We arrived in the Okanagan Valley the day after the smoke lifted. British Columbia had been reeling from more than 550 wildfires in mid-August, and wind currents spread smoke over much of the province, including Vancouver along the coast and the Okanagan's picturesque wine region, a four-hour drive inland. Wine-country vacation prep typically doesn't include regular checks for air quality alerts.
"We couldn't see the lake last week," said Cynthia Enns, as she and her husband, David, showed my wife and me around Laughing Stock Vineyards, the winery they founded 15 years ago near the city of Penticton. As we sampled Laughing Stock's delicious Bordeaux-style red blends and a drop-dead gorgeous syrah, I kept looking westward toward Okanagan Lake, only about half a mile away and stretching as far as I could see in a north-south direction. Some haze hung in the air, but we could see across the lake. Not being able to see the water at all must have been disorienting.
The Bench Market; 368 Vancouver Ave., Penticton; (250) 492-2222; thebenchmarket.com
Culmina Family Estate Winery; 4790 Wild Rose St., Oliver; (250) 498-0789; culmina.ca
50th Parallel Estate and Block One Restaurant; 17101 Terrace View Road, Lake Country; (250) 766-3408; 50thparallel.com
Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards; 697 Hwy. 97 South, Peachland; (250) 767-2768; fitzwine.com
Laughing Stock Vineyards; 1548 Naramata Road, Penticton; (250) 493-8466 (Call for appointment); laughingstock.ca
Liquidity Winery, Bistro & Gallery; 4720 Allendale Rd., Okanagan Falls; (778) 515-5500; liquiditywines.com
Mission Hill Winery and Terrace Restaurant; 1730 Mission Hill Road, West Kelowna; (250) 768-7611; missionhillwinery.com
Nk’Mip Cellars; 1400 Rancher Creek Road, Osoyoos; (250) 495-2985; nkmipcellars.com
Painted Rock Estate Winery; 400 Smythe Drive, Penticton; (250) 493-6809; paintedrock.ca
Poplar Grove Winery and the Vanilla Pod Restaurant; 425 Middle Bench Road N., Penticton; (250) 493-9463; poplargrove.ca
Quails’ Gate Estate Winery and Old Vines Restaurant; 3303 Boucherie Road, Kelowna; (250) 769-4451; quailsgate.com
Waterfront Wines Restaurant; 1180 Sunset Drive #104, Kelowna; (250) 979-1222; waterfrontrestaurant.ca
For the next four days, with an Airbnb near Penticton as our base, we drove up and down the Okanagan Valley, visiting more than a dozen wineries and stopping at more than a handful of fruit stands. Driving proved tricky at times, as the view of the lake lured our eyes from the road and we dodged groups of cyclists enjoying the hills and the scenery. And the weather cooperated, becoming increasingly sunny through the week, with temperatures ranging from the low 60s to the low 80s.
Okanagan Lake is the valley's most prominent feature and gives the region its identity as a travel destination, agricultural powerhouse and rising star in wine. The lake stretches nearly 84 miles but is only 21/2 to 3 miles wide. It is also deep -- about 250 feet on average, and nearly 800 feet at its deepest. Because of the depth, it never freezes, instead providing frost protection to the farms and vineyards along its shores.
And those shores are popular with sun worshippers. The Okanagan Valley, which extends south to the U.S. border and includes Skaha Lake and Osoyoos Lake, is British Columbia's beach destination, more hospitable than the fjords along the Pacific coast. The towns of Osoyoos, Penticton (known for "peaches and beaches") and Kelowna have the look and feel of seaside resorts. Water sports, especially boating and personal watercraft, are popular. Hikers and cyclists can escape the perils of vinotourists along the twisty side roads by exploring the Kettle Valley Rail Trail, a 400-mile network of trails along abandoned train routes. Several nearby ski resorts offer winter fun. Okanagan Lake even has its own mythical sea creature, called Ogopogo.
One morning, Gordon Fitzpatrick showed us around Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards, a sparkling-wine specialist squeezed between Highway 97 and the western shore of Okanagan Lake near the small town of Peachland. As we sipped his delicious blanc de blancs, he pointed to the charred slope on the other side of the highway and described how an early July wildfire had threatened the winery. Then he pointed out a large rock outcropping near the far side of the lake.
"That's Rattlesnake Island, where legend says Ogopogo has his lair," he said, adding with a wink, "but you have to drink a lot of wine before he lets you see him."
We tried our best, but we never caught sight of the monster. For us, of course, wine was Okanagan's draw. But it wasn't the only reason we fell in love with the place. Count the views, the food and the people we met as reasons we wanted to stay. It was easy to sense the energy and excitement of a young wine region on the cusp of greatness.
Okanagan's wine industry was spurred into its current growth by the North American Free Trade Agreement, negotiated in the late 1980s. As government subsidies ended and cheap California wine poured into Canada, local winemakers accustomed to a captive market realized they had to improve quality to compete. This resulted in the Great Pullout of 1989, as growers pulled hybrid vines and planted European vinifera varieties. (The few remaining wines from hybrid grapes, such as Quail's Gate winery's Marechal Foch, have achieved a sort of cult status.)
. . .
Driving up and down the valley along Highway 97, where escarpment mingles with vineyards to create a stunning tableau, it's easy for U.S. wine lovers to think of California.
"People come here and say they had no idea there's a wine country here," says Sheri-Lee Turner-Krouzel, who, with her husband, Curtis Krouzel, founded 50th Parallel Estate winery in Lake Country, north of Kelowna. It's a cool area where they make delicious pinot noir and Riesling. "I've had several people say it's like Napa, only with a lake!"
There are similarities. There's a lot of money here. The economic boom of the '80s and '90s saw some wine lovers trade in their success in finance, medicine, and the oil and gas industries to pursue a second career in wine. The vineyards they planted are now mature, and many of the wines are outstanding. The most Napa-like winery is probably Mission Hill Family Estate. Owned by Anthony von Mandl, a former wine importer and art collector, the hilltop winery overlooking West Kelowna resembles Napa's Robert Mondavi Winery with its mission architecture, modern art throughout the grounds, and an amphitheater that draws top performers for lake-view concerts. Sheryl Crow had performed a month before our visit. We enjoyed a spectacular sunset as we dined at Mission Hill's Terrace restaurant. It was all the show we needed.
Food is another similarity with Napa. Okanagan may not yet be a culinary mecca, but it is making a case to become one. The Bench Market in Penticton has a California vibe as well as delicious breakfast and lunch sandwiches. Several wineries have restaurants, easing the search for food between wine tastings. Poplar Grove, Liquidity, Quail's Gate and 50th Parallel all feature the Okanagan formula of delicious food and wine paired with a spectacular view. Almost every winery contact we met raved about chef Mark Filatow and his Waterfront Wines restaurant in Kelowna. We capped off our stay there with a wonderful steelhead trout dish on our final evening in the valley.
And like Napa, the Okanagan is feeling the effects of climate change. Residents say those wildfires are one manifestation. Warm vintages in 2015 and 2017 hint of broader impacts. "Global warming is beginning to change the style of our wines," says Don Triggs, founder of Jackson-Triggs Winery and now, in his retirement, owner of Culmina Family Estate Winery in Oliver. "We are waiting for ripeness, but the sugars keep going up, which can be trouble depending on the style of wine you want to make."
Of course the differences don't end with the lakes. Napa Valley has become identified with cabernet sauvignon, while the Okanagan produces a wide variety of wines. From Kelowna north to Lake Country, Riesling, pinot noir and other cool-climate varieties thrive. Near Osoyoos in the south, the climate is noticeably warmer. There, cabernet sauvignon and syrah provide lushness and power to red wines. Several wineries throughout the valley own vineyards or purchase fruit from Osoyoos to bolster Bordeaux or Rhone-style red blends. The most widely planted grape in the valley is pinot gris.
"I think what we're known for here is diversity," says Randy Picton, winemaker at Nk'Mip winery in Osoyoos since the winery's founding in 2002. Nk'Mip is a joint venture between the Osoyoos Indian Band and Arterra Wines Canada, the country's largest drinks company. "We can grow everything in the Okanagan from world-class syrahs to Riesling ice wine," he said, referring to a sweet dessert wine made from grapes picked when they were frozen on the vine.
And of course, Napa's wines are world renowned. "No one in the world knows the Okanagan," says Tony Holler, owner of Poplar Grove Winery in Penticton. This year, Holler helped form a group of seven wineries called the Okanagan Wine Initiative to boost the region's reputation and market outside of British Columbia. "We thought as a group we could get the Okanagan out into the world of wine."
They've got a good message. John Skinner, a retired Vancouver stock analyst who launched Painted Rock Estate Winery in 2003 on a bowl-shaped bluff overlooking Skaha Lake, enjoys telling visitors in his gleaming-white tasting room how his site's microclimate helps him grow grapes organically. "The wind off the lake dries the grapes and reduces mildew pressure," he explained, then pointed to the sky where a pair of hawks were circling. "And that's our bird control," he said.
Skinner had a "pinch me, I must be dreaming" expression as he poured me a taste of his 2015 syrah. I admired its deep color, its scent of blueberries and a hint of smoked meat. The wine was elegant and reserved compared to the plusher, more powerful syrahs from farther south in the valley.
"People keep asking me, 'What's your best vintage?' " he said. "And I say, 'The next one.' It just keeps getting better."
It’s not just vines and views at Mission Hill Family Estate winery in the Okanagan Valley. Modern art is dotted along the walkways around the winery.
Canadian wine pioneer Donald Triggs retired from the helm of Canada’s largest drinks conglomerate, then started Culmina Family Estate Winery in Oliver along the southern part of the Okanagan Valley.
Okanagan Valley wine country offers spectacular sunsets, no matter which side of the lake you're on -- here seen from Mission Hill Family Estate winery in West Kelowna. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Leah McIntyre
Sherri-Lee Turner-Krouzel and Curtis Krouzel welcome guests with fine pinot noir, stunning lake views and a relaxed but energetic vibe at their 50th Parallel Estate Winery and Block One restaurant.
Travel on 11/04/2018
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