Thompson Okanagan Road Trip: Eating and Drinking from Vernon to Osoyoos

With over 200 wineries, plenty of impressive resorts, an exceptional selection of epicurian delights, and activities for every season, the Thompson Okanagan region has everything you need for the ultimate getaway

Credit: Catherine Roscoe Barr

Eat, drink, recharge and be merry while travelling across the Okanagan Valley

With four events throughout the year, the Okanagan Wine Festivals are a great reason to visit the Thompson Okanagan region for a concentrated food, wine and culture experience

The Thompson Okanagan region is the ultimate BC destination for wine lovers, foodies, and those looking to enjoy some of the most spectacular natural scenery in Canada.

This year I attended the 31st annual Okanagan Fall Wine Festival and had a little tour of this gorgeous region as we travelled from Vernon south to Osoyoos, stopping for food, drink and some unique businesses along the way.

It’s great to support local businesses and, fortunately, BC produces some incredible wines. Some of my favourite wines taste all the better now that I’ve had the chance to chat with their makers and visit the places they were made.

Seasonal Okanagan Wine Festivals

There is an Okanagan Wine Festival for every season – spring, summer, fall and winter – and, aside from the winter festival, which is held exclusively at Sun Peaks Resort, events are spread across the region but mostly concentrated in Kelowna, which has direct flights from Vancouver and is less than a five-hour drive from the downtown core.

The wine festivals give attendees the opportunity to learn about many of the more than 200 wineries in the Okanagan, to meet some of the winemakers themselves, attend wine education workshops, and try some of the incredible food offered at local eateries. Upcoming wine festival dates are: January 14 to 22, 2012 (winter), May 4 to 13, 2012 (spring), July 7 to 15, 2012 (summer), and September 28 to October 7, 2012 (fall). Check out the festival’s wine route map.

Gray Monk Winery, 1055 Camp Road, Okanagan Centre, BC

We started our trip with a wine-paired lunch at the Grapevine Restaurant at Gray Monk Winery, a gorgeous 50-acre estate in the community of Okanagan Centre, about 30 minutes north of Kelowna.

Gray Monk was established by George and Trudy Heiss in 1972 and they began making wine in 1982, at a time when there were only about a dozen wineries in the region.  

Now with fourth generation family members pitching in at the winery, George and Trudy are still very much a part of the daily operations, stopping to bid us a very warm welcome as we dined on a wonderful lunch prepared by executive chef Willi Franz.

Chef Franz has worked in Switzerland, Australia and Bermuda, and supports local farmers by using seasonal ingredients.

Gray Monk makes over 20 wines which are available at many BC wine sellers, and my favourite is the absolutely delicious and affordable Pinot Gris.

Sparkling Hill Resort, 888 Sparkling Place, Vernon, BC

Sparkling Hill Resort is a place to relax, a place to be well, and a place to be wowed. Owned by Gernot Langes-Swarovski, the resort has over 3.5 million Swarovski crystals incorporated into the design – from the three levels of striking chandeliers visible from the main lobby to the twinkling “Starry Sky” ceiling above the corner bathtubs set against a wall of windows in each guest suite.

Sparkling Hill is situated on 172 acres with breathtaking views of Okanagan Lake to the west and the Monashee Mountains to the east, and has nearby activities for every season: 12 km of surrounding hiking trails, golfing at the adjacent to Predator Ridge, and skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, skating and even sleigh riding a 35-minute drive away at Silver Star.

Back at the resort, nourish your mind and body at the PeakFine Restaurant, Barrique and Java Coffee and Wine Bar, and the KurSpa.

Complimentary with each stay is an exceptional deluxe breakfast buffet for two at PeakFine and unlimited use of the KurSpa’s seven steam rooms and saunas, Kneipp water therapy walkway, hot tub, indoor pool, outdoor infinity pool, and fitness studio.

The spa offers over 100 different treatments and has the first cold sauna in North America (at an unbelievable minus 110 degrees Celcius).

Okanagan Spirits, 2929 28th Avenue, Vernon, BC

(Image credit: Okanagan Spirits)

If this isn’t genius, I don’t know what is: Okanagan Spirits, a craft distillery, uses carefully selected fruits grown in the Okanagan Valley that fall short of the perfect standards required to sell them, and would otherwise go to waste, to produce many of their products, which are all free of additives, chemicals and artificial flavours.

They make and sell an award-winning range of delicious fruit liqueurs (imagine sumptuous cherry liqueur drizzled over vanilla ice cream), brandies, grappas, gin, Aquavitus (aquavit is a traditional Scandinavian spirit made with caraway and other herbs and spices), and absinthe – aptly named Taboo, referencing the licorice-flavoured spirit’s once-banned status in many countries around the world, but never in Canada.

All of their products are made in a traditional, wood-fired copper pot still that takes centre stage at their Vernon location, where tours and tastings are available at no charge.

A second location in Kelowna is set to open soon. Many of their products are available at BC Liquor Stores and all of them can be ordered through their website.

(Image credit: Okanagan Spirits) 

Okanagan Lavender Herb Farm, 4380 Takla Road, Kelowna, BC

Before visiting the picturesque, 5-acre Okanagan Lavender Herb Farm, I thought there was only one kind of lavender.

Apparently there are 39 species and some species can have up to 100 cultivars, or varieties. The Herb Farm grows three winter-hardy species with 60 different cultivars.

Different varieties of lavender are suited to different uses and the Herb Farm has a beautiful little showroom full of organically grown lavender delights like lavender jelly (insanely good on rice crackers), lavender decorative frames, lavender cake mixes and culinary salts, lavender candles, soaps and bath salts, and lavender essential oils.

They also make almost all of their products on site and when we dropped by, owner Andrea McFadden, who converted the former apple orchard into a lavender farm in 1994, was making hand-woven lavender wands, perfect for putting in closets and drawers to keep moths at bay and clothes smelling fresh.

Hotel Eldorado, 500 Cook Road, Kelowna, BC

Even on a grey day the view from the dining room and private boardwalk at the Hotel Eldorado, a lakefront boutique hotel with an 85-year history, is magnificent.

We were treated to an incredible lunch – my favourite meal of the entire trip – prepared by executive chef Stewart Sharpe, in the private “Sun Exposure” room at the hotel’s Lakeside Restaurant.

To accompany our food, wine educator and BC Wine Institute consultant Rhys Pender (Canada’s youngest Master of Wine) took us through 10 wine pairings that he selected to highlight different varietals and regions – from Kelowna winery Summerhill’s refreshing Cipes Brut to Naramata winery Laughing Stock’s wonderfully complex Portfolio – and filled us in on the history of BC’s wine industry.

A few fun facts I learned: BC produces wines from over 60 different grape varietals, has five designated viticultural areas (Okanagan Valley, Similkameen Valley, Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, Gulf Islands), and the percentage of white wine versus red wine produced in the province is almost fifty-fifty.

Kalala Organic Estate Winery, 3361 Glencoe Road, West Kelowna, BC

Kalala Organic Estate Winery’s gracious owner, Karnail Singh Sidhu, welcomes guests to sample their organic red, white, rosé and dessert wines, which have won an arms-length worth of awards, along with authentic East Indian tapas in Kalala’s tasting room.

Kalala means “Miracle Place” and is named for Sidhu’s birthplace in India, and after arriving in the Okanagan Valley almost 20 years ago he thought it a fitting name for the estate overlooking Okanagan Lake.

Not only does Sidhu oversee Kalala’s winemaking, he is also a certified organic inspector. Kalala organic wines are available at a number of BC wine sellers.

Watermark Beach Resort, 15 Park Place, Osoyoos, BC

Overlooking Osoyoos Lake, the warmest freshwater lake in Canada, the Watermark Beach Resort is the perfect retreat for any season, and all members of the family are welcome, including Fido. There are nearby walking trails and access to a dog beach, and when wine touring and fine dining beckon the humans, new friends at doggie daycare await.

Every suite at the Watermark has a private balcony and kitchen and, I must say, incredibly comfy beds, plus guests have access to the fitness centre and yoga, pilates and spin studio.

There are two outdoor hot tubs, a seasonal pool and waterslide, and when you’re after the ultimate in relaxation, there’s Watermark’s vegan and organic Illumination Spa.

Head to the Wine Bar for wine, cocktails or beer, a selection of charcuterie and BC cheeses, and lighter fare including my favourite – the delectable heirloom tomato salad with locally grown micro greens and balsamic reduction.

While at the Watermark, we attended an Okanagan Fall Wine Festival event called “All You Need is Cheese… and Some Wine” in the Watermark ballroom presented by the Dairy Farmers of Canada and Okanagan Wineries.

It’s hard to imagine a better way to experience Okanagan wines than pairing them with some of Canada’s best cheeses, like the Bleu Benedictin made by the monks at the Abbaye Saint-Benoît in Quebec and the Aged Farmhouse from the Natural Pastures Cheese Company on Vancouver Island that we sampled while enjoying wines from Blasted Church, Cassini Cellars and Painted Rock.

Okanagan Barrel Works, 8927 340th Avenue, Oliver, BC

I’d never really considered the role that a barrel plays in a wine’s evolution before our fascinating and eye-opening visit to Okanagan Barrel Works.

Barrel Works is an 8,000-square-foot facility (the only cooperage of its size in Canada) that produces a range of American oak, French oak, Hungarian oak, and acacia barrels from 25 litres for the home winemaker to the standard 225 litres used by most wineries to the 20,000-litre tanks used by some larger operations.

Owner Cal Craik says that good wood plus the proper toast equals the perfect barrel, and he was so confident in his barrels that he challenged six other cooperages – four from the US and two from Canada – to an International Barrel Challenge.

Jackson-Triggs provided the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon that was aged for 12 months in each participant’s medium-toasted American oak barrel and then compared against each other. Barrel Works came in second place.

Noble Ridge Vineyard and Winery, 2320 Oliver Ranch Road, Okanagan Falls, BC

We began our visit to Noble Ridge Vineyard and Winery with a tour led by proprietors Jim and Leslie D’Andrea followed by a tasting led by consulting winemaker Phil Soo.

We sampled two versions of the same merlot, one from a French oak barrel and one from an American oak barrel – an exciting opportunity after just having learned about the different barrels and how they’re made at Okanagan Barrel Works.

Over a farm-to-table longtable lunch catered by Bogner’s of Penticton, Leslie recounted the story of how a family vacation in France’s wine country sparked the idea for herself and Jim, a successful lawyer in Calgary, to start their own winery.

That dream was realized when they purchased the land in 2001 and they’ve since won many awards for their wine made from noble grape varieties including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot – and our tour group was treated to a tasting of their just-launched sparkling white called “The One”.

Manteo Resort, 3762 Lakeshore Road, Kelowna, BC

The Manteo Resort was impressive from my breathtaking balcony view of Okanagan Lake to the insanely luxurious bed and selection of Aveda products in my suite to the departing breakfast feast I enjoyed at the waterfront Wild Apple Restaurant and Lounge (and a round of cocktails the night before).

Manteo is situated right in the heart of the Okanagan region and has a private beach, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and hot tubs, saunas and steam rooms, and a fitness centre, plus it’s in close proximity to award-winning wineries, Big White Ski Resort, and plenty of water activities like boating, swimming and water skiing.

Just a short drive from Manteo, we headed to the Okanagan College’s Culinary Arts Centre for our last Okanagan Fall Wine Festival event: Alexis de Portneuf Presents “The Young Chefs.”

Young chefs from six local restaurants and three teams of apprentice chefs from the Okanagan College’s culinary school were challenged to prepare a dish that contained one of the cheeses from Alexis de Portneuf and would wow attendees – as we were all judges.

Each young chef and apprentice chef was paired with a local winery and selected two wine pairings to complement the food. The participating restaurants and wineries are listed below, and the winners marked by a star: