19 inches of rainfall in 24 hours is the record for the west coast of Vancouver Island. Our goal was to drive to the rain shadow of Okanagan Valley (400 miles east of the coast), sample some wine and enjoy the sun. The rain shadow is created as the moist air off the Pacific Ocean brings abundant rainfall to the Coastal and Cascades Mountains of British Columbia. By the time the air reaches the east and into the Okanagan Valley it is dry. How dry?
Some unofficial records indicate just 6 inches of yearly rainfall. However official records range from 10 to 13 inches a year with 304 days of sunny conditions. Nice! Most major US and Canadian cites have averages closer to 30 to 50 inches.
This dry air creates a semi-arid region and some even say the Okanagan Valley is simply a northern extension of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and Mexico. Some locals call it the Okanagan Desert and the Osoyoos Indian Band calls it the Nk’mip Desert (meaning bottomland).
We started our drive in Seattle in the rain and were happy to arrive five hours later in sunny Osoyoos, located in Central /Southern British Columbia. We continued a short distance to the north and were ready to explore the Golden Mile at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards.
If one wanted a workout you could explore the six mile long Golden Mile trail where the evidence of long past gold mining can be found. Instead, we decided to meet up with Andrew Moon, Vineyard Manager and Viticulturist at Tinhorn Creek. Andrew spent his early years training in the Australian wine industry before coming to Tinhorn Creek.
From the tasting room we walked the short distance to the Miradoro Restaurant at Tinhorn Creek. Our tasting started with Pinot Noir and we quickly realized the Pinots in this region are just as good as those in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. The prefect light fruit taste is partially derived from the terroir of the glacial till that creates prefect loamy soils. Also, the soft mineral taste comes from the rocks of Mount Kobau which is just to the west. We savored the light fruit nose and relaxed while enjoying the panoramic view of the vineyard
Since our trip would cover many dining experiences we decided to highlight one dish. My wife chose the Margarita Pizza which is prepared in the classic Neapolitan style. My only disappointment was she shared only one small piece of this delightful pizza. Owner Manuel Ferreira has brought his success from his restaurant in Vancouver to new heights in the hills of the Okanagan. In fact Manuel recently received an award as “Best Winery Vineyard Dining.” We had a toast to this as Andrew brought us their Chardonnay. We enjoyed the full body taste which is just briefly fermented in French Oak to help give that rich but really light taste.
The next stop (100 yards away) was to check in at the Villa at Hester Creek Estate Winery. This Mediterranean style Villa is perched on top of the hill with views of the vineyards and orchards below as well as the mountains in the distance. After a warm welcome and tour by the innkeeper we noticed the complimentary bottle of Character Red from Hester Creek. Wine drinking and dining would be on hold while took the opportunity to relax in this setting and do some serious “power lounging.”
An hour later we were refreshed and ready for the short stroll down the hill past the tasting room and entered the Terrafina Restaurant at Hester Creek. Housed in what used to be the tasting room of Hester Creek, it was the perfect place to sample their wine and dine. Both the Villa and the restaurant were beautifully designed to make us believe we had been transported to Tuscany! We were greeted by owner April Goldade who is no stranger to the area having worked in the Okanagan Valley for many years. We were also happy to meet Natasha Schooten, Restaurant Chef, who carries an impressive resume. We did not find out till later that Natasha is a winner in the “BBQ King (Queen) Competition.” This title was earned admirably in Similkameen in 2012 at the competition. We were sorry we missed that, as Natahsa’s smoked pulled chicken was a big hit.
The Pinot Blanc from Hester Creek was served while we discussed dinner options. We enjoyed the crisp taste with just a light hint of apple, peach and herbal notes. However, we had several problems to deal with. One was to make our choices from all the fresh offerings and the other challenge was to pick just one dish to write about. One decision became easy as we told the Chef to bring out small portions of her favorites. Well, after 3 hours we had sampled almost everything and the runner-up favorite was the Spicy Shrimp and Pancetta Pizza. This pizza paired perfectly with the Pinot Blanc. However the winner for the evening was the meatballs. Presented with light parmesan pedals on top, they are made from local beef and house-made sausage. The CabernetMerlot Reserve, a Bordeaux style blend with light plum notes, paired perfectly. Since we could not possibility handle dessert, April suggested the Late Harvest Pinot Blanc and the bright crisp sweetness was just the right finish to the meal. We thanked April and Natasha for the culinary delights and took the short hike back up to the Villa. As we walked past the tasting room we discussed the great work of Winemaker Robert Summers at Hester Creek. Prior to Hester Creek, Rob worked in Ontario before migrating to the Okanagan Valley in 2006. Rob worked at Cave Springs Winery located in the town of Jordan, Ontario between Toronto and Niagara Falls. Prior to that Rob worked as a distiller. Once back at the Villa we had some of Rob’s Character Red which is a blend of Merlo, Syrah, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. The taste of coffee and plum were the right finish for the day.
We were awakened by a knock on the door and our breakfast was waiting at the exact time we requested. We had a full day ahead and getting fueled up with an omelet and fresh pastry was critical. I’m always surprised how I can be hungry after all the eating done some eight hours earlier.
We were just south of Oliver, British Columbia (which is called the “Wine Capital of Canada) and began our drive north to Okanagan Falls. We drove through some of the vast vineyards where over 50% of the wine grapes in BC are grown from the Valley of Oliver stretching to south to the US border. It is the perfect place for wine grapes. Why? Location, terroir, and weather!!
The semiarid nature of the area is a big advantage in terms of avoiding the mildew disease issues that are found in wetter environments like Napa. And thanks to extensive irrigation, water is not an issue. Adding to the advantages of the Okanagan is the 2 extra hours of daylight during the growing season, compared to areas of Napa and south. The result is prefect summer growing conditions with average high temperatures in the mid-80s There are also plenty days of temperatures in the 90’s. And – the cool nights help the grapes develop an excellent balance. Also beneficial is that the rain in the summer is short lived and the winds and the dry atmospheres helps impede any diseases that might form.
All of this should dispel the notion that it is too cold to grow wine grapes in Canada. Of course it is cold in the winter but some areas have 200 frost free days a year - which is prefect for growing.
However the skeptic will still wonder. Well, during dormant times, average high temperatures in January are 35 (F) with low 26 (F) which is rarely cold enough to do permanent damage. Why is that? One reason is Okanagan Lake, which protects much of the region. This deep lake (close to 800 feet) does not freeze and is a huge body of water with the ability to retain heat
Well, I’m finished with the Weather 101 course lecture to my wife and she was happy about that. Our 30 minute drive from Oliver to Okanagan Falls took us to Meyer Family Vineyards. On this bright sunny day we were enthusiastically greeted by Bruce, followed by Jak Meyer the owner. Bruce is a very friendly dog and the official greeter. It all fits in well, being located near Skaha Lake which was originally named Dog Lake, and Okanagan Falls which used to be called Dogtown.
Morning seemed to be a great time to sip the Pinot Noir and enjoy the light rich taste. Winemaker Chris Carson crafted his Pinot trade in New Zealand where he won a trophy for best Pinot Noir at the Sydney International Wine Competition. After that, Chris returned to Canada in 2008 bringing his wife and fellow winemaker, Jacqueline Kemp. She works at another winery in the Okanagan and also specializes in Pinot Noir. We never did get an answer as to who makes the best Pinot in the Valley.
We continued our wine quest north into the Okanagan Valley for some lunch and wine tasting in Penticton at Poplar Grove. We certainly enjoyed the lightly oaked Chardonnay, but our favorite was the Viognier with its light orange nose and a delicate fruity taste. This is the prefect wine for a summer evening on the patio or with a dinner of barbecued salmon.
Speaking of food, we walked over to The Vanilla Pod Restaurant at Popular Grove. We enjoyed the view of Apex Mountain - which was our destination for the coming evening (more on that later). The favorite dish was the Mushroom Stone Oven Flatbread and we decided that if we lived in the area this would be our regular hangout. The flatbread was extraordinary with a wonderful crust, wild mushrooms, fresh greens and just the right amount of cheese. The Syrah we shared had a light tannin structure and the herbal wine notes went perfectly with the flatbread.
After about 36 hours of eating and sipping we figured it was time to get some exercise. So within fifteen minutes we arrived at Skaha Bluffs Park. The Park is considered a world class climbing area and we noticed the climbers with their gear. We took a short hike to enjoy the views of the bluffs and the Ponderosa Pines. We hoped for a sighting of the rare species make their home there, bighorn sheep, rattlesnakes or spotted bats – to no avail.
Conveniently located adjacent to the park we found ourselves at the Painted Rock Estate Winery. The brand new tasting room on top of the hill had stunning views of Skaha Lake and the bluffs near the trails we had just hiked. The signature wine is the Bordeaux blend; however our favorite was the Syrah - spicy with a great nose of pepper. The vineyard boasts an interesting planting of Syrah, which had recently been prompted by an expert wine critic.
We really did not have much time to visit, since in less than an hour we had to check into our hotel in Penticton, load up our daypacks (night packs?) and dress for a moonlight snowshoe excursion. We were ready, but concerned about how we are going to recognize our guides from Hoodoo Adventures. Well, we were the only folks standing in the parking lot looking like we were ready for an arctic venture – so they easily found us. We took the 45 minute ride to Apex Mountain. Even with the wind blowing and the temperature at 25 (F) we were very cozy. We were curious why one guide was snowshoeing with us while Lindsay; the other guide went the other way. Well after snowshoeing for several hours we met up with Lindsay, who had taken a sled loaded with wood, food, and wine. She had a big bonfire going and the chili really hit the spot. The highlight was the detailed wine and cheese pairing (from Upper Bench Winery and Creamery) that Lindsay guided us through while we huddled in the snow bank.
While we greatly enjoyed this outing, my wife said that next time we should sign up for a warmer adventure. Maybe the kayak trip across the lake to a winery or a BBQ on a secluded beach. We will definitely be contacting Hoodoo Adventures later in the spring.
Bedtime was easy after this night venture and luckily we got to sleep in till 9 am rather than our normal 6 am. We took the five minute drive from the main part of Penticton to Hillside Winery & Bistro. Early spring means that the vines are still asleep but there is still a lot of outdoor activity. I first noticed all the digging and landscape work being done. The gentleman doing the digging introduced himself as owner Duncan McCowan and offered me a shovel. Duncan is a geologist so I was intrigued to hear about the details of the Naramata Bench where the winery is located. The soil is blessed with glacial till and sandy soil that drains well and encourages the roots to reach deep into the rich minerals. Furthermore, I learned that the ancient glacial Lake Penticton used to be located right up next to the road. It was formed some 13,000 years ago when part of the glacier broke off and dammed the current place where the lake is drained, Okanagan Falls. The level of the lake was some 380 feet higher than currently. I told Duncan on this windy day the whitecaps would have been on his property
Well it was time to let Duncan continue his work and chat with winemaker Kathy Malone. Our hands down favorite was Mosaic - their signature wine blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. The grapes are all from the Naramata Bench. Kathy brings 30 years of winemaking in the Okanagan to make this one of her best.
We thanked Kathy for the visit and Duncan for not putting me to work. Our next stop was a short five minute drive to the Upper Bench Winery & Creamery. We found that we would reenact what we did just 12 hours ago this time while being entertained by a wonderful couple – owners Gavin and Shana Miller. Remember last night we had the exact same wine and cheese paring at Apex Mountain, however we also enjoyed this warmer visit at 70 (F) degrees vs. 25 (F).
Rumor has it that cheesemaker Shana Miller sings to her cheese but while we missed that, we certainly felt the vibes that she loves her trade. We were entertained in a full tasting room, joined by local restaurateurs and artisans. We sampled Gavin’s Riesling which had a light peach nose and nice mineral taste. This went perfectly with Shana’s French Gold cheese. We loved the basil and rosemary herbs in the creamy soft cheese.
We asked how Gavin and Shana met since Shana is from Nova Scotia and Gavin comes from a little further east, England. The two migrated to the Okanagan Valley in the 1990’s worked at Poplar Grove where they each learned their trade there before starting Upper Bench in 2011.
We probably could have stayed all day enjoying the wine and cheese, but it was time to continue north past Kelowna toward Vernon. We traveled almost the entire length of the stunning 84 miles of the glistening Okanagan Lake. Our destination was going to be our home for the next two days where we would enjoy the charms of Sparkling Hill Resort. I hope that no one asks us to name our favorite experience at Sparkling Hill. It would be cruel to have to decide between the 7 unique steams and saunas of the spa, the 12 kilometers of nature trails, the indoor saltwater pool with underwater music or the outdoor infinity pool which hangs out over the valley. My wife would vote for the outdoor infinity pool. The pool entrance is inside the warm lodge so that even in the winter it is a treat. The resort is the brain-child of Gernot Lange-Swarovski, patriarch of the Swarovski crystal family. It was designed by Swarovski’s chief crystal architect who incorporated 3.5 million crystal elements in this uniquely beautiful resort. We were scheduled for some skiing the next day, but I was sensing some resistance from my wife to the idea.
So – deciding that “divide and conquer” was a great philosophy, I left my wife stranded at the spa and I headed out for some mile high fun at Silver Star Mountain Resort. Of course – having mile high fun in a ski area at 5200 feet elevation called for a guided ski trip. Someone suggested checking out the 63 miles of groomed Nordic trails in the area groomed every day through the end of April. Guy Paulsen, Nordic Manager, took me out and very considerately stuck to the easy green trails.
Silver Star is the mecca for snow lovers because it snows early and often and mainly of the powder variety. In fact, many Olympic athletes train here. However as we get into late spring and early summer other fun can be found. Hiking and mountain bike trails open later in June. I know I want to check out the Mile High Wine event in August.
Next challenge was driving from the mountain resort back to the spa to pry my wife away. On the way down the mountain and through the town of Vernon I passed Crush Bistro which looked like a great choice for dinner. So I gathered my very relaxed wife and fifteen minutes later we were enjoying a wonderful dinner. Upon arriving at this cozy Bistro we were greeted by Yvonne who made us feel at right at home bringing wine and tasty hors D ‘Oeuvres. She rattled off the list of fresh entries that her dad Tony was preparing. While we were deciding on dinner, we learned that this father-daughter act went way back. Tony used to have a small pastry shop many years ago and Yvonne helped out – serving coffee and pastries on roller skates when she was six years old. Sadly no photos.
Tony has been in the food industry his entire career - pastry shop owner, chef, production manager at a big bakery, and finally decided to settle down in a small town. Our dinner proved Tony’s experience well. The beef tenderloin was so tender and perfectly prepared that my wife once again decided not share.
All things must end and this lovely vacation was ending soon. One last stop on our way home was Summerhill Pyramid Winery in Kelowna. No worries trying to find it – the large pyramid and giant champagne glass beside the road were great clues. Owner and founder Stephen Cipes began his winery in 1986 while leaving behind a hectic life as a New York developer. He has lovingly created what is known as Canada’s most visited winery. Summerhill specializes in sparkling wine and the sample that we tasted had the crispness of the unique conditions which produce intensely flavored small grapes. Stephen’s adherence to strict organic growing practices is driven by his desire to keep his impact on the land minimal and his grapes tasting chemical-free. The warmth and welcoming ambiance of the tasting room highlights the Cipes’ family’s dedication to the art of great hosting. Ezra Cipes, one of Stephen’s two sons who are part of the business with him, guided us through a variety of their delicious sparkling, specialty and ice wines.
A word of advice to the wine tourist who always heads south to Napa – you need to turn north to experience this amazing wonderland of wine, mountains, crystals and delicious food. You won’t be sorry, and like us, as you drive home you will be busy figuring out how soon you are able to come back.
About our guest contributors:
Michael Fagin is a freelance travel writer who has traveled across Canada and visited all the major Canadian wine regions. Mr. Fagin is currently touring the Pacific Northwest enjoying the wine country, dining, and hiking the region. While he is not writing Mr. Fagin is a weather forecaster for West Coast Weather, LLC forecasting weather for the West Coast of the US as well as on an international basis. Mr. Fagin has a weekly hiking and weather segment every Tuesday morning on KUOW FM Seattle. His wife Elizabeth Fagin, also a travel writer, is co-author of this article.