Thursday, May 5, 2011

Historians in Wine Country: Or, Avoiding the conference hotel hallway buffet

I come to you from Kelowna, wine country British Columbia, where I'm attending an academic conference. Sometimes conferences are the bane of scholarly life, "culminating" in a terrible buffet of re-warmed food served in a dark windowless hallway of a mid-level hotel, with graduate students and faculty members shuffling around a faded carpet and trying to advance their careers or at least pass the time without falling into the extreme awkwardness that can sometimes beset academic conversation. But they can also be a delight: think of a foie gras stuffed bugger in an off-the-beaten-track Chicago find, consumed over a spirited conversation among smart people with like interests that can, at its best, come to feel like a collective project of intellectual inquiry and dignified lipsmackification.

For this conference, a graduate student and I arrived a day early to assure well rested alertness in our presentation (we'll give a talk entitled "Who Bought Vancouver's 'Japantown'"--an exploration of the Canadian government's resale of the Vancouver area properties that it confiscated from Japanese owners during WWII). With a day to spare in one of the province's most picturesque and renowned regions, I rented a car and we toured the lakes, desert landscapes, and wineries of Penticton and Naramata, just south of Kelowna. It is a stunning area. The landscape slopes steep, brown, and rugged into immense wind-swept lakes, virtually empty of any activity, at least at this time of year. Signs marking hiking trails alert travelers that the rattlesnake season has begun, surprising and frightening the two of us, who are more comfortable in the convivial company of bears and cougars on our perambulations. And then there are hundreds of wineries, too many to visit, most of them beautiful.

We drank at two of them, the Hillside Estate where we ate lunch, and Volcanic Hills, where we bought wine. At the Hillside Estate Bistro, they serve food and wine pairings in a rustic but elegant dining room or out on a sun-bathed deck with beautiful views of the valley. The offerings (I had a merlot paired with a duck confit ragu on tagliatelle), while by no means superb, did nothing to take away from the setting and the scene, which were both precisely what I had in mind setting out as a wine tourist for a day. Volcanic Hills will celebrate its first year in business this summer and it may be a comer on the BC wine scene. They already claim a number of international awards (don’t there seem to be an awful lot of international awards around for wines to win?) and to my mind they make a fine, light Gamay Noir, which they sell for under $10 at the winery. It can be had for just a little more than that in Victoria, and I think it is a good sipping wine (I used it for the four cups at my Passover Seder). The trip, the food, the wine, the scene—it all made for good conversation, as often on scholarly topics as not.

In all, it was a great start to the conference. We’ll hope it doesn’t end in a hotel hallway.

For reviews of my Chicago find, click on the symbol: Sweets & Savories on Urbanspoon.

For reviews of the Hillside Estate Winery Bistro, click here Hillside Estate Winery & Bistro on Urbanspoon .


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