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The first-ever "Big Hearts, Small Bites" event debuted in impressive fashion Saturday afternoon at various venues (nine wineries and one hotel) across the Naramata Bench.
The afternoon, organized by the ownership team at Chain Reaction Winery, was a follow-up of sorts to last November's "Winterfest," the first of a new breed of Bench-wide open houses intended to attract crowds to the region's wineries during the off-season.
But Big Hearts, which promised small appies and an early Valentine's vibe to go along with the typical tastings, took on more importance recently when it was revealed that mid-January's crazy cold spell had wreaked havoc on wine plants across the Okanagan. Suddenly, it was seen as a show of support for local producers.
And what a show it was. Definitive numbers are hard to gauge across so many venues, but PentictonNow spent a couple hours roaming from winery to winery and saw nothing but busy tasting rooms.
Our day started at Chain Reaction where owners and event organizers Linda and Joel Chamaschuk served up flatbreads with their tastings. The place was packed. Approximately 200 people would ultimately come through the door.
In the midst of the crowd were Kelownians Catherine and Jeff Robinson, who'd read about the event – and the grape plant crisis – in KelownaNow and made the drive to "support the wineries."
The Robinsons, originally from London, Ontario, moved to Kelowna just a couple years ago after spending much of their lives traveling the world in support of Jeff's job.
It was, they said, their first time on the Naramata Bench and indeed their first time on the east side of Okanagan Lake.
They said they'll be back.
"Today's been wonderful," laughed Catherine. "I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but honestly the best wine we've found is in the Okanagan. It's much better than US wine."
The Robinsons left Chain Reaction with several bottles and said they were headed to Howling Bluff Estate Winery next.
Fifteen minutes later we found ourselves just down the road at Moraine Estate Winery, where tasting room associate Maureen Bildfell barely had time between pourings to tell us how busy the day had been.
"It's been incredible," she said. "It's been standing room only for most of the day. We're open every weekend at this time of year, but it's far busier today than other days."
Over at Lang Vineyards, we gobbled don some awesome meatballs and ran into a trio – mom Shandra of Penticton and daughters Emily and Kaitlyn of Kelowna – we'd first met at last fall's Winterfest.
They were having an equally good time Saturday.
"We like to try new wineries and see what’s out there," said Shandra. "This is the first time we’ve done something like this in February."
They'd already visited Howling Bluff and Three Sisters and were off to Moraine next.
"It's been really good," said Lang's Natalee Campbell. "We usually have five groups a day at this time of year. Today we're at 20 or more.
"We're very grateful to Chain Reaction for putting this together. They've really stepped it up and it’s greatly appreciated."
Patsy-Anne Takacs of Lake Breeze Vineyards was just as pumped as everyone else.
"This is even better than Winterfest," she said. "We’ve been on the go from 11:00 (the start time) on. A hundred people easily here so far.
"There's never really been an event like this at this time of year and it’s been a huge success. There's been talk of trying to do something regular going forward."
Natasha Martin and Jeff Wargalla sat at the Lake Breeze bar, clearly enjoying themselves.
They live in Nelson, but come to the Okanagan Valley often and are members of various wine clubs.
"I'm very concerned about West Kelowna and some of the smaller vineyards and how this latest incident will impact wine yield," said Martin, who seems to have a firm grip on the local situation.
They said they'd likely end their day tour at Lock and Worth Winery.
At Three Sisters Winery, our last stop of the day, we met an upbeat mother and daughter combo with a whole lot of experience in the business.
We asked daughter Darcy Burlingame why they'd come out. And she gave us the best response of the day.
"It's been a long winter without wine," she laughed.
In reality though, both Burlingame and mom Gayle Bukowsky are veterans of the business.
"I was the wine shop manager at D'angelo (Estate Winery) for years," said Burlingame, "and my mother worked at Kraze Legs Winery in Kaleden. But we're both retired now and this is our hobby."
"We were in the industry," added mom Gayle Bukowsky, "but we're here today as a way to support it right now because it needs the help. It's scary for them right now."
Burlingame believes the impact of the January cold snap will be varied.
"I know a winery that planted another four acres or so, give or take, of new vines," she said. "Those vines will suffer the most.
"A lot of it depends where you are on the Bench. Some may be okay, others won't."
As for a repeat in February of 2025, Chain Reaction co-owner Linda Chamashchuk had one word.