The day couldn’t have been much hotter when we arrived for dinner at Covert Farms last month. Only 36C, which would be 97F if we were in California. And it was already 6 pm.
But by the time we reached the shade of the winery’s front porch and lovely Lu handed us glasses of the Covert Sauvignon Blanc/Semillion, our melted brains began to congeal. The evening just got cooler.
We just had to sit far enough from the lamb that was roasting on a spit just outside the patio roofline.
Somehow, we were early and the only other guests were co-hosts Sandra and Kenn Oldfield of Tinhorn Creek and their daughter Melody. So I took the opportunity to corner Kenn about how Oliver came to be the Wine Capital of Canada and he gave me an earful about how he pulled it off back in 2002.
Meanwhile, Lu passed around some bites of veggie and cheese-topped polenta cushions that tasted as refined as the platter they were served on. This was followed by a yummy toasted cracker topped with air-dried ham, pickles and dill sprigs, which paired beautifully with the Tinhorn 2 Bench White.
More guests arrived, including matriarch Diane Covert who recalled everyday life at Covert farms. She said, “We used drive around the farm and pick all our food and eat it. That has to be the best thing about living on the farm.”
Her words made rue my life in the city.
All at once, it seemed, the patio was overrun by children. Gene brought his sons, Kaeland and Faolan, and writer Heather Greenwood Davis and her husband brought their two sons. By the time we sat down at the long picnic table it looked like a post-soccer game party
Chef Derek Ullman played emcee and explained how the Memories of California concept was cooked up after a dinner last year that also brought the Coverts together with the Oldfield’s. Since the Covert family originally came from California and so did Sandra, why not have a California-inspired dinner?
“The idea,” he said, “is to experience our impressions of California through our wine and farm food.”
Bring It On
He introduced the first course: arugula salad topped with cheese and a charcuterie of picked vegetables, including slices of Cerano ham which Derek said hung in the wine shop over the Winter. With that came the lovely Covert Amacitia White blend to bring all the tastes together.
He pointed out that the cracked nuts on the board were called heart nuts. They came from the Japanese walnut tree Gene’s grandfather planted in 1980. The tree, Derek said, takes twenty years to produce fruit and, “the reason they not commercially viable is because the nuts are impossible to open!”
He and Lu had spent all afternoon cracking these few nuts.
Derek introduced Chef Jeff Van Geest of Tinhorn’s Miradoro Restaurant to describe the main dishes.
The grilled chickens – topped with bacon strips – were from new producer, Rosebank Farms in Armstrong who he really likes. The lamb came from Covert Farms and was named Toby. That detail drew a long mournful groan, until Jeff said Toby quipped that he was a lean lamb.
He’d prepared a salsa verde to go with Toby the lamb and used parsley, lemon, oil, vinegar, garlic, and anchovies.
“Anchovies and lamb are great together,” Chef Jeff said.
Then he described the Zucchini Trifolati, which I found the most intriguing dish on the table.
It’s Italian, he said, and is usually mixed with mushrooms, lightly cooked with heat and sitting at room temperature.
But in this case, the zucchini is cooked with salt, not heat. He compared the process with curing meat in the way the texture gets changed. Rather like pickling. You cook the veggies, and moisture out of it, then drizzle with olive oil and fresh basil. This is what California cuisine is all about.
I don’t remember having Zucchini Trifolati in California, but I loved the tenderness of the slivers of yellow squash and its gentle vinegary taste.
We have to do this at home!
All of that was paired with the 2013 Tinhorn Chardonnay, as well as the newly released Oldfield Reserved Pinot Noir, which took on the lamb with grace and character.
At that point the California stories started. Sandra described moving from California to BC, 19 years before, with everything she owned stuffed into her 1966 Mustang. At the border the ignition wouldn’t shut off, so Kenn had to drive to the border in Osooyoos and fix it.
Wine skipped a generation in her family, she said, so that only her grandfather appreciated her accomplishment. She recalled taking a bottle of her first merlot to his house in Oakland, “like the Holy Grail” and poured a glass for him. “He said, ‘Its a really good Dego Red,’ and that to this day is the greatest compliment anyone has ever given me. ”
After explaining that Dego Red means a homemade Italian wine, she pointed out, “Its ok to use that word if you’re Italian.”
Speaking of Dego Read, the Coverts brought out the most Californian of wines: zinfandel.
Gene Covert asked himself what people had asked him for years: Why Zinfandel?
“Why? A dare,” he said. “Not ones to shy from a challenge, we took it on, but not without forethought,”
In 2007 they chose a one-acre block below the MacIntire Bluffs, seen on the wine labels, for its consistent airflow to fend off boytritis, which they’d heard was a killer. The vines survived. The next acre, planted in 2008, also did well. They blended the fruit until 2011 when they released a Zinfandel that was 11% cabernet sauvignon.
I reviewed the 2011 Zinfandel last year in BC Zinfandel and Lamb Shanks. This year, the wine tastes more mellow and full bodied. Still, it has that signature sprinkle of spice that screams zin.
“The 2012 is killer,” Gene added. “We can’t wait to get it into the bottle.”
At that point, we got the California story we’d been waiting all evening to hear. How Gene’s grandfather moved his family from Tracy, California to Oliver, BC back in 1959.
George Covert was a partner in a tomato shipping operation in Tracy. “One day he was in a conversation with a buyer in Calgary, and buyer said I got a load of apricots in Okanagan, I gotta go. Grandfather said, what’s Okanagan?
When he found out this valley in BC grows soft fruit, he said, ‘I gotta find out about this. At end of season flew up, toured around, found a real estate agent, and said, “I want that and that and that.’ He came back to California and said to Mimi (Winifred), ‘we’re moving to Canada!”
The backstory was that the packing house partnership had gotten rocky and George thought California was getting too wild and crazy. He found Canada to be calm with no taxes and no impediments to trade.
“Little did he know, when ran into all kinds of marketing boards that he got into fights with.”
In 1962-63 George planted hybrid grapes which gave the start of the local wine industry.
“He started with Okanagan Riesling,” Gene said, which provoked a long moan at table. I was reminded that Okanagan Riesling was a crisp white labrusca hybrid, long gone, that no one seemed to miss.
Digesting that food for thought, we enjoyed a moist cornbread topped with beet gelato and lavender, perfect with the 2 Bench White.
Beet gelato? Don’t knock it till you try it.
By the end of the evening I felt like we’d been to California and back again. The food, the wine, the insightful conversations all could have happened on a patio in Forestville. I could almost smell the sage.
Except for the Zucchini Trifolotti. We never made that in Sonoma County. But everything else was just like California.
Except the heat. By 10pm, we’d have been wearing hoodies.
But everything else was just like California.
Covert Farms is hosting one more Farm Field Dinner, on September 13. Tickets are $85. and can be purchased at www.covertfarms.ca or call 250 498 9463.