Wine and whimsy define Canada’s Okanagan Valley

2013-12-26T18:48:00Z 2013-12-26T18:56:48Z Wine and whimsy define Canada’s Okanagan ValleySHARON MCDONNELL Napa Valley Register
December 26, 2013 6:48 pm  • 

KELOWNA, British Columbia — I could talk about the beauty of the Okanagan Valley, the British Columbia wine region whose wineries and outdoor restaurants offer jaw-dropping views of 90-mile-long Lake Okanagan. And about Canada’s only desert, located here, so Arizona-like that some spas and golf courses are named Sonora. And I will.

But first, the memories bubbling up to the surface after my wine-soaked sojourn during the fall Okanagan Wine Festival are about Therapy. Dirty Laundry. Laughing Stock. And, most memorably, See Ya Later. All these whimsically named Okanagan wineries, each bearing its own eccentric story, added tremendously to my enjoyment.

In just a few miles, I encountered Therapy Vineyards, whose labels boast Rorschach-style inkblots, variously named Freudian Sip, Superego and Pink Freud (a rose, naturally), and Dirty Laundry, inspired by a town’s 19th-century Chinese laundry, a front for a brothel (scrutinize the abstract squiggles on its label to spot a female nude). Also, Laughing Stock Vineyards, whose stock ticker-tape design honors stock prices from the day the wine was bottled — the ex-stockbroker owner dubbed his well-reviewed Bordeaux-style blend Porfolio. And there’s Blasted Church, whose “midnight service” features a live band and barbecue during the festival.

Even Naramata, the vaguely Japanese-sounding name of a town, is derived instead from a 1907 seance. A medium channeled the spirit of a dead Indian chieftain, who called his wife by this name.

You can’t make this stuff up.

But at the unforgettable See Ya Later Ranch, I tasted wines that salute man’s best friend — with winged haloed dogs on the labels — and also toured the dog cemetery on its grounds. Here, I inspected the tombstones of Jimmy My Pal and Ping, beloved pets of the original owner, whose tails would wag with joy if they knew some wines here were named in their honor.

I encountered many live dogs and their companions at this winery in Okanagan Falls during my visit, some sitting patiently, others munching on, er, hot dogs, since the Dog Days of Summer, an annual event benefiting the local SPCA, happened to be in full swing.

See Ya Later, the story goes, is named to honor the ranch’s original owner, who brought a bride home from Europe after World War I. Distressed by the area’s solitude and isolation at the time, she penned a “Dear John” letter to Maj. Hugh Fraser, and left, never to return. But I later heard another version that said the major simply used to sign letters to friends “SYL,” shorthand for See Ya Later. Which version is true? Who knows? More importantly, who cares?

Besides a taste for whimsy, I indulged my senses during the festival, held three times a year, in fall, spring and summer, featuring winemaker dinners, lunches and a family-friendly Festival of the Grape. Not an ounce of pretension can be found in the Okanagan, where friendliness is the order of the day in 165-plus activities, including kids’ activities and paddlewheel cruises on Lake Okanagan.

I was there because I was curious about the place of origin of the delicious Okanagan wines I’d sipped in Vancouver, a four-hour drive or one-hour flight from Kelowna, the biggest city in the Okanagan. So it was fitting that at my winemaker dinner at Tinhorn Creek, a winery in Oliver, (a 1 1/2 hour drive south of Kelowna), I enjoyed an epicurean feast from none other than the executive chef of Vancouver’s C Restaurant, a fabulous seafood restaurant where I had a meal I’d never forget.

C’s “100 Mile Menu” at Tinhorn featured foods sourced within 100 miles from the Okanagan, like venison with caramelized apples and squash puree, and pork belly with tomato gazpacho, paired with Tinhorn Creek premium wines.

Tinhorn Creek’s on-site vineyard has captions that explain how the number of “heat days” in the Oliver area is equivalent to Bordeaux, France, but with less rainfall, and why its climate tends to produce fruity, intensely flavored wines. Tinhorn’s winemaker and CEO turned out to be Sandra Oldfield, who was raised in Sonoma, studied at UC Davis and co-owns the winery with her Canadian husband and their friends, the Shaunessys.

At Mission Hill Family Estate, a winery whose magnificent setting high above deep-blue Lake Okanagan boasts beautiful rose gardens where summer concerts are held, the winemaker dinner is held in the museum-like entrance hall, where a vivid tapestry of Marc Chagall’s painting “Animals and Music” dominates the room. This winery, which has a sophisticated European flair, is owned by a Canadian of Austrian ancestry. I attended the festival’s wine and cheese tasting in another museum-like room adorned by ancient artifacts like a fourth-century Greek amphora collected by the winery owner,

The yummy cheeses paired with my Mission Hill wines turned out to be from Carmelis, a goat-cheese maker whose owners are Israelis who once had a farm near Nazareth, Ofri and Ofer Barmor. On a visit to the Barmors’ goat farm, about 5 miles from downtown Kelowna, as I tasted some of their 20 varieties of soft ripe and hard goat cheese, I heard how their visit to the Okanagan to ski ended with them deciding to move there and start a goat farm in 2003.

“We went all over the Okanagan to taste wine and found nobody serving cheese,” said Ofri.

In my southernmost stop in the Okanagan Valley, amid a stark landscape of gray-green sagebrush and yellow rabbitbrush 2 miles north of the Washington state border, I found North America’s only tribe-owned and operated winery, Nk’Mip Cellars. Both the terra cotta-style lodgings of my hotel, the Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa, where the Sonora Desert Spa and Sonora Dunes Golf Course are located, and the scenery were dead ringers for the American Southwest.

My wine tasting at Nk’Mip, at the stupefying hour of 9:30 a.m. (“Your palate is clean and fresh at that hour,” the tasting leader reassured us) ranged from merlot blends, pinot blanc and riesling to icewine. Luckily, a full breakfast of cheese and smoked meats accompanied the wines, so I was able to function the rest of the day.

But after touring the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Center museum, and hiking, in the autumn heat, its trail lined with metal sculptures of bears, coyote and humans made by a tribal artist, I was in a pleasant haze indeed.

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