We’d planned to do a big trip this year. Like, big big. To keep on top of our all-seven-continents-before-we-turn-40 plan we’d planned to do some part of Asia this year — the debate was ongoing as to which part, but something. Work, though, made that impossible. We couldn’t take 2-3 weeks away from work this year, and there wasn’t time to properly plan something anyway. So we opted for something simple that involved no passports, no immunizations, no new languages: we opted for the Okanagan Valley. Wine, scenery, good food, and relaxation. Check, check, check, and fuck yes.
We woke up at stupid o-clock to head to the airport. Our Uber driver was awesome and a cappuccino from the Maple Leaf lounge helped me open my eyes. I also got to sit in the business class pods for the first time; heretofore I’d only been in the typical non-pod business class seats. It was nice, but kind of weird too. Nellie didn’t mind; she was horizontal and asleep before we cleared Winnipeg airspace. I re-watched Lone Survivor (having just finished the book) and Godzilla.
Upon arriving at YVR and collecting our bags we went for the first in a series of recurring themes on this trip: the up-sell. For an extra $15/day, the nice man at the Budget rental counter explained, I could have a BMW 328i.
So, yeah. Sure. We did that. And we drove that bad boy right out of the airport and launched onto the wide-open roadways of…Vancouver’s winding back streets. Over which we crept ever-so-slowly out of the city. Ugh. Still, once we cleared, say, Abbotsford, we opened ‘er up and spun eastward through the mountains, and were reminded of just how goddamned beautiful BC is. To wit: this was the view when we stopped for lunch at the Blue Moose Café in Hope:
We kept driving east through green mountains and twisty roads and desert plateaus, finally emerging into the beautiful Okanagan valley. That first view of Osoyoos Lake after a 5-hour drive looked pretty good. After ~14 straight hours of travel we were done in, but decided to hit the two southernmost wineries on our list while we at the bottom of the valley.
Nk’Mip was one of the biggest we hit during our trip, and one of my most anticipated. I will say, it didn’t blow me away, but I think that had more to do with a) my high expectations and b) our complete lack of awareness of what to expect from BC wines. We tasted quite a few but ended up buying a 2010 Meritage and 2012 Chardonnay. Staggering views from up there though. Wow.
Moon Curser was next, and a very different experience: small place, intimate tasting room, super-friendly, and lots of interesting varietals. The lady there gave us a few recommendations for further up the valley, and we left with bottles of the 2011 Dead Of Night (a Tannat/Syrah blend), 2011 Border Vines (a Bordeaux blend), and 2013 Afraid Of The Dark (a Roussanne/Marsanne/Viognier blend). We were starting to identify the varietals here in BC that we couldn’t find as easily back in Ontario.
Dinner that night was at Terrafina on the winery’s property, so we just had to wander down the hill. I’d thought this through, right? We stopped along the way for a tasting before dinner, and had them set aside two bottles of the 2013 Late Harvest Pinot Blanc, and a bottle of the 2011 The Judge for retrieval the next day.
Our dinner at Terrafina really set the tone for the trip: it was outstanding. I had scallops and the chicken breast; Nellie had cauliflower soup and a duck confit pasta, which she declared one of her five favourite pastas of all time. We thanked our excellent server, bought beers for the kitchen staff, and walked home through the vines under a night sky so clear we could see the Milky Way. We toasted day one with the rest of that white wine on the patio. Cheers, Sunday!
The start to day two was almost ridiculously nice. I made some coffee, watched a perfect sunrise from the patio, listened to hawks cry overhead, and watched a young deer wander through the vines below us. The constant sound of bird cannons didn’t bother me; it just reminded me we were in wine country.
We ate breakfast — bacon, oven-baked French toast, and fresh local fruit — outside with the other guests and then got to work: more wineries. We tried to find Osoyoos Larose but couldn’t. Since their website seems to be deactivated we wondered whether the winery is even still operating. Either way, we couldn’t find it and bailed, crossing the river to Black Sage Road.
Burrowing Owl was our first stop of the day, and was another one high on the list. I had high expectations for this one, but like Nk’Mip it was just…solid. Not bad, but not really memorable. We ended up buying a 2011 Athene and a 2010 Merlot, and after perusing the restaurant’s menu decided not to eat lunch there later in the day.
Platinum Bench, just down the road, wasn’t one we’d heard of before coming, but the good people at Moon Curser had recommended it. As soon as we walked in we could smell the fresh-baked bread made by one of the owners. They pair the fresh bread with some of their wines, which is 1) a neat idea and 2) a terrific way to sell bread. We left with two loaves of bread (one stuffed with soppressata and Swiss cheese, the other with figs and brie) and bottles of the 2011 Meritage, 2012 Merlot, and 2013 Pinot Gris. Oh, and we got to play with their dog. The morning was picking up.
Church & State was next, and we found it pretty much empty. This was another recurring theme — I guess 11am on a Monday isn’t that popular a wine tasting window. Except for pros like us, obviously. We tasted everything they had open, bought the 2009 Quintessential, 2011 Coyote Bowl Syrah, and 2013 Viognier, and got a few recommendations from them for the next few days, such as…
Le Vieux Pin. We’d bypassed their sister winery, La Stella, on the way up, but we were advised not to make the same mistake with Le Vieux Pin. We were glad we didn’t — we got up-sold on the premium tasting, and fell for their three Syrahs. We took away a half-dozen: 2011 Syrah, 2012 Ava, 2013 Equinox Chardonnay, 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, and two bottles of the 2011 Equinox Syrah. Their wines weren’t cheap, but they were terrific.
Black Hills, just back up Black Sage Road, was another recommendation from Church & State. Actually, their recommendation was to eat lunch there and do their full tasting, but it turned out they weren’t offering lunch that day. Still, we did the full tasting outside on the patio and ordered a charcuterie board to tide us over.
I was more than intrigued by their Carmenère. We went for the minor up-sell (there’s that theme again) and sprung for the vertical tasting of their flagship Nota Bene red. We didn’t buy any bottles that day, but then we went for the major up-sell, and joined their wine club. Crazy, right? But those reds were good, and shipping is free, so…yeah. Up-sell FTW.
It had already been a more productive day than expected, so we were almost ready to pack it in. Almost. We drove back across the river to highway 97 and took the long driveway up to Culmina‘s gates, but because we hadn’t bothered to make a reservation we turned back around and opted to make just one other stop.
Road 13 was on my must-try list, but I don’t remember how or why. Frankly, I’m surprised it got there — we were very disappointed. We did buy two bottles — a sparkling 2011 Chenin Blanc and a 2012 Syrah Mourvedre — but our tasting experience was so rushed and impersonal that we left in a bit of shock. We felt like we were being rushed out as the staff tried to close up, even though it was nowhere near closing time. Weird. We ended up drinking both wines over the next few days, and they weren’t bad, but they weren’t coming back to Ontario with us. Disappointing.
We did need some food though, so we went back to Terrafina for lunch and drove up the hill to our villa for a little break before dinner. It was around this time that I started to feel really sick. I’d been fighting a cold in the days leading up to the vacation — this often happens to me, as soon as my body fights through things during busy periods but knows it has a break coming up — but I thought it might be allergies too. Either way, I felt pretty rotten all afternoon.
I felt poorly at dinner too, which was a shame, because I couldn’t really enjoy Miradoro at Tinhorn Creek. I had a quail appetizer (after driving through a flock of them on the drive up…I felt bad) and elk for my main; Nellie had a bowl of clams and chorizo, followed by a wild boar bacon carbonara pasta. She got a dessert, but here’s how bad I felt by this point: I couldn’t even order the salted chocolate budino on the menu, even though that’s one of my favourite desserts. Also: we drank the recommended (Tinhorn Creek) wine pairings, but nothing impressed us. In fact, some of them just tasted bad. Not off, just…bad. If that had been been just my opinion I’d have assumed the cold affected my taste buds. But it wasn’t just me. Surprising, since they’re one of the heavyweights in OK.
My body was trying very hard to shut down, so we were home by 9:30 and I fell asleep a few minutes after that.
I woke up feeling better, so I couldn’t resist getting up for another sunrise before breakfast. This time we shared a table with a couple from Texas, on their way to Moraine Lake. They were also going to hike at Lake O’Hara, so we were rather jealous. After breakfast we packed up our room, picked up some cold meds in Oliver, and drove north to more wineries.
Blue Mountain was a must-stop for us, and didn’t disappoint. We ended up chatting with a lady who knew a lot about Ontario wines and wineries, and told us how lucky we were that they had 2006 Blanc de Blanc on hand. We left with two bottles of it, and one of their 2013 Gamay. They were sold out of several others I wish we could have tried.
Blasted Church was a little further up the road, and one of the few BC wineries we’d already tried. On our last visit to Lake O’Hara the lodge served us some Blasted Church wine; we couldn’t remember which, but Nellie sampled a bunch in the hopes of jogging her memory. In the end we took a 2010 Nothing Sacred and two bottles of the 2013 “Bible Thumper” Viognier.
Painted Rock was the most spectacular winery we saw on this trip. Not necessarily the biggest, but the slickest. It looked like an Apple store. It was very good too — they poured just four wines but we ended up buying three: the 2012 Syrah, the flagship red 2012 Icon, and 2013 Reserve Rosé. We took one last look at the view, and continued on to Penticton.
I don’t quite know what possessed me to book lunch at The Hooded Merganser. I guess I didn’t know until we pulled into the parking lot that it’s in a casino. Perhaps if it had been a nice day we could have sat on the patio for lunch and enjoyed a view of the lake. Anyway, it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as interesting a meal as we’d hoped for. Can’t win ’em all, I guess.
The weather had turned at this point — our luck had finally run out. Well, almost; we left downtown Penticton just in time to see a squadron of ducks cross the street in front of us. Seriously, about a half-dozen of them crossed the street using a crosswalk. And then crossed the street the other way, again using the crosswalk. We’d never seen anything like it, but I for one welcome our new aquatic fowl overlords.
Poplar Grove was just outside of the downtown, and we stopped mainly to confirm where our dinner would be later that evening. We did taste a few though, and walked away with a 2009 Legacy and 2013 Viognier. We were loving how much Viognier we could find in the valley. It’s a favourite, and a rare find in Ontario. Our next stop was Serenata Guest House, where we would lay our heads for the evening, but it wasn’t yet open. No matter; there were plenty of wineries waiting for us up the Naramata bench.
La Frenz, for instance. This was another recommendation from both Church & State and Painted Rock; strangely enough we weren’t that taken with the place. Maybe we’d been spoiled by all the empty wineries to date and suddenly here we encountered a crowd, but the wines weren’t much to write home about either. We did nonetheless leave with a 2012 “Rockyfeller” Malbec.
Red Rooster was a miss. Sure, we took away a 2012 Bantam White (which we drank that night) and a 2013 Reserve Rosé, but overall it wasn’t worth writing home about. To be fair, though, we didn’t try the Meritage, which happens to be in the LCBO right now, so we may owe them another try.
Howling Bluff, a little further up the bench, was about as far from Painted Rock as we could get. Tiny, no frills, but fun enough (and high-potential enough) that we bought a bottle of the 2010 Summa Quies Bordeaux blend to age at home for a few years.
By now we’d killed enough time to check in, so we drove back to Serenata and met Jake, just about the friendliest guy in the world. He showed us around, gave us the lay of the land, recommended some other wineries, talked up his Syrah (they own, or owned at this point, 3 Mile winery up the road), and told us the plan for breakfast the next morning. We dropped our suitcases in the room, opened a bottle of red, and walked up the hill to the lookout.
We’d booked dinner at Vanilla Pod restaurant that night, back at Poplar Grove winery. Our meals were good, but huge — I could only eat about half of my paella. The most interesting part of the evening was a chance for Nellie to see her friend from elementary school, who now lived in Penticton. First time they’d seen each other in about 25 years. What a nice surprise, and a great way to end day three.
While waiting for Jake’s wife Colleen to make her killer breakfast I noticed a tweet from wine writer Rick Van Sickle, recommending a small winery we’d never heard of. We added it to the list of wineries we planned to try that day, ate our ham & omelette, and packed up. Jake gave us a bottle of their 3 Mile 2011 Syrah and we were on our way.
Laughing Stock was our first stop of the day, and ended up being one of our favourites on the trip. The ex-investment banker theme is a nice touch. We tasted everything they had, and bought three bottles: the 2012 “Blind Trust” Bordeaux blend, 2013 Viognier, and 2013 Chardonnay.
Van Westen was next, and it was probably the most awesomely lo-fi tasting experience of the trip. We walked into a barn, stepped over hoses and around barrels, and sped through a tasting of everything they had. I think every minute they spent with us took them away from making wine, or running the business, or something useful. We took home bottles of the 2010 “Voluptuous” Bordeaux blend, 2012 Viognier, and 2012 “Vino Grigio” Pinot Gris. This place felt real; it was a fun experience.
Nichol, on the other hand, was disappointing. The wine was okay, but the person serving us actually seemed annoyed that we even walked into the place. She wasn’t interested in telling us much about the wines, and mainly seemed to want to get back to her sandwich. This place had been highly recommended, so I can only assume this was unusual. Like I said, the wine was decent, so we bought some 2011 Syrah and some 2013 Pinot Gris, but were pretty happy to leave.
We had lunch reservations at Hillside but we were still so full from breakfast that we canceled and kept driving back to Penticton. We pulled into the Penticton Wine Info Centre in the hopes that they would be able to help us mail our wine back to Toronto. Alas, no such luck: the Ontario liquor laws are so ridiculous that everyone’s scared to send anything there. Well, almost everyone…but more on that later. Anyway, we ended up re-packing everything into shipping crates in the parking lot, including bottles of Osoyoos Larose 2009 Le Grand Vin and Pentage 2012 Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon which we bought to round out our collection, and drove to Summerland for lunch.
After a quick bite at The Local Lounge & Grille we drove up into the town to find the winery Rick had recommended: TH Wines. It was tough to find; we didn’t expect to find a winery next to an auto body shop and a coffee roaster. Tyler (the winemaker) had set up shop in an industrial unit, making his wine in the back and selling it up front in a tiny room with a few handmade benches for tasting. About half his wines were sold out, but we took bottles of his 2012 Cab Merlot and 2013 Viognier with us. What a great time — meeting and tasting wines from a real craftsman. Rick really came through with that recommendation. Tyler even managed to take a picture of us that we didn’t hate.
And with that, we were all wineried out. We packed the TH bottles into the final two empty slots in our shipping boxes (final count: 48 bottles!) and drove on to Kelowna. Well, West Kelowna, actually — that’s where our B&B was. On the way we stopped at a UPS store, who were more than happy to take our money to ship our stuff to Toronto. The staff were terrific and made us feel confident that the wine would make it home safe and sound. A few minutes later we were at our B&B, A View Of The Lake.
Steve invited us into their place and gave me some much-needed coffee. We sat and enjoyed the view of Kelowna, and made dinner plans. We took a cab into town, checked in at RauDZ for dinner, and then went around the corner to Salted Brick for a drink. We shared a Nelson organic pumpkin beer and watched a very odd collection of characters wander by. RauDZ ended up calling after only half an hour, which was almost a shame. We liked Salted Brick so much we wanted to stay longer.
Dinner at RauDZ was easily the best meal I’d eaten all year. Seriously. We had cocktails to start — I had something called The Thorogood, made of bourbon, scotch, and beer (I suppose it wouldn’t have done to name the thing The Hooker) — and then Nellie and I shared a pea & saffron risotto. For our mains I had duck with polenta, raspberry reduction, greens, and beets; Nellie had crusted Pacific salmon, root vegetables, and kale. We paired those mains with a TH Pinot Noir, which we hadn’t been able to try when we stopped in earlier that day. It was all so bloody amazing. Nothing fancy or complex, just fresh, delicious, and prepared perfectly.
Wow. G’nite, Okanagan. You saved your best for last.
Steve and his wife Chrissie made us a seriously badass three-course breakfast to start our last day in the valley. We talked to a lovely couple from Manchester and a family of traveling Germans at the table, had a little coffee, and packed up to once again get on the road. Our drive west from Kelowna was amazing…we started climbing right outside the city and drove straight into a cloud bank. Visibility was down to a few yards until we broke back out of it. After that it was hours of gorgeous scenery until we got to Hope, gassed up, grabbed some unfortunate grease at a weirdly religious McDonald’s, and made the drive into Vancouver. After some difficulty locating one last gas station we dropped the car at the airport and took a cab downtown.
Arriving at our hotel was weird. The Shangri-La is a very high-touch hotel where about four people attack you as soon as your cab arrives, and hover like hummingbirds until you’re checked in and in your room. Our room was nice though: a roomy balcony, buttons which control the whole room, nice TV, huge bathroom, and so on. Pretty sweet. We took a walk to stretch our legs, stopped at Malone’s for a craft beer or two, then went back to the room to get cleaned up before dinner.
Our dinner reservations were at Hawksworth, by all reports one of the best restaurants in Vancouver…maybe the best. We weren’t disappointed — it’s a very cool space, the service was fantastic, and the food was amazing. Here’s what we ate & drank:
- Nellie: Blue Mountain sparkling wine / Dan: the Dalhousie #2: lot 40 rye, ginger of the Indies, Averna Amaro, whiskey barrel bitters
- Nellie: spiced carrot velouté with seared scallop, coconut, gingerbread, and cilantro, paired with a glass of Chenin / Dan: yellowfin tuna tartare with spicy tomato sauce and andouille sausage, paired with a glass of Albarino
- Both: whole Yakima farm rack of lamb with baby nugget potato, fava bean, wild mushroom and mint chimmichurri, paired with a bottle of Villa Martis 2010 Barbera/Nebbiolo
Zoinks: two stellar meals in as many nights. We barely made the walk back to our hotel bed before conking out.
Vancouver was, by now, fully in its natural state: raining. Not cold though. I walked to Bel Café (which turned out to be part of Hawksworth) for a coffee and some croissants. I ate my breakfast and read the Globe on the balcony, and let Nellie sleep in for a bit.
Luckily our main plan for the day wouldn’t be affected by rain. We’d booked a tour with Vancouver Whale Watch, and met their shuttle a few minutes away from our hotel. We rode down to Richmond, or rather to the little town of Steveston, where we boarded our boat along with about 30 other people, including some large groups of people obviously stepping onto a boat for the first time. The water was pretty choppy as we left the mouth of the Fraser river, passing some California sea lions, and got rougher as we travelled south, but settled down once we got into the island passages. We saw colonies of Stellar sea lions and harbour seals just off Saturna Island.
Soon after that we crossed into US territory and saw our first big catch of the day: a humpback whale. There were already boats on station waiting for the whale to surface again; Nellie and I were the first two to spot it when it resurfaced, and were promptly swarmed by people looking for a better vantage point once they realized what we were looking at. We managed to see it spout a few times, and then saw the entire fluke stand straight out of the water as it dove. The captain didn’t wait for it to come back up again as we needed to get further south still.
We rounded San Juan Island into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and found a number of boats already watching a pod of Southern Resident orcas. We had to stay pretty far back from the whales due to US regulations, but we got to see plenty of males and females swimming and eating, and hung out there observing for about 45 minutes. We didn’t take pictures…all we had were our phones, which just couldn’t handle the distance. Anyway, we were much happier to watch and just remember. It was so beautiful to see. Then, just as we were leaving, a big male surfaced just off our port side where Nellie and I were sitting. He swam right toward us and dove right under our boat. Amazing.
We re-entered Canadian waters east of Victoria and sped back up the Haro Strait, through Boundary Pass, swerving between Galiano and Mayne Islands, and finally burned north across the Strait of Georgia to Steveston. Half the guests (including Nellie) slept on the way back, now that the water was calmer. I tried to look around and absorb a little of the beauty of the Southern Gulf Islands. We finally docked, swapped boats for shuttles, and made the long drive through rush hour traffic back to our hotels. The total trip was much longer than we’d expected, but it was worth it.
We were just about done in. but there’s no way I was coming to Vancouver and not trying The Alibi Room, the top-rated beer place in Vancouver. We cleaned up and walked across downtown Vancouver, through Gastown, a neighbourhood neither of us had seen before but which we really liked. We arrived at the Alibi Room to find a lengthy waiting list, but they cleared a spot at the downstairs bar pretty quickly and got us to a table shortly afterward. There were a few food snafus, and the place was like a freaking sauna, but the beers were pretty tasty. So yeah, a very good beer place, but not mind-blowing. I must admit, having easy access to places like Volo and Bar Hop has nearly ruined other beer places for me. We jumped in cab for home, drank some Road 13 sparkling on the balcony, and got packed up for our early flight home.
When I say early, I mean early. We were up before 5, but because I never really adjusted to Pacific time it was easier than waking up the day we left Toronto. We hung out in the Maple Leaf lounge at YVR, and then again in Calgary during a quick stopover. I watched Neighbors and X-Men: Days Of Future Past on the flight back. Everything went smoothly at the airport when we arrived in Toronto, but the cab ride home was brutal due to the Gardiner being closed and Toronto traffic being its usual nightmarish self. But we made it in one piece.
How much did we love the Okanagan? We’ve already started planning a return visit, this time probably flying directly into Kelowna. Our UPS shipment arrived Wednesday night, which was like Christmas morning. In fact, this trip was the trigger for us to upgrade our wine fridge — a new one arrives this week.
Thanks, BC. We miss you already. You’re the prettiest province of them all. We love your mountains and your deserts, and your hosts and your restaurants, and your whales and your wine. We’ll come see you again soon. Promise.