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does not feel right about driving into a valley, situated on the forty
ninth parallel with the temperature hanging around the forty-two degree
mark (Celsius that is, or one hundred and eight for my American
friends). The Southern part of Canada's Okanagan Valley is officially
classified as a desert and yet in the coming winter months, juices
destined to be ice wine will be pressed and begin the slow process of
fermentation in tanks of many of the valley's wineries. The two days I
spent in the Okanagan this summer, sub zero temperatures were the
furthest things from my mind.
Combret and the Okanagan Valley in the background
Although the summer of 2004 in
Ontario was one of the coolest on record,
Vancouverites were basking in sunshine. My mum, who was visiting from
the UK this summer, expressed a desire to visit her cousins, who had
uprooted from Scotland eons ago, to make their home in Vancouver. I
thought, having never been to BC, this could be an opportunity for me to
test the waters of the West Coast wine scene.
After making several phone calls to some old friends, I lucked out and
secured a place to stay. My mum had no idea I was traveling with her and
it wasn't until we were 38,000 feet above the quilt - like plains of
Saskatchewan that the reality truly hit her.
There is a thrill about seeing Vancouver for the first time with the
ocean and the mountains looming in the background. After
circumnavigating the city, I found the home of two friends,
Jen and Dan,
whom I first met when they lived in London. What a welcome; wild B.C.
salmon on the "que", cocktails mixed and the sun setting on a crystal
I had two goals while on the West Coast. One, to drive to Whistler, way up
in the mountains and spend time with students, former and current, who
are working in the hotels and restaurants of the resort. The other
objective was to drink the juice of Okanagan Valley.
Having hindsight, I really wish I had put more thought and planning into
my trip to the valley. As the drive is three hours from Vancouver, and I
had a late start, thank you Jen for the previous night's Martinis, I
made the decision to make this a two-day trip. The drive takes one
through some absolutely spectacular scenery and it would be an injustice
to rush through without stopping every now and then to appreciate the
My second, and major error, was underestimating the size of the Okanagan
Valley. Niagara's wine country is compact in comparison. Okanagan
stretches some 200 kilometres (125 miles) north from the town of Osoyoos,
located just north of the Washington state border.
While I stopped for gas in some tumbleweed town, just outside of the
valley, I asked the cashier if she had any "winery route maps". "Any
what?" she replied? Ok, "is there a winery welcome center close by", I
inquired? "Huh?" was her response. "I'm not in Niagara anymore, Toto," I
thought to myself. Okanagan is clearly not as well prepared for the
onslaught of tourists that Niagara endures through their season.
However, the young lady was most helpful, after recognizing my plight,
and suggested I head for Penticton, about forty kilometers down the
road. It is one of the more central towns of the valley. I found
Pentciton and drove south into a sub-appellation of the valley called Okanagan Falls.
The valley itself is a chain of clear, blue lakes connected and fed by
gently flowing rivers. Okanagan Lake is the largest and to the south,
sit three smaller lakes, the Skaha, Vaseux, and Osoyoos. The landscape
is a mix of arid rolling hills and rocky cliffs with tiny parcels of
vines scattered here and there. Those that tour Niagara are guided by
endless amounts of winery signs, all with easy access from the main
highways. It is different here, I found as I headed south to Osoyoos
with no map and basically no clue where I was going.
I soon learnt that a roadside sign announcing a winery does not mean the
winery is just off the highway. These signs are often nothing more than
a mere suggestion that a winery is located somewhere in the area. The
signs fail to mention one may be required to navigate steep mountain
slopes and seemingly endless dusty trails to find the said winery.
My first such first detour was disappointing. After driving to the crest
of Hawthorn Mountain, I encountered my first spectacular view of the
valley, and what an incredibly magnificent spectacle it was. Sadly
though, the wines I found at Hawthorn Mountain Winery were not as awe
inspiring as the view. The tasting room was packed and I soon became
part of the conveyor system that herded everyone through the line up.
The wines were ok, but I inquired if their premium wines, a series
called "See Ya Later," were available to taste. I was told no, because
they are too expensive to open. I said, "See ya later," and headed back
down the mountain. Still driving south, I took the trail to Stag's
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