When I was in Chianti, I tried explaining the geographical features of Canada to a young woman who worked at an agritourismo. Like many, she associated Canada with un-ending snow and cold. I said, “There is an area in the west called the Okanagan. It is our Tuscany.” She could not fathom it.
Granted, there are no olives, and compared to Italy, the area is a bit lacking in historical depth but similarities do exist: food artisans give us bread, cheese and cured meats; orchards and fields abound with produce, rivers and lake are full with fish; there are sun-soaked hills, verdant valleys and long warm days, and in this part of British Columbia alone, over 8,600 acres of grapes planted that are turned into spectacular, award-winning, globally recognized wine.
The Okanagan has come a long way in a very short time. I’ve watched it blossom from a sleepy retirement/vacation spot to a full-blown, world-class destination where lifestyle is the focus and where there really is something for everyone. Every year it gets better and better.
Kelowna is the largest and most well-known city in the region but this post will focus mainly on food and wine in Oliver and Osoyoos, two towns in the south Okanagan that I had the pleasure of recently re-visiting, thanks to Destination Osoyoos and Thompson Okanagan Tourism.
The drive from Kelowna takes you past (or through) West Kelowna, Peachland, Summerland, Penticton (you won’t see Naramata from the road, but it’s tucked in there) and Okanagan Falls before arriving in Oliver.
The Okanagan has been referred to as ‘Napa North’, and for good reason: there are over 130 licensed wineries in the Okanagan. Thirty of them (and counting) are located in Oliver, the self-proclaimed Wine Capital of Canada. In 2015, Oliver’s Golden Mile Bench became the first officially recognized sub-appelation (or Sub-GI meaning sub-geographical indication) within the Okanagan Valley region—fantastic news for British Columbian wines with nine wineries now in this sub-GI.
We visited four wineries that hold the Golden Mile Bench designation: Hester Creek, Tinhorn Creek, Road 13, and Rustico.
Hester Creek is a winery with a Mediterranean vibe, from the Italian inspired tasting room and retail space to the Mediterranean villas wedged in the hills of the vineyard.
Food from the winery’s restaurant, Terrafina, and wine from this property are some of the best in the valley. Wine recommendation from Hester Creek: The Judge, a luscious, lip-smacking Cab Franc/Cab Sauv/Merlot blend.
Tinhorn Creek is located one road over from Hester Creek and is one of the oldest vineyards in Oliver. Ken Oldfield planted the first vines here in 1993; Sandra joined him in 1996 and now the Oldfields have 150 acres in planted grapes. Tinhorn’s 2014 Chardonnay, an absolute stunner, just scored a 95 in Decanter magazine.
That should make you hustle right up that hill to get a bottle, plus, the view from the tasting room, the restaurant, even the parking lot will take your breath away. Lunch or a late night meal at Miradoro will complete a glorious wine country experience at Tinhorn.
And, speaking of experiences, ever have one of those winery visits that have left you cold? Like you don’t quite belong? Well, pardner, you aint gonna feel like that at Rustico. Owner, Bruce Fuller, will make sure of that.
This straight-shootin’, former Pattison Group executive doles out cheeky quips alongside saucy wines named Mother Lode, Saloon Sally and Threesome. Plan to stay awhile; Bruce is full of stories and you’ll want to hear them all. Tip: if the laundry is hanging on the line in front of the original Sally Mine bunk house, the tasting room is open. If it’s not, you’ll have to come by another day.
Cassini Cellars is located right on Hwy. 97 (the main road through the region) and is a popular stop for tour buses and large groups.
The tasting room is cavernous with grand touches reminiscent of an Italian villa and the wines have powerful names like Quattro, Maximus and The Godfather. The vines were planted in 2006 replacing lavender plants on this property purchased by Adrian Capeneata. The name, “Cassini”, is the surname of his Italian grandfather.
Part of the fun of wine touring is checking out the architecture of the wineries. Road 13 offers a mix of structural design that you probably won’t see anywhere else. Castle lovers will feel right at home but so will modernists because the both styles are represented on the property.
It was the structure of the wine, though, that really got my attention. The Marsanne was particularly interesting and solid on all counts, and wine with this view? Unbeatable.
Across from the Golden Mile Bench is another architecturally appealing winery. Church and State‘s concrete and wood, minimalist-designed space is as intoxicating as the wines crafted inside.
In 2015, this winery’s 2012 Coyote Bowl Malbec was awarded the title of Best Malbec at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, an event deemed North America’s largest and most influential wine competition. That’s serious business. The best part about this winery, though, despite their accolades, is that these folks also know how to have fun. Their Lost Inhibitions label is proof.
A complete list of Oliver and Osoyoos wineries can be found at Winebc.com.
How does one get around to all these wineries? Taking a shuttle is easy and Osoyoos and Oliver have several companies now that offer private and shuttle bus tours to various wineries, but something new, fun and totally rad just arrived in the form of a 1976 Cadillac Eldorado and flaming hot orange electric bikes. Introducing Heatstroke Cycle:
Owner, Rich Cooper, offers different itineraries but keeps the groups small. He drives you to the first stop, cycles with you to five wineries and then picks you up. That car is loaded with 1970s good ol’ rock and roll music too, just so you know. Riding these bikes doesn’t even feel like exercise!
The Watermark Beach Resort hosted our merry band of food writers. It is hard to beat the location of the Watermark: centrally located, steps from main street, close to the farmers’ market, pubs, restaurants, coffee shops, and retail shopping, and best of all, located on the shores of Osoyoos Lake, Canada’s warmest freshwater lake. The resort has spacious, luxurious hotel rooms, and well-appointed villas that can accommodate families or groups. Sipping cocktails poolside or dining al fresco makes for one very relaxing stay.
I’m pleased to report that the Restaurant at Watermark has upped their game, both on the food and the service front, since I stopped in two years ago. Breakfast al fresco is a lovely way to start your day, especially when the food matches the view (and the view from the patio is pretty spectacular).
Chef Adair Scott’s eight-course Farm to Vine Signature Experience at the Restaurant is an impressive showing of locally sourced food, and one of the best deals going. Two Farm to Vine experiences are on offer: both are five-course dinners with wine pairings; one is $75, the other is $95 (price reflect wine pairings) The Farm to Vine Signature Experience is also available without wine pairings for $55.
Good food is also within walking distance of the Watermark. A short walk up main street will have you at two restaurants worth your dollar: Jo-Jo’s and Dolci Socialhaus. Jo-Jo’s is the spot for coffee and solid breakfasts; Dolci recently underwent a renovation, and the change is lovely: vintage chic, cage lights, barnboard. Check out this Instagram page. Dolci is such a cute spot, and the hummus, olives and pita bread were a nice light change from three solid days of over-indulging.
This part of the valley is really getting their hands in to the local food movement. Two years ago, I met Chef Chris Van Hooydonk when he was in the planning stages of his dream: a farm-to-fork dining experience where he’d cook for guests in his renovated farm house. On this recent trip to Osoyoos, I had the pleasure of dining at his now-in-operation Backyard Farm. Every now and then, a food experience imprints on your soul. This was one of those times.
Backyard Farm is a private dining adventure where the menu is tailored to the guest. You bring the wine, Chef Chris supplies the perfectly paired, exquisitely executed dishes like this sablefish—pan-seared and resting on a bed of braised organic Beluga lentils; topped with braised Little Gem romaine, a dollop of homemade apricot rhubarb butter, and a sunflower sprout. Many of the ingredients are sourced right from his property.
Warning: You will need to book months in advance.
Covert Farms is another stop to place on your itinerary. This is a 600 acre organic farm and winery at the north end of Oliver. Guests can enjoy a tour of the property (part of a antelope-brush ecosystem) from the back of the farm’s 1952 Mercury pickup.
Eighteen species of bats live here and California Big Horn Sheep can be seen clinging to the rocky embankments of the steep bluffs.
You can pick and pack your own fruit and vegetables, and shop in the charming country store, but what you’re really going to get your hands and tastebuds on is several bottles of their wine. Every single wine is worthy of purchase, but my favourite is a voluptuous red blend called Amicitia.
There are (believe it or not), plenty of other things to sip in this part of the valley. For beer, check out Firehall Brewery in Oliver and for cider, Orchard Hill (Oliver) and Faustino in Osoyoos. Gin lovers will want to pick up a bottle of Noteworthy Gin, an award-winning, artisanal gin made with 100% British Columbian barley from Dubh Glas Distillery in Oliver. The Watermark Bar makes a lovely summer cocktail with this gin mixing it with campari, triple sec, lemon juice, simple syrup and topped with sparkling wine.
At the Osoyoos Market on Main, I was reacquainted with Mooncurser, a winery I fell in love with a few years back. It’s very civilized sampling local spirits and wine at a farmers’ market. I also met Grant Stevely, the man behind Dubh Glas who was pouring his new Virgin Spirits, a barley-based white whiskey that certainly puts some giddy-up in your go.
When you’re ready to kick back and let someone else make cocktails for you, head over to Spirit Beach Cantina on the east side of Lake Osoyoos and get your fill of fresh fruit daiquiris and margaritas. Sink your butt into a swing at the bar, dig in to some outstanding guacamole and legit salsas with chips, listen to live music, all just steps away from the water. That’s pretty much heaven, right there.
There is a growing appreciation and celebration of terroir here in the valley. When you taste the food and drink the wine, you understand how much the winemakers, the orchardists and the farmers acknowledge, understand and respect the local raw materials. Those of us who visit, get to reap the benefits.
Need more reasons to visit? Check out my previous posts on the south Okanagan: