We arrived in the Okanagan Valley the day after the smoke lifted. British Columbia had been reeling from more than 550 wildfires in mid-August, and wind currents spread smoke over much of the province, including Vancouver along the coast and the Okanagan’s picturesque wine region, a four-hour drive inland. Wine country vacation prep typically doesn’t include regular checks for air quality alerts.
“We couldn’t see the lake last week,” said Cynthia Enns, as she and her husband, David, showed my wife and me around Laughing Stock Vineyards, the winery they founded 15 years ago near the city of Penticton. As we sampled Laughing Stock’s delicious Bordeaux-style red blends and a drop-dead gorgeous syrah, I kept looking westward toward Okanagan Lake, only about a half-mile away and stretching as far as I could see in a north-south direction. Some haze hung in the air, but we could see across the lake. Not being able to see the water at all must have been disorienting.
For the next four days, with an Airbnb near Penticton as our base, we drove up and down the Okanagan Valley, visiting more than a dozen wineries and stopping at more than a handful of fruit stands. Driving proved tricky at times, as the view of the lake lured our eyes from the road and we dodged groups of bikers enjoying the hills and the scenery. And the weather cooperated, becoming increasingly sunny through the week, with temperatures ranging from the low 60s to the low 80s.
Okanagan Lake is the valley’s most prominent feature and gives the region its identity as a travel destination, agricultural powerhouse and rising star in wine. The lake stretches nearly 84 miles but is only 2½ to 3 miles wide. It is also deep — about 250 feet on average, and nearly 800 feet at its deepest. Because of the depth, it never freezes, instead providing frost protection to the farms and vineyards along its shores.
And those shores are popular with sun worshipers. The Okanagan Valley, which extends south to the U.S. border and includes Skaha Lake and Osoyoos Lake, is British Columbia’s beach destination, more hospitable than the fjords along the Pacific coast. The towns of Osoyoos, Penticton (known for “peaches and beaches”) and Kelowna have the look and feel of seaside resorts. Water sports, especially boating and personal watercraft, are popular. Hikers and bikers can escape the perils of vinotourists along the twisty side roads by exploring the Kettle Valley Rail Trail, a 400-mile network of trails along abandoned train routes. Several nearby ski resorts offer winter fun. Okanagan Lake even has its own mythical sea creature, called Ogopogo.
One morning, Gordon Fitzpatrick showed us around Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards, a sparkling-wine specialist squeezed between Highway 97 and the western shore of Okanagan Lake near the small town of Peachland. As we sipped his delicious blanc de blancs, he pointed to the charred slope on the other side of the highway and described how an early July wildfire threatened the winery. Then he pointed out a large rock outcropping near the far side of the lake.
“That’s Rattlesnake Island, where legend says Ogopogo has his lair,” he said, adding with a wink, “but you have to drink a lot of wine before he lets you see him.”
We tried our best, but we never caught sight of the monster. For us, of course, wine was Okanagan’s draw. But it wasn’t the only reason we fell in love with the place. Count the views, the food and the people we met as reasons we wanted to stay. It was easy to sense the energy and excitement of a young wine region on the cusp of greatness.
Okanagan’s wine industry was spurred into its current growth by the North American Free Trade Agreement, negotiated in the late 1980s. As government subsidies ended and cheap California wine poured into Canada, local winemakers accustomed to a captive market realized they had to improve quality to compete. This resulted in the Great Pullout of 1989, as growers pulled hybrid vines and planted European vinifera varieties. (The few remaining wines from hybrid grapes, such as Quail’s Gate winery’s Marechal Foch, have achieved a sort of cult status.)
Driving up and down the valley along Highway 97, where escarpment mingles with vineyards to create a stunning tableau, it’s easy for U.S. wine lovers to think of California.
“People come here and say they had no idea there’s a wine country here,” says Sheri-Lee Turner-Krouzel, who, with her husband, Curtis Krouzel, founded 50th Parallel Estate winery in Lake Country, north of Kelowna. It’s a cool area where they make delicious pinot noir and Riesling. “I’ve had several people say it’s like Napa, only with a lake!”
There are similarities. There’s a lot of money here. The economic boom of the ’80s and ’90s saw some wine lovers trade in their success in finance, medicine, and the oil and gas industries to pursue a second career in wine. The vineyards they planted are now mature, and many of the wines are outstanding. The most Napa-like winery is probably Mission Hill Family Estate. Owned by Anthony von Mandl, a former wine importer and art collector, the hilltop winery overlooking West Kelowna resembles Napa’s Robert Mondavi Winery with its mission architecture, modern art throughout the grounds, and an amphitheater that draws top performers for lake-view concerts. Sheryl Crow had performed a month before our visit. We enjoyed a spectacular sunset as we dined at Mission Hill’s Terrace restaurant. It was all the show we needed.
Food is another similarity with Napa. Okanagan may not yet be a culinary mecca, but it is making a case to become one. The Bench Market in Penticton has a California vibe as well as delicious breakfast and lunch sandwiches. Several wineries have restaurants, easing the search for food between wine tastings. Poplar Grove, Liquidity, Quail’s Gate and 50th Parallel all feature the Okanagan formula of delicious food and wine paired with a spectacular view. Almost every winery contact we met raved about chef Mark Filatow and his Waterfront Wines restaurant in Kelowna. We capped off our stay there with a wonderful steelhead trout dish on our final evening in the valley.
And like Napa, the Okanagan is feeling the effects of climate change. Those wildfires are one manifestation. Warm vintages in 2015 and 2017 hint of broader impacts. “Global warming is beginning to change the style of our wines,” says Don Triggs, founder of Jackson-Triggs Winery and now, in his retirement, owner of Culmina Family Estate Winery in Oliver. “We are waiting for ripeness, but the sugars keep going up, which can be trouble depending on the style of wine you want to make.”
Of course the differences don’t end with the lakes. Napa Valley has become identified with cabernet sauvignon, while the Okanagan produces a wide variety of wines. From Kelowna north to Lake Country, Riesling, pinot noir and other cool-climate varieties thrive. Near Osoyoos in the south, the climate is noticeably warmer. There, cabernet sauvignon and syrah provide lushness and power to red wines. Several wineries throughout the valley own vineyards or purchase fruit from Osoyoos to bolster Bordeaux or Rhone-style red blends. The most widely planted grape in the valley is pinot gris.
“I think what we’re known for here is diversity,” says Randy Picton, winemaker at Nk’Mip winery in Osoyoos since the winery’s founding in 2002. Nk’Mip is a joint venture between the Osoyoos Indian Band and Arterra Wines Canada, the country’s largest drinks company. “We can grow everything in the Okanagan from world-class syrahs to Riesling ice wine,” he said, referring to a sweet dessert wine made from grapes picked when they were frozen on the vine.
And of course, Napa’s wines are world renowned. “No one in the world knows the Okanagan,” says Tony Holler, owner of Poplar Grove Winery in Penticton. This year, Holler helped form a group of seven wineries called the Okanagan Wine Initiative to try to boost the region’s reputation and market outside of British Columbia. “We thought as a group we could get the Okanagan out into the world of wine.”
They’ve got a good message. John Skinner, a retired Vancouver stock analyst who launched Painted Rock Estate Winery in 2003 on a bowl-shaped bluff overlooking Skaha Lake, enjoys telling visitors in his gleaming white tasting room how his site’s microclimate helps him grow grapes organically. “The wind off the lake dries the grapes and reduces mildew pressure,” he explained, then pointed to the sky where a pair of hawks were circling. “And that’s our bird control,” he said.
Skinner had a “pinch me, I must be dreaming” expression as he poured me a taste of his 2015 syrah. I admired its deep color, its scent of blueberries and a hint of smoked meat. The wine was elegant and reserved compared to the plusher, more powerful syrahs from farther south in the valley.
“People keep asking me, ‘What’s your best vintage?’ ” he said. “And I say, ‘The next one.’ It just keeps getting better.”
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The Bench Market
368 Vancouver Ave., Penticton
Open for breakfast, lunch, and, of course, coffee! A “Shot in the Dark,” coffee with a shot of espresso added, is welcome morning fuel for a long day of winery visits. Lunch entrees $9-$12.
Culmina Family Estate Winery
4790 Wild Rose St., Oliver
Don Triggs’s retirement project is a small, family-owned winery in an area of Okanagan Valley called the Golden Mile. Enjoy fine Bordeaux blends and the valley’s first gruner veltliner, grown on a cooler ridge a few hundred feet up the hill.
50th Parallel Estate and Block One Restaurant
17101 Terrace View Rd., Lake Country
Curtis and Sheri-Lee Krouzel hold court in a gleaming concrete and glass winery. Their Block One Restaurant, features open-hearth food on a patio with lake views. Lunch entrees $14-$19.
Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards
697 Hwy. 97 South, Peachland
Fitzpatrick is a sparkling-wine specialist on the western shore of Okanagan Lake, producing delicious, sophisticated bubbly in the champagne style.
Laughing Stock Vineyards
1548 Naramata Rd., Penticton
250-493-8466 (Call for appointment)
David and Cynthia Enns are retired stockbrokers, and they evoke their previous lives with the whimsical labeling of their fine Bordeaux blends and plush syrahs. Tastings by appointment, but if you call from the front gate, they are likely to accommodate you.
Liquidity Winery, Bistro & Gallery
4720 Allendale Rd., Okanagan Falls
Art and wine combine on the bluffs overlooking Skaha Lake. The bistro invites visitors to linger over top-notch food and the view. Dinner entrees $18-$27, seven-course tasting menu for $63.
Mission Hill Winery and Terrace Restaurant
1730 Mission Hill Rd., West Kelowna
Perhaps Okanagan’s most Napa-style winery in scope, size and ambition, Mission Hill combines modern art with British Columbia history and wine culture. Dinner entrees $13-$28.
1400 Rancher Creek Rd., Osoyoos
With the Osoyoos Indian Band as majority owner, Nk’Mip features Native American culture on a desertlike complex that includes a native cultural center and a conference center resort.
Painted Rock Estate Winery
400 Smythe Dr., Penticton
Planted on what was once the largest apricot orchard in the British Commonwealth, the winery now produces some of Canada’s most sophisticated wines, including a stunning syrah and an impressively complex Bordeaux-style red blend called Icon.
Poplar Grove Winery and the Vanilla Pod Restaurant
425 Middle Bench Rd. N, Penticton
Everything about Poplar Grove says fun, from the welcome to the views, to the wines and the restaurant. Pinot gris, viognier and cabernet franc are stars here. Dinner entrees $20-$38.
Quails’ Gate Estate Winery and Old Vines Restaurant
3303 Boucherie Rd., Kelowna
A family-owned establishment since 1956, Quails’ Gate is worth spending time to explore the vineyards on the western shores of Okanagan Lake, including the reserve tasting room in an original building on the property. There is also a lakehouse to rent for up to 14 guests. Entrees $20-$37.
Waterfront Wines Restaurant
1180 Sunset Dr. #104, Kelowna
Chef Mark Filatow heads Okanagan’s farm-and-lake-to-table restaurant movement. Winemakers up and down the valley sing his praises. Try the steelhead trout and you’ll know why. Dinner entrees $21-$30.
For the author’s full list of Okanagan recommendations, visit washingtonpost.com/travel