Having to take my motorcycle to Kelowna for a little work at the local Honda Powerhouse dealer, I found myself in town with a beautiful afternoon and no real need to be home at any particular time. That is a rare combination in my world and so I took up the opportunity to visit a couple of wineries that I had as yet never visited.
If you have previously used Kelowna as your base for wine touring, as I had done on my very first wine trip here in 2003, you have my condolenscenes. While the urbanites among you might feel more at home with the amenities and traffic patterns of the Okanagan largest city, I prefer to enjoy scenic drives between wineries rather than stop and go traffic. Along with the urban locations, there was never (until recently) a clear touring route, organized winery associations, or even a good winery map to make planning my day a little easier. My first winery visit in the Okanagan in 2003 was to Gray Monk followed by Calona (pre-downtown revitalization, when it really looked like it was in the skids) and the Mission Hill and Quail’s Gate. That took the entire day and it was a long one. Since that experience, I tried to keep my touring based out of Penticton.
In the decade since then, other more southerly wine regions have slowly been getting themselves organized with various tourism winery associations and generic marketing bodies. They have their own websites, host their own events, and (crucially) publish their own maps and wine routes. Naramata was really the first to figure this out with the Naramata Bench Winery Association. People knew about ‘brand Naramata’ long before any other and would regularly make that a destination. When I worked at the VQA store in Penticton, I had customers almost everyday who were unsure where to go but would decide to visit on Naramata rather than OK Falls, Oliver / Osoyoos, or the Similkameen (if they even knew it existed at that time) because it was easily recognizable.
Recently though, Tourism Kelowna has finally gotten it right although I really don’t know why it took so long. Somewhere I picked up a copy of their latest map and was impressed to see that all of the regions wineries were represented. Clearly broken down into regions that make day-tripping easy to plan (good for tourists and locals), this map is easy to read and accurately mapped (always a criticism of mine). A PDF copy is available for download from their website as well.
Back to the trip in question – I had some wine to pick up at Tantalus and wanted to get some Ward’s cider from The View so I thought that I would fill in the blanks and visit Spierhead and Sperling. I was familiar with wines from both wineries (we featured the first vintage of Spierhead’s Vanguard on a previous podcast) but had never visited IRL. After packing the Ward’s into my panniers, I headed up the hill towards Spierhead. And unpaved driveway awaited me there which, still as a new motorcyclist, had me on guard the whole way up. Once there though I was taken by the presentation – the wine shop and entryway were beautifully done up and obviously well taken care of. The wine shop itself was small but appropriate and bright, and I was welcomed right away. I try to limit my tastings to only one or two wines per winery while on my motorcycle and spit everything as well so I choose the try the Riesling and the Rosé. I couldn’t say no when offered to try the Pinot Noir however and that is what I ended up leaving with.
I believe the quality of the Pinots and the Rieslings are going to be the varieties that will make the biggest splash in the boutique-level wineries (which is most of them) around Kelowna. Gray Monk figured this out long ago and Tantalus has focused on it intensely in the past few years. The View, Camelot, Cedar Creek, St. Hubertus, and Summerhill all have serious Rieslings. Wineries like Ancient Hill and 50th Parallel are taking Pinot Noir to an exciting new level. Correct me if you think I’m wrong but I think boutique wine tourists like to taste wines that are produced from grapes that are grown in the same general area as the winery itself. The extreme example of this is Vancouver Island where I generally avoid all wines that are produced from Okanagan fruit when visiting them. I’m not interested in travelling the whole day to taste wines that are made from fruit grown down the road from my house. I want to taste wines made from the place that I’m visiting. In this case, I want to taste what the Pinots (or Rieslings, or whatevers) are like in Kelowna.
After Spierhead, I headed down the hill to stop into Sperling’s beautiful wine shop. Sperling’s wine shop is a step back in time – it is rustic, beautifully appointed in antiques, and has no AC. I appreciated the shaded parking though, which is a rarity in the Okanagan. I tasted the Riesling (of course), the Foch Reserve (I’d never tried it), and the two sweeties – a LH Gewurztraminer and a Pinot Blanc Icewine – which were both fabulous. Cautious of the space I had left in my panniers, I bought the LH Gewurztraminer.
Onward to Tantalus, a winery that I have been familiar with for some time and the feature of a previous podcast interview with winemaker David Patterson. I’ve been smitten by their Old Vines Riesling for years now and consider it to be one of the true grand cru wines of the Okanagan valley. This was a quick visit this time – no tasting since I was getting tired and still had to ride a couple of hours to get home. And of course I needed all of the concentration I could muster to keep my Honda upright all the way up one of the longest, inclined, curved, gravel driveways in the Okanagan. Don’t get me wrong here – I’m not complaining about it because I absolutely understand its value for a winery that is as concerned about energy use and environmental impact as Tantalus is. Adding pavement on their sloped driveway would increase the speed of rain water run-off and therefore increase soil erosion. I include it here as a mere point of fact so that others who may be considering wine touring on a motorcycle have a little bit of knowledge about what to expect.
Overall, this side of Kelowna is easy enough and fun to run around on a motorcycle or in a car. The wineries are diverse enough in style – from the antique styling of Sperling to the uber-modern Tantalus – to keep it interesting. I find it fascinating that each winery’s portfolios are starting to show some of the same varieties. To me that shows that there is a focus developing among the producers and that will ultimately lead to a proper demonstration of the terroir. I think we’re still years away from that, but it’s neat to think that we could be witnessing its genesis.
Cheers from wine country!