It is approaching midnight and the electrified Gospel Experience Choir is stirring up a heavenly ruckus at the far end of the barrel-lined room. The sweat-soaked faces of the black singers look positively euphoric as they sway and call out to the gyrating crowd. Outside, beneath the baleful gaze of a fat, yellow moon, another hundred-plus celebrants are jammed inside a red-and-white striped tent, devouring a feast supplied by Vancouver’s Memphis Blues BBQ House and downing vino provided by the event’s host, Blasted Church Vineyards. It is difficult to believe that this Deep South revival scene is taking place in a wine cellar on a hillside near the village of Okanagan Falls, population 6,005.
OK Falls, as the locals call it, may be best known as the home of the Snowy Mountain Chocolate factory and Tickleberry’s, with its 265 flavours of ice cream, but Blasted Church’s annual Midnight Service is coming on fast. Since its launch in 2003, the event has evolved into one of the marquee attractions of B.C.’s Okanagan Fall Wine Festival. “It’s become a bit of a beast,” admits Blasted Church’s owner, Evelyn Campbell. “The first two years it was just an intimate party, but this year all 300 tickets were sold by July. I had to turn down so many people. We’ll have to hold it over two nights next year.”
Families from the Lower Mainland and Alberta have been flocking to the Okanagan in summertime for decades to golf, pick fruit and float in inflatable rubber Ogopogos. But in the last 10 years, the 180-kilometre-long valley has morphed from a bucolic resort destination into one of the world’s most vibrant wine regions, a development that has been a boon for the area’s tourism industry. In 1988, there were only about a dozen wineries in the Okanagan (an area that begins in the north at Salmon Arm, runs south to the U.S. border and includes the Similkameen Valley). [For the purposes of this article, please note that “the Okanagan” includes the Okanagan Valley and the Thompson and Similkameen regions.] Today there are 88, many of them producing superb wines that are winning international awards. Yet in comparison with other wine-producing regions worldwide, the Okanagan is small and relatively unsophisticated – a key part of its charm. “The Okanagan is like Napa was 30 years ago. You can still wander into a winery and find the proprietor, rather than the publicist,” notes John Schreiner, industry insider and author of 10 books on wine, including The Wineries of British Columbia (2005, Whitecap Books; $22.95). Alas, that homespun touch may be fleeting. Complimentary wine tasting, for example, is no longer a given. “You have to pay the farther south you go in the valley, and some places now limit the amount of wine you can taste,” says Schreiner.
Wine tourism, which, along with skiing and golf, now ranks as one of the top three draws in B.C. for foreign visitors, is not only attracting a new breed of traveller to the Okanagan – one with disposable income and a taste for the finer things in life – it is also having a profound economic impact. For the past three years, major investment money has been pouring into the region from Vancouver, Alberta and Europe. Land prices have soared, rising by 22.5 per cent from 2005 to 2006 and 11.1 per cent in just the first three months of 2007. As real estate prices escalate, the fruit industry is being slowly squeezed out, with orchards being sold and replaced by vineyards and luxury condominium developments.
The scale of some of these projects is eye-opening. LakeStone, for example, a $1.4-billion resort community to be built over the next decade on a 220-hectare site along Okanagan Lake between Vernon and Kelowna, will feature 1,400 luxury homes, a signature Robert Trent Jones II golf course, marina, vineyard, hotel, spa, hiking trails, shops and restaurants – with villas priced from $700,000 and lakeside lots starting at $1.5 million. West of Vernon, another $1-billion resort community, The Rise, is being built on a hillside overlooking Okanagan Lake. The 300-hectare scheme includes a winery, vineyards, shops, tennis courts and 1,210 homes and villas skirting a signature Fred Couples golf course. These are just two of many similar projects, either just completed or in the works.
Some locals are less than thrilled with the valley’s changing character, but the business sector is beaming. As Ben Stewart, co-owner of Quails’ Gate Estate Winery in Kelowna, noted in a recent interview: “In the last 15 years, the wine industry has been the single driving force in the revitalization of a new tourism economy in the province’s wine-growing regions, primarily the Okanagan Valley. It has helped redefine all the needs for new infrastructure, including accommodation standards and restaurants.” Stewart also notes that B.C. is developing a uniquely Canadian food and wine culture, one that he claims is “more defined than anywhere else in the country.”
This blend of arts, culture, gastronomy and wine appreciation has proved such a potent force that the Okanagan now stages four major wine festivals, one for each season. The 10-day fall jubilee alone boasts more than 160 events throughout the valley, including art exhibits, bicycle winery tours, grape stomps, vineyard picnics, pig roasts, jazz concerts, gourmet dinners and mountain hikes. One of the top-ranked tourist events in North America, the festival drew a record 181,000 “consumer visits” in 2006 (a jump of 30,000 from 2005), with revenues of $4.1 million. All told, the quartet of celebrations represents the largest cooperative tourism effort in B.C., one that has seen increasing attendance and revenues for the past 10 years.
The growth of the Okanagan’s wine scene is doubly remarkable considering that only 20 years ago the industry seemed to have no future. Because the region was thought to be too cold to support the classic European vinifera grapes (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah), the valley was dominated by North American labrusca grapes, including Concord, which makes a dynamite purple jelly but not a good, dry table wine. As well, since B.C. wineries received government subsidies to help them compete in Canadian stores against international wines, there were few incentives for the wineries to improve quality. But the situation changed radically in the late 1980s when Canada signed its Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. The subsidies ended, and B.C. wines were forced to compete on the world stage. To appease growers who felt betrayed by the free trade move, the province paid them to yank their labrusca grapevines and sponsored experimental vineyards to determine which vinifera varieties would ripen properly and survive the frosty winters. It also relaxed licensing rules to include vineyards of less than eight hectares, allowing smaller properties to sell their wines at the “farm gate.” Finally, in 1991, it instituted the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), which held member producers accountable to rigorous standards.
In 1993, Harry McWatters, founder of Sumac Ridge Estate Winery and a pioneering figure in the B.C. wine industry, was one of the first local vintners to take a gamble with 45 hectares of vinifera on the south Okanagan’s Black Sage Road – the largest such planting in Canada at the time. McWatters’s new vines thrived, and other vintners followed his lead, planting mostly “noble” varieties. By 1994, vineyard acreage had rebounded and vintners were producing increasingly higher quality wines. Today, the Okanagan grows 70 varieties of grapes and is home to about 90 per cent of B.C.’s 464 vineyards. Because of its varied micro-climates, it is able to produce a wide range of wines – sparkling, late harvest, rich reds and delicate whites. “Smoke and mirrors haven’t brought the industry to where it is today,” insists Walter Gehringer of Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery, south of Oliver. “It isn’t hype. The proof is in the glass.”
According to Lisa Cameron, communications manager with the British Columbia Wine Institute, the wine tourism boom also reflects changing consumer tastes. “Beer is still number one in sales in Canada, but wine moved past spirits into second place in 2006. Canadians have become more European in their approach. There’s a growing appreciation of wine and food together.” Indeed, many of the wineries in the Okanagan have now installed restaurants where chefs specialize in cuisine de terroir (dishes made from local ingredients) matched with award-winning varietals.
Despite the local industry’s increasing sophistication, however, observers such as Vancouver wine critic Anthony Gismondi contend that the Okanagan still has some distance to go to be considered on par with other famous wine regions. “Is it Tuscany? No. Some have called it the ‘Napa of the North,’ but I would say it is about 60 restaurants short.” Even the area’s biggest boosters admit to a serious lack of upscale hotels in the valley despite the recent high-end construction boom. “It’s our Achilles’ heel,” says Blair Baldwin of the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society. Writer John Schreiner is more blunt. “The dining aspect is coming along, but the real downfall is accommodation. For the most part, it’s $80-a-night motels and all the silverfish you can live with.”
Schreiner points to Oliver, a town of just over 4,000 in the south of the valley, which bills itself as “the Wine Capital of Canada.” “Despite this boast,” says Schreiner, “there are only two places to stay in Oliver and no decent places to eat” – yet this may soon change.
The community recently announced the creation of a $75-million “Wine Village,” featuring a hotel and spa, an interactive wine interpretive centre, a residential village and an array of boutiques and restaurants. The project is clearly an effort to emulate the success of the Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort and Spa near Osoyoos. Opened in 2005, that four-star, four-season resort is located on an 80-hectare property owned by the Osoyoos Indian Band and includes the Nk’Mip Cellars winery, Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, Sonora Dunes golf course, stylish lakeview villa accommodations and an RV park and campground.
As the number of Okanagan wineries has risen, the battle for tourist dollars has intensified. In response, some vintners are making bold architectural statements to set themselves apart. The Mission Hill Family Estate Winery near Westbank, which recently underwent a six-year, $40-million redesign, is a case in point. The massive, pastel-hued complex reflects the sweeping vision of owner Anthony von Mandl, who wanted a “structure that would be relevant for 300 years.” Its extravagant flourishes include 4,000 trees and shrubs, a 17th-century Renaissance fountain and a reception hall dominated by a $600,000 Marc Chagall tapestry. There is a 12-storey bell tower (with four bronze bells cast in France) and a courtyard flanked by an amphitheatre to create the ambience of a Tuscan hill town. The cellars, blasted from the volcanic rock of the mountaintop, have room for 800 barrels. Not surprisingly, the winery has become a powerful marketing hook, attracting 160,000 visitors a year, many of whom will end their tour by purchasing Mission Hill wines.
Equally unique is Summerhill Pyramid Winery near Kelowna, which ages its wines in a gleaming white, four-storey concrete replica of Egypt’s Great Pyramid. Owner Stephen Cipes, a former New York real estate developer, is devoted to “organic growing, pyramid power and world peace.” Virtually every year his wines win international medals, and his quirky winery is among the most visited in the valley. Then too, there is the elegant mission-style sandstone building that architect Robert Mackenzie designed for Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, south of Oliver. Set on a plateau amid a landscape of sagebrush-dotted hills, Burrowing Owl boasts a fine restaurant called the Sonora Room and a 10-unit guesthouse, all with stunning views and balconies overlooking the vineyards. Proprietors Jim and Midge Wyse, being nature lovers, named their winery in tribute to the endangered burrowing owl, protected in the adjacent wildlife preserve, a project the winery sponsors.
Other wineries, such as Blasted Church, Dirty Laundry and Therapy, have gotten major sales boosts by hiring Vancouver marketing whiz Bernie Hadley-Beauregard to create distinctive artwork for their bottles. Blasted Church’s label features whimsical cartoon characters and playful typography, Dirty Laundry’s has a steam plume rising from an iron that contains a tangle of naked bodies, while Therapy’s resembles Rorschach ink blots.
The expansion of the Okanagan’s wine industry and the higher volume of tourist traffic generated have, in turn, opened new opportunities for local specialty food producers. Kelowna Land & Orchard for example, one of the largest orchards in Canada with 70,000 visitors a year to its Raven Ridge Cidery, petting zoo, orchard tours and farm store, is just one of several thriving agri-tourism enterprises that have emerged in tandem with the wine industry. Lake-bound vacationers can also explore Western Canada’s largest outdoor honeybee observatory at Vernon’s Planet Bee Honey Farm, buy boutique cheeses from Carmelis Goat Cheese Artisan near Kelowna and Poplar Grove Winery on the Naramata Bench, taste-test exotic jams and jellies at the Jammery in Winfield and sample lavender ice cream at the Okanagan Lavender Herb Farm, just south of Kelowna.
And while some fruit growers have uprooted their orchards to make room for grapes, others have opted to use their crops to create unique wine products. At Elephant Island Orchard Wines on the Naramata Bench, for instance, Del and Miranda Halladay are fusing classic wine-making processes with an eclectic roster of fruits: Stella cherries, organic Bartlett pears, Goldrich apricots and Heritage raspberries. Fruit wine may be a novelty to most, but the Halladays’ tasting room has been “a huge tool for getting repeat customers,” with 80 per cent of their wines now sold over the counter. Such boutique-size operations dominate the Naramata Bench, where 19 wineries are packed into a 10-km stretch of scenic hillside above Okanagan Lake. The wineries here all have distinct personas. Red Rooster Winery houses an art gallery with rotating exhibits; Joie Wines, which caters to the Vancouver restaurant trade, operates a cooking school; Laughing Stock Vineyards has generated such a cult following that oenophiles need an appointment just to quaff the company’s vintages.
Of course, the limited production, informality, fanciful names, stunning vistas and accessibility that typify Naramata wineries and others in the valley are seductive tourism lures, but such factors don’t contribute to product quality. Some experts argue that the compact dimensions of the Okanagan’s vineyards are even a handicap to producing high-calibre wines. With only about 2,400 hectares under vine, the Okanagan is a mere drop in the spit bucket compared to other wine-growing regions. California’s Napa Valley, for example, has 17,600 hectares under vine; France’s Bordeaux region alone has 750,000 hectares devoted to vineyards. If the Okanagan hopes to be taken seriously on the global front, says Anthony Gismondi, the region must boost its vineyard acreage. “With larger vineyards you can produce more wine, make more money and pay higher salaries to attract the best winemakers. The acid test is how much wine we sell to the rest of the world. At the moment, it’s virtually nothing.” The latest statistics show that 80 per cent of B.C. wine is purchased in-province, 15 per cent is exported to other provinces and the remaining five per cent is shipped globally (most of it icewine, to the U.S., Japan and Taiwan) and in the short term, at least, this situation seems unlikely to change. Because of keen competition from residential land development, it is estimated the valley can plant only another 800 hectares of vineyards. But while space may be limited, the talent level of local vintners is increasing. As Ingo Grady, director of wine education for Mission Hill, points out: “This is a very young area. You have to remember that the Europeans have 300 years on us. I think we’re extremely well suited to producing high-quality and distinctive wines. We can only get better if we strive to improve what we already have.”
And what we already have is quite impressive, as the world is rapidly discovering. In 2007, Frommer’s named the Okanagan one of the 10 hottest travel destinations in the world – the only spot in Canada to make the grade. With that sort of high-profile publicity, the secret is officially out.