British Columbia welcomes U.S. to revisit world-class wines

CedarCreek Estate Winery, one of British Columbia’s most innovative and acclaimed wineries, overlooks Lake Okanagan in Kelowna. (Photo courtesy Wines of British Columbia)

If you’ve never been to any pocket of British Columbia wine country, there’s an obvious reason why this is the summer to head to the border and hop over.

The American dollar is so far in your favour that loose change might come close to buying a good bottle of BC vino. (On June 1, a U.S. dollar was equal to $1.27 Canadian.) 

And if it’s been a while since you ventured across the 49th parallel and stocked up on your favourite aromatic white wines, you’ll be pleasantly surprised — possibly overwhelmed — by the number of new tasting rooms, farm-to-table bistros and ruggedly charming inns and guest houses that have risen up, not to mention the stellar red wines now being produced and garnering recognition worldwide.

“Our fellow Canadians came here during the pandemic because they couldn’t go anywhere else,” notes Ellen Walker-Matthews, CEO of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association (TOTA), the association responsible for marketing a vast stretch of the southern interior of British Columbia, where major draws are culinary tourism and wine-driven experiences.

When it comes to U.S. visitors, Walker-Matthews says, “We want to welcome them back to experience the depth and breadth of what we have to offer. The Indigenous history and culture, amazing food and wine and outdoor adventures they can’t find anywhere else.”

Many winery experiences have been paired for years with culinary offerings featuring ingredients sourced from neighbouring producers and growers. You will see “Buy BC” stickers and logos on everything from apples to wine bottles, neatly identifying British Columbia products. And similar to other wine regions around the globe, pandemic shutdowns and mandated service changes caused the B.C. wine industry to pause, reflect and slow down. In a sense.

Walk into an Okanagan tasting room prepandemic at the height of tourist season and you might be four-people deep at the tasting bar, jockeying for position to get a pour in your glass, with little information provided by the hurried staff.

During the pandemic, the industry went through waves of restrictions and seemingly endless changes from British Columbia’s now well-known Provincial Health Officer — Dr. Bonnie Henry. Some of these changes came as last-minute shocks to businesses serving alcohol; restaurants in the province had mere hours to adjust to restrictions on popular revenue drivers such as New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day.

Winery owners and their agents definitely took it on the chin when it came to restaurant sales as liquor sales and seating capacity were reduced temporarily.

But almost without exception, when speaking to wineries in different parts of the province, the pandemic proved ultimately to be a positive game-changer.

There were improved sales from e-commerce, plus larger purchases. If you couldn’t come into a tasting room to sip samples, you could drive through and pick up a case or two instead of a couple of bottles.

Once the initial closures of March 2020 eventually gave way to reservation-only, seated tastings, guests had a more relaxed and educational experience. For most British Columbia tasting rooms, this change will stay.

Plan ahead

If you’re planning a visit this summer to one of the nine identifiable wine regions in British Columbia, the key word is just that: planning.

Book your travel in advance, and fill your itinerary with reservations at wineries so you don’t miss out.

Walk-ins are welcome as space and staffing allow, and there may be special events – many outdoors overlooking spectacular scenery – you can add on to your summer of 2022 adventures in B.C. wine, no matter what wine pocket of the province draws you in.

The Okanagan Valley

The most well-known wine-producing region in British Columbia, the valley is roughly 125 miles by 12 miles, with the 80-mile Okanagan Lake stretching from Penticton in the south, about an hour from the Osoyoos border crossing, north to the area around Vernon.

It’s been compared to many other wine regions, most frequently Napa, but driving through the scenery with its seemingly endless lake views and mountains pointing up to some of the most Instagram-worthy sunsets you may ever see, it’s clear — at least to most locals — that the Okanagan need not be compared to anywhere else.

Travelling from south to north, the landscape changes, as does the terroir, and small towns are just down the road from larger centres where wine enthusiasts can stake out a home base from which to explore.

At the southernmost tip of Okanagan Lake, Penticton is an ideal hub. You’ll often see or hear it described as one of only two cities in the world that is book-ended by lakes. At one end, there’s the beach at Okanagan Lake. At the other, Skaha Lake.

Driving south for a little less than an hour, Oliver-Osoyoos is home to dozens of wineries of varying size and history, and is generally the hottest area for grape growing and similar to some of the Columbia Valley’s warmest regions.

Osoyoos is billed as Canada’s warmest welcome. You can literally wave to boaters on Osoyoos Lake who may actually be in the U.S.

One of the friendliest wineries in the area is vinAmité Cellars, between the towns of Osoyoos and Oliver. Their mantra of “small is the new big” reflects the sentiments of the owner-operators, the Coulombe family.

Multi-tasker Catherine Coloumbe is the manager, winemaker and part-owner; parents Ray and Wendy Coulombe and sister Nathalie, whose art adorns the walls, make up the rest of the ownership team.

She’s also the creator of delicious food pairings, often with supplies from a nearby gourmet shop and butcher, served in the winery’s lounge and thoughtfully paired with the wines. If you’re lucky, Catherine’s potato chip cookies will accompany your individual charcuterie.

It’s no wonder that Roger Gillespie, director of operations at Hester Creek Estate Winery on the other side of Highway 97, himself a chef and occasional host-instructor of Hester Creek’s cooking classes, recommends a visit to vinAmité.

“The pandemic brought to light for me and our team just how hard we have worked to build loyalty, and it cemented us as a family,” Gillespie says. “It may have kept us (physically) apart, but it brought us together. We rubbed our hands together and rolled up our sleeves.”

He delivered wine himself, including to people who had been isolating for months and were, “just happy to see us.”

Hester Creek is not just a tasting room, but also has guest villas available offering a ‘welcome home’ feeling, iPads for guest use, and of course, a welcome bottle of wine. The on-site restaurant has a fresh menu for the summer, live music is coming back to the winery’s patio, and you’ll be welcomed by a concierge when you arrive.

“The entire wine industry has had a positive reset,” adds Gillespie, who also suggests a visit to nearby Miradoro Restaurant, and a stay at Spirit Ridge Resort in Osoyoos. “We’re incredibly eager to share our story.”

A young and extravagant winery to watch in this area is the almost-overwhelming Phantom Creek Estates. Rumour has it that a caviar flight may be on the menu of experiences this summer.

Okanagan Falls

A smaller cluster of wineries is huddled together in Okanagan Falls – note, there are no actual falls, they were taken out years ago to make way for the highway – at the south end of Skaha Lake.

At Liquidity Wines, chef Phil Tees looks after the menu. He has created dishes for the wine-paired flights, ranging from small bites to three-course brunches and lunches. Less of a bistro, if you’ve visited in the past, it’s much more of a curated experience to elevate the wines.

Less than five minutes away, mainstay Wild Goose Vineyards and Winery has had a stellar reputation for decades thanks to its Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. But don’t dismiss the reds, especially if you plan to grab a seat on the patio or take out barbecue from the winery’s Smoke & Oak Bistro.

A walk down the road takes you to Stag’s Hollow Winery, where there are a few unique varietals to sample – Vidal and Italian reds Dolcetto and Teroldego, among them.

A short drive north towards Penticton leads you to Blasted Church Vineyards, where a variety of different experiences are in the works for this summer. Seated, educational experiences will require reservations, while the stand-up bar will make room for walk-ins. You’ll also find Teroldego here.

Add a charcuterie box from chef John Burke to a tasting, or watch for his food pairings at the recently named The House at Blasted Church.

“Tour the Okanagan for a week, and it’s like you’re going to four different countries,” says experiences manager Lisa Baxter-Burke. “Each area of the valley is incredibly unique.”

Penticton and the Naramata Bench

Penticton’s famous Downtown Community Market and the adjacent outdoor Farmers Market are back in full force this summer, operating into October on Saturday mornings across multiple city blocks. Wineries and other craft beverage producers regularly pour small samples there.

Post-market, a few blocks over is Time Winery & Kitchen, a convenient stop for a tasting or bite to eat before venturing farther afield and a continued legacy to honour the memory of its founder — the late Harry McWatters.

“The waterfront in Penticton is absolutely beautiful, and we’re seeing an amazing resurgence in culinary experiences and hospitality,” says Time’s hospitality manager Kimberly Hundertmark. “We were able to pivot during the pandemic and cater to our local ‘staycation’ guests, and now we can’t wait to make memories for new guests.”

Time Winery will keep its curated and elevated seated tasting experiences going, allowing for a more educational tasting for enthusiastic culinarians.

The winery expanded to the District Wine Village near the base of McIntyre Bluff north of Oliver. Home to multiple smaller wineries, it’s Canada’s first wine village. Night markets take place every Wednesday until mid-September, and live concerts are scheduled in the centre plaza on select dates.

“It’s great to see this level of cooperation, and recognize the value and importance of tourism,” Hundertmark says. “And why would you go to California when you can come here?”

Steven French, proprietor of Little Engine Wines on the Naramata Bench, agrees. Little Engine recently opened a lake-view patio and offers guided 45-minute tastings overlooking Okanagan Lake. Reserve a seated wine tasting and prepare to relax for about an hour while you’re guided through Little Engine’s philosophy and portfolio.

“Enjoy the view while you sample five wines,” says French. The winery’s signature varietals have also been thoughtfully paired with several culinary options, so, “if you’re Pinot Noir or Chardonnay fan, this is the place to be.”

The pandemic solidified Little Engine’s plan for reserved and seated tastings, shying away from larger parties and allowing for guided education and better planning to manage staffing.

“What we’re creating is world-class,” French adds. 

Dallas Thor, proprietor of Terravista Vineyards together with her husband, Eric, also continues to embrace changes that emerged from the pandemic. Seated tastings remain, but the last two years brought other things to this Naramata Bench winery.

“It allowed us to look inward, focus on the vineyard, take care of our people and explore the innovative spirit here in Naramata,” she says.

Terravista tripled its vineyard acreages and established Mencia — a varietal being “rehabbed” in Spain — to accompany several of its other unique-to-B.C. grapes, including Albariño and Verdejo. The Thors also introduced vineyard animals to the property, and now have perhaps the largest solar array on the Naramata Bench.

“We’re all still carving a path in this industry, which makes it incredibly exciting,” says Dallas.

The path to the village of Naramata ultimately leads to the 114-year-old Naramata Inn. Wine country accommodations leveled up when the Inn went through a revitalization just before the pandemic began.

Celebrity chef Ned Bell complements the spirit of sustainability in the wine industry as a champion for sustainable seafood, a tightly held belief that began at the Four Seasons in Vancouver. 

If you missed a winery while winding around, Bell and the Inn also operate Eliza, a wine bar with an extensive by-the-glass wine selection showcasing local excellence in winemaking, augmented with benchmark wines from around the globe.

Summerland

Sustainability is a cornerstone at Okanagan Crush Pad in Summerland, and the pandemic gave this innovative winery the opportunity to continue on its “green” path, while also affording the opportunity to examine its long-term business model.

“The impact to pure tourism was understandably negative, but we’re now making sure we are well-set for visitors,” says recently appointed CEO Darryl Brooker.

New visitors’ centres are being planned for Crush Pad’s properties, with 60- to 90- minute visits for guests, guided by a dedicated staff person. This will be the model moving forward, says Brooker, to give guests an immersive experience. Visits must be booked in advance.

“The Okanagan is so many things,” Brooker says. “It’s familiar, but it’s different. The West Coast is remarkable, and the Pacific Coast is simply magical for people. We’re an extension of the Pacific Northwest, and how amazing is the weather in the Okanagan, right through from spring to fall?”

On one of those amazing days, Brooker suggests a visit to Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards for a bite at the 19 Bistro, before or after a tasting of Fitzpatrick’s sparkling wines.

Speaking of bubbly, a winery to watch in Summerland is Lightning Rock. The team of Jordan Kubek and Tyler Knight sharpened its skills at Okanagan Crush Pad, and are champions for this pocket in the Okanagan and holistic farming. The patriarch of this family winery, Ron Kubek, may well be the one pouring for you in the cosy tasting room.

West Kelowna – Kelowna

West Kelowna and Kelowna are separated by a bridge across Okanagan Lake, and here the valley becomes more urban as you enter Kelowna proper, a city of 135,000. But you would be served well to take a side trip out to some of the wineries. Suddenly, you may find yourself in the middle of farmland.

One of British Columbia’s most iconic wineries, Mission Hill Family Estate, is a familiar image thanks to its bell tower and sweeping natural amphitheatre. Wine ambassadors guide visitors through a variety of seated tasting options exploring Mission Hill’s different portfolios.

On a clear day, if you’re looking in the correct direction across Okanagan Lake, you might be able to make out the shadow of CedarCreek Estate Winery, a scenic property elevated to prominence during the three decades of ownership by the Fitzpatrick family and now a sister property to Mission Hill. If you can’t make it there over the summer, the winery’s exceptional restaurant — Home Block — is open year round. Locally sourced, home-style dishes paired with CedarCreek’s wines are on chef Neil Taylor’s menu. Home Block fared well during the pandemic, thanks in part to a spacious interior, and Taylor adjusted the restaurant’s business model from a large a la carte menu to a refined, more focused wine-paired menu.

“COVID let us reset, and it was a dramatic improvement with a set menu with choices and wine pairings,” Taylor says. “Our focus is on good ingredients cooked simply — to highlight the wines.”

The menu changes with the ingredients available, and summer is peak seasonality for fresh produce, including local tomatoes so prized there are lineups for them if the grower takes them to farmers markets in Vancouver.

“Guests love hearing the stories about where our ingredients come from; there’s beautiful produce literally out the back door,” Taylor says.

David Paterson, general manager/winemaker at Tantalus Vineyards, recommends a visit to CedarCreek, as well as Mirabel Vineyards, SpearHead Winery and Summerhill Pyramid Winery near Kelowna.

“There is a ton of value in the Okanagan compared to other regions, and a well-curated tour of the valley is as good as anywhere in the world,” he says, “and we have some of the best wine in the Pacific Northwest.”

Tantalus, like so many B.C. wineries, pivoted to sit-down tastings and longer conversations with guests, hoping to convert them to lifelong customers and repeat visitors.

“People are now coming here with a plan,” Paterson said. “The valley offers a great vacation, no matter what you’re interested in. We’re eco- and outdoor-friendly, and we’re set up for adventure.”

Darren and Jane Sawin of Priest Creek Family Estate Winery did not know the scale of their adventure during March 2020. They were ready one day to open the doors of their new winery, only to shut down the next day when the entire province went into its first COVID lockdown.

“We were stunned for the first 24 hours,” says Jane, “then we had to figure out a way to get the word out and market ourselves, so we made a six pack, reached out to friends and family, and made a drive through contactless farm pick-up station.”

Once folks could visit the winery, Darren relayed the experience of one family, kids in tow, who emerged after six months in their house to come visit the winery as their first outing after lockdown. 

“The locals really wanted to support us,” he says.

Darren took on the winemaking with some help and mentoring from winemaker Jason Parkes, and this year will be paying more attention to bigger, bolder reds; red wines from the Okanagan are starting to show well on the world stage as the region cultivates premium grapes and the wine continues to evolve.

Aside from wine, Jane describes the Okanagan as “Canada’s summer wonderland, with something for everyone.”

Similkameen Valley

Some might consider the Similkameen to be Canada’s Organic Capital, anchored by the villages of Keremeos and Cawston, and as adjacent to the Okanagan Valley. This rugged, windswept pocket of pioneers is about a 30-minute drive from Penticton that includes the scenic Crowsnest Highway. If you passed through the Similkameen during a road trip as a kid, this is where you pulled over to a fruit stand for cherries, apricots and peaches to relish on the way home.

“The geography is gorgeous. The cliffs are stunning. The sheer mountainside is amazing, and our wines here communicate that landscape,” says Michael Clark, managing director and winemaker at Clos du Soleil. “We’re more rural and less developed, and the atmosphere is very relaxed. We try to take that into the tasting room.”

Clark says he believes the B.C. wine industry has come out of the pandemic stronger and better, despite the challenges, noting that his winery and others now offer more varied indoor and outdoor experiences, and the reservation system is a benefit that provides a personalised experience.

“You can have a taste on the crush pad, pick up some of the best produce you will ever see and enjoy a picnic, and wander through the vineyard,” Clark says.

Nearby at Orofino Vineyards, tastings moved from counter service to reservations. Winemaker/proprietor John Weber compares this to a restaurant with dedicated attention to guests for 30-45 minutes. 

“It’s so much better,” Weber says. “We can show them a little more love and build a better relationship. 

“The wines are expressive of this little valley, and we’re very proud of that,” he adds. “If you want to get away from everything and de-stress, this is where to come.”

Orofino offers suites that can be booked online. Similkameen Wild Resort and Vineyard Retreat is a boutique ecological resort, the historic Grist Mill & Gardens in Keremeos features camping and Klippers Organic Acres has guest suites and Row Fourteen, an excellent bistro.

“Don’t go to a (motel chain), just come here,” Weber says. “It’s totally worth it.”

Kamloops

This town offers a more urban centre, with a vibe somewhat similar to Kelowna combined with the ruggedness of the Similkameen, the wineries near Kamloops are somewhat spread out. 

And the region survived the misfortune of being under three different states of emergency during 2021 – pandemic, fires and floods.

“We had to step back and not try to do everything all at once, but the pandemic shifted our focus online until we could bring back that crucial human connection and engagement that’s so crucial,” says Erik Fisher, GM of Monte Creek Winery, which has a mission-style design, sweeping interiors, a greenhouse and the Terrace Restaurant.

Monte Creek is a destination winery, with much to explore and experience. There is understandable pride regarding its dedication to regenerative agriculture, engaging consumer-minded events and a gravity-fed cellar.

“Come see a different landscape that’s breathtaking and rugged, just travel a little further for hiking, biking, lakes and fishing,” Fisher says.

Sipping and chipping – for golfers – is par for the course in this area, which can point you toward Vernon and the wineries of Lake Country, or continue to the acclaimed cool-climate wines of the Shuswap.

A bit of a jaunt outside of Kamloops, Privato Vineyard and Winery has a small tasting room, but expansive outdoor space that co-owner Debbie Woodward says conveys a sense of “zen.”

“We’re far from the wine trail, but family-run so it feels very comfortable here,” she says.

It’s a short drive from Monte Creek, and 12 miles away you can take the two-car on demand — just honk your horn for service — McLure Reaction Ferry across the North Thompson River and near the edge of the rainforest. But wine flights and pourings from their other business — Woodward Cider Co. — are available to club members. Others can do a tasting and wander the grounds.

“If you’re looking for something a little different and the unique experiences at wineries on the Kamloops wine trail, why not come here?” says Woodward, who suggests heading to Whistler with a stop in Lillooet.

Fraser Valley

If you need to make your way back to Vancouver to head back over the border, save a day to visit the wineries of the Fraser Valley.

If you missed its Penticton tasting room, Township 7 Vineyards & Winery has another option in South Langley, a little more than an hour from Vancouver. Here, there’s an additional focus on Township 7’s Seven Stars sparkling wine program.

Winemaker Mary McDermott created her own winery production “bubble” during the pandemic to keep her team safe as the winery paid more attention to e-commerce and online sales. When she began to elevate the sparkling wine, McDermott specifically looked to the Langley site for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

“After our first vintage in 2015, there was a lot of work in the vineyard, and now we have a family of six sparklers,” she explains. “These are fantastic sparkling wines to come over and try, and we’re so close to the border – both wineries are.” The Penticton winery is an hour from the border at Osoyoos.

“It’s a great experience, we have a fun vibe and people enjoy it,” McDermott says.

Vancouver Island

The 14 wineries of Cowichan Valley, about a 90-minute drive from Victoria, have developed a passport program and are planning events throughout the summer, says Pamela Sanderson, tasting room manager at Blue Grouse Estate Winery in Duncan.

Like other wine regions across British Columbia, wineries on the Island had to adjust and pivot.

“The biggest outcome of the pandemic was having us refocus on our core business, and figure out what’s important and what’s not,” Sanderson says. “We improved the guest experience with a sit-down tasting paired with local food components, working with a local chef.

“Vancouver Island offers something fresh and new, a unique climate and unique varietals,” she adds. “If you’ve ‘been there, done that,’ then this is the place to be.”

The same could be said of any wine region or wine trail across British Columbia.

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