(Tales Told From The Road” continues its series of “Travel Canada” stories highlighting destinations and attractions from sea-to-sea.)
Cloyingly sweet and rather disgusting in taste, these were the British Columbia produced wines that I drank in Victoria, B.C. during a visit in 1974. Heck, there probably was even “Baby Moose” or “Baby Caribou” or “Baby (insert name of your favorite wild critter)” wines, too.
Back in that day, “Thunderbird,” “Ripple,” and Bartle & James “Wine Coolers” probably would have upstaged those “B.C. Baby” wines at a wine auction.
But today, when it comes to wine, you’ve come a long way from your “baby days,” B.C.
Where It Was At: California
While British Columbia was churning out wine that wasn’t fit to drink in the early-1970’s, wineries in California’s Napa Valley were turning grapes into palate-pleasing products that would go on to win the famous 1976 “Judgment of Paris” wine tasting battle against fine French wines. As luck would have it, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1971, and over the next four decades made many forays into Northern California’s wine growing region, tasting, buying, and drinking wines from that area.
Living in a part of the U.S. that is literally awash with great wines, and having found British Columbia wines not to my liking, you would hardly have expected me to ever make a return pilgrimage to that Canadian province to see if vintners there had finally figured out how to make grapes into something other than stand-ins for Welch’s Grape Juice or Kool-Aid.
But I did, and so did they.
Wines All Grown Up
In the fall of 2010, my wife and I spent four days in British Columbia’s Okanagan wine growing region (about a 4 hour drive east of Vancouver) during its 30th Annual Fall Wine Festival. (Click here for a map and Vancouver-Kelowna driving directions).
There were at least 52 wineries that we could have checked out that were close our lodgings, and about a hundred others not too much farther away, more than we could have possibly visited unless we were willing to do a “death march” along the Okanagan wine route.
We began our stay in Kelowna which, much to our surprise, was not a small, wine-country town like St. Helena in the Napa Valley, but a bustling city with a population well over 100,000. Because the wine festival was taking place, several Kelowna restaurants featured special prix-fixe menus pairing wine with food. The Eldorado Hotel served us a fine three-course meal on Friday night with a choice of two different wine “flights” that included selections from ten different wineries.
After spending Saturday morning tasting and eyeballing food at the local farmer’s market, we headed off to West Kelowna for an afternoon of wine tasting. Our first stop was Quail’s Gate where we toured the vineyards and winery, and then sampled some excellent wines, including Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and “Foch,” a wine made from grapes that I had never heard being grown in California. Quail’s Gate produces several other varietals, including Chardonnay, Merlot, a Dry Riesling, Gewurztraminer, a Rose, and a Riesling Icewine.
At Mount Boucherie Winery, just up the road from Quail’s Gate, we were poured at least a dozen wines to taste. By this time it was pretty clear that the British Columbia wine industry had come up in the world from its “baby wine” days, and now its wines were as good as any from California producers.
After taking a late afternoon break from being tourists, we returned to Quail’s Gate for a four-course dinner, each course paired with a different wine. The food and service were top-notch, and through the wide glass doors of the winery’s restaurant that opened onto the outdoor dining patio, lights twinkled on the opposite shore of Okanagan Lake.
Down the Lake
At the Penticton visitor information center and wine shop at the south end of the lake, we ran into Gordon, the general manager of a “nuts and bolts” company in Edmonton whom we had met at the Mount Boucherie Winery the day before. At his suggestion, on the drive along the “Naramata Bench” from Penticton to our hotel, we stopped at the La Frenz Winery and sampled some of its wines, then drove a little farther to try those from Popular Grove Winery. Like all of the Okanagan wine we had thus far, the wines were all good to very good.
Turning Apples into Wine
We stayed two nights at the Naramata Heritage Inn, built in 1908 by John Robinson as his personal home. Later the building became a hotel, then a girl’s school, then a hotel again, then it shut down until restored and re-opened as the present inn. Robinson is credited with starting the Okanagan fruit industry which still grows apples, pears and peaches, although wine grapes now are the most economically important agricultural crop in the area.
Today the steep hillsides that tumble down to the lake near Naramata are mostly covered with vineyards and second homes rather than fruit orchards, and the apple packing plant in Naramata closed down a few years ago. After a short hike along the former Kettle Valley Railway line high above the lake, we stopped at Nichol Vineyard & Farm Winery to quench our thirst before heading back to the hotel.
Take a “Virtual Trip” to Okanagan’s Wine Country
To get a visual taste of what you’ll get on a trip to British Columbia’s Okanagan region, follow Master of Wine, James Cluer, on a quick spin around the area in this YouTube video:
So Many Wineries, So Little Time
Because there’s much to do and see in the Okanagan, we only had time to get to five wineries during our four day stay, far fewer than we might visit on an afternoon’s tour of the wine-growing valleys in Napa and Sonoma counties back home. And there are four other areas in British Columbia that produce wine that we have yet to investigate: Similkameen Valley (near the Okanagan), Fraser Valley (near Vancouver), Vancouver Island (west of mainland British Columbia), and the Gulf Islands (lying between the mainland and Vancouver Island).
Unfortunately, very little Canadian wine is available in the U.S., and the B.C. wineries we talked to told us they could not ship their wines to us in California. And since we traveled to and from British Columbia by air rather than in our car, there was no practical way to take home any of those fine wines we had tasted.
Saved by the Mounties!
Alas, not only could we not “import” B.C. wines ourselves, but we have not been able to find a wine shop close to home that sells any, either.
Luckily for me, when I attended the recent Canada Media Marketplace in San Francisco—an event where travel writers meet up with Canadian tour companies and visitor bureaus—I had the opportunity to drink British Columbia wines right in my own “backyard.”
How did that wine “sneak” its way into the U.S.? Well perhaps the Mountie from the R.C.M.P. who was at the CMM in full dress uniform and her colleagues had made sure that our “liquid refreshments” received a “police escort” all the way from the border to San Francisco.
If you like travelling to places where you’ll find fine wine and food, outstanding scenery, and friendly folks, make sure that your passport is current, and head north of the border, up Canada way, to drink and eat your way around British Columbia. It’s as good as it gets for “foodies” and wine-lovers.
(For more information on British Columbia wines, visit the British Columbia Wine Institute Website, www.winebc.org, which kindly provided photos for this story.)