A once-remote swath of rolling farmland surrounding 84 threadlike miles of lake in southeast British Columbia has in recent years been hailed by wine lovers as Canada's Napa Valley. But it turns out it might actually be something even better: itself.
In the Okanagan Valley – a four-hour drive east from Vancouver, and now a two-hour direct flight from San Francisco – diverse, hardworking and environmentally conscious farmers and entrepreneurs are doing more than creating great wines. They are bringing some of B.C.'s best organic produce to local restaurant tables and increasingly to the outside world. Others are leading outdoor adventures, handcrafting herbal remedies and even injecting a touch of quirky mysticism into Canada's Old West.
It is also a community that, taking advantage of good soil and the four seasons, has come down with the tourism bug. And – not unlike Napa, Sonoma and other picturesque settings where wine and food dominate – it is eying travelers with cash to spend on romantic getaways, wine-tasting experiences, farm-to-table cuisine, golfing, skiing and fairytale wedding destinations.
The valley itself, at about 1,100 feet above sea level, was carved from the earth by glaciers. The lake water is cold, clear and blue – said to be great for swimming if you don't mind the chill. The land rises up sharply on both sides of the water, presenting dramatic views for the cherry farms, vineyards, apple orchards and ranches. Just beyond the surrounding mountains is dry desert, which you can certainly feel in the valley on 100-degree days in summer. Winters can be frigid but tend toward mild.
Despite a relatively small growing area, microclimates and temperature variations from north to south here have proven good for cultivating many kinds of grapes, including riesling, gewurtztraminer, pinot noir, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. It is also considered the home of ice wine, a sweet and fragrant concoction made from grapes collected while frozen on the vine in the dead of winter.
“It's one of our greatest strengths — our diversity,” says Ezra Cipes, a youthful, bearded and bespectacled winemaker at Summerhill Pyramid Winery, while looking over a row of pinot noir grapes arching down a sunlit hillside. But Cipes acknowledges pressures for an up-and-coming wine region to market itself more specifically.
“I don't think we should, frankly,” he says.
Summerhill's organic and biodynamic vineyard has been internationally recognized for its sparkling wines, and Cipes and his family work with different grapes, even experimenting with outrageously unusual fermented aromas. They also brought on a talented chef for their open-air bistro, where Mediterranean-influenced dishes accent and deepen the natural flavors of fruits and vegetables just pulled from the earth.
In addition to Cipes and his family, Okanagan Valley has its share of characters.
Above Kelowna's increasingly trendy downtown and wealthy retiree neighborhoods, “Trailhead” Ed Kruger, a long-haired, gregarious longtime resident, has been leading biking tours among the hills, vineyards and abandoned railways for 23 years and counting. Kruger has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area and, coasting down mountain roads with breathtaking views, you can hear the excited whoops and hollers of a man who still cannot believe this is his job.
Nestled off a country road is the farm of Helen and Rick Kennedy, who never expected they would be corralling millions of bees for a living until, one day about 14 years ago, as Helen tells it, “a big, tall bearded man” showed up at their door with a jar of honey for sale. Eventually that man, who was getting on in years, sold the couple his business. They have been churning out the delicious product themselves ever since. The Kennedys' 250 hives are spread out over Kelowna, even at local vineyards.
One of those, Tantalus Vineyards, is known for its riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir wines. General Manager Jane Hatch speaks proudly of the vineyard's history, and the deep layers of soil and silt that help produce its grapes.
“All the plantings here are bee-friendly and drought-tolerant,” Hatch says. It is the oldest continually operating vineyard in British Columbia, harvesting table grapes starting in the 1920s, and the winery is the first in the province to be certified under U.S. LEED green-building standards.
Other locals include an Israeli couple who moved their artisanal goat cheese business to Kelowna in 2003, only to have it nearly destroyed by a wildfire they now describe as their “warm welcome” to the area. Their handcrafted cheeses are a favorite of tourists and restaurants alike.
Not too far across the valley, an Indian family that has been farming the hills for four generations – its patriarch apparently walked from Vancouver to Kelowna before settling there – now ships their cherries around the world and serves up fragrant, homemade Punjabi dishes in their cafe.
Back at Summerhill, Cipes greets a group of wide-eyed visitors inside his winery's massive replica Egyptian pyramid, the brainchild of his father, Stephen, a real estate developer from New York who started the winery in the 1980s.
While touring the limestone caves of Champagne, France, Stephen's inspiration turned to illumination when, according to his son, “he felt a lightness of being” and returned with the idea for the painstakingly detailed construction of a pyramid “aligned to the stars” and using the principles of sacred geometry.
The first stop for every barrel of wine Summerhill produces is a month entombed inside the pyramid. To the group gathered within the building's cool, energetic darkness, the younger Cipes pronounces himself a skeptic turned true believer.
“The wine is alive,” he intones, maintaining that once they have been in the pyramid they “taste younger and fresher and brighter.”
“I really think there is something to it,” Cipes says. Whether there's a little salesmanship along with this authentic viniculture spirituality, it definitely stands out. Others may chuckle, but they do not argue with the results.
The valley has come a long way since the first grapes were planted by settlers in the 1800s. A decade ago, high-profile publications began dubbing it the “Napa of the North.” And while local winemakers were gratified merely to be recognized as competitive with one of the finest and most well-known wine regions in the world, some are ready to dispense with the label.
“Now, as time goes by, what we want is to be the Okanagan,” says Tantalus' Hatch, smiling.
It seems they have earned that much.
If you go: Okanagan Valley, Canada
With more than 130 wineries, trendy bars, eateries and ski resorts, the Okanagan Valley is pushing full steam ahead from its agricultural roots into the vineyard-foodie-outdoors economy. In September, United Airlines began two-hour nonstop service from San Francisco International Airport to Kelowna.
Delta Grand Okanagan Resort: Kelowna's largest hotel has 390 guest rooms, villas and suites along the city's popular waterfront. Rooms from $221. 1310 Water St., Kelowna. www.deltagrandokanagan.com
Summerhill Pyramid Winery: Taste sparkling wine and dine at an organic bistro, in the shadow of a one-eighth-size replica of an Egyptian pyramid. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon. 4870 Chute Lake Road, Kelowna. www.summerhill.bc.ca
Monashee Adventure Tours: Cycling, hiking, winery, overnight and custom tours throughout the Okanagan Valley with the knowledgeable and affable “Trailhead” Ed Kruger. www.monasheeadventuretours.com
Okanagan Lavender and Herb Farm: Lose yourself among the swaying waves of lavender overlooking the lake at this 8-acre farm, reappearing only to gorge on homemade lavender gelato. 4380 Takla Road, Kelowna. www.okanaganlavender.com
Arlo's Honey Farm: Sample several flavors of the miracle of evaporated nectar (that's honey, for the layperson) straight from the source and gathered by Helen and Rick Kennedy. Tours by appointment only. 4329 Bedford Lane, Kelowna. www.arloshoneyfarm.com
Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at http://openskylight.blogspot.com