British Columbia Wine
By Dan Berger
There is a refreshing ebullience among the insiders of the emerging wine industry of Western Canada’s remote Okanagan Valley.
There is also, however, a bit of self-consciousness. The locals in British Columbia feel the newfound world acclaim for the wine country came as a shock. It is certainly well-deserved.
I’m often smitten with new wine cultures such as this one. I have written glowingly about a few of them, from New Zealand’s Marlborough to Hawkes Bay to Piedmont’s Roero. I discovered the Okanagan 15 years ago and am glad I found it as early as I did.
At the same time, I feel like a late-comer when chatting with the effusive A. Coke Roth, an attorney who was here in 1980. He saw the potential of British Columbia wine and helped guide the fledgling industry in its early meanderings. Coke’s passion is infectious, notably about western Canada.
British Columbia Wine Industry
It was the passion of one man who got the British Columbia wine industry moving in the direction of world-class wine.
Harry McWatters, former owner of Sumac Ridge Estate, was an early visionary for British Columbia’s wine country. Harry pushed neighbors to take the leap and plant French varieties. He helped organize the first wine festival, pushed for a now-successful wine center in Penticton and worked to persuade locals that great wine was possible.
Over the years, I’ve visited the region three times. It’s nowhere near enough to boast of knowledge of the regions, but enough to know of the wines’ greatness. I have seen the wines in many wine competitions, and they are simply sensational.
My first wine competition here was 20 years ago, and it was Coke who got me to attend. “You‘re not gonna believe the wines, pal,” he said. And I didn’t!
All it takes to fall in love with the wines of Canada’s western province is one visit to Penticton. Three houses north of Wenatchee, Wash., Penticton is a charming town on an eponymous lake. Penticton comes from the Okanagan language and means “a place to stay forever.” This makes complete sense once you see the beauty of the land and enjoy the great wines.
It may be surprising to some that Western Canada makes so much wine. Liquor regulations can be quite complex. Most Americans have not had the chance to taste these great British Columbia wines because they are not available in the United States.
The best way to see these great wines is to visit. Penticton and its big brother city, Kelowna, are charming, unassuming towns that jointly host many wine festivals each year.
What’s truly exciting is the wine. Amazing Pinot Blancs, strikingly fine Gewurztraminers, superb Rieslings—some of the best ice wines I have ever tasted and a lot more. The rosés produced within the British Columbia wine industry are some of the finest I’ve ever tasted.
British Columbia Wine Country
British Columbia is home to 929 vineyards and 369 wineries.
That the Okanagan is a wine region might surprise the uninitiated. North of rain-plagued Seattle, it might seem to be a cold, frozen, barren wasteland for crops of any sort.
Quite the contrary. The Okanagan is sheltered by mountains and is 200 miles from marine influences. This valley is blessed with long, warm summers virtually free of rain (annual rainfall here rarely exceeds 10 inches) and a winter not as long or harsh as those of America’s Midwest. Today, there are more than 185 wineries that call the Okanagan home.
Thus it is an agricultural paradise, with apples seemingly everywhere, as well as other fruits and vegetables.
Located here, too, is a Canadian agricultural research center. It is a vast complex that uses leading-edge science to maximize the flavors in all fruit, improve fruit shelf life and increase production of numerous crops.
Among the subjects under the microscope here are fine wine grapes, a far cry from the hybrids and native American varieties that dominated the landscape here three decades ago.
Today, most of the wine grapes in this valley are French, Vitis vinifera.
Throughout British Columbia, the growing of red and white grapes is almost evenly split. This means they can produce a wide range and variety of wines.
Today, you can find world-class Pinot Gris (not a contradiction; just try the wines), Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer. Recently, we have seen some startling efforts with red wines. I am in awe of the crispness of so many of the white wines with perfect varietal character over the years. Now there are reds to match.
The Okanagan Valley has come a long way and remarkably quickly—faster than many other North American wine-growing regions. It’s been just 25 years since the Canadian government paid growers to pull out hybrids and natives and plant Vitis vinifera.
Visiting the British Columbia Wine Country
The major problem for U.S. consumers is getting British Columbia wine. Few Canadian wineries distribute in the United States.
By visiting, Americans can finally get the change to enjoy these wonderful wines. Additionally, they can bring them back in the trunk of their cars, paying a small duty at the border.
Not only are most of the wineries nicely situated, with gorgeous views and grand edifices, but a few have spectacular restaurants. Indulging in the best restaurants in British Columbia will be the perfect way to complete your wine tasting trip.
British Columbia is a North American vinous gem with arms open to U.S. tourists. Plus, you can’t pass up the beautiful views that the British Columbia wine country has to offer.
You can easily plan your trip to maximize the number of wineries you want to visit or to make sure you hit up the wineries that match your style the best. Don’t forget to check out the various events that take place in British Columbia wine country when deciding on when you’ll make the trip.
Although a trip to France may seem like the ultimate wine vacation, it isn’t always the most feasible trip. But visiting our neighbor up north would certainly be easier. All it takes is a simple trip to experience and enjoy fine British Columbia wine. It is a vacation opportunity for wine lovers that should not be missed. Summer is the perfect time to visit with the sun out and warm temperatures. What better way to spend your summer vacation?
Enjoy your travels and the delicious wine!