Wine lover? Consider visiting the Okanagan in Canada instead of California's Napa Valley
Share this article:
By Karen Gardiner
Napa Valley has a storied history, scenery and celebs. Napa Valley conjures up images of grand hillside chateaus, opulent tasting rooms, long dinners at Michelin-starred restaurants and perhaps, a little celebrity spotting, all factors that have contributed to its anointing as America's most celebrated wine region.
Plucky Napa pinned its place on the global wine map by beating French wines in blind tastings at the 1976 Judgment of Paris. To say this was unexpected is an understatement, and it proved to be a turning point in California's wine industry.
The number of wineries in the Napa Valley increased from a few dozen in the 1970s to approximately 475 today – good news not just for the wine industry but also for the state's tourism industry.
Napa became a major attraction, creating a market that supports some of the country's poshest restaurants and hotels – the French Laundry and Auberge du Soleil, to name two – and, in turn, crowds, particularly evident in late summer and fall. There are still workarounds: You can avoid weekends or head for wineries off the jam-packed main road. Or you could go north of the border instead.
Meanwhile, Okanagan is Canada's more laid-back, younger wine country. Stretching from Shuswap Lake in the north down to the US border, the Okanagan region of British Columbia (sometimes called the Okanagan Valley) is dominated by the approximately 85-mile-long (136.7km), serpent-shaped Okanagan Lake.
One of Canada's sunniest areas, the fertile basin, has long been known as the country's fruit basket. If you visit in summer, you can stop at roadside stands to fill up on just-picked apples, cherries and peaches. Cycling or hiking the Kettle Valley Rail Trail, which is part of the province's longest trail network, is a popular pursuit, as is skiing the deep powder at Big White Ski Resort and boating on the lake. But today, the Okanagan is better known for its wine.
Unlike Napa, few of the Okanagan's 186 wineries export their wines: Around 90% of British Columbian wine is sold within the province. So if you want to drink Okanagan wine, you'll probably have to go there, and the experience and personal touch make it worth the trip.
"It's a very welcoming region," says Laura Kittmer, communications director for Wine Growers British Columbia. "There's a lot of family-run wineries, so you walk into the tasting room, and you're literally speaking to the winemaker, the owner and the tasting room manager." Culinary options, including fine dining and taco trucks, are top-notch, too. "What grows together, pairs well together," Kittmer says.
As a younger wine destination, the Okanagan also still offers a wallet-friendly experience. Tasting fees are typically less than $10 (compared with $58 in Napa,) and are often, though not always, waived with a purchase of a bottle. It's easy to hit up multiple wineries in a day by following a wine trail or downloading the Wines of BC Explorer app.
Although it's about 155 miles long, the Okanagan is surprisingly diverse, climate-wise. Travellers typically fly into Kelowna, in the Lake Country subregion, where the province's oldest continually operating winery, Calona Vineyards, was established in 1932.
Wineries here are known for such varietals as riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir. At one of the best, Quails' Gate, you can visit the lakeside tasting room, have a wine-paired meal at Old Vines Restaurant and sleep it all off at the adjoining guest house.
At the valley's southernmost tip, which is surrounded by a shrub-steppe semi-desert and is one of Canada's hottest spots, conditions are ideal for reds such as syrahs and merlots. Nk'Mip Cellars near Osoyoos Lake is majority-owned by the Osoyoos Indian Band, and it claims to be North America's first Indigenous-owned and operated winery. Next door, in the Spirit Ridge Resort, the Bear, the Fish, the Root & the Berry serves Indigenous-inspired cuisine, and the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre describes the history of the Osoyoos people.