On Winetraveler: Oliver & Osoyoos Wine Country

On Winetraveler: Oliver & Osoyoos Wine Country

Whether it’s to feel Canada’s Warmest Welcome or you want to see exactly where Canada’s Wine Capital is, visiting the southern Okanagan Valley means spending time in Osoyoos and Oliver respectively. Each of these small communities has its own lake and abundance of seasonal outdoor activities, but what makes the region truly special is that it’s home to more than 40 wineries.
Even some of the most dedicated wine adventurers might not know this region exists, but that’s starting to change.

new writing: risk, safety, and longhand

We need to take more risks. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s the plain truth. As the social media microscope is trained on us without reprieve, having space to take risks is increasingly rare and while we’re busy being safe we neglect opportunities – however brief – to step where it’s not expected of us; someone is always watching and a video of a misstep can go viral before we know it. So, it’s easier to be busy being safe.

Safe is absolute garbage. It’s an illusion we afford ourselves from a place of inert reluctance, lulling us into complacency while assuring us it’s okay to be there because everyone else is. Through the constant bombardment of a hyper-realized ‘normalcy’ created through social media platforms (i.e. Best Day Ever! posts), safe is the mainstream we feed ourselves when some small part of us wants to rage against the machine.

We’re discouraged from taking risks by using scary labels. What was once considered a midlife crisis might now be generational disengagement and part of the social culture, painted for us too large to find a way around or through but small enough for us to take away a measure of guilt for being part of the problem. The message is that it’s better to be safe than speak out for fear of saying the wrong thing and bearing the brunt of commentary backlash. Everyone knows that what happens on the internet lives forever.

This autumn I took a risk and launched Longhand, a digital platform on which to write about things I love and in a manner that best fits my voice. Longhand is not monetized, won’t be a place for harsh criticism, and will be as transparent as I can make it. Do I risk coming across as a cheerleader? Sure. I can’t put mind to that if I want to focus on what’s important to me: growing a platform that supports those who are trying to put their best foot forward. This is who I am.

Where does that leave this site? Well, it’s changing. There will be more opinion-editorial here, and also (I hope – again, taking a risk) critical content on writing and the industry/industries I’m affiliated with. Complacency does us a disservice. Even the smallest step moves us forward.

I like being safe. I have a mortgage to pay and would like, one day, to take a vacation somewhere warm where I can lie on a beach with a cocktail in hand. I also have a responsibility to the larger narrative in which risk plays a part, and I need to take those steps – even the smallest of steps – to help us move forward. So despite a craving for safety, I’ll push myself to take those risks. That beach might have to wait a little while longer.

Meanwhile, keep an eye on Longhand. There’s risk there, too, only it has better camouflage.

From a Field of Dreams: the road to Area 27

In the autumn of 2013, my website provider and business neighbour inquired if I might be open to taking on a new writing assignment. His client – a private motorsport club trying to build in the south Okanagan – had need for a series of online articles to help attract new members and position themselves in the market. Oh, and Jacques Villeneuve would be involved and my neighbour knew I liked cars. Was I interested? After a three second delay, I said yes.

Almost four years, 94 website articles, and hundreds of international media placements later, the idea that was Area 27 is now a 4.83km asphalted racetrack. Acres of unproductive cornfield (often left fallow) have been contoured and carved into challenging elevation changes with 16 corners and more than one blind apex. It might be the only racetrack where drivers look to the horizon and a mountain to help pick their line through a turn, and it’s certainly the only one I saw be paved over the course of six ridiculously hot desert summer days.

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Writing is an interesting vocation in the days of digital media and insta-sharing. Words have always held weight and they still do. Yet with an increased number of platforms to write comes an increased number of writers attempting to stake a claim on one of those platforms, resulting in a dilution of quality. Finding a channel through which to tell a story might be easier now but it’s more difficult to share that story in a way that matters. This wasn’t part of the request, but it was my task with Area 27.

We decided to add personality to an unknown quantity. Who joins a membership-based motorsport club that is yet to be built? Through a series of member profiles, we got our answers: Asgar Virji, the low-key and quick-to-smile president of Weissach Motors; Daryl Carter, founding member and now semi-retired business coach who lives quietly in Penticton with his collection of vintage American muscle cars; Robert Sinneave, founding member who modifies exotic performance cars, operates an antiques business (although he does more buying than selling), and adopts rescue horses on his Kelowna ranch; Tracy Banner, early Area 27 member and tea blender who has a love for a certain 1991 MR2; Christian Chia, who changed the new car dealership model with Open Road Auto Group (he’s founder and CEO) and happens to love to race competitively.

There are literally hundreds more unique stories of people who, for a variety of reasons, decided to take a risk and put their money where their hearts were. In taking a risk on the track they took a risk on those involved – me included. In the last four years I have met so many people who trusted me to share their story well. Once this group gets talking about why they wanted to be involved, there’s no stopping them. I’m grateful for their trust.

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We shared these and other stories on the website, building a library of information and becoming the primary location for all things Area 27. It established personality for the club. Next, we moved on to the grassroots platforms of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to spread the news. These channels provide writers with easier access to sharing stories and yet all these voices create noise, so the challenge remains: how to make people give a damn and want to read your story. It’s not rocket science, but I can’t disclose all of my secrets here. Sorry. Let’s just say we did it and it worked.

Was it an easy road? No. Did we always agree? Goodness, no. There are dozens of things I would have done differently along the way, but although I’m the one telling the story it’s not my story.

Today, Area 27 has a significant presence in the motorsport world and a substantial measure of awareness in its community. It’s just enough to pique the curiosity of most and call to action those who are avid motorsport enthusiasts. For a private motorsport club, that’s a fine balance to hold. With limited membership numbers almost reached (capacity is 300), I’m satisfied with the presence I helped to build for Area 27.

After almost four years of collecting and sharing these stories, it’s time for me to close the door and make space for others. It’s been an interesting road and one I am grateful to have had opportunity to be on. To those who helped make this possible, I thank you. Each of you knows who you are.

Farewell, Area 27. Enjoy your life on track. I might be departing from behind the scenes but I know we’ll cross paths again.

~ Jeannette

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(photos taken by me, while under contract with Area 27)

op-ed: getting (politely) off the fence

As much as I appreciate a neutral review of an item/experience/etc, there’s something to be said for having an opinion and clearly stating it. It might be our Canadian politeness, or that the landscape of freelance writing (particularly in wine/food/travel) is so quickly changing, or a combination of both with a dash of something else. Whatever it is, we don’t say what we really mean.

Let’s look at that last sentence. Years ago I would have written “I don’t think we’re saying what we really mean.” As I’m the only contributor on my blog, the “I think” has less to do with ensuring you know it’s what I think and more to do with my hesitation as a writer. This qualifier isn’t what I’m referring to, as there’s an opinion stated regarding “saying what we really mean.”

There’s a lack of definitive opinion statements in experience writing – the wine/food/travel writing. We (the reader) generally expect to hear a personal opinion. It’s why I read such writing: I want to know what you think. Lately, I’m often disappointed.

The term op-ed comes from early newspaper days. Oxford Dictionaries defines op-ed as “a newspaper page opposite the editorial page, devoted to personal comment, feature articles, etc.”.  Wikipedia takes it further to explain that it “expresses the opinions of a named writer who is usually unaffiliated with the newspaper’s editorial board.” The part here that resonates with me is the personal comment / opinions bit. Increasingly, we’re missing that.

Freelance writers walk a tightrope of delivering compelling content and (hopefully) maintaining good relationships with their subjects. Vitriol-filled prose and mean-spirited writing aside, writers like to play nice. I do. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I don’t play the mean game. My mom taught me that, and she’d be very upset if I behaved in any other fashion. (love you, mom)

There’s a difference between providing an opinion and being a jerk-ass. If you read an opinion piece and get an icky feeling about it, there’s a good chance the writer is being the latter. Does that discount the negative experience? It does plant a few questions – particularly about the writer’s relationship with the subject. No one wants to get in the middle of a pissing contest – in the end, everyone smells bad.

I don’t review wine/food/travel locales, but I do write about my experiences. When I sit down to task, I ask myself one question: Why should anyone give a damn about what I’m writing? Yes, I want to encourage folks to ask questions rather than blindly consume or experience something. Really, though, writers want to persuade you to agree with our opinions. Or we should.

In a world of wishy-washy neutral prose and fear of pissing people off, I gravitate toward authors who push my buttons and get me thinking. I like to disagree with them as much as I like to shout “YES!” when alone in the yard, magazine on my lap. When it comes to wine, I’ll tell you what I like and what isn’t suited to my taste. Will I risk offending the producer? Maybe. However, the chances are good we’ve already had that conversation in person.

Meanwhile, I have a request for my fellow writers: please get off the fence and tell us what you really think. It’s why I’m reading.

~ Jeannette

(PS: feel free to tell me what you really think, too)

Winemaker Bradley Cooper sips my and my fella’s Bordeaux-style blend at Township7. We didn’t get the “dumb nose” feedback (see? clear opinion) others received, but neither did we win best blend.


dear diary: my secret writing life

of course I write in a cute little cabin on a lake…

We’ve been conditioned to think writers live one of several prescripted lives: that of a misunderstood recluse, a charmingly offbeat guy/gal, a hipster-eyeglassed academic, or denim-and-flannel clad individual who squirrels him/herself away in a rustic cabin by a pine-trimmed lake. Pigeon, meet hole.

Mine is unlike any of the lives above, as I suspect is the case for most of my peers. I’d love to be at that cabin but I’d miss out on observing the people that make for inspired content – like Grizzly Brian and the chest scar he’s eager to show off (yes, the scar is from a grizzly bear).

I do a fair amount of writing about wine, food, and the Okanagan. Subsequently, I have access to privileges I otherwise wouldn’t – such as wine tastings, dinners, and travel. These are exceptions rather than the norm, and despite their shiny exterior they can be hard work. (okay, sometimes it’s just plain fun)

The idea of folks flitting about in berets and eating baguettes in pursuit of uncovering excellence in wine/food is, well, absurd. Someone has to pay for it, and often it’s the writer herself – in one way or another.

With social media channels like Facebook and Twitter feeding us a non-stop highlight reel, we could easily think everyone but us is living a most awesome life. This is untrue. Behind “best day ever!” posts and photos of idyllic locales, many writers (like me) toil in a world heavily populated by barter and trade; we augment our freebies and do-it-for-the-exposure gigs with less interesting but better paying gigs.

I can’t pay my mortgage with a bottle of wine, whether it’s a pre-release or back vintage – but I’d be drinking anyway, so I keep them on and find a few folks who can pay by the word.

For all of you who have ever said “you’re SO lucky!” when I show up with my media pass or have to bail on your backyard barbecue because of another something-launch, I’d like to share some of my writer-life secrets. I’m sure other writers have a few of their own.

  1. There is no free ride. We might get free admission to an event, but there’s often a cost you don’t consider: like transportation, companion fare (I like to take my fella with me when I can), feeding yourself, or a place to rest your head. And it takes time to write – that two hour event might be free, but while everyone else has gone home my job is just beginning.
  2. Strings are attached. When a writer is invited to a place/event, it’s often because there’s something expected in return. Most often what’s expected is an article or story pitch to one of the writer’s regular channels. Sometimes, there’s pressure for a favourable review – that can be incredibly awkward to navigate, and makes me feel icky.
  3. Online content is undervalued. Digital content is battle weary, fighting for equality in pay and credibility – but it’s one of the most popular channels for writers. We expect it to deliver the same punch as printed matter and in a more timely fashion, but we’re not willing to pay for it or give it the cred it’s due. My writing process is the same for online or print publication, but one pays better (or pays at all).
  4. I don’t have many friends. Rather, I have oodles of them – they want to gain my favour (or the favour of those I’m friends with) in the hopes that I can further the success of an event/product/whatever. The friends I have I am fiercly protective of. I’m friendly with many, but friends with few.
  5. It’s really, really hard work. We’re not constructing widgets, but we contribute value: opportunities for social commentary, a view into the fabric of our communities, and documentation of the human condition. It’s exhausting, exhilarating, and the reason we wake up in the morning.

The toil is worth the trouble, and despite this somewhat negative list I continue to write – because I’m compelled to. At present the perks and ‘freedom’ of a freelance writer life are a trade-off for the financial stability of a career with health benefits and a pension plan. Perhaps I’ll see a time when the paid gigs outweigh the value-added ones. That would be nice.

The writers I know do it because they can’t imagine doing anything else. Like me, they’ve tried other vocations but were drawn to this – perhaps intially because of those images we’ve come to associate with the writing life, but ultimately because there’s something very alluring about language. Sure, there’s a thrill in seeing our by-line and knowing that someone’s reading our words. But it’s more than that.

I endure these challenges in exchange for that inconsistent paycheque (and the occasional bottle of wine) because writing something well can be a magical experience, and I think we need all the magic we can get.

~ Jeannette