Fall 2015

72 hours in the Okanagan Valley

In the late 1980s, the region knew it had to get serious if it planned to compete at all on a global level. So it took the bold move of paying grape growers to pull out their inferior hybrid grapes and planting classic European varieties such as Merlot, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.

The turnaround is nothing short of stunning.

As recently as 15 years ago, the B.C. wine industry was languishing with fewer than 60 wineries. Today, it is thriving with more than 300.

The majority of these wineries reside in the warm Interior, the Okanagan Valley. It starts at the U.S. border near the town of Osoyoos and stretches 100 miles north, following the course of rivers and lakes, all surrounded by beautiful hillsides, rich agricultural history and consistently blue skies.

That a wine industry thrives here is remarkable. This region is on the edge of viticultural viability. It's a short growing season that features a blast of sunshine that barely lasts longer than 100 days. A cool spring or an early autumn frost can be difficult, even devastating.

Yet these conditions deliver more than just gray hairs to those who grow grapes and make wine here. The natural acidity that remains when the grapes perfectly ripen is a joy to behold, a perfect pairing for the fresh regional ingredients that go into the superb cuisine found throughout the province.

For the better part of a century, the Okanagan Valley — particularly the communities along the shorelines of Okanagan Lake — has been the sunshine-filled playground to residents of the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island to the west. Thus, the region has long known how to treat visitors. Thus, when the wine industry became established, the infrastructure for tourism already was well established.

The Okanagan Valley is easy to get to. From the Tri-City region, it is a four-hour drive to the border and another two hours north to Kelowna. From Seattle, Kelowna is a five-hour drive or easy one-hour flight from Sea-Tac.

U.S. travelers to British Columbia will need either a passport or an enhanced driver's license to enter Canada (and return to the United States).

If you plan to bring wine back to Washington, it isn't a huge deal. If you spend at least 48 hours in British Columbia, you may bring back 1.5 liters (two bottles) of wine duty-free. After that, the cost per liter is a mere 23 cents — regardless of the retail price, even if it's expensive ice wine. That comes out to $2.07 per case. Conversely, Canadians bringing Washington wines back north pay a much heavier price: 150 percent of the price paid.

With so many wineries and restaurants to delve into, a three-day visit to the Okanagan Valley will serve merely as an appetizer for future exploration. For this brief guide, we have broken the region into three areas: from the U.S. border to Okanagan Falls (a 40-minute drive); the Penticton and Naramata Bench area (20 minutes north of Okanagan Falls); and from Summerland to Salmon Arm (a three-hour drive) with a focus on Kelowna, a city with a population of about 110,000 residents.

While we cannot do complete justice to the entire 100-mile length of the Okanagan Valley, we hope this serves as a starting point for your own visits to the stunning region of the Pacific Northwest.

Border to Okanagan Falls

This region of the Okanagan Valley is the warmest and most fertile. Its annual heat equals that of California's Napa Valley, though in a much more compact time period. The majority of the Okanagan Valley's vineyards are in this stretch, with some of the most important residing on an area known as the Black Sage Bench just southeast of the town of Oliver.

While many of the wineries can be found along Highway 97, many others are just moments from the main highways. Some of the best are along Black Sage Road.

Wineries to visit

Many wineries are well worth visiting. Start with Nk'Mip Cellars near the border town of Osoyoos. It is the first aboriginal-owned winery in North America.

Heading north along Highway 97 are such wineries as Tinhorn Creek Vineyards and Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery, the latter of which is the "king of the Platinums," as winemaker Walter Gehringer has won 47 Platinum medals — more than any other Northwest winery — in Wine Press Northwest's annual best-of-the-best competition.

Across the valley from Gehringer and Tinhorn is Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, one of the most intriguing properties in the Pacific Northwest, thanks to a combination of vineyards, tasting room, restaurant and luxury lodging along the Black Sage Bench.

Heading north again on Highway 97, take a right onto the Corkscrew Trail just south of Okanagan Falls and visit such wineries as Wild Goose Vineyards, a past Wine Press Northwest Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year.

To the north side of Okanagan Falls on the east side of Skaha Lake features Blasted Church Vineyards, a fun-loving winery perched above the lake in a beautiful setting, and Pentâge Winery — a former Wine Press Northwest B.C. Winery of the Year that now offers tours of its remarkable 5,000-square-foot granite cellar.

Food

One of the best features in the Okanagan Valley is the prevalence of wineries with on-site restaurants. For more than a decade, the Okanagan has led the Pacific Northwest in this category, and it has helped to push forward the development of high-quality regional cuisine. In Osoyoos, enjoy a great meal at Dulce Social House.

Heading north toward Oliver, at Tinhorn Creek, Miradoro is one of the finest restaurant experiences in the valley. At neighboring Hester Creek Winery, Terrafina is a highly rated dining experience. Across the river at Burrowing Owl, delicious meals can be found at Sonora Room.

And in Okanagan Falls, Liquidity winery's bistro and Wild Goose's Smoke & Oak Bistro are excellent choices for great meals.

Lodging

Choices in the southern end of the valley include several beautiful properties. Wine travelers will find exactly what they need at Burrowing Owl south of Oliver, which offers 10 spacious rooms. Osoyoos, just across the border from Oroville, Wash., features the Watermark Beach Resort and the Walnut Beach Resort.

The wine-loving golfer can find nirvana at Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort and Spa with its challenging nine at Sonora Dunes and Nk’Mip Cellars just a pitching wedge away.

Penticton and Naramata Bench

Heading north to Penticton, wine tourists will find plenty to enjoy, from ample wineries in and near the city to plenty of restaurants and places to stay. Penticton is north of Skaha Lake and wraps around the southern end of Okanagan Lake.

On the east side of the lake is the Naramata Bench, one of the most fascinating wine regions in the Pacific Northwest. Naramata Road does not go through to any major roads that will get the traveler to the regions to the north. Thus, ultimately you will need to get back onto Highway 97 to drive up the west side of the lake to head north.

Penticton is home to more than 33,000 residents, a decent-sized city. Both lake shores (north and south of the city) provide recreation. In particular, the north end of the city along Okanagan Lake has many lodging options, from luxury to budget.

Wineries

For the most part, the focus of wine touring in Penticton is the stunning Naramata Bench, on the east side of Okanagan Lake. It is simple enough to spend an entire day on the bench, as there are now more than two-dozen producers.

Poplar Grove is not far from downtown Penticton and is nearly as famous for its cheese production as it is for its wines. The beautiful tasting room overlooks Penticton and Okanagan Lake.

Farther up the bench, don't miss such wineries as Kettle Valley, La Frenz, JoieFarm and Township 7. Each crafts some of the finest wines in the Pacific Northwest — all focusing on different styles. Kettle Valley's Crest Cab (when available) is one of the most remarkable red wines you're likely to try. JoieFarm produces stunning whites that are styled with the express purpose of pairing perfectly with the Northwest-Asian cuisine of the Lower Mainland. And La Frenz owner Jeff Martin makes some of the most stunning wines — from Pinot Noir to tawny dessert wines — in the province.

Near the community of Naramata is Bella Sparkling Wines, where Jay Drysdale — trained chef, sommelier, retailer, wine judge and now winemaker — is turning heads with his remarkable bubblies.

Food

Once again, wineries lead the way in this region, with Poplar Grove's Vanilla Pod restaurant, Lake Breeze's Patio Restaurant and Hillside Estate's Bistro all offering excellent choices for cuisine. JoieFarm recently added Joie Picnique, which features wood-fired oven that produces some of the best artisan pizzas in the valley. The Grape Leaf Café near the Naramata Heritage Inn also comes highly recommended.

Back in Penticton, some of the best food options include Brodo Kitchen, Hooded Merganser and Salty's Beach House.

Looking for a great breakfast and coffee choices? The Bench Artisan Food Market on the road to Naramata is the perfect stop.

Lodging

As we mentioned, there are ample choices for places to stay in Penticton.

The top hotel is the Lakeside Resort, which includes a convention center and casino. It faces Okanagan Lake and provides spectacular views. Be sure to request a lakeside room.

In Naramata, the Heritage Inn & Spa is a beautiful old property first built in 1908 that has a colorful history. On site, the spa provides many ways to relax, and the Rock Oven Restaurant & Lounge provides delicious cuisine.

Several B&B choices are available in and around Penticton. One of the most unusual and exotic is God's Mountain Estate, which is just south of town overlooking Skaha Lake. It is home to one of the finest Riesling vineyards on the West Coast (the grapes go to Wild Goose Vineyards). The 115-acre property feels like something straight out of the southern Mediterranean.

Summerland to Vernon

Getting back on Highway 97, head up the west side of Okanagan Lake through such communities as Summerland, Peachland and West Kelowna before crossing the lake into Kelowna, the largest city in the valley. Though it feels pretty far north, Kelowna actually is in the center of Okanagan Lake. Highway 97 continues up the east side of the lake to such communities as Okanagan Centre and Vernon. One can even keep going to Salmon Arm, another 45 miles north and home to more wineries, before reaching Kamloops.

Wineries

Perhaps 15 minutes north of Penticton is Summerland, a sizable community with several wineries and restaurants.

Among the most prominent is Sumac Ridge, which is one of the province's oldest and most-respected wineries (it's also owned by Constellation Brands, one of the world's largest wine producers). Stop by 8th Generation Vineyard in Summerland for superb bubbly and one of the best Rieslings anywhere. And visit Di Bello Wines, owned by former Washington winemaker Tom Di Bello, who spent a decade at CedarCreek in Kelowna.

On the approach to Kelowna, a stop at Mission Hill Family Estate is a visit to one of the most architecturally remarkable wineries anywhere (including Napa Valley). Owned by Anthony von Mandl, Mission Hill also is crafting some of the finest wines in the province. And von Mandl recently acquired CedarCreek.

Nearby is Quails' Gate Estate Winery, owned by the Stewart family and long one of the most credible producers in the Okanagan.

On the Kelowna side of the lake, a must-visit winery is Summerhill Pyramid Winery. Owned by former New Yorker Steve Cipes, Summerhill features a smaller version of the Cheops Pyramid in Egypt, where wine is pyramid-aged. Also in Kelowna, one of the most remarkable wine producers on the West Coast is Tantalus Vineyards, which crafts stunning Rieslings.

Farther north in Okanagan Centre, 50th Parallel also produces remarkable white wines, including Riesling. And Gray Monk Estate Winery crafts a delicious array of wines and provides remarkable views of the northern reaches of Okanagan Lake.

Traveling to Salmon Arm will land you at two of the northernmost wineries in the continent. Both Recline Ridge and Larch Hills produce estate wines that are nothing short of delicious.

Food

There is no shortage of restaurants in this stretch of your travels.

Beginning in Summerland, Local LoungeGrill is owned and operated by Christa-Lee McWatters Bond and her husband, Cameron Bond. Also in Summerland, check out Zia's Stonehouse.

In Kelowna, Pilgrim & Pearl, Salted Brick, Krafty Kitchen, Minstrel Café and Waterfront Restaurant and Wine Bar are all superb choices.

Ricardo's Mediterranean Kitchen in Winfield (north of the Kelowna airport on Highway 97) comes highly rated.

And in Vernon, Bamboo Beach Fusion Grille provides delicious Asian cuisine and is considered a can't-miss restaurant.

Many of the wineries also offer remarkable dining experiences, including CedarCreek, Gray Monk, Mission Hill, Summerhill and Quails’ Gate.

Lodging

There is no shortage of lodging choices in and around Kelowna, particularly along the lake. Three of the best are the Grand Okanagan, the Manteo Resort and the Coast Capri.

Those looking for B&B experiences won't go wrong with Touch of English Bed & Breakfast in Kelowna or the Destination Spa B&B in Vernon.

As mentioned earlier, this is by no means a comprehensive view of the Okanagan — that would require an entire book or two — but rather enough of a taste to provide the impetus to head to British Columbia’s Interior for a long weekend, then begin planning another adventure.

This story was originally published September 2, 2015 7:28 PM.

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