Monday, October 31, 2011

Seeking Sun and Wine in the Okanagan Valley

                                             The Town of Penticton on Okanagan Lake

Heading south from Kelowna on Highway 97, you reach the second great wine growing area in British Columbia. High on benches overlooking the beautiful blue lake, as well as some which stretch back into small, sunny valleys towards the coastal mountains, grape vineyards have taken over many of the lovely fruit orchards that once were the valley’s mainstay.  

The first small village you pass through along this western shore of Lake Okanagan is Peachland, just 21 miles southwest of Kelowna. The town stretches along the lakeshore for about a mile. It is a serene and picturesque community dating back to the late 1800s, when pioneer fruit grower, John Moore Robinson arrived from the Canadian prairies in 1897. He quickly recognized the agricultural potential of the land along the lake. As well, he claimed and sub-divided the bench land above the lake, eventually establishing the town.

Peachland is said to be the home of Ogopogo, Lake Okanagan’s famous prehistoric monster. It is at Squally Point, just across the lake from Peachland that many sightings have taken place and therefore is thought to be the creature’s habitat. The aboriginal people have believed in this lake monster for centuries, although many scientists have discredited the idea.

There are two wineries established here: the Greata Ranch and Hainle Vineyards. Both wineries have a tasting room, and Greata offers a wonderful veranda with wine and cheese pairing and unmatched views of the lake. Open from April through October.

Just 18 miles south of Peachland, we come to the lovely town of Summerland. Blessed with warm beaches, bright blue skies, and the perfect climate for orchard or vineyard, it is a virtual Garden of Eden. Some of my earliest memories are centered in this paradisiacal area, and it was here that I attended my first two years of school.

Old Summerland is down on the water, where they have recently built a beautiful resort, Summerland Waterfront Resort Spa. I haven’t tried it yet, but it is getting good reviews on Trip Advisor.

Outside of being at the lake level and having a very nice pool and access to water sports, there isn’t much to do down here. But it’s only a 5-minute drive to uptown;  and Penticton, with its numerous restaurants and shops, is only 15 minutes away. Most of the town’s business now thrives on the upper benches.

 To the west of town, lies fertile Prairie Valley, where I was fortunate enough to live during the 1940s, and now is resplendent with vineyards. Driving up into the hills behind Prairie Valley, you can experience the fun of the old Kettle Valley Steam Railway, while you traverse ten miles of beautiful, vistas along the only preserved section of this historic railway. You’ll enjoy the sights of the old reservoir, lush orchards, and new vineyards until reaching a spectacular view of lake and land from the old railway bridge, two hundred and thirty eight feet above the floor of Trout Creek Canyon.

The sight and sound of the restored 1912 locomotive, the ‘KVR 3716’ will bring the era of steam travel alive, as you ride along on this ninety minute journey in a vintage passenger coach or open air car. On certain trips throughout the summer months, one can experience the ‘old west’ as the notorious Garnett Valley Gang raids the train and ‘robs’ the passengers all for the benefit of local charities. The outing includes a delicious BBQ and musical entertainment.

From Prairie Valley Road, you also get a magnificent view of Summerland’s major landmark, Giant’s Head, an extinct volcano that is now a mountain with a face that resembles the profile of a man. The stump of the volcano’s cone remains in the form of this monolithic rock Reminders of the cataclysmic volcanic explosion that created Giant's Head Mountain are regularly found in the area. These are examples of lava bombs, volcanic material that spewed into the air and cooled in round shapes in the Summerland Museum.

Summerland is home to 10 wineries, from the premier Sumac Ridge winery north of town, to my favourite boutique winery, Dirty Laundry Vineyard, set in a perfect location between Giants Head Mountain and Trout Creek Canyon. Many of them now have their own viewing verandas for tasting and lunches.

Directly across the lake from Summerland are the village of Naramata and the famous wine growing Naramata Benches. The only way in, is through Penticton and you’re better to overnight in that vacation center. While there is the Sandy Bay Resort with lovely cabins for those who want to make their own food; as well as some lovely B&Bs, there are not many restaurants to choose from in this small village.  You probably will decide to drive back to Penticton to eat in any case.

But the views are well worth a day trip along the east side of the lake, and the wines are excellent no matter where you travel in the Central Okanagan Valley. My suggestion is after visiting a few of Naramata’s 19 estate wineries, take a break with a patio lunch at the excellent Rooster Winery where you get a fabulous view of Giant’s Head across the lake and an equally great glass or two of chilled Rosé wine.

Top: Giant's Head Mountain, Summerland, B.C.  Bottom: Red Rooster Winery, Naramata Bench

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Annual October Influenza Strikes

Hi Folks:

Sorry not up to writing about wine touring this week. Hopefully will stop the sneezing and coughing by the weekend. More on the beautiful Okanagan by then.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Kelowna and the Okanagan Wine Industry

                                                                    City of Kelowna

The Okanagan Valley of British Columbia has long been known for its scenic beauty and its orchard covered hills. In years past, from April through May when the fruit trees burst into bloom, it was a sight to behold. I lived there from the time I was three years old until I was seven, and some of my very first memories are of life in an apple orchard, where my father managed to get a job during the great depression of the 20th century. I still love the aroma of a wooden box full of freshly picked apples in September.

But over the past twenty or thirty years, the fruit trees have slowly been replaced by lush vineyards and the fruit packing plants by wineries, each with their own unique character. Because this area is near and dear to my heart and because it produces some of the best wines in the world, it is here that, I am starting my series on wine producing tourist spots.

The region, not unlike the Mediterranean, is known for its sunny climate and dry landscapes. In fact, some parts of the valley actually have desert microclimates. It falls in the same latitude as the European wine regions of Champagne and Rheingau.  

Around the chain of lakes, which includes Lake Okanagan, Skaha Lake, Vaseux Lake and Lake Osoyoos, are many lakeshore communities; and, even before the wineries, it was a magnet for tourists. Much of the economy is retirement and recreational based, with outdoor activities such as boating, water skiing, hiking as well as winter sports in the surrounding mountains.

The actual wine producing area stretches from Vernon, at the north end of the Okanagan Lake, and follows the river and chain of lakes to the US Border. At that point both the river and valley change spelling to become Washington State’s Okanogan Valley. South of the border, the river eventually flows into the mighty Columbia.

There are a few wineries north of Vernon around Salmon Arm, but Kelowna is truly the heart of the Northern Okanagan Wine Country. There are 24 wine estates around that city alone. Many of them offer beautiful lake and mountain vistas as well as excellent white and red vintages. Both Ehrenfelser and Gewürztraminers do especially well in the fertile soil of this region as do Rosés and Pinot Noirs.

It is difficult to choose the best wineries around Kelowna, but I have two favourites. Gray Monk, in the hills north of Kelowna, is my first choice and comes with the most intoxicating views. Their Grapevine Restaurant gives you time to enjoy these amazing scenes along with creative cuisine and the estate’s award winning vintages.   

Next on my list, is Cedar Creek Estates, which is south of the city-center, and also boasts gorgeous views across to West Kelowna. Cedar Creek specializes in the usual North Okanagan aromatics such as Gewurztraminer, Ehrenfelser and Rieslings plus the more full-bodied whites; Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. They also have vineyards in the hotter climes of the Southern Okanagan dedicated to Merlot, Syrah, and Meritage. However, that wine growing area is for another week.

Across the lake in West Kelowna, there are several very fine wineries; too many to list here, and one can easily spend two or three days of wine tasting centered here in the north. There are numerous beautiful Bed and Breakfasts; hotels for every budget; as well as condominium rentals such as the luxurious Discovery Bay Resort.
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Next week we’ll head to vineyard estates in the towns of Summerland, Penticton, and Naramata, all located in the central Okanagan Valley area.

Okanagan wines may not be as well known as some of the famous wine growing areas of the world, but the vintners here claim their wines are as good as any made in the world. They invite you to come and see for yourselves.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Wines that Gladden the Heart

Since we are now past the autumnal equinox, I have noticed there’s a definitely crispness in the night air, and already tinges of colour on some of the maple tree leaves. A sure sign, that in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, as well as wine growing areas all over the northern hemisphere, it is grape stomping time.

I guess it’s my French Huguenot blood, but I truly love wine. Good wine; in moderation. Today, when many people think of Calvinism, they picture the dour-faced, hellfire and brimstone preachers of the reformation, thumping their pulpits with their messages of retribution.

“Lips that touch wine, will never touch mine,” was the lesson my Scottish mother was taught by her Calvinist parents, as a child. At the age of five, she was forced to sign a pledge that she would never drink alcohol. Even though she learned to take the occasional small drink, the guilt was always there. Surprisingly, neither John Calvin nor the Bible were ever against the drinking of wine in moderation.  A recently discovered quote by Calvin reads, “It is nowhere forbidden to laugh or to eat one's fill or gain new possessions or enjoy oneself with musical instruments or drink wine."
As for the scriptures, in Ecclesiastes 9 verse 7 the admonition is “.Go, eat your food with rejoicing and drink your wine with a good heart.” Of course, one of the psalmists does add the warning “Do not be staying too long with the wine.” Very good advice for everyone.
Recently, our local Vancouver Sun newspaper, offered a free 8-week Home Schooling segment by wine expert Anthony Gismondi on “Educating Your Palate.” Each week he suggests a different wine type for us to buy and sample as homework. This is one piece of homework, I don’t mind doing in the least. So while I’m concentrating on sampling, for the next few weeks I’ll discuss some of the wine areas I’ve visited and the wines they offer. And I may have a few guest bloggers discuss their favourites as well.