WEST KELOWNA, British Columbia — Some places seem to have all the luck. Take the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, with its sinuous blue lake, green hillsides, bright high-latitude sunlight, hot summers, and surprisingly rich soils. As if that weren’t enough, it all comes together to create great wine.
It’s easy to appreciate the Okanagan Valley’s charms from the Terrace Restaurant at Mission Hill Family Estate winery. As we ate salads of local August tomatoes and sipped glasses of pinot blanc, we looked down the steep vineyard rows to the lake. It’s the Okanagan experience in a nutshell.
Built on the foundations of a 1966 winery, Mission Hill is one of the oldest and largest in the valley, a region that wine specialists considered a jug-wine district at best when Vancouver wine merchant Anthony von Mandl bought the estate in 1981. But the skeptics were wrong. Today there are more than 125 wineries and the Okanagan Valley has become one of the most exciting frontiers in quality winemaking. Like all frontiers, it has lured its share of big thinkers and dreamers.
With its mix of Italianate and modern architecture and its perch above the west side of Okanagan Lake, Mission Hill is one of the largest and most beautiful of the Okanagan wineries. Its elegant style, open-air restaurant, outdoor concert amphitheater, and outstanding wines bring a taste of Napa-style touring to the area. Mission Hill’s flagship Oculus, a Bordeaux-style blend, is considered by many the valley’s premier wine.
From West Kelowna, the wine-growing region extends 75 miles south where it overlaps the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert, complete with rattlesnakes and scorpions. The drive along Route 97 is like a slalom down a cornucopia. The highway hugs the lake’s shores, sometimes rising to bluffs above the north-south crevasse, then swooping down so close that wind whips up a spray. At melodically named villages — Peachland, Summerland — side roads zigzag into the uplands where vineyards and orchards stretch out along the tablelands.
Before we hit the road, we had only to drive across a bridge to visit the idiosyncratic Summerhill Pyramid Winery in Kelowna, where a sculpture of a giant wine bottle pouring out of the sky is the valley’s favorite photo op. Ever since New York real estate developer Stephen Cipes established the winery in 1987, Summerhill has forged its own path, and claims to be the first certified biodynamic winery in British Columbia. Vineyard operations follow biodynamic principles that blend microbiology and New Age mysticism, and wines are “clarified” in a chamber inside a giant pyramid purported to “amplify the spirit of the wine.” It’s too much mumbo-jumbo for us, but the sparkling wines we drank with dinner at the winery’s Sunset Organic Bistro gave an extra pop to the late-evening sunset.
Cipes was hardly the first seeker of riches lured to the valley. Gold prospectors arrived on the heels of the 1858 Fraser gold rush, and Tinhorn Creek Vineyards outside the town of Oliver is named for the gold-mining creek that transects its property. The couples who founded the vineyard and winery in 1993 use the creek to irrigate their hillside plantings of gewurztraminer and muscat. But the old gold rush mentality dies hard. The immediate vicinity of Tinhorn Creek is known as the Golden Mile, so-called for the concentration of fruit farms and vineyards along that short stretch of Route 97.
We were greeted at the door of Tinhorn Creek with a small pour of wine to sip as we followed the self-guided tour. We’ve seen enough fermentation tanks to last a lifetime, but we were transfixed by the bottling line. Tinhorn Creek claims to be the province’s first premium wine maker to bottle all its wines with Stelvin screw caps. In the small demonstration vineyard, it’s possible to taste a grape from the vine and compare it with a sip of the same varietal.
One of the big draws at Tinhorn Creek is Miradoro, a glass-walled restaurant that seems to hang in mid-air above the South Okanagan Valley. The chef works with local growers and brings a Mediterranean flair to Okanagan products. That might mean using asparagus and morels in the spring while making exuberant salads with fresh melons and tomatoes in the height of summer.
Getting up any speed along the roads of the Okanagan Valley is nearly impossible, since an old-fashioned fruit stand or a newfangled winery tasting room seems to lurk every mile or so. We were lucky to visit during the peak of the August fruit and vegetable harvest — an edible bounty that some in the valley fear will become only a memory as vineyards replace orchards and row crops.
Covert Farms in Oliver tries to strike a balance between old-fashioned agriculture and the new viticulture. Gene Covert’s grandparents homesteaded the land in 1959, and Gene and his wife, Shelly, now run the 600-acre certified organic operation, shipping tomatoes, muskmelons, onions, and table grapes all over western Canada. They also welcome a steady stream of U-Pick customers, who brave the rattlesnakes to harvest everything from strawberries to pumpkins. Pick 500 pounds of tomatoes and the Coverts throw in a free watermelon.
The rolling land in the shadow of McIntyre Bluff used to be planted in apples. Facing falling apple prices and red-hot demand for wine grapes, Covert Farms replanted 25 acres in grapes. The flagship MDC Red wine is a robust blend of cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, and syrah, a grape that develops a lively expression of blackberry-blueberry fruit when grown in the valley.
Other growers shun the grapes and make wine from traditional fruits. Sara Harker of Harker’s Organics and Rustic Roots Winery in Cawston brings a winemaker’s taste and skills to the task. “We didn’t want to pull out 30 acres of food,” Harker says, “because sustainable family farming is the goal.” She laments the trend toward vineyards. “Everyone’s going to be drunk and hungry before they realize what they’ve done.”
In the 1880s, five generations back, her husband, Troy’s, family homesteaded the farm. The modern farmstand brims over with organic fruits and vegetables so beautiful that even the seconds could pose for cover pictures on seed packets. Fresh fruit milkshakes are a specialty, and Harker is dedicated to making wines as good as the produce.
Her sparkling apple wines are the most popular, but the dry cherry wine is a versatile table red, and the mulberry-pear dessert wine finished in French oak has the heft and toasted flavors of a good Amarone. “There’s more acceptance of fruit wines,” Harker says, “but they are still a niche market.”
There are other niches to fill. In 2011, Shana and Gavin Miller bought Upper Bench Winery on the east side of the lake near Penticton. Originally from the United Kingdom, Gavin concentrates on the winemaking. Shana, who moved cross-country from Nova Scotia, converted a wine crush pad to cheesemaking. Gavin’s powerful and multi-layered merlot finds a perfect complement in Shana’s King Cole semi-soft blue cheese. Her brine-washed buttery Okanagan Sun goes equally well with his silky pinot noir or fruit-forward chardonnay.
A number of winemakers “pooh-poohed” Kim Stansfield and John Gordon when they decided to turn their wine grapes into vinegar. The Vancouver couple caught the viticultural bug on a trip to Napa, planted a vineyard in Summerland in 2001, and introduced gourmet vinegars at farmers markets a couple of years later. Now they sell their herb- and fruit-infused bottles at the Vinegar Works, just steps from the vines.
Stansfield and Gordon also bottle some pasteurized unripe grape juice as verjus, which many chefs use to add acidity to dishes without the overpowering qualities of vinegar.
“I use it in risotto,” says Stansfield. “That way I can drink the wine that the recipe calls for.”