It’s 10:00 am and I have just thrown back my first drink: a sample of smooth gin that tastes like Bombay Sapphire, but with a hint of pine. Although tempting, I decline the offer of vodka and schnapps. As we are gently ushered back to the 15-seater wine tour bus, I notice a little tray of food on the middle console, in between the passenger and driver’s seat. It’s a selection of local cheese and premium biscuits for us to nibble on our way to the next tasting stop. Delicious! This is how the day begins on a Wine and Spirits Tour in Vernon, British Columbia.
Vernon is a mid-sized town in the Okanagan Valley, about 4 hours’ drive from Vancouver. A world-class tourism spot, it offers skiing, hiking, golf, beaches, paddleboarding adventures and wine tours. Its nearest airport is Kelowna, nestled in the mountains only 40 minutes away.
This is my first experience of the Okanagan Valley, and within its unique beauty, it reminds me strongly of other stunning places I have travelled. The mountains are Tyrolean: large and cool. There is a lush Irish green-ness on the hills, even in late September. At each location we visit, I feel the tap of Europe: Tuscany, Austria and the South of France. I can see why grapes like it here. At the same time, the Okanagan feels very North American- like a slow version of California.
Like California, The Okanagan Valley is becoming a leader in new-world wines. From humble beginnings as a producer of sacramental wines in the 1860’s, to the production of unsophisticated baby cham and table “plonk” in the mid-20th century, the region finally made its mark as a serious producer when Mission Hill Winery won the World’s Best Chardonnay at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London, UK in 1994. Following that success, the Okanagan has now come into its own with over 130 licensed wineries that consistently win local and international awards.
Our tour guide for the day is M.J. from MJ Tours who collects our group early in the morning from our luxurious condominium-style accommodation at the famous Predator Ridge Golf Resort. Although none of us are golfers, we are staying at Predator Ridge in order to experience the Swing Like a Girl golf program, a golf lesson specifically for gals, led by former LPGA golf pro, AJ Eathorne. Our accommodation at Predator Ridge also affords us access to the adjacent Sparkling Hills Resort. The two hotels are a stone’s throw from each other, with a shuttle bus ferrying guests between the two complexes.
Sparkling Hills Resort in itself is worth the visit to Vernon. The opulent European-inspired hotel owned by the Swarovski family, is quite literally bedazzled with 3.5 million of their famous crystals. It also features a unique health and wellness spa, called Kurspa, popular with visiting Europeans and locals alike. This world-renowned spa offers steam rooms, aromatherapy rooms, massage treatments and a strangely invigorating series of stepping pools called the Kneipp Waterway. My favourite spa experience? The heated outdoor infinity pool overlooking the mountains.
Our first stop on the wine tour is not a winery at all, but a distillery. The Okanagan Craft Spirits distillery is a steampunk dream, with polished copper vats and pipes all over the place. It’s like something from a movie set, and I half-expect Willy Wonka himself to emerge, slightly tipsy, from behind one of the machines.
Next, we visit BX Cider Press, a small family-owned operation that represents the growing craft cider industry in British Columbia. They’re a cool little operation, as is our next stop of the tour: Planet Bee: a family-friendly honey farm and meadery. After an educational talk about bees, we are led to a tasting station, where bee and mead-expert Debbie generously doles out portions of mead, mead and more mead, none of which is to my taste. I buy a stuffed bee and a book about bees for my kids. On the way back to my seat in the the van, I eagerly nibble on the freshly replenished cheese and biscuits left for us by MJ. This time there is some nice Brie.
We stop for lunch at Gray Monk, which is one of the oldest wineries in the Okanagan, and somewhat of an institution. Large verandas and decks jut out of the commanding Italianate architecture, offering places to eat, sip, and take photos. The food, included in the tour, is delicious. After lunch, we head to the wine-tasting room: a smooth operation with enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff and a vast selection of delicious wines. My favourite is their Gewuerztraminer: hard to say, easy to drink! On our trip back to the van, we are met with another treat on the console: small pieces of dark chocolate! MJ is a classy host.
After lunch, we hit Arrowleaf Cellars and Ex Nihilo Vineyards, two important local wineries located within minutes of eachother. The wines are all stunning, but the experience totally different at each. Arrowleaf has a cool, European feel, while Ex Nihilo is totally rock n’ roll. Ex Nihilo also serves as a community centre for the area, hosting book talks, art shows, concerts- and of course, wine-tasting events.
Throughout the trip, MJ has been feeding us cheese, but also interesting tidbits of information about the culture of the region. Every facet of North American history has made its mark on this charming location, from its beginnings as a home to the Salish people, to the Fur Trade, the Gold Rush and shamefully, as a location for the internment of Ukranians and Germans during the first world war. Now, it is rated as one of the top places to retire in Canada, with of a combination modest house prices and extortionate lakefront real estate such as the houses overlooking Lake Kalamaka, “The Lake of Many Colours”, named as one of the 10 most beautiful lakes in the world, by National Geographic.
Our final stop on the tour is 50th Parallel Estate, which I dub “the hipster winery” because of its sleek look and young staff, who seem more like friendly baristas than sommeliers. Our host, pictured above, is young and totally cute, like a character out of a John Hughes film, but he talks wine like an expert, and throws bottles around like Tom Cruise. (Keep in mind now, that I have been drinking wine all day, which means that everyone looks like a movie star). There are big plans for the 50th Parallel. It is a vineyard which will focus almost exclusively on wines made withPinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, both of which are already winning awards. The energy at 50th Estate is superb. Definitely one to watch.
It seems like weeks ago that I sipped the gin at (Willy Wonka’s) Okanagan Distillery, but in fact, it was only this morning. Wine tasting can take its toll on the system, and so, after a quick loot drop-off at Predator Ridge (we all bought wine to take home), we re-group and head back to Sparkling Hills for an evening detox in the infinity pool.
Thank you, Vernon.
Helen Earley is a Halifax-based travel writer. She thanks Tourism Vernon for their gracious hospitality.