Three Days of Wine and Sun in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley
Average summer highs 77-80
By Neal McLennan
Imagine there’s a place that combines Walla Walla’s utilitarian approach to great winemaking and Napa Valley’s quaint Provençale vibe, with a little of Italy’s Lake Como glam thrown in. Not only does such a rarified world exist, it’s a mere five-and-half-hour drive (or a one-hour nonstop flight) northeast of Seattle.
Like much of Washington’s wine regions, British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley started out as a fruit-growing mecca of primarily apples and cherries before switching to grapes a few decades back. And while the wine scene here is on a major upswing, the still-nascent industry only produces about one-tenth the amount of grapes as Washington. However, savvy producers have taken a page from northern California’s playbook and quickly mastered the art of wine country tourism. But unlike a visit to its northern California counterpart, you can drive to the perpetually sunny Okanagan, avoid the crushing crowds and see the whole region in a long weekend.
Day 1: Kelowna
Central B.C.’s main hub has exploded in recent years, and the population of this one-time resort town now nears 200,000—many of whom live in sprawling million-dollar mansions along the lakeshore and have (oil-rich) Alberta plates on their SUVs. The upside to this boom is that there are enough world-class golf courses, spas and locavore-driven restaurants to keep you busy for a week.
Stay: Kelowna’s resort-town roots mean that, for a while, the nice hotels here came with casinos attached. The Hotel Eldorado (500 Cook Road; 250.763.7500; hoteleldoradokelowna.com) eschews such brass-tapped “luxury” in favor of a cool ’60s vibe that wouldn’t look out of place in retro Palm Springs.
Eat: Given the regional bounty and low (as compared to Vancouver) cost of living, Kelowna actually hosts a disproportionate number of great chefs, but these days, it’s Mark Filatow who reigns supreme. His Waterfront Wines (1180 Sunset Drive; 250.979.1222; waterfrontrestaurant.ca), which oddly is not on the waterfront, channels an almost Capitol Hill strain of upscale hipsterism while serving dishes such as pakora-batter-dipped calamari.
Visit: Mission Hill Family Estate (West Kelowna, 1730 Mission Hill Road; 250.768.7611; missionhillwinery.com) is the region’s Chateau Ste. Michelle—it’s not only the biggest winery, but also one of the best. Its muscular, expensive Oculus aims to be the Quilceda Creek of Canada, but it’s the Tom Kundig–designed winery itself, overlooking the lake and town, that’s still the defining architecture of the region.
Day 2: Penticton
An hour south of Kelowna is Penticton. It feels more like Pleasantville next to its much larger neighbor to the north, with fewer drive-throughs and box stores, as well as a large farmers’ market. Come summer, the beach on Okanagan Lake is packed, while taking an inner tube (and usually a case of Kokanee, a B.C. brew) on the natural lazy river between Okanagan and Skaha lakes is a local rite of passage. It’s also home to the Naramata Bench—the nine-mile stretch of vineyards that has become the most expensive farmland in Canada (at more than $150,000 an acre) and, with more than 30 wineries packed in, one of the epicenters of oenotourism.
Stay: Penticton also has a big casino hotel, but go hard in the opposite direction—the 12-room Naramata Inn (3625 First St.; 250.496.6808; naramatainn.com), a restored 1908 hotel with modern perks, such as an Aveda Concept Spa, is the ticket.
Eat: Vanilla Pod (425 Middle Bench Road; 250.494.8222; thevanillapod.ca) located at the entrance to the Naramata Bench, inside the lauded Poplar Grove Winery (poplargrove.ca). Sitting among the Pinot Gris and Cabernet Franc grapes, eating seasonal tapas on the patio overlooking Lake Okanagan pretty much sums up everything that’s good about the region in one fell swoop.
Visit: This is the best-situated region for a full day of wine tasting. Penticton has several agencies that will shuttle you around, but must-visits include Laughing Stock (laughingstock.ca), Nichol (nicholvineyard.com), Township 7 (township7.com) and Elephant Island (elephantislandwine.com), the last being arguably the preeminent fruit-wine producer in North America.
Day 3 Osoyoos/Oliver
The entire Okanagan is warm, but as you head another hour south to Osoyoos, you cross over into full-blown desert, where summer temperatures routinely hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit. You’re actually only a few miles north of Oroville, Washington, but large areas of land here are owned by the Osoyoos Indian Band, which has astutely turned the area into a summer paradise of golf, boating and, with its acclaimed Nk’Mip Cellars (pronounced in–ka–meep; nkmipcellars.com), impressive wine drinking.
Stay: The five Tuscan-inspired suites at Hester Creek Villa (Oliver, 877 Road 8; 866.498.4435; hestercreek.com) look as if they were plucked from Calistoga and plunked here. Open the window and breathe in the heady smell of desert sage—the natural groundcover that imparts its own stamp on the wine produced in the region.
Eat: Chef Jeff Van Geest was a locavore pioneer in Vancouver before ditching big-city stress to helm Miradoro at the stellar Tinhorn Creek winery (Oliver, Tinhorn Creek Road; 888.484.6467; tinhorn.com). The buzz here is that his wood-fired oven spits out the Okanagan’s best Napoli pizza.
Visit:The six-mile Golden Mile Trail (info at hellobc.com) traverses some of the area’s best wineries, before leading to the ghost town of Fairview. Wildlife viewing opportunities range from California bighorn sheep (likely) to the native western rattlesnake (hopefully, less likely).
5 essential B.C. wines to take home
(1) Foxtrot Pinot Noir, $55, the best Pinot north of the Willamette; (2) Tantalus Old Vines Riesling, $30, dry and crisp, could be an Alsace Grand Cru; (3) Joie Farm Rosé, $21, the wine that started the B.C. rosé revolution; (4) Nichol Syrah, $35, tastes like a trip to the northern Rhône; and (5) Painted Rock Red Icon, $50, young winery, amazing wine.
Note: U.S. citizens can bring back 1 liter of alcohol per person duty free; a tax of about $1–$2 for beer and wine (based on percent of alcohol per liter) is assessed on each additional liter.