Love secrets, but WikiLeaks is bringing you down? Fear not! I’m here to blow the lid off a Canada-sized conspiracy.
The Okanagan, BC region, flush with family-owned and run boutique wineries and sunny dry weather, has got an almost island-like easy going feel. A six hour drive from Seattle, the Okanagan has a total of 124 wineries, and is a great contender for a long weekend or a week long wine/golf/bike adventure. Now, why don’t a lot of us know about this gem?
Just like how we long time Seattleites like to keep it on the lowdown that the Emerald City is one of the best places to live for fear of overpopulation and immigration from California, I am convinced those congenial Canadians are keeping their stash of exquisite wine hush-hush.
Also, the BC wine region has really just come into its own in the past 10 years. The Okanagan Valley was known for average and inexpensive wine until the late 1980′s when the Canadian government eliminated price protection for domestic wines. That meant the wines in the region could no longer compete with higher quality imports from Europe. That prompted wine makers to replace their old vines with varietals that could produce more sophisticated wines.
Now, these family-run boutique wineries cannot compete with Napa/Sonoma in terms of production quantity, but can give any wine region a run for their money as far as quality. You will find a lot of Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and other whites, but also a variety of reds in the Okanagan’s southern regions of Osoyoos and Oliver, where the climate is more arid and desert-like.
Naramata Bench region
One of my favorite pockets in the Okanagan is the Naramata Bench region, just north of Penticton. With a large cluster of 32 wineries located within hills and rows of vineyards, many of them have a stunning view of Lake Okanagan. You definitely feel like you are in wine country, but with designated RV parking a common sight at the wineries, there are no pretensions here.
Elephant Island, with its eccentric storefront and jammy fruit-themed wines, is near and dear to my heart. They are already selling out of Little King (a sparkling wine with hints of green apple and raspberries) and their blackberry wine. A friend of mine who works at an upscale restaurant in Whistler tells me their supply of Elephant Island wine is even becoming scarce. Elephant Island became more known to Americans when the James Beard House in New York City started serving its wine several years ago.
Tip: If you want to go the picnic lunch route, I would stop by The Bench to get all your fixings and then bring them to the patio of mystical and quirky Elephant Island, where you can eat amongst the cherry orchards. You can do your tastings there, too.
As I taste the signature pinot gris at the posh Poplar Grove, I comment to the taster that it is easy to drink. She nods in agreement stating,” A little too easy to drink” as she winks at me. I am more of a white wine drinker, but red wine enthusiasts go crazy over the Grove’s Cabarnet Franc. It has won numerous awards, but a tease because they are completely out for the rest of the season due to demand.
Americans David and Cynthia Enns have a sense of humor by naming their winery Laughing Stock Vineyards. The winery originates from their previous lives as financial consultants on Wall Street. The suitably named Portfolio, is a 2009 vintage combining five Bordeaux varietals: 36% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc, 14% Malbec and 1% Petit Verdot.
For ambiance and food , it has become a habit for me to head to the patio bistro at Hillside after first making a pit stop at their tasting room. It is also hard to beat the view from the newly opened Vanilla Pod restaurant at the aforementioned Poplar Grove, considered by some as the most posh of wineries on the Bench.
Wine and cheese continue to have a symbiotic relationship so it always a good idea to head make a stop at Upper Bench’s creamery.
On your way back to the US border, you will pass a town called Oliver. If time allows, make a pit stop at Burrowing Owl’s winery. Enjoy a meal on the outdoor wrap-around deck of their restaurant The Sonora Room. The views of the hill and vineyards will trick you into thinking you are in a quaint countryside in Italy. Note: The cheese plate, with a variety of killer BC cheeses you cannot find in the States, is not to be missed.
When you want a brief pause from wine drinking, hit up the Kettle Valley trail by mountain bike or on foot to Myra Canyon and Chute Lake (or as far you as you feel like). A 30 minute walk can even be satisfying as the view of breathtaking Okanagan Lake can be seen throughout many points on the trail.
- Elephant Island – Book in advance and stay at their treehouse loft. This is something I have always wanted to do, but have never booked far enough in advance.
- There are camping options galore. However, I have yet to find any 4-5 star hotels that excite me. For peak ambiance, I would book ahead and try to snag a room that some of the wineries offer: Burrowing Owl, Black Widow, and more.
To read more on my adventures to the Naramata Bench region, click here.
About an hour from Naramata Bench, you reach Kelowna; another haven for wine lovers. The region is divided into West Kelowna and East Kelowna. Kelowna is bigger than the Bench and feels more like a suburb outside a city.
The biggest winery on the West is Mission Hill, hailed by my Canadian friends as the “mack daddy” of wineries. Led by famed Seattle-based architect Tom Kundig, the winery underwent a six-year transformation to create an environment that would stack up against the architecture and vibe in Europe, yet also compliment the natural beauty of the area. I visited them last year so click here to get the lowdown.
This time, my travels take me to Summerhill Pyramid to check out the largest winery in East Kelowna. In addition to being one of only a handful of organic wineries in the area, Summerhill’s wine production locale stands out as glowing white pyramid-shaped structure. With a more modest vibe than pimped-out Mission Hill, I snag a seat on the terrace overlooking Okanagan Valley and have one of the best meals on the trip at this laid back place.
With dishes such as Falafel Mignon (I knew this vegetarian dish would be good as I overheard the CEO ordering it for himself), I would best describe the food as refined cooking with a hippie vibe. This is the type of establishment where you would fit right in wearing Tevas and a t-shirt, while nibbling on a duck confit caesar salad and ordering a berry pavlova for dessert.
One of the locals insist we cannot leave Kelowna without paying a visit to Carmelis, a goat cheese farm. They have a small retail operation, where you can sample the cheeses, order a panini, and grab a scoop or a pint of goat cheese ice cream. I go for the lemon ice cream and my favorite cheese is the Heavenly.
The same biking, hiking, and golfing activities at the Bench apply in Kelowna, although one differentiator is that there appear to be as many golf courses in Kelowna as grocery stores.
Due to the astronomical number of golf courses in the area, the rates are competitive. Since I rebel against wearing collared shirts and start daydreaming about food after nine holes, I gravitate to the economically-priced public courses. Orchard Greens, a public 9-hole course, fulfills all of my needs, and you get to play in the orchards. If you don’t want to hang around the likes of me and want to play on an 18-hole course with more serious golfers, Harvest Golf Club, next door, may be more your speed.
- There are plenty of RV and tenting options, some with more ambiance than others. The agritourism campgrounds are an interesting concept to explore. Owner Leslie Reid has cleared out land from her farm to accommodate up to 8 RVs at Canyon Farms RV Park, which is conveniently located near several golf courses and hiking and biking trails. Reid brings you freshly-laid eggs from her chickens in the morning and chicken for the BBQ in the evening.
- The Cove Lakeside Resort is popular, although if you are looking for charm, my choice would be to stay at one of the many bed and breakfasts in the area.