As my son and I drove up the hillside outside of Kelowna on our way to the SpearHead Winery, small hail pellets began to hit the windshield of our vehicle. It did not seem like a good day for a wine tour.
The hail lasted only a few short minutes, but when we arrived at the vineyard and were greeted by SpearHead owner Marina Knutson, we quickly realized just how much the weather can dampen the spirits at a winery.
"I ran out, raised my hands and shouted at the sky for it to stop," Knutson said.
Whether her incantations worked or not, it would not be the second time in recent years her precious crop of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes would be destroyed before harvest. Even through the difficult conditions of the region, SpearHead is one of only a few Okanagan wineries able to grow and produce quality Cabernet Sauvignon wines.
Fall may be a fearful time for the grape growers of Kelowna and the Okanagan Valley, where many of Canada’s best wines are produced, but the fall shoulder season period is a perfect time for a wine-tasting tour. Over four days and with few crowds, we would visit seven wineries and taste more than 30 wines.
There was a time when Canadian wines were much less popular, but as vines have matured over the years, and as owners’ understanding of which varieties best suit the soil and weather conditions of the region, many have been judged favourably against the world’s best.
By coincidence, Free Press wine writer Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson, invited to be a judge for the B.C. Lieutenant Governor’s Wine Awards, was in the area at the same time.
"Rather than struggle with grapes that require more intense heat and longer growing seasons, most producers in and around the Kelowna area are producing exceptional wines made from cooler-climate grapes such as Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. The sparkling wines being made in the area are also among some of the best in Canada and beyond," MacPhee-Sigurdson said.
Wine tastings are how much of the sales and distribution take place for most wineries. Every winery we visited agreed that the conversion rate from taster to buyer is almost 100 per cent. More important for them is the fact many of their visitors, locals and tourists alike, will join their wine clubs — which they all seem to promote.
Wine clubs deliver cases of a winery’s best wines, or those of the members’ choosing, three to four times a year. The packages are sold at a discounted price, and delivery is often included.
On one of the days, we kept meeting a bicycle tour group as they followed the same hillside roads we were taking for our visits. They, too, were buying wines as they travelled, seemingly able to find room in their packsacks as they purchased at least one bottle at each location.
While there are a couple of big producers in the area, most of the wineries are small and independently owned. Often, their wines are not available in provincial liquor stores, either because of limited production, or as Jeff Harder, proprietor of Ex Nihilo Vineyards, said, "We are not allowed to ship cases to club members in provinces such as Manitoba. In order to get onto some provincial wine listings, it can take a long time to go through the process of getting accepted."
Local restaurants in Kelowna are strong supporters of the industry, and the best wines of the region can easily be found in most restaurants.
From my observation of the wineries we visited, there seem to be three different levels of wine tastings.
At the smaller vineyards, the tastings are in small but well-appointed facilities. We simply stood at a bar as the host poured small quantities of the wines, explaining the backgrounds and varietals of what we were about to taste.
At the next level of wineries, we were in larger operations, which often featured a broader shopping environment with a few limited food options.
The third level includes some of the bigger producers, which not only feature wine tastings, but have quality restaurants within their properties as well.
The differences in presentation are not necessarily related to the quality of the wines, but more tied to the number of cases a winery produces.
The tone of our Kelowna visit in this regard was set on our first day, when we visited the Gray Monk winery. The Grapevine Restaurant, perched over a hill overlooking the valley and lake below, not only provided a great view, but an exceptional dining experience as well.
Chef Wade Siever and his wife, both Red Seal chefs, made the decision to leave Vancouver and their big-city positions to set up in Kelowna. They have never looked back. Their restaurant is a natural adjunct to the winery, where pairings are part of the experience, but Gray Monk’s signature wine Pinot Gris is always featured.
The last winery meal we would have was at Quails’ Gate, where former Winnipegger J.P. Fowler is the chief financial officer of the winery. Even though it was fall and the weather was turning, the restaurant was busy, and the culinary experience was excellent.
Fowler believes the secret to success for their winery restaurant is the creativity of the menu, combined with the guest experience.
"Our chef and the team pride themselves on providing world-class hospitality and the finest fare, largely sourced from the Okanagan," Fowler said.
Visitors to Kelowna are not likely to pass up a visit to the Mission Hill winery. It is a major national brand and is far and away the biggest winery in the region. Whether you take the tour, dine in the restaurant or just partake in a wine tasting, the design of the grounds will stay in your memory for a long time after your visit. Large and exquisitely manicured, there are works of art placed throughout the grounds, sitting areas where you can relax and buildings with a distinct European flair.
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Ron is a dedicated traveller, having explored 65 countries around the world as well as all but one province in Canada (Newfoundland).