Driving the Okanagan Wine Trail More than delicious foods and wines await you...
Vineyard near Okanagan Falls
Columbia's scenic Okanagan-Similkameen Valley is flanked
by low-lying mountains and centred with glittering blue
lakes. On a tour of the region's lush wine country, many
vineyards welcome visitors to sample their wines.
The Okanagan Similkameen
Valley is B.C.'s largest wine appellation. This sunny
region is a paradise of fresh local produce, wines, glittering
lakes and outdoor activities.
of visiting - to ski at Silver Star, Big White, Apex and Sun
Peaks or to golf, this time I'm touring wineries.
at Fresco - my first restaurant stop in Kelowna - looks familiar.
Aside from being named Provincial Restaurateur of the Year,
taking home the Best B.C. Wine List award and earning a coveted
four-diamond rating from AAA/CAA, Rod Butters sparks memories
of the kitchen at the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino on Vancouver
Island, Chateau Whistler and two Toronto dining hotspots, Scaramouche
and the Four Seasons Hotel.
That he ended up in the Okanagan
Valley in interior British Columbia was no accident. With some
60 producers and counting, the Okanagan/Similkameen Valley is
B.C.'s largest wine appellation.
runs south from near Vernon, down Highway 97 to Osoyoos, which
hugs the Washington border. The long scenic valley is flanked
by low-lying mountains and centered with glittering blue lakes.
One of the valley's originals, it is owned by the Heiss family,
whose vineyards date back 30 years. Willi Franz, chef at the
Williams Inn in Kelowna, commands the kitchen at the winery's
Grapevine Patio Grill, with its sweeping view of vineyards and
Lake Okanagan. In summer, Gray Monk's deliciously fruity whites
draw over 500 visitors a day to its tasting rooms.
Off to Kelowna,
the largest city in the central Okanagan
Valley. With a population of under 100,000, it boasts more
money per capita than any other Canadian city. The Grand
Okanagan is smack in its heart by Lake Okanagan. Never mind
that the big hotel teems with conference-goers and casino devotees,
my French Country-themed suite has views of a spectacular sunset.
Dinner at Fresco is a short walk away. So is Calona Vineyards,
a large winery that delivers a great tour.
morning I traverse the Okanagan
Lake Bridge, the longest floating bridge in North America,
and climb Mount Boucherie to the Mission
Hill winery, an architectural masterpiece with archways
leading to a 16th-century Austrian fountain, a terrace patio
for dining, a loggia for relaxing and an outdoor amphitheater
where Vancouver's acclaimed Shakespeare company Bard on the
Beach performs will perform this summer. A 12-storey bell tower
rings in the time. Underground, an education center offers daily
two-hour wine programs. Best of all, the retail shop is a winophile's
mecca, stocked with Mission Hill's 26 different wines, including
value-priced Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.
to Oliver, I stop for lunch at the Cellar Door Bistro at the
winery in Summerland. Chef Neil Schroeter's pork and tamarind
curry perfectly matches Sumac's signature Private Reserve Gewurztraminer.
For diners who like variety, Sumac offers a flight of four wines
in two-ounce tasting portions. Upstairs, the Connoisseurs Room
pairs high-end wines with canapés.
shimmer and twinkle until past Penticton, where the land becomes
a dry desert of sage and antelope bush, tumbleweed and prickly
pear cactus. "Welcome to Desert Wine Country," announces
the first sign, and shortly after, "Oliver
- Wine Capital of Canada."
The 15 or so wineries between
here and the border may well qualify them to the title based
on numbers. The desert is real too: called the Sonora, it runs
from Mexico through the U.S. and up into Canada. Its heat and
sunshine prime the Golden Mile, Black Sage and Osoyoos Lake
areas for the best red wines in the country.
I stop for
the night at Tinhorn Creek, where I join a couple who are on
the winery's Wine Lovers Club package. Lorne and Anne Vaness
received the three-night, four-day package of tutored wine tastings,
escorted trips to nearby wineries and vineyard tours as a gift.
During a wine and food extravaganza, Chef Larry Lee cooks up
delicious courses as club director Sonya Konig explains the
intricacies of matching the dishes with wine.
Next morning, the sky is overcast. Could this
be rain in a land Environment Canada called our most desirable
climate for living, with more than 2,000 hours of sunshine and
less than 12 inches of rain a year? No. When the sun breaks
through, I set out on the Stamp Mill Trail behind Tinhorn to
work off the previous evening's indulgence. The hike rewards
me with a view of the ruins of a mill and a panorama of the
valley in buttercup season.
south, I stop at Black
Hills, a tiny winery under a rust-red Quonset hut where
winemaker Senka Tennant makes two handcrafted wines, turning
out fewer than 3,000 cases a year. Her red Bordeaux-style blend
Nota Bene has cult status and sells out quickly. The pre-release
sample of 2001 is so delicious I order a case. Many B.C. wineries
offer door-to-door delivery. It beats schlepping wine around
in a hot car.
the Wyse family are expanding their winery, evocative of the
desert styles of New Mexico and Morocco. (For diversion, they
golf at nearby Fairview - rated among B.C.'s top 10 courses
- or ski in the springtime Slush Cup event at Mt. Baldy. Oh
to have those choices!) Lunch on their patio comes with a lovely
view, but Burrowing Owl's fabulous red wines grab my attention.
Vineyard near Okanagan Falls
a wine tour of the Okanagan/ Similkameen Valley, oenophiles
imbibe stunning scenery as well as delicious wines. Temptations
to stop for photos are plenty. This shot brings memories
of a lush vineyard near Okanagan Falls.
My most southerly stop is
Desert Centre and its winery
overlooking Osoyoos Lake. North America's first Aboriginal-owned
and operated winery has 240 acres of vineyards, first planted
in 1968. Numbering about 400, the progressive Osoyoos Indian
Band (Nk'Mip in the Okanagan language) also runs lakeside camping
facilities and a heritage center, in addition to serving lunches
that include buffalo carpaccio, quail terrine and Indian salmon.
Hiking their well-designed trails, I learn from the interpretive
signs about desert plants and animals. Aspects of Okanagan Nation
desert life are portrayed in the recreated tulle mat teepee,
underground pit houses and sweat hut.
day I return to the Penticton area, to the wineries around Naramata
on the southeastern tip of Lake Okanagan. Naramata
is a charming village with 11 wineries, including some of the
best of my trip. I order the Pinot Gris for home delivery from
among the brilliant wines at Poplar
Grove and buy some Tiger Blue, one of three artisan cheeses
made there. At La Frenz, winemaker Jeff Martin sells some of
his most cherished wines exclusively at the cellar door.
I overnight at Coady's Cabana, one of the B&
B's dotting the countryside. My "mini house," built
by architect/owner Matthew Coady, has floor-to-ceiling windows,
a fireplace, Jacuzzi, outdoor patio and retractable roof for
open-air sleeping. Another good choice is the restored Naramata
Heritage Inn & Spa, where Chef Robert McLaren serves up
tasty food in the cozy wine cellar and formal dining room, accompanied
by an extensive list of B.C. wines.
day I hike along the Kettle
Valley Trail, part of the Trans
Canada Trail network, through the vineyards of the King
Family Farm towards the Hillside
winery. With a patio overlooking the lake, Hillside's
Barrel Room Bistro is a great food destination. The trail runs
for about 62 miles from Penticton, right past the Bistro, to
Columbia Wine Information Centre in is my last stop. Just in
case I've missed something good, they sell over 400 wines from
about 40 of the local wineries. Upon my return to Toronto, I
think with envy of Rod Butters' new home.