It’s a rite of passage for a child growing up in Vancouver to make the pilgrimage to the Okanagan each summer.
My very first memory as a child is of being in the camp-ground at the very east end of the beach, and looking out over the corn fields on the reservation across the way. I remember eating the corn we’d just bought there on the side of the road, and wondering about the people who lived there. It felt like they lived in another world.
Harold relocated to the Pacific Northwest almost six years ago. It took Immigration two years to allow him to live in Canada, so he was forced to live in Washington State. We have spent a lot of time exploring the US west coast, and overseas and not much at all in British Columbia. Since he was allowed to immigrate, we have continued to spend more time exploring other places and not so much at home. This is his first time in the Okanagan.
September is the perfect time for adults to visit the Okanagan. Summers are crowded and overbooked. To get a site in a camp-ground, you need to book months in advance. In September, there are no kids, no need for reservations, and the weather is perfect, sunny and warm. This is the time when vineyards are getting ready for harvest and the fall wine festival. The vineyards are busy enough to keep them open, but not so much that you can’t get in.
We spent our first two days at the Nk’Mip (pronounced In-Ka-Meep) Resort. The resort is built on the very same First Nations land from my memories but oh how times have changed. The private campground we stayed at for many years was replaced with condos sometime in the 80’s and now the only campground on the east end of the beach is at this resort. There is a 4 star hotel and spa with gorgeous views of the lake and valley, conference and cultural centre, hiking and cycling trails, riding stables, boat rentals, golf course, helicopter pad, bistro, and a vineyard and winery.
We had preconceived notions about what wine in the Okanagan was like. We knew that being so far north, it is the whites and ice wines that are raved about. Our favorite wines are deep, dark and full-bodied reds, Zinfandels, Cab Sauvs, and Petite Syrahs. It was one of the reasons we hadn’t been in a rush to go wine tasting in the Okanagan.
The Nk’Mip winery tasting room was our first stop of the day. They opened at 10am, but we waited until the much more reasonable 11am. There was a bus tour being taken care of, but a few minutes later, the entire place cleared out and we had the whole place to ourselves. The wines were tasty and interesting, but the reds were as we’d suspected, much too light for our liking.
Looking at the wine map, I could see there were just way too many to get to all in one day. When we first started visiting wine areas, I used to feel like a kid in a candy store, trying to get to every single one, and feeling disappointed that we were barely able to scratch the surface. Now we’re well seasoned, and know so much better. It’s far more interesting to pick and choose and know there are more to visit the next time you come through.
I chose the east side of the valley in Oliver, along Black Sage road, mostly because the only winery I recognized the name of was Burrowing Owl, the first one on the road. We made it through quite a few wineries that day, and all of them are much different from each other. Our favorites were:
Platinum Bench – They served the most wonderful artisan breads alongside their wines. The baker just outside the windows couldn’t bake them fast enough for people to purchase. We wanted two different types of bread but could only get one. We purchased a bottle of their Gamay Noir, a grape we’d never heard of before. The wine is like a Pinot Noir, but with more body and flavour. They served it chilled and we enjoyed it that way. We have it in our RV fridge right now, to be opened on a nice sunny day.
Silver Sage Winery – It was our luck to enter the tasting room at the same time as about 20 other people, but the server was a no-nonsense assembly line worker who just rolled with it. She set us all up with our glasses and raced from one end of the line, to the other, pouring wine and barking her sales pitch at us just like the ware hawkers at the PNE. It was amusing and fun, watching her go, her long grey braid bouncing along, as she made her way up and down the line. She made me think of a middle-aged German Frau, especially given the style of her wines, and I could imagine her all geared up in her Lederhosen, serving the tourists. The winery was completely without any of the pretension and pomp of the other tasting rooms. The wines were far, far too sweet, with many fruit wines and a gimmicky Flame dessert wine, a mixture of Gewurztraminer, peach/apricot fruit and a very hot pepper that bobbed inside the slightly peachy, transparent liquid. The spicy and sweet taste goes so well together, we couldn’t resist purchasing a bottle.
Black Hills Winery – This place is very beautiful and very pretentious. While the other tasting rooms charge $3-5 for a tasting, and some charge nothing at all, they set themselves apart by having seated tastings on a gorgeous patio overlooking the valley, and charge $10-50 for tastings. The $20 tasting seemed like the most interesting, with all the current offerings, 3 whites and 3 reds. The last red, the Nota Bene, their Bordeaux style red blend was definitely the best red of the day. We’d have purchased a bottle but at $65 it was too much in price and too little in boldness in contrast to some of our most loved Zins and Petite Syrahs from California.
Montakarn – In my daydream where we buy a beautiful piece of land and open a vineyard and winery, this is the land we live on. Their house and winery are next to each other right where the land crests and spills down over into the valley. It is such a wonderfully gorgeous setting – you can’t help but think they must wake up every morning and fall in love with the view all over again. Unfortunately, the human way is to become inured to things and take them for granted, so I expect I was more in love with the view for the 15 minutes I was there than I’d be if I were to live there.
The winemaker was serving us and I first buttered him up with glowing praise for the beauty of his view and then plied him with questions about his wine making business. It’s the same story we’ve heard many times before – if you want to make a small fortune in the wine business, start with a large fortune. I’m pretty certain they are speaking the truth. I can imagine how so much can go wrong, in so many different ways, and a lot of money can be lost. It’s a romantic notion, but I think we both agree that we prefer to be free and tour the many different wine areas. We’d never truly want to be wine makers ourselves. We enjoyed his Merlot Blend and purchased a bottle.
Hester Creek – We visited this winery on our way back down the west side of the valley. This is a big style winery that sits up on the hill, overlooking the valley from the other side. They offer winery tours, food pairings and cooking classes, as well as music on the patio every Saturday and a Garlic Festival coming up in October. The wines were very enjoyable and we’d like to prearrange a food pairing for our next visit.
Cassini Cellars – They had been harvesting and had a real fruit fly issue in the tasting room, but it didn’t dissuade us from loving their wine. We purchased a bottle of their 2013 Cabernet Merlot that was surprisingly bold and dark.
We were pleasantly surprised by how much we enjoyed the wines of the Black Sage Bench. The reds, while lighter than we prefer, are still full of flavour and well valued. The whites are exceptional. The prices are surprisingly good for the most part. When we tour wine areas in the US, we are used to spending $5 per tasting, and $25 and up for a bottle, even in Washington and Oregon. Many very good wines here are $18 to the low 20’s and tasting fees are often free or $3, with many of the vineyards giving the proceeds to charity.
Overnight spot: Nk’Mip Resort
Price: $29-52 [ Rates ]
Includes: Some water only sites, others have full 30/50 AMP, cable [ Park map ]
Comments: Right on Osoyoos Lake. Lots of waterfront sites. Cycle path into downtown Osoyoos, with bars, restaurants and shops. Winery with tasting room, hotel resort with spa, pool, helicopter tours.