The Naramata Inn’s basement wine and cocktail bar commemorates the town’s original hostess with the most, Eliza Robinson.
In summer, the restaurant veranda of the Naramata Inn is the place to be, with its graceful plates, shady corners and attentive service. Come fall, a cozy alternative returns: the downstairs wine bar and sunny stone patio that also features the Inn’s uber-local B.C. craft cocktails. A glass of some of the region’s most-wanted wines or a cocktail that captures seasonal flavour (like Give Peas a Chance, ah herbaceous pea-shoot-infused drink inspired by the Last Word) is enough to make the stone-floored, wine-cellar styled room feel as warm as Okanagan summer.
In 1908 the Inn was built (and, some say, is still benignly haunted) by John Robinson, a founder and pillar of Naramata. But it’s fitting that the warm, inviting bar is named for the other half of Naramata’s first power couple, his wife, Eliza. She was once the hostess behind everything from then-in-vogue seances to plays, concerts and epic parties at the Inn. “We’re really excited about bringing an elevated bar experience to Naramata,” says Kate Colley, herself part of the modern power-couple alliance (she and her husband, chef Ned Bell, plus co-owners Maria Wiesner and Paul Hollands) behind the Inn’s renaissance.
Colley explains that Eliza first opened last year, when the popular Naramata Community Market extended from summer into winter Wednesdays, giving locals a place to gravitate and extend a casual evening out at the market. By-the-glass wines and bites of chef Ned Bell’s “Naramatian French” cuisine are complemented by a cocktail program that adheres to the same strictly local philosophy as the restaurant.
In bartending terms, that means no citrus juice; no familiar bottles of Campari, Aperol or other global brands; and relying wholly on B.C. craft spirits. “It’s a challenge but I love it,” says bartender Nic VanBergen. And with sustainability top of mind today, he points out, “it’s smart not to use as much fresh citrus or other imported ingredients anyway.”
“I love to cook so it’s pretty natural to think about translating that from food to drinks,” VanBergen says. Capturing the bounty of the agriculture-rich region, VanBergen creates drinks like Jewels on the Lake: it has edible “pearl dust” on a mix of Arbutus Distillery Blue Gin, Imperative vermouth from Vancouver Island, pink peppercorn syrup and local pear juice, preserved with natural acids (VanBergen uses citric, malic and tartaric acids to brighten and bottle local juices for year-round use).
By pressing, pickling and other preserving tricks, VanBergen is taking a page from the kitchen’s playbook. Sous chefs Minette Lotz and Stacy Johnston help farm, forage and ferment products that produce year-round flavour for the restaurant and bar, including house-made pickles and the house-cultured butter to slather the famously delicious sourdough bread. (Lotz also produces killer doughnuts that you’ll find in her booth at the weekly market: check out @minlotz on Instagram.)
Star sommelier Emily Walker, the Inn’s wine director, calls Eliza “the Naramata wine bar I’ve been dreaming of,” with tasting flights that curate Naramata Bench finds (like a glass of Pinot Noir from Pamplemouse Jus, the side label of Lightning Rock winemaker Jordan Kubek) alongside South Okanagan and international gems. “I’ve always been a storyteller,” Walker says. “It’s the people and the places that make these truly great glasses of wine.” With the Inn’s great relationships with not just wineries and farmers but makers and producers of all kinds, “People came come here and try a little bit of everything,” Walker says.
On golden Okanagan evenings, Walker says the vibe “feels like a jazz club.” From behind the bar, Nic VanBergen observes: “When the room is full of people and it’s buzzing, it’s a really special atmosphere.” Eliza Robinson herself couldn’t have curated a more swinging evening.
—by Charlene Rooke