I saw a picture of a gorgeous blue mountain surrounded by prolific vineyards next to a huge lake in a national magazine. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I looked closer. Where is this? Living in dry Southern California when I see lush countryside, farms with colorful flowers and plump blueberries falling off the bushes, the largest, juiciest cherries I’ve ever seen, miles of apple orchards with more varieties than I ever knew existed, tall evergreen trees that reach toward the blue sky, I just have to go. It turns out this wine region is in British Columbia, Canada. I didn’t know they had wine in British Canada. Did you?
The Okanagan Valley is simultaneously the oldest wine region in Canada and it’s newest “in” spot. This emerging wine region is taking the wine industry by storm. The 60-mile long valley has experienced unprecedented growth since 1990, when it had less than 20 wineries. Now, thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of many wine visionaries there are over 200 wineries from Kelowna south to Osoyoos, on the US/Canada border.
A daily non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Kelowna, the northern gateway to the valley, or a scenic four hour drive from Vancouver, across the dazzling Cascade Mountains, are two ways to access the verdant Okanagan Valley.
The valley is defined by what has been coined the Grape Lakes: Okanagan, Skaha, Vaseux and Osoyoos. These lakes offer irrigation, water for cities, recreation and ultimately flow into the Columbia River and out to the Pacific Ocean.
The entire region is all about recreation: golfing, fishing, swimming, boating, hiking and biking. If you’re lucky enough to be there in August you may see the Ironman bike portion of the race through the heart of the wine country. The east side of Okanagan Lake, called the Naramata Bench, offers a six mile hiking trail the entire length of the bench. Warning: the views are so spectacular that your hike may become a slower walk so that you can take in the natural beauty.
Okanagan Valley is home to Canada’s only desert, an extension of the Sonoran which stretches up from Mexico. The terrain is very similar to San Diego’s with semi-desert and dry conditions (not counting winter), pine trees and low bush. March through November the valley comes alive with greenery, huge flower baskets hang everywhere you can find a pole or hook overflowing with flowers. Hillsides teem with vineyards. The lakes fill the valley floor and offer welcome respite from the blistering summer heat. Unique microclimates in the various pockets of the valley – and this why there are profound diversity in the varieties of grapes and styles of wine produced here.
I enjoyed many wineries in my week-long visit, but I will highlight three of them for you:
Dirty Laundry Winery- The story goes that in the village of Summerland, just south of Kelowna there was once a laundry service owned by Sam Suey, an enterprising young Asian man who tired of working on the railway lines. Sam decided to pursue a laundry service but when he noticed that other needs of the 15,000 railway workers were not being met, he built a second story on to his building and expanded to a gambling hall and “accommodating” ladies. One had to recite the password “woo woo” to get into this house and once in, the patron was free to enjoy himself. The joke was that the visitors had the cleanest laundry in town. Today the “lovely ladies” mean “wines” and the whole double entendre is fun for everyone. Upon entering the winery there are antique laundering machines and lingerie drying on many clothes lines. The unique winery logo is said to have 16 female bodies in it.
The core value of the winery is fun and they have fun names of their wines reflect the two company mantras of “Wine is Life” and “Wine is Fun” to enjoy life and enjoy wine. Not so Knotty Chardonnay, Naughty Chardonnay, Bordello,Kay-Syrah, A Girl in Every Port.
Dirty Laundry wines have won many awards proving that although they enjoy life here, this is serious wine.
For more information go to: www.dirtylaundry.ca
Mission Hill Family Estate
For an unforgettable wine experience, this winery is a must. Anthony Von Mandl, proprietor of Mission Hill Family Estate Winery, has been a true pioneer in the Okanagan Valley. His love of art, music, cuisine and learning stole him away from a career in Economics to a career in wine. He brings these loves to his winery and it is visible in every inch of the estate. The first notice of his passions is in the main entry to the grounds. You must pass through a massive set of curved arches held together by a single keystone featuring the von Mandl family crest. Then twelve-story bell tower lures you past an outdoor amphitheater, past the outdoor dining terrace to the far end of the property. To Anthony the bell is significant of his younger life in Europe where bells toll the hour and provide a natural rhythm and sense of order. Inside the tower are four bronze bells dedicated to the four members of Anthony’s family: father, mother, sister and himself.
Next, a highlight is the focal point of Anthony’s art collection, a one-of-a-kind tapestry called “Animal Tales” by Russian born artist Marc Chagall. One of only 29 that Chagall ever made, this tapestry is in the Entrance Hall to the Wine Education Center.
If you enjoy cooking, this winery has a teaching kitchen modeled after Napa Valley’s Culinary Institute of America.
One of the goals of this winery is provide refuge from the hectic life we live in and stop, relax, savor and enjoy life’s abundance.
The wines reflect the same quality of passion as art for Mission Hill Winery. The philosophy that what happens in the vineyard determines what happens in the bottle. They want to grow the best grapes under the best possible condition and produce a quality wine.
The wines are from Five Vineyards with distinct growing conditions throughout the Okanagan Valley. Although I enjoyed the whites, particularly the Sauvignon Blanc, I admired the reds mostly, the Cabernet Merlot and the Pinot Noir. My husband loves Rose wines and was enamored with their Rose. It was light and fruity, yet solid and structured.
For more information go to: www.missionhillwinery.com.
Still needing to taste the famous Ice Wine, I headed south to Jackson-Triggs. I had heard a lot about these wines, and since Canada is famous for them, now was my chance. I was surprised at how elegant and exquisite their Riesling Ice Wine is. Not quite as sweet as a Muscat dessert wine this wine is rich in tropical fruits, acidic to the palate and finishes with a soft finish.
Ice wine is tricky because healthy grapes are left on the vine until after the first frost and then they are harvested. This can sometimes be as late as New Years. That’s two extra months on the vine ripening and not rotting. As a result, there are relatively small amounts of ice wine to be found around the world and it can be quite costly.
And, of course, Reidel makes a glass just for this wine. The wine goes around the perimeter of the tongue to allow the tastes to be absorbed from the outside in. Then the wine flows to the hollow of your tongue and you taste the silky, sweet flavors. I always pooh-poohed these special glasses but this glass was perfect for this wine.
For more information go to: www.jacksontriggswinery.com
I learned that the top five White Varietals (by acreage planted) in the Okanagan Valley are Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. And the top five Red Varietals (by acreage planted) are Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (Shiraz) and Cabernet Franc.
The most fun part about this vacation was inner tubing on the canal between Okanagan and Skaha Lakes. You just get some cheap tubes at Walmart or rent nice ones from the Okanagan Indian tribe who own a concession at the put-in point. For $10 you get an inner tube and a bus ride back to the starting point. People go down in crazy contraptions, with coolers, books, snorkel gear, even their dogs strapped in-- floating along. The journey takes about 45 minutes and will give you tons of giggles. So much fun!
We were lucky enough to see an Osprey dive down in the water in front of us and grab a fish to feed its babies. A day later while we were out winetasting, we happened upon the Osprey’s nest, high above the vineyard. Mama and Papa were guarding the nest like vigilant parents.
One of the things I particularly liked about this wine region is that they don’t take themselves too seriously. They have creative names for their wineries: Laughing Stock Vineyards, Therapy Vineyards and Misconduct Wine Co, to name a few. The Canadians enjoy life and keep things happy. This is part of the success of the area. They create great relationships with people. It’s about the relationships, not the almighty bottom line or the dollar. Sure they want to make a profit, they want to grow and be successful, but they also want to enjoy life along the way. And enjoy your life you will, if you choose this area for your next vacation. It has something for everyone.