This article originally appeared on the New York Daily News Online website.
From: Arts and Lifestyle | Travel |
By MICHAEL MCKINLEY
When Charles Pandosy finally made it from his native France to British Columbia's Okanagan Valley in the middle of the 19th century, he wanted to bring the word of God to the rough New World. But the Catholic priest took one look at the rich soil, plentiful water and relentless sunshine in Canada's "Pacific province" and saw that God was already there. So, taking his cue from the divine, he started planting. Soon the region was supplying the country with apples, cherries, peaches, pears and apricots, until someone realized (perhaps after a heavenly vision) that grapes could grow there, too. Father Pandosy's mission paid off, though not quite the way he expected. Still, he would be pleased, as both wine lovers and sightseers are finding out that you can get to heaven through the Okanagan Valley.
For most of us, "Canada" is to "wine" as "hell" is to "freezes over." But that's only those who have yet to sample the goods and scenery north of the 49th, as the charms of BC's burgeoning wine business will make a true believer of even the hardest-hearted teetotaler. Properly known as the Okanagan-Simalkameen, the name is always shortened to "the Okanagan," which means, appropriately, "seeing the top" in a local aboriginal language. It's an L-shaped region in the interior of Canada's westernmost province, one that extends 120 miles north to south and 60 miles east to west and whose blessed climate, bountiful land and more than 50 of the province's 62-and-counting wineries have won it fame as the place of "peaches, beaches, sunshine and wine."
.:: Swank Scenery ::.
The Okanagan has always been Canada's summer playground, but in short order it has transformed itself into an international destination. Stylish hotels, inns, B&Bs and restaurants have kept pace with the thriving wine industry. Just 20 years ago, the wines of British Columbia were an excellent complement to salad (as a substitute for vinegar in the dressing) but as a result of the competitive realities of the 1988 North American Free Trade Agreement, Canada re-invented its wine culture. Vineyards were replanted with "vinifera," or high-quality grape varieties, and talented winemakers were wooed from Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Now BC wineries are scooping up medals at wine festivals around the globe — in fact, Sumac Ridge Estate Winery recently earned a gold for their 1998 Meritage red at the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition in highly wine-savvy California.
With success has come sophistication, as the wineries have grown from humble farms into swank, tourist-friendly venues. They have tasting rooms and wine shops and restaurant patios overlooking a landscape that is staggering in its varied beauty. You need not be a wine snob to fall in love with Okanagan, with its turquoise lakes, rugged hills, lush vineyards and long, hot summers. Such is the natural splendor that were you to take a dash of Provence, blend it with some Arizona, ferment with bits of Italy then chill with an alpine cool, you'd get the gist of the visual feast that awaits.
Visitors appreciate the region's relatively compact size. Since the wineries are plentiful, the Okanagan provides an itinerary that is light on the gas tank and heavy on the pleasure principle. If you begin at the southern edge, near the town of Osoyoos and the Washington State border, you'll find Canada's only true desert, nicknamed the "pocket desert" because of its small size. It is, however, the northernmost extension of the Mexican Sonoran desert and features sagebrush, cacti, lizards, craggy buttes and less than 6 inches of rain a year.
A leisurely drive north from Osoyoos along Highway 97, which follows the best road signs ever devised (they feature a lush bunch of grapes), will put you on the main road of the BC wine tour. It follows, with sublime diversions, the long and glittering Okanagan Lake, from whose sides thriving orchards and vineyards rise. The drive passes through Penticton and Kelowna (the largest city in the area with 120,000 residents and a sybaritic beachfront sensibility) before winding up at the northern end of the valley near the town of Vernon. Even with a fruit-stand pit stop, the whole trip should take about three hours. A word of caution: If the siren song of the wineries beguiles, be prepared for the journey to take forever.
The wineries are as diverse as their products, but all welcome visitors (and their children) with a western hospitality. Vincorp, about a half-hour south of Penticton, produces a raft of award-winning wines under the Jackson-Triggs label. Nearby is Hester Creek Estate Winery, one of six wineries in the minerally rich southern end of the Valley known as the "Golden Mile." While Hester Creek has won awards for its '97 Merlot and '96 Cabernet Franc, the Pinot Blancs are the real prizewinners.
With the sun bathing the vines in gold and the sky the color of Sapphire gin, Hester Creek is the perfect place to begin or end a tasting day. As an estate winery, Hester Creek is small by definition, with 71 acres producing 240,000 bottles a year, but its wine shop and tasting house befit its international accolades and ambitions, with elegant post-and-beam oak built from recycled oak wine barrels and French doors leading onto the bricked patio's view of paradise.
While Hester Creek is typical of the larger wineries, many others — Blue Mountain Farm Winery near Okanagan Falls or Nichol Vineyards on the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake just south of Naramata — are small family affairs, which in no way diminishes their quality. Nichol Vineyards is the love child of Kathleen and Alex Nichol, who fled their city jobs 10 years ago — he was a bass fiddle player for the Vancouver Symphony, she an information technology librarian — to pursue their dream of making wine.
Now, with 4 acres overlooking the Kettle Valley (which boasts six other fine wineries and an antique railroad), the Nichols produce nearly 15,000 bottles of wine in a good year, which is all right with them. "We want to keep it like this," says Kathleen Nichol. "We don't want to make a lot; we're just happy making it good." And good it is. The Nichol Vineyard's 1997 unfiltered Syrah, fermented with its own wild yeast, is reason enough to make the trip, though this red, medium full-bodied wine is an exclusive beast; the few remaining cases can be had either through the winery or with your wondrous osso buco on the trellised terrace of Penticton's superb Villa Rosa restaurant.
Okanagan's restaurants are rapidly rising to meet the excellence of the wine and cater to both gourmet and grunt alike. For the traveler in search of a cut above, Granny Bogner's in Penticton, the "1912" historic inn and restaurant in Kaleden (a five-minute drive south from Penticton), La Bussola and De Montreuil in Kelowna, the Eclectic Med in Vernon and the Country Squire in tiny Naramata all boast first-rate local wine lists to go with topflight cuisine that is very friendly to the US pocketbook — $1 U.S. will buy you $1.54 Canadian.
BC is most renowned for its white wines, winning "too many awards to count" (says the BC Wine Info Center) both in North America and abroad at wine festivals, and attracting the attention of serious winos. Earlier this year, the Okanagan won raves in Food & Wine magazine from Steve Olson, a Manhattan-based wine expert who travels the world under the auspices of his wine education company "libations," to teach people about the glories of the grape. While Olson was impressed by British Columbia's Pinot Blancs, he was floored by Blue Mountain Vineyard's 1998 Pinot Gris, "an orange-tangerine-flavored beauty spiced with a hint of anise on the finish," that he says is as good as any Oregon Pinot Gris.
It's not just the whites that are luring wine geeks north. With its high altitude and clear desert skies, the Okanagan has the highest light intensity of any wine region in the world and its northern latitude means longer days, which, when coupled with temperate autumn, can make for some excellent reds. Indeed, the region's vineyards are predicted to reach 5,600 acres this year, with red and white grapes growing in equal measure.
While many of the region's wines are easily found across Canada, getting shelf time for BC product in the United States has proven to be a problem. The powerful vineyards of the Napa Valley and of Washington State and Oregon aren't falling over themselves to let their award-winning Canadian brethren into the shop.
.:: A Sweet Specialty ::.
The Okanagan Icewines — made from the harvest picked when most people are picking out their last-minute Christmas and Chanukah gifts — pose the biggest threat to its Napa Valley competitors. Icewine is made from grapes that stay on the vine until the first freeze, and the Okanagan varieties are among the finest in the world. From the late-December moment that the temperature drops below freezing, Okanagan harvest teams work round-the-clock for as long as it takes to gather the frozen grapes. Since these grapes are mostly frozen water, the remaining 10% of concentrated nectar produces a viscous wine whose sweetness code — with 0-0 equaling bone dry — can range from 10 to north of 35. It's precious stuff, and a bottle of Okanagan Icewine can set you back as much as a bottle of good bubbly.
Which, not surprisingly, the Okanagan also produces. High levels of natural acidity are necessary to produce quality champagne (though only French winemakers in the province of Champagne can legally call it that), and the Okanagan's vineyards have acidity in spades. Wonderful sparkling wines are coming out of wineries both small, such as Blue Mountain Vineyards' Brut Gold label, and large, with Sumac Ridge's Steller's Jay Brut.
As with an increasing number of the Okanagan's vineyards, Sumac Ridge has a patio where guests can order a meal after doing a tour and some tasting. In truth, the Cellar Door Bistro, overlooking the opera-set valley, is more an experience in hedonism than a meal, with a small but perfect menu boasting items like local Asiago and Brie cheeses, wine country paté and jumbo BC prawns reposing on a bed of organic greens. In the generous spirit of the place, the wine list features Sumac Ridge labels and those of competing Valley wineries. So the waiter will not throw you over the side of the patio if you order a Mission Hill Chardonnay instead of a Sumac Ridge Gewurtztraminer.
Indeed, it is at the huge Mission Hill Winery, just south of Kelowna, that the past and the future come together on the hill just opposite the lake where Father Pandosy founded his mission. As you drive along Highway 97, a great burnt-orange terra-cotta building comes into view, the result of a recent $20 million renovation, part of Mission Hill's ambition to dominate the landscape in the way that it hopes to dominate the world of wine. With 600 acres, 5,000 barrels and an annual output of 6 million bottles, Mission Hill is a mixture of industry and opulence, where even the bathrooms are tasteful studies in chrome and black.
The Okanagan Valley's wineries and their attendant pleasures are poised on the cusp of world-wide fame, so the trick is to get there soon so you can say you knew it when. If you can't make it in high summer, then aim for the bookends — June or September. Most of the wineries are open year-round for public touring and tasting, with the smaller ones opening by appointment. If you want to take in the crisp autumn air with your Pinot Noir, then visit the Festival of the Grape from Oct. 1 through Oct. 10, when the industry celebrates itself with parties at various wineries and restaurants.
The spirit of the Okanagan is such that there always seems to be a party going on no matter the season. Any pilgrim following in the footsteps of Father Charles Pandosy is always welcome. Local wisdom figures it thus: Now that you've found their heaven, the least they can do is offer you a sip.
.:: Hitting the Spot ::.
How to get there: From car by Vancouver, take Highway 1 (trans-Canada) to Hope, then go north along the Coquihalla Highway to Merritt. Take Highway 97 C east into the Kelowna end of the valley. If you wish to start at the valley's southern end, take Highway 3 from Hope to Osoyoos. There are also frequent daily flights from Vancouver to Kelowna.
Information can be obtained from Supernatural British Columbia, 1-800-663-6000 or from the BC Wine Information Centre, (250) 490-2006 or find Okanagan tourist info at www.tbc.gov.bc.ca/tourism/tourismhome.html