Smoke Gets in Your Wine: 4 Fiery Days in Oliver, BC Wine Country

As visits to Oliver, BC go, our Labor Day weekend trip will go down as our most scorching. Not that the weather was so hot. We were instead singed with the reminder that despite climate change, natural cycles still happen.

On the first morning at our shack on Fairview Road, before I got started with my backsplash tiling project, I was sipping my coffee in the yard and looked to the South and saw three wisps of smoke rising from the mountain above Testilinden Creek.

Fire!

Flashback to Friday, August 14th. A morning lightening strike in the hills above Testalinden Creek was whipped by high winds and by evening, the western ridge of the southern Oliver valley was ablaze. On the same day, a fire started on Mount Wilson on the North side of town, above our neighbourhood.

Oliver fire
Photo of our neighborhood by Jeremy

When I called from San Francisco and frantically spoke to our awesome tenant Jeremy, he told me that Sandy Hill behind our shack was on fire. We fell asleep listening to the Internet stream of the Oliver fire department scanner, fully expecting to detour straight across Washington the next day to pick through the charred rumble of our rental house.

The next morning, we learned that no homes were lost, no wineries burned and no vineyards seared. Both fires were somewhat contained and remained beyond civilization. Jeremy had been up half the night hosing down his employer’s property at Road 13 Winery. It was like a miracle had occurred. That, or some very deft firefighting.

So, standing in our yard three weeks later, I got a terrifying sense of deja vu. Where before I thought Oliver, BC had dodged a bullet, it now seemed that bullet was ricocheting.

Oliver fire 4 12.30

All afternoon, as I set tile and Bill pulled weeds, we took breaks by stepping outside to see what the fire was doing. Spreading, that’s what it was doing, mostly to the East. It felt so bizarre to be going about our business while a natural phenomena was unfolding in the heights above us, dangerous yet unthreatening. And there was nothing we could do about it.

During our trips to Oliver, we typically the work all afternoon on a project and then knock off around 4 or 5 to hit the wineries. The first day is reserved for Covert Farms so we can stock up, not just on wine, but also some fresh-picked produce.

Oliver fire covert farms
From where we parked on the 600 acre farm, we could see our fire from a distance and with more context. Airplanes were on the scene, dropping retardants. It seemed so far away.

We found Derek in the tasting room, looking crazed. He and the crew were setting up for a wedding the next day and had no time to waste. We also had no club wine to pick up, but he gave me a bottle of their 2012 Zinfandel for our upcoming Zinfandel Roundup and we left him to his preparations.

Covert Farms squash
A quick excursion to the U-pick fields yielded buckets of tomatoes, eggplant, strawberries and squash.

By the time we returned to the shack the fire was going strong on the West side, but now there was sparks to the East. The wind had picked up, as it does in these parts, and obviously embers had flown.

When we walked into town (another first for us) for a 9:15 movie, the fires were glowing spots on the hill, looking like torches in a medieval village.

The next morning we woke to the drone of aircraft. Helicoptors and airplanes flew over us on their way to the widely expanding fire on the mountain. With puffy clouds and bright sunlight, it seemed a beautiful day to fight a fire.

Being a Saturday meant heading into town to troll the flea markets. We were in the market for a kitchen sink and a stereo component, but who knew what unknown treasures we might found there.

But first, we made a trip to Oliver’s Bakery to purchase a selection of pastries for the firefighters. When we arrived at the firehouse, the place was eerily quiet, an indication that all hands were on the flight decks. Eventually, we found a lady firefighter who accepted our offering with gratitude. 

oliver bc firefighters

It was quite a change from the last time we saw the Oliver firefighters in the Sunshine Festival parade, trying to knock each other off trucks with their firehoses.

Oliver fire flea market

From the middle of town we were able to get a different view of the fire as it seemed to tumble down the mountain.

We spent that afternoon digging holes for our apple trees, cutting glass for a window, and screwing pulls onto our cabinet doors. And, stepping out to view the fire, as if it were some kind of sideshow.

By 4, we decided to make a trip to Rustico Winery to see our friend Bruce. Bruce had garnered no small amount of publicity after the August fire with a story that beat all. Read: As-fire-burned-to-rustico-winerys-property-line-owners-concern-was-the-corkscrew-hed-left-behind.

By then, the fire had expanded to the East and appeared to have hopped the ridge. As we headed down valley, past Tinhorn and Hester Creek, Road 13 and C.C. Jentsch, we got another view of the fire, creeping down the mountain near the charred hillside above the vineyards.

We drove up the Rustico driveway behind two vehicles and were followed by another. Knowing how tiny the tasting room and how personally Bruce likes to deal with people, I turned around and headed the opposite direction. I didn’t want to be stuck in a corner there.

Oliver fire south okanagan
Instead, we got a good sense of how close the fires came to the Rustico vines when we stopped along the easement. Funny, we thought, how the earth looked more browned than the blackened color it gets in California after a fire.

We doubled back toward town and decided to stop at a new winery, Vin Perdu, a tiny establishment situated right on Hwy 97.

vin perdu oliver fire
Inside, there is a stylish wine lounge where they serve a selection of appetizers, and out back they have a beautiful deck facing an uphill view of vineyards toward the family’s home.

vin perdu wendy natalie
We were served by Detroit-born owner Wendi Coulombe who told us how their grapes were planted 18 years before by the previous owner who let them overgrow and made blends of the grapes. But when the Coulombes bought the land and house in 2009 they pruned the vines to 2.5-3 ton per acres to make varietal wines, a few hundred cases of each.

The tasting room has only been open since May. Both of their daughters are involved, with Catherine managing the tasting room and Natalie working the vineyards. They’re also serving tasting platters loaded with artisans cheeses to give visitors a sense of food pairing.

When we mentioned the fire raging over our shoulders, Wendy said, “They seem to think it’s under control, but I don’t.”

vin perdu patio
She told us about the day of August 13 and the super high winds that tore off part of their and roof, and sent their bbq flying down the hill. The winds continued to feed the fires, she said, and by 9pm the whole hill on the west side of the valley was on fire. It burned right up to the property lines of all those wineries.

After shuttering at the realization of how close this area came to devastation, we dug into the Vin Perdu wines.

The 2013 Chardonnay is big with ample oak and butter. The 2014 Pinot Gris is delicate and citric flavoured with good mineralogy.

The 2014 Gamay has pretty notes of cherry and raspberries, well balanced and intense.The 2013 Cabernet Franc has punchy black fruit with spicy notes and and a rich round mouthfeel.

2013 Compass – a blend of Merlot and Cab Sauvignon – is a big jammy wine with forest notes and long finish. Alas, the Merlot vines have since been pulled out to make way for the barrel and tank rooms.

With bottles of Pinot Gris and Gamay in hand, we said goodbye with a reminder to notify us of their next music night and stepped out into a bright sunny day marred by brown smoke rising from the west.

Let’s go up to Fairview Cellars, I said.

By then, it was close to 6pm, and when we arrived the girl behind the counter seemed none too pleased to see us. Apparently, they’d had a busy day. We offered to come back another day, but she and owner Bill Eggert’s brother, Chuck, waved us in. Unfortunately, Bill was not there as I’d hoped.

Over pours of the meaty Bucket of Blood Cabernet/Syrah, we asked Chuck about how they fared during the August 13 fires and if he was worried about this new one.

He shrugged off the blaze outside and said told us how they had been on alert to evacuate back in August, then the order was recinded, but they never made a move to leave. He also didn’t think the smoke has tainted their crop, being so late in the cycle and with none of the vines getting burned.

oliver fire fairview road
His calm demeanor appeared in stark contrast to the torrent of helicopter activity in the ridge above Fairview Cellars. From the parking lot, the smell of smoke was palpable.

Oliver fire 5 night
That evening the wind died down and we barbecued chicken and Covert’s vegetables. We sat at the table and ate while watching the glowing inferno creep down the ridge. It felt as creepy as being the Washington picnickers who gathered on hillsides to watch the Battle of Bull Run in 1861, but there we were. An awesome natural phenomena was occurring before us, so how could we not take it in over a glass of Tinhom Creek Cab Franc?

By Sunday morning, the entire mountain was shrouded in smoke. Worse, it appeared the fired had jumped the ridge and was traveling down the draw on the other side. And yet it was another gloriously sunny day.

I spent the afternoon grouting while Bill finished attaching pulls to our cabinet doors. And, digging holes for the apple trees.

By late afternoon it was clear we needed to pickup compost for the trees before going for a rollar blade on the river path. But first, a trip to Hester Creek Winery.

This was not just a Sunday outing; I had a mission for going to Hester Creek, one that comes with a backstory.

Back in the Spring, Hester Creek was kind enough to send me a bottle each of their Trebbiano and Cab Franc Rosé and I was holding them for a meal I could pair both wines with. Unfortunately, I waited too long. While we were on vacation our housesitter dove into our liquor cabinet and drank 6 bottles of really great wine, including the Hester Creeks. I wanted to replace the bottles he drank.

gehringer brothers oliver bc

As we turned on Road 8 and headed uphill, we could see a swirl of white smoke cresting the top of the mountain and it seemed like we were rushing straight into the path of the fire. I suddenly realized that the winery may have closed for evacuation by then and that I wouldn’t be able to get my bottles. So I stepped on the gas.

oliver fire hester creek
Nothing beats the rush you get from speeding uphill to get to a winery before they get evacuated. Turned out, Hester Creek wasn’t in danger, as the kind lady behind the counter explained. The fire services were being very good about alerting them to danger, she said. I wanted to rave – don’t you know there are fires burning just over the hill from here? – but I bit my lip.

I did notice that their wines had strong notes of smoke, or perhaps that was just the smell on our shirts.

At Canadian Tire, as we pulled bags of compost from the stacks outside, we couldn’t make our voices heard over the chopping helicopter getting fuelled up at the landing strip behind the store. The place was like a war zone.

oliver fire 6 sunset

That night, the sunset was intense, with the smoke from the fire creating a hellacious glow. The wind had picked up again, so we ate dinner in front of the computer while watching Netflix. Just like at home.

oliver fire 7 shack
By the next day, as we packed to leave, the full extent of the fire was clear in the bright sun. The blaze had taken hold in the hills above the valley and there didn’t seem to be an end in sight. We left with the hope that it would be contained soon.

oliver fire labor day
Photo by @Fyrewind

That didn’t happen. A few days later, backfires lit up the mountain even more than before and made it unclear if the situation had gone from worse to better.

As of this writing, the BC Wildfire Service reports that the Testalinden Creek fire six kilometres west of Oliver was 95% contained. That containment percent is an indication of how much guard has been established around the perimeter of the fire.

Staring down a wildfire had to be the strangest way to spend a holiday weekend and I hope it never happens again. Still it’s a humbling feeling to be so close to the wrath of nature while sipping great wine a safe distance away.

Cheers to the Oliver Fire Department and all the firefighting crews who kept the town safe!

If you liked this post and want to read more, please subscribe and follow me @marikane.

Mari Kane

Mari is a writer, blogger and WordPress consultant, living in Vancouver, BC, the most wine-soaked town north of the 49th Parallel. She also blogs about WordPress web design at Blogsite Studio.com. Follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.