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Trip Report A Wine Week in the Okanagan

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Hello to Fodors Family, This is a trip report about our recent week in the Okanagan Valley. I am writing it because when I was planning the trip I was surprised by the lack of detailed information from other trips. I want to preface this by saying everything here is my opinion and I know wine can be an emotional issue for some. Also we all have individual goals from a trip like this. To let you know my bias I was looking for great individual bottles I could put down in my cellar and pull out in a few years to share with people the terroir of BC. My personal tastes tend toward big reds and oaked Chardonnays but we were a group of 6 with a variety of tastes so hopefully can give a variety of information about wineries. We were travelling the last week in October, which is late in the BC season. It is after the wine festival, which was a conscious decision on our part. Festivals are fun but you can end up elbowing your way through to samples and staff are often too busy to chat about their winery. We love to chat so came later. The sacrifice we made is that some wines we had read about and were interested in trying were sold out and some of the smaller wineries were closed. We had actually researched this but still many places, which stated on websites and in magazines they would be open everyday until the end of October were closed. Smaller operations needed all their staff for harvest and there is not enough traffic to warrant keeping the tasting bar open. As wine lovers we totally understand this situation but as consumers were disappointed.
ACCOMADATIONS: There is a plethora of lovely places to stay in the Okanagan in every price range. Several of the wineries have beautiful inns attached. Because we were a larger group and people were coming and going every day we decided to rent a house in Osoyoos through VRBO. This has been a positive experience all the way around and I would do it again. We rented VRBO 248199 and I would come back here in a heartbeat. It is a four-bedroom house with two bathrooms, a well-appointed small kitchen and huge dining room and living room with great modern TV and sound system. It is essentially in the owners back yard so you can sit in a lovely landscaped backyard in comfortable chairs right on the lake and listen to the ducks while the sun comes up (which I am doing right now!). What you cannot see from the photo is they built this lovely home inside a steel sided driveshed so it looks pretty funny when you drive up but don’t let that put you off. The lakefront location is amazing.

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    DAY 1: Arrived at Kelowna airport, picked up rental car and started driving south. Stopped at a lovely pub called Friends Pub in West Kelowna. Good pub food at a good price, full of local people who obviously come there often. Decided to make Mount Boucherie our first winery. This was a great choice. Tried a few interesting varietals we hadn’t had before. Nice tasting bar, friendly staff. They have multiple award winning wines and we purchased several bottles of their red blends which are going to be good in a couple of years and were mid range price wise (~$25). Drove south to Summerland area and were disappointed Silk Scarf and Sonoran were both closed on a Saturday afternoon. Left messages at both places to book appt but they didn’t return call. Tasted wine at Thornhaven. Totally worth the drive for the view and the beautiful deck. Would be a great place to buy a glass and sit on deck on a nice day. Between us we tasted everything they had open but no one purchased anything. Stopped at the grocery store and then headed to see our home and settle in. Took a taxi into Osoyoos so everyone could drink at dinner and based on several recommendations had dinner at a local brew pub, Ridge Brewery. Atmosphere nice, tried a couple of their own beers on tap, which were very good and the wings were excellent.

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    DAY 2: Picked up another member of our party at the Penticton Airport and headed for the Naramata Bench. This is a dead-end road which travels up the east side of Lake Okanagan. Research reveals that up to 10 of this group of wineries belong to the Lang Corp and such a diverse corporation seemed to show up, in general, as less refined wines. At the foot of the hill you should look for the turnout to Mount Munson lookout. This is a short 500m walk, mostly straight up but footing excellent and the view is outstanding. We chose to drive straight to Naramata and work our way back south and this was a good decision. Wineries at the top report tasting rooms are often slow in the morning and busy in the afternoon since most people work their way south to north. At the town of Naramata is the trailhead for the Kettle Creek Railway a 4 km hiking trail, which can take you up to a beautiful old stone railway tunnel, a good reason to get an early start on the day. Tried to stop at Nichol Vy, closed and did not respond to phone call. First stop Therapy Vy, nice view, all grapes grown on site. Very friendly and informed tasting room staff. They have a good reputation for Chardonnay and .we purchased several bottles plus other varietals. Next stop Lake Breeze. Architecturally attractive setting, friendly tasting room. We purchased an amazing Pinot Noir and our first Pinotage. Soaring Eagle, part of Lang group, has an outstanding tasting room. The view is worth the whole drive up the road. There is a lovely terrace where you can sit and enjoy a glass of wine. We tried several varietals we had never heard of, both red and white, but nothing worth purchasing. Go for the view. Black Widow and Laughing Stock Vy both closed. Only Laughing Stock returned call and we were able to book a tasting for later in the week. Hillside has a beautifully landscaped building with a large three-story tower, which offers outstanding views of the valley. They have excellent quality wines here, age worthy reds and aromatic whites. Red Rooster has a large and commercial style tasting room and wines we tasted were good but not memorable, winery contains a unique art gallery. Finished the day with quick stops at La Frenz and Poplar Grove where we didn’t find anything to our taste. Since we were travelling at the end of October none of the winery restaurants were open. In the middle of the day we slipped back into Penticton for lunch at the Barley Mill. This microbrewery offers a variety of foods, which were all good and well priced. They offer a chance to buy 5-ounce samples of several of their beers instead of a pint and the three I tasted were all lovely. We actually left Naramata a little early so we would be able to pick up Cassini Vy in Oliver while they were still open. They are not open through the week and we didn’t want to miss them. Cassini will rank as a top three stop for our trip. The tasting room is unique, beautiful and the staff friendly and knowledgeable. This small winery produces only 3000 cases per year. The wine maker is the wine grower, harvester and owner. The outstanding reds, Maximus and Syrah and the reserve Chardonnay will be treasures in my wine cellar. Went home for a home cooked meal and relaxing evening.

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    DAY 3: Plan to enjoy the local Oliver wineries. Burrowing Owl was our first stop and a really big let down. It was at the top of our hit list but we were highly underwhelmed. Staff was pretentious. A donation required for sampling and samples not big enough to even get two good sips. Only three wines available for tasting but we were expected to layout $50 per bottle for wines based on the wineries reputation without tasting. Went one mile up the road to Desert Hills and were blown away. Small single man operation with a 6 foot tasting bar, no view but solid wines. His samples were generous, free and both reds and whites were a mouth full. Purchased several bottles. Excellent example of terroir in Shiraz and Bordeaux blend and I predict will age well for 3-5 years. Visited Oliver Twist where we had a great chat with one of the wine makers and enjoyed some good wines. Le Vieux Pin has a nice tasting room and interesting varietals, which we purchased for dinner not to take home. Stopped at Jackson – Triggs. In Ontario we would never bother with these huge and over exposed Vincor locations but we wanted to give the BC location a chance. Enjoyed the single vineyard SunRock collection. Much smaller approachable tasting bar than in Ontario. This time of year you need an appointment to taste at Dunham Froese but it was worth the drive to see the protected valley location. Heading down the Golden Mile hit Inniskillin (also Vincor), enjoyed the California style Zinfandel . Tinhorn Creek had some wines we really enjoyed, both reds and whites, but the wines were tainted by a rather negative tasting experience. Uninterested and unwelcoming staff. On the upside their parking lot is the trailhead for the Golden Mile hiking trail, which is a 10 km hiking trail. Due to varying physical abilities some in our group only did the first 500 m. I went up 2 km and every step was worthwhile. Outstanding views up and down the valley and local flora. I would love to go back and do the whole hike. You could have a nice lunch at the winery to look forward to at the end. Quick stop at Road 13 revealed some nice reds that are cellar worthy and I picked up a sparkling Chenin Blanc I look forward to trying. Last stop of the day was Rustico Cellars and this is also a top 5 tasting experience. Bruce has moved the building from an old silver mine to his location and set up his tasting bar as a wild west saloon. He is knowledgeable and serious about his excellent wines but believes the tasting should be fun so make time to belly up to the bar, pat the dogs and lay out some money to take home wine. The Zinfandel here made me wish I had not purchased the one at Inniskillin. His red blend, Threesome, finished above the famed Note Bene in a recent wine competition. Home for another homemade meal.

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    DAY 4: Got an early start on a hike along the Okanagan Canal. This is a man made dredged canal which travels from Okanagan falls to the north end of Osoyoos Lake. It is in no way isolated and you can still hear traffic on Hwy 97 but it is great place to hike with multiple small wetlands which result in a large variety of bird species spotted including an eagle with a nest in one of the fields off the trail. Today we are driving back up to Kelowna for a visit with relatives. On the way to lunch stopped at Mission Hill. This is a wine experience that matches its hype. Amazing buildings in an outstanding location. Staff at the tasting bar were friendly and knowledgeable, prepared to set up vertical flights for us to compare vintages. You have to be prepared to pay for the wine you take home from here but I look forward to pulling out the ‘05 Quatrain in a few years and blowing people out of the water. We were not charged for tastings and were allowed to taste even the Oculus, which sells for $90 and I was happy just to taste. An opposite experience a few minutes later at Quails Gate where they kept rigorous count, charged us even for a flight we did not finish and gave the smallest samples ever. Also these wines did not live up to billing and we did not make a purchase. Due to a long lunch had to skip several Kelowna wineries but did pick up; Tantalus (limited selection, not up our alley), St Hubertus (interesting varietals, really liked the Chambourcin) and Cedar Creek (worth the stop). Picked up a Junior “A” hockey game before driving back to Osoyoos.

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    DAY 5: When we planned this trip we wanted to take a day to travel to Washington state to check out their wineries. It was very difficult to find information over the internet in advance. There are several just over the border. We stopped at Okanogan Estates and found their wines inexpensive and quite drinkable. Would have purchased more except we knew the border would be a crap shoot. We were up front about what we had with us and they made us pay every cent of duty they could drum up. Had to drive 90 minutes to get to the next closest wine region, which is Lake Chelon. We visited two wineries here, Nefarious and Tsillan. Both very pleasant experiences in their own way. Charge for tasting if you didn’t buy wine but gave very good size samples. The drive is very interesting scenery with beautiful fall colours along the river but probably not worth the time.

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    DAY 6: Today we will visit several of the smaller more boutique wineries where we had to book appointments. Plan to travel up the east side of Skaha Lake. We started at Blasted Church where wines were moderately priced and good quality. Very interesting labelling system. Next stop Pentage. This is a high quality cult winery, which takes care and attention to detail in all steps of wine business. No tasting room so you must buy wine on reputation. A good variety to choose from. Their oaked Chardonnay is smooth as silk and their Shyrah is co-fermented with Viognier rather than blended after aging and is awesome. Next we stopped for a personal tour at Painted Rock. Gavin, their dedicated wine maker is on his fourth vintage and the wines are getting better each year. Attention to detail is the watchword here and it shows in the wine. These wineries alone were worth the day and the views from this side of the lake are unique. There is a public look out and short trail above Painted Rock at Skaha Bluffs. Quick stop at the DHL office in Penticton to ship the first few cases home. Continuing north we dropped in at Township 7, which is just above Penticton. This winery has mid priced wines and an average tasting room experience. The wines probably suffered in comparison to the two previous wineries. We had an appointment with Laughing Stock as they were closed for the season and it was definitely worth the trouble. This small winery has a unique marketing scheme, which is reflected in the winery and bottling. They have only a few varieties with their flagship being the Portfolio, a Bordeaux blend. It is one I will be proud to have in the cellar. Like many of the Naramata wineries the view from tasting room was excellent. Swung around to Summerland to visit Eighth Generation, closed. Spent a good 30 minutes at DeLong’s an amazing little boutique jewellery store with each piece unique and hand made and outstanding silverwork. Well worth the bit of navigating to find their shop. Stopped in at Sumac Ridge where we encountered friendly personal service. This large winery had a cozy atmosphere with the chef showing off juggling skills and the wine maker personally signing bottles of Pinnacle, the flagship red blend. The fortified port was the best I had in the valley and the Stellars Jay Brut is a winner if you like dry Methode Classique Champagne style wines. Heading back south we tried to pick up Wild Goose but they were closed. Home for another great meal, homemade Lasagna paired perfectly with Pentage ’07 Syrah. Had a campfire by the side of the lake and a little late night dip in the lake.

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    DAY 7: This was our day for the Similkameen valley. Had called several of the wineries early in the month and they had suggested this would be a good day to visit. As it turns out every winery except one was closed. We were able to taste at Crowsnest. We found their wines light with little depth. I don’t know if this is reflective of the region. I wouldn’t go back for the wine but the drive is totally worth it. This valley has a totally different topography and around each corner we thrilled at the mountainsides and fall colours. We continued north from Cawston on 3A and enjoyed a very interesting trip. Back out on 97 we stopped into Pentiction to ship more wine and then went up to See Ya Later Ranch. We almost skipped this one and I am so glad we didn’t. It has a beautiful and unique vista, which would have been a shame to miss. They have the only north facing vines in the valley, combined with interesting wine making choices make for some great wines. The large airy tasting room had a friendly and knowledgeable staff and it doesn’t get much better than sipping their Ehrenfelser Ice wine and looking through that stunning picture window. Whites are the reason to stop here and we really liked their oaked Semillon and Chardonnay. Again stopped at Wild Goose, this time having called ahead, but only one wine open for tasting and we had not heard enough reviews to buy “a cat in a bag’. Made a quick stop at Inniskillin as their very informed staff had let us know they were doing a wine release today. The new 07 Cab Sauv, Sangiovese and Tempernillo made for some interesting tasting. These are limited bottlings only available at the winery. Home for one final dinner in the Okanagan where we paired the See Ya Later Syrah with a black bean beef stir fry…yum.

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    Day 8: Had some extra time this morning so decided not to miss Nk ‘Mip. I thought of avoiding this totally and it lived down to my expectations. This large Vegas style tourist trap is the opposite of my idea of a good time. Their architecturally attractive interpretive center has a gift shop featuring the work of many other BC native cultures. It stands in stark contrast to the hundreds of tacky condos spread out around it. There is a charge of $12 to enter the cultural centre, which is the only way to access their miles of hiking trails. I had rather low expectations by the time I got to the winery although I had seen their lists of awards. I came very close to passing on tasting the 2007 Pinot Noir and what a mistake that would have been. The rest of the reds didn’t stand out for me but this is an awesome Pinot with lots of depth and great mouth feel. I found out while paying at the cash that these are 24-year-old vines, which I think may make them the oldest vines in the valley. Their Riesling and Riesling Icewine are also made from old vines and I was impressed with them also. All this purchasing resulted in repacking before heading for the plane!

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    If anyone is still reading the summary is:
    Top 5 Winery Views: See Ya Later Ranch, Mission Hill, Thornhaven, Soaring Eagle, Laughing Stock
    Top 6 Wineries ( based on # of bottles purchased by group ): Mount Bouchiere, Mission Hill, Pentage, Painted Rock, Cassini, Rustico
    Top 5 Tasting Room Experiences ( based on unofficial votes by group ): Painted Rock, Oliver Twist, Rustico, Sumac Ridge, See Ya Later ( no one is more surprised than me that two of these are Vincor wineries )
    Goose Egg Awards: Burrowing Owl and Quails Gate.

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    Wow, this is quite a comprehensive review! We enjoy visiting the Okanagan (from Florida) and really appreciate your report. You hit some of our favorites and we mostly agree with your ratings. One thing that we have noticed, though, is that the wines do vary quite a bit from year to year, and a "must visit" winery one year can be quite a let down the next, and vice versa.

    Sounds like you have a great trip, and thanks for sharing it with us.

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    What a great report - so full of valuable information!

    The Okanagan vine region has come a long way from 20 years
    ago but everything you said reinforces the truth that they
    need to keep moving forward and realizing they have to have
    an all-encompassing experience for the wine enthusiasts or
    they will become (again) a lackluster backwater.

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    Hello Sludick, One of the tricks to picking wines from Canadian wineries is follow the bouncing winemaker. This is a very small incestuous business. In BC we went to wineries with good reps where we expected to like wine and when we didn't investigated further and found out same wine maker who was making wine we didn't like in an Ontario winery 2 years ago. They often bounce around every couple of years and often are gone by the time their vintages are released. I was so glad to know at least one person read the report and now it will be there if someone is researching a trip. One of my frustrations before I got there was getting info on hiking trails, after all you can't taste wine all the time! Allyson

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    Good tip, thanks. We'd like to take some hikes there as well. But usually we visit as a part of a vacation somewhere else (Banff, Vancouver, etc.) and only have a couple of days at most. Next time we may stay longer and put some of your research to good use.

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    Thank you so much for your extensive report - it is exactly what I was looking for. My husband and I are beginning to plan our Western Adventure for this coming summer. We will be completing our current "Bucket List" in January (seeing the "New 7 Wonders of the World"), so we created a new one - visiting wine regions of the world....figured we'd start with our own country (although we have already been to some areas in Italy, Chile, and Argentina....).

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