but wines like the 1997 Quails' Gate Family Reserve Pinot Noir have convinced Olson that the region also has a promising future with other varietals. Olson describes Nichol Vineyard & Farm Winery's unfiltered 1997 Pinot Noir as "absolutely gorgeous." Indeed, this winery has been turning a number of heads with its reds; the vineyard benefits from a rock wall that retains the warmth of the sun, helping make its unfiltered Syrah one of the province's hidden pleasures.
Nevertheless, the whites appeal to Olson the most right now. "I tasted five Pinot Blancs last night," he says, "and all five of them were excellent." He liked the 1998 Sandhill Pinot Blanc with its apple, pear and tropical-fruit flavors; in fact, he more than liked it: "The wine knocked my socks off." That's the kind of non-geekspeak you get from Olson, who combines a recondite knowledge of wine with an ability to describe what he knows in colloquial sound bites. Instead of droning on about malolactic fermentation and residual sugar, he's likely to sum it all up with an emphatic "Isn't that delicious?" For Olson, clarity and simplicity mean pleasant drinking, while pretentiousness only leads to trauma at the table.
When Olson talks about British Columbia, his main focus is the orchard-rich Okanagan Valley, about 200 miles east of Vancouver on the 50th parallel. It was there, in the middle of the nineteenth century, that the oblate missionary Father Charles Pandosy first planted grapes. Today the Okanagan is home to the bulk of British Columbia's wineries. A surprising hybrid of Tuscany and Arizona, the valley boasts Canada's only desert. The climatic extremes are considerable: Summers can be baking; winters can be rough; the freeze needed to produce ice wine can set in not long after October's Indian summer, or it may not arrive until very late in the season, as it did in January 2000.
Award-winning wines are a recent phenomenon in British Columbia, where up to now the stumbling block has been less the vagaries of the climate than the prevalence of inferior hybrid grapes. The smashing of trade barriers between Canada and the United States in 1988 sparked a grape revolution: The vines on more than 2,400 of the province's 3,400 acres of vineyards were pulled up and replaced with more market-friendly grape varieties. Since then, progress has been swift; the vinifera plantings are predicted to reach 5,600 acres this year, with acreages of red and white grapes growing in equal measure.
As much as he's impressed with the strides made by British Columbia's Pinot Blancs, Olson also expects great things from the region's other whites. He raves particularly about Blue Mountain Vineyard's 1998 Pinot Gris, "an orange-tangerine-flavored beauty spiced with a hint of anise on the finish," that he says is as good as any Oregon Pinot Gris. And, he adds, some of the sparkling wines, notably Sumac Ridge's Stellar's Jay Brut, "are selling for the same price as Spanish cavas but are much better. They actually have fruit!"
Unfortunately, despite the new world of barrier-free trade, Americans are unlikely to find British Columbia wines at the moment unless they travel north of the borderand even then they will have to search, since the wines are still struggling for acceptance on the wine lists of Canadian restaurants. But given their quality, it's unlikely they will remain undiscovered for long, either at home or abroad, especially with advocates like Olson. "What I'm known for most, besides teaching people how to taste, is finding cool, interesting, obscure wines on my skiing forays," he says. He's gone careening down the slopes of France, Switzerland, Italy and Argentina, and then gone nosing around their vineyards in search of new wines. To him, the thrill of searching out a great bottle is a lot like the adrenaline rush of stepping out of a helicopter and skiing the powder at the tip of a big cliff: "I'm going fast down a hill, and I come to an edge. I don't know what's on the other side. So I can stop, or I can go over and hope it's not a thousand-foot drop. But if I don't go off it, I'll never know."
Michael McKinley is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in Vancouver.