Marketers got it right when they dubbed Canada's western-most province "Beautiful British Columbia." From the stunning cities of Vancouver and Victoria to the wilds of the islands, Lower Mainland and Interior, British Columbia is amazing in every way.
Fortunately for wine lovers, the province has quickly matured since hybrid vines were pulled out in the late 1980s, replaced with proper European grape varieties. These days, wines from British Columbia are turning heads throughout the Northwest and even around the globe.
The cuisine is no less superb, thanks to an abundance of fresh seafood and the dedication of local farmers to produce superb ingredients for the province's talented chefs.
If you haven't visited British Columbia from the perspective of a wine lover, now is the time to add it to your to-do list.
Perhaps no other region in North America has more to offer a wine tourist than British Columbia's Okanagan Valley.
The climate mirrors that of Eastern Washington, and temperatures tend to be quite similar. Those factors begin to explain why residents of the prairies flock to the Okanagan during the winter and so many on both shores of Canada choose to retire here.
Despite increased production, it is difficult to find these wines outside of the province because what the locals don't grab, Vancouver will.
One delicacy seemingly left for American and Asian tourists is ice wine. It is a serious endeavor in Canada for many reasons, and each winery must have a government agent monitor each harvest of ice wine to ensure grapes are picked at -8 Celsius or below.
Officially, there are five appellations or Designated Viticultural Areas in British Columbia, and two are east of the Cascade Range -- the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys. Consumers will see references on bottles to three areas yet to be established as a DVA -- the Naramata Bench, South Okanagan and the Golden Mile.
If you spot Ogopogo, whip out a camera. There's reportedly a $1 million reward for the person who can prove the existence of Canada's version of the Loch Ness Monster.
Kelowna (and beyond)
Perhaps the grandest facility in the Pacific Northwest is Mission Hill Family Estate, built in West Kelowna by Vancouver native Anthony von Mandl. Its 12-story bell tower looks out over Okanagan Lake, and the rest of the property is unlike any you will find in North America.
There are a number of reasons to venture north of Kelowna. A 30-minute drive to Okanagan Centre brings you to Gray Monk Estate Winery, where George and Trudy Heiss gave up careers as hairdressers and built a destination winery.
Drive beyond the 50th parallel to Salmon Arm and experience the remarkable wines at Larch Hill.
In Kelowna, there is the Pacific Northwest's oldest winery: Calona Vineyards, created in 1932. A trip south along Lakeshore Drive will be rewarded with stops at Summerhill, CedarCreek and St. Hubertus, rebuilt after it was destroyed in the 2003 wildfires.
A number of wineries -- including Mission Hill -- followed Quails' Gate into West Kelowna. The Stewart family first planted vines here in 1961 and created the winery in 1989. Continue south for First Estate and Deep Creek/ Hainle Vineyards near Peachland.
Summerland is home to the winery that planted the seed of what the Okanagan Valley could be. In 1980, Harry McWatters created Sumac Ridge -- the province's first estate winery. Sumac Ridge also pioneered the concept of on-premise restaurants with its Cellar Door Bistro. Now, there are more than a dozen such winery/ restaurants in the valley.
Among the many reasons to tour the Okanagan Valley is to take in the Naramata Bench, one of the most photographed geologic features in the region and home to an amazing concentration and assortment of award-winning wineries.
Australia native Jeff Martin left Quails' Gate to start La Frenz, and he fashioned it into one of the top wineries in the Northwest. Kettle Valley's wines achieved cult-status, particularly in Vancouver restaurants, years ago. Hillside, Lake Breeze and Red Rooster both offer ideal wining and dining experiences.
Pentage -- our 2011 B.C. Winery of the Year -- overlooks Skaha Lake. It is on the east side, south of Penticton.
Farther south on the Corkscrew Trail are Painted Rock as well as Blasted Church, where imaginative artwork on labels helps tell the story of how the town of Okanagan Falls got its church in 1929 by using dynamite.
Beyond the town of Okanagan Falls, glacier-carved McIntyre Bluff looms larger. On Sun Valley Way are Stag's Hollow, Noble Ridge and Wild Goose -- our 2009 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year.
McIntyre Bluff serves as the northern boundary for South Okanagan Wine Association, and three wineries -- Dunham & Froese, the new Hidden Chapel and Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate -- look straight up at the 1,000-foot remnant of the Ice Age.
Both entrances to Oliver proclaim it "The Wine Capital of Canada," and it is loosely defined by two regions -- the Golden Mile along Highway 97 and the Black Sage Bench.
American ex-pat Sandra Oldfield's Tinhorn Creek Vineyards offers remarkable views of both regions, as well as a demonstration vineyard, concerts and now fine dining, courtesy of Miradoro Restaurant.
Gehringer Brothers also ranks as one of the go-to wineries in the Okanagan Valley. Next door is Hester Creek, a multi-faceted estate winery that offers upscale B&B accommodations and a new restaurant.
Sandor Mayer arrived in the valley just before the vine pullout in 1988, planted the Dark Horse Vineyard soon after, and he's been winemaker for Inniskillin Okanagan since 1992. Cassini Cellars -- our 2011 B.C. Winery to Watch -- has made many forget his property was a huge lavender farm.
Black Sage Bench
Burrowing Owl Estate Winery is the icon of the Black Sage Bench. First were the plantings by Jim Wyse, starting in 1993, and he followed up with outstanding wines, then a restaurant and boutique lodging to match.
On the west side of Black Sage Road are a number of noteworthy wineries. Black Hills pioneered the lesser Bordeaux variety Carmenere in the province, and Graham Pierce's Nota Bene blend is among the most coveted wines in Canada. Le Vieux Pin and James Cambridge produce some of the highest-priced wines in the country, and they rarely disappoint. Stoneboat Vineyards is not only an estate operation, but also operates a greenhouse and was Wine Press Northwest's 2010 B.C. Winery to Watch.
The Osoyoos Indian Band's wines under the Nk'Mip Cellars label have become world-class thanks to winemaker Randy Picton. On top of that, the band also operates the tony Spirit Ridge Resort, which includes a challenging 9-hole golf course and first-rate restaurant -- Passa Tempo.
A growing number of wineries in the province appreciate the quality of grape growing done between Keremeos and Cawston. That will continue to raise the profile of wineries such as Clos du Soleil, Crowsnest, EauVivre, Herder and Robin Ridge.
The Similkameen can be accessed from Penticton on Highway 3A or Oliver on Highway 3.
There can be no doubt the Okanagan Valley is the epicenter of food-and-wine culture in the Northwest, evidenced by the number of wineries operating on-premise restaurants.
The list starts in Okanagan Centre with Gray Monk. In Kelowna, there's Mission Hill and its outdoor Terrace Restaurant. Quails' Gate has the Old Vines Patio, Summerhill Pyramid's the Sunset Bistro and the CedarCreek restaurant, also called Terrace.
Not far from CedarCreek is the Manteo Resort, and its Wild Apple Restaurant & Lounge offers imaginative food that will keep lure back guests morning, noon and night.
In downtown Kelowna, there's RauDZ Regional Table. It is the most recent culinary iteration by chef Rod Butters and wife Audrey Surrao.
There are two options in Summerland. The McWatters clan owns and operates the lakeside Local Lounge * Grille.
On the Naramata Bench, Hillside Estate and Lake Breeze can serve lunch al fresco. For dinner, the Naramata Heritage Inn & Spa offers both fine dining and a wine bar.
In downtown Penticton, Greek-themed Theo's remains popular among wineries.
Around Oliver, three wineries offer a complete dining experience -- Burrowing Owl (Sonora Room Restaurant), Hester Creek (Terrafina) and Tinhorn Creek (Miradoro).
For breakfast and coffee, the Naramata Cafe at the base of the Naramata Bench has a regular crowd and doesn't disappoint. In downtown Oliver, you'll likely hear some vineyard gossip at the Cock & Bull Cappuccino Bar.
In Osoyoos, Dolci Deli & Catering offers great coffee, fresh pastries and smoked meats for breakfast and lunch.
In Kelowna, there's The Grand Okanagan downtown and its 390 rooms or the Manteo Resort on the east shore. There are more than 10 B&Bs in and around Kelowna.
In Penticton, the Lakeside Resort & Casino offers stunning views of Okanagan Lake and is a great base from which to tour. On the Naramata Bench, options include the Georgian-styled Unique B&B.
In Osoyoos, the best options for wine lovers are Spirit Ridge Vineyard & Resort, the Walnut Beach Resort on Lake Osoyoos and the Watermark Beach Resort.
Golfers who leave their clubs behind will regret it. Cyclists also have many opportunties, including the Naramata Bench. The paddle wheeler Casabella Princess uses Penticton as its port of call and stages wine dinner cruises. The Desert Centre just north of Osoyoos features a boardwalk through shrub-steppe.
The provincial government's British Columbia Wine Institute was established in 1990. Touring information and maps are available through its site at winebc.com. A listing of the Naramata Bench wineries is through naramatabench.com. Ideas, special offers and discounts are available on British Columbia's provincial tourism site is at hellobc.com. Thompson Okanagan tourism's page is at thompsonokanagan.com.
While the Lower Mainland can't compete with the Okanagan in terms of the number and density of wineries and vineyards, it remains a rich experience for the wine tourist, offering world-class restaurants expert in pairing wines with the abundance of the region's seas and fields.
Although Vancouver and Fraser Valley aren't as thick with wineries as the Okanagan, wine tourists will find plenty to occupy themselves. Pacific Breeze Urban Winery lives up to the in its name with its warehouse location in New Westminster but offers a cozy tasting room. For more of an estate experience, visit Lulu Island Winery in Richmond and sample its diverse line of varietal, fruit and ice wines. Amid the agricultural fields of Langley you'll find the wineries and vineyards of Domaine de Chaberton, Township 7 and Vista D'oro.
Vancouver has a world-class reputation when it comes to restaurants, benefiting from its mix of cultures and proximity to abundant fishing grounds and rich agricultural fields.
Among myriad choices in downtown Vancouver, check out the venerable O'Doul's, whose menu offers wine recommendations for nearly every dish. Others worth consideration include Brix Restaurant and Wine Bar, Cru, Le Crocodile, a Vancouver institution for 26 years; and sister restaurants Blue Water Cafe and Raw Bar, West and Cin Cin.
Wine bars make walking downtown Vancouver an even greater pleasure. Check out Uva Wine Bar, Bin 941 and Bin 942, Raw Canvas, the Regional Tasting Lounge and Au Petite Chauvignol.
Vancouver's lodging choices are as diverse as its restaurants. You can stay in royal luxury at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, built in 1939, with its iconic green-patina roof, or somewhere with an artist's vibe, such as the Moda Hotel in a 1908 building kitty-corner from Vancouver's Orpheum Theatre. Want a place within walking distance of Stanley Park and its waterfront walking and biking trail? The Syliva Hotel, built in 1912, offers that, and it's ivy-covered to boot. Also consider The Sutton Place Hotel, which features its own wine shop. For views of Vancouver's water and mountains, consider the 31-story Blue Horizon, the Pan Pacific, and the Shangi-La Hotel. The Listel Hotel, above the previously mentioned O'Doul's Restaurant, showcases a collection of contemporary and Northwest Coast Indian art.
Walk amid Ming Dynasty beauty at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classic Chinese Garden, then enjoy a dim-sum lunch in Chinatown. There isn't a better stroll than the waterfront path at Stanley Park, and you can also come face-to-face with a beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium in the park. View the works of Emily Carr and other great Canadian artists at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Those without a fear of heights can drive north to the Capilano Suspension Bridge and look down 230 feet to the Capilano River. The Richmond Olympic Oval allows you to ice skate in the tracks of Apolo Ohno.
Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands
Wine touring on Vancouver Island and British Columbia's Gulf Islands puts the emphasis on the touring, but what spectacular sights you'll see along the way by air, vehicle or ferry. Vancouver Island is served by ferries out of Anacortes and Port Angeles, Wash., and Tsawwassen, B.C. BC Ferries also provides service to the Gulf Islands, including Pender, Saturna and Salt Spring, each home to wineries and vineyards.
Many wineries feature estate vineyards that by necessity grow cool-weather varieties.
Church and State Wines' Brentwood Bay winery, south of Sydney on Vancouver Island and minutes from Butchart Gardens, offers a wine bar daily and lunch menu served on its patio Wednesday through Sunday. North from Victoria off the Trans-Canada Highway, you'll find Averill Creek, Glenterra, Blue Grouse, Cherry Point Estate, Rocky Creek, Venturi-Schulze wineries in the Cowichan Valley and Cowichan Bay area.
Among Gulf Island wineries, look for Garry Oaks and Salt Spring Winery on Salt Spring Island. A Gulf Island pioneer since 1997, Saturna Vineyard on Saturna Island grows and produces Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir rose.
Among the most well-known restaurants, particularly for seafood, is Sooke Harbour House, west of Victoria along the island's southern coast and off Highway 14, offering dramatic views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Washington's Olympic Mountains. SeaGrille, at the Brentwood Bay Resort and minutes from the airport and ferries, offers coast cuisine, along with a sushi and wine bar.
The Parisian-inspired Bon Rouge Bistro and Lounge in Victoria offers a menu of seafood, game, cheese and wine. In Ganges, on Salt Spring Island, it's hard to beat the Tree House Cafe, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, where you can dine on covered patio beneath a spreading plum tree.
The obvious choice is Victoria's landmark Fairmont Empress, which opened in 1908. Whether you stay there or not, you can always lift a pinkie at the Empress' Afternoon Tea, served daily. For more modern surroundings, consider the Brentwood Bay Resort and Spa, and the Magnolia Inn & Spa. Visitors to the Gulf Islands can choose from a host of vacation cabins and bed-and-breakfast inns, as well as larger inns, such as Salt Spring's Hastings House in the main town of Ganges or Saturna Lodge on Saturna Island.
The Royal British Columbia Museum is the Smithsonian of the province, offering galleries exploring First Nations aboriginal cultures and art, natural history and modern history and art. To get an idea of how vast British Columbia is, check out the museum's Big Map, an interactive 21-foot by 16-foot iPadlike animated display that explains the geography and history of the province. Another year-round must-see is the Butchart Gardens in Brentwood Bay, south of the airport and ferry landing. Dramatic vistas of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Pacific Ocean are plentiful with a drive along the island's southern coast Highway 14. Plan a stop for hiking and beachcombing at Juan de Fuca Provincial Park.
More information is available from Tourism BC at hellobc.com. And on the Gulf Islands, specifically at gulfislandstourism.com.
This story was originally published June 15, 2011 12:00 AM.