BC/s Okanagan is one of the best wine growing areas

Tuesday, May 9th, 2006

Tuscany of Canada stands on its own as premier producer in the country

Julia Necheff

It’s been described as the Tuscany or Provence of Canada, but the Okanagan Valley stands on its own as a scenic vacation destination and producer of fine wine.

The Okanagan wine industry is young — the first winery opened in 1932 — but it didn’t start coming into its own until the 1990s.

The industry is booming these days and new wineries are springing up all over. At last count, the number of wineries in the Okanagan had grown to 125. Many boast world-class views.

Given the number and variety of wineries and the distances involved, Okanagan wine country is best savoured slowly, for it is by no means compact. From Salmon Arm and Vernon at the north end to Osoyoos near the U.S. border, it stretches about 200 kilometres.

As well, because of climate variations, the grape-growing regions can be divided into three distinct parts — north, central and south — each with its own characteristics.

Experts agree you have to be strategic about how you go about drinking it all in.

To do it justice, it should be covered in stages over several days to a week, advises noted wine writer John Schreiner, whose 10th book, John Schreiner’s Okanagan Wine Tour Guide, was released recently.

“The first thing that people have to realize is that this is a very large region, so you’ve got to make up your mind how to break it up for purposes of touring,” Schreiner says in an interview.

Kelowna makes a good base for exploring the north and central wineries, several of which are major, well-established producers.

Then it’s a good idea to head down the highway and stay somewhere in the Naramata-Penticton-Oliver area, where the heaviest concentration of wineries is located.

The next big question is whether to take advantage of organized wine tours or do it yourself.

Catherine Callary of Tourism Kelowna says there are advantages to both.

The wine route is well marked with burgundy-and-white signs showing a cluster of grapes. Maps are available at the tourism office located at 544 Harvey Ave. in downtown Kelowna.

Or there are several tour companies that cover the whole Okanagan. There are the standard winery-and-lunch tours, while others combine activities. One company has a golf-wine package; another combines hiking with a visit to a winery.

The biggest advantage to taking an organized tour, of course, is that you don’t have to drive after doing a lot of wine-tasting.

Schreiner would rather see visitors strike out on their own, but he agrees organized tours have their place. Even though it’s perfectly acceptable to spit out the wine during a tasting and spittoons are supplied for that purpose, people often don’t want to or find it embarrassing, he notes.

If you like taking your own vehicle so you have the freedom to explore the back roads, make sure there’s a designated driver and that you have a map and some kind of guide to the wineries.

And don’t cram in too many visits. The palate gets tired after a while so three to four wineries in a day is plenty, Callary says.

For Schreiner, much of the charm comes from taking the time to learn about the wineries and the people who run them. His new book is full of interesting bits about each winery and its owners, and also includes wine recommendations.

“I think it’s a tragedy or a waste of time if you stumble from winery to winery without having any idea of who the people are,” he says. “I’m fascinated by meeting some of the people and getting their stories and talking beyond wine.”


Asked for his pick of must-see wineries, Schreiner names about a dozen, for their interest as well as their wine.

Coming from the north, there’s Grey Monk.

“It’s a beautiful setting. The winery has been there about 25 years. The owners are very hospitable, it’s a very popular place,” Schreiner says.

Just east of Kelowna are CedarCreek, St. Hubertus and Summerhill, all within minutes of each other.

“CedarCreek has been (named) winery of the year in Canada twice now, so obviously the wines are very good and the tour program is outstanding,” Schreiner says. It’s owned by a Liberal senator, Ross Fitzpatrick.

St. Hubertus was destroyed by a forest fire in 2003, but the winery has been rebuilt.

Stephen Cipes, owner of the Summerhill Pyramid Winery, built a replica of the Great Pyramid of Egypt. He firmly believes that harnessing pyramid energy is the key to making fine wine. Summerhill is also the only certified organic winery in the Okanagan.

In Westbank is the most lavish winery in B.C., Mission Hill Family Estate — which Schreiner describes as a “jaw-dropper.”

Proprietor Anthony von Mandl spared no expense in building a large, Tuscan-style winery atop Mission Hill overlooking Lake Okanagan, complete with a spacious courtyard, terrace restaurant, loggia and a 12-storey bell tower with bronze bells imported from France.

“It’s absolutely spectacular,” says Schreiner.

Just down the hill, Quail’s Gate is another fine winery with a lovely patio and a gorgeous view.

Farther south, Schreiner says he’s a huge fan of the numerous wineries on the Naramata Bench near Penticton. You can devote two days there alone, he says.

Near Okanagan Falls, south of Penticton, there’s Blasted Church winery — named after a church that was dynamited in 1929 — and the Wild Goose winery has, in his opinion, the best riesling and gewurztraminer bar none.

Also near Okanagan Falls, Hawthorn Mountain Vineyards was established by a dog-loving military man, Maj. Hugh Fraser. One of its wines is named Ping, after Fraser’s favourite dog.

On the so-called Golden Mile near the town of Oliver, Schreiner singles out Tinhorn Creek and Gehringer Brothers. The Gehringers have kept their prices down and have the best value wines in the Okanagan, he says.

Schreiner raves about the wine from Burrowing Owl winery on Black Sage Road near Oliver.

In the far south, one should not miss Nk’Mip Cellars near Osoyoos, the first aboriginal-owned winery in North America.

In the Similkameen valley to the west, Schreiner says he’s impressed by the wine from the new Orofino Vineyards, the first B.C. winery constructed with straw bales.

© The Vancouver Province 2006


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