Regional associations of wineries (sometimes blandly referred to as “generic marketing bodies” in the wine industry) are not a new phenomena in B.C. They lurk in the background of tastings and marketing campaigns in the Okanagan, Vancouver, and other key markets. I’m not even sure that many consumers are all that familiar with them specifically and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. They are kind of under-the-radar organizations that represent many (and sometimes, but rarely, all) of the wineries within a given geographical region. They publish maps and buy advertising space on behalf of their wineries. When asked to name one of these organizations, I suspect that most wine tourists wouldn’t be able to name more than one or two if any at all. When I produced the “BC Wine 101” series of podcasts and posts about each region in advance of the 2013 Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Penticton, it was the representatives from each of these organizations that I consulted and interviewed for the podcasts. They are great for learning about each region but their real value is promoting all of the member wineries. They are worth getting to know because many host amazing events (Similkameen BBQ King, Naramata Tailgate Party, etc) and some of their websites have lots of great information for planning your next wine tour.
So, have you been to all of these?
Naramata was the first unofficial subregion to begin promoting itself as a destination through the Naramata Bench Wineries Association. As a result, wine tourists who come to the Okanagan are more familiar with or have heard more about Naramata wineries than any other region. It is ironic today that a region is that essentially on a road to nowhere is the first place that people want to go. That’s a testament to the success of the continued marketing behind the Naramata wine brand. It wasn’t an overnight success but has surely paid off well to the member wineries and non-member wineries alike. The Naramata Tailgate Party in September is always a hit and spring tasting events held in key markets ensures that there is never a dull moment for lovers of Naramata wine. It’s a strategy that has worked with the results clearly on display at any Naramata winery on any day of the week during the summer. As a touring region, Naramata probably draws the most people daily because the wineries are conveniently close together and most are within a very short drive from Penticton.
Across the lake the wineries in Summerland’s Bottleneck Drive have organized themselves with some fantastic events to promote their region. The pre-Christmas Light Up the Vines events are a pre-Christmas wonderland of activity that is a rare off-season event in the Okanagan. Wine tasting on a cold winter evening is quite a different experience and Summerland is a spectacular place to do it, showcasing each winery’s unique landscape and Christmas light display. As a touring region, Summerland is a fascinating diversity of landscapes which makes it completely different from Naramata’s views (Oh look – a vineyard. Oh look – the lake). Giants Head mountain is the may poll around which the wine tourists spin, stopping at wineries that could overlook a deep canyon, a bucolic farming valley, or even (yes) a lake.
The Oliver Osoyoos Winery Association represents the largest geographical region in the Okanagan Valley compared to the others and also currently has the largest number of member wineries (36). Hosting events like the Pig Out, the wildly popular Half-Corked Marathon, and Cactus Jalopies, OOWA’s events take place mostly in the early part of the summer from May through to July. The exception is the Winter in Wine Country which is held in late November. As a wine touring region, the Oliver Osoyoos region is big. You can’t see it in a day so don’t try. You will miss wineries so just note which ones they are and try again next time. This is the best place to spend an entire week because you can tour every day and not hit the same winery again, unless you want to. The vineyards are more impressive here because they are bigger and so are many of the wineries. Like the Westside there are boutiques and commercial productions here but many of the wineries are solidly medium size productions. This is the best region to tour at any time of the year since many wineries remain open all year. Vineyards in the winter are every bit as beautiful as they are in the summer.
The Okanagan Falls Wineries Association represents the wineries in the region around the town of Okanagan Falls. It’s a town that many wine tourists (myself included at one point) drive through without stopping while on the way to somewhere else. The valley narrows here and wineries are far less visible than in any other region in B.C. Most tourist brochures feature a stunning view of MacIntyre Bluff with Blue Mountain Vineyards in the foreground which is just south of Okanagan Falls so it’s a shame that some wine tourists just won’t get off the highway. The big event is their Party in the Park held in July and is always a great summer BBQ beach party. As a touring region, Okanagan Falls offers diversity. Looking for rich reds, aromatic whites, top notch bistros, or stunning views? It’s all there nestled among the most narrow and geographically bizarre area of the Okanagan.
The Similkameen Wineries Association brings the thunder at the historic Grist Mill every July with the Similkameen Barbeque King competition. Representing the majority of wineries in this unique valley just west of Oliver and Osoyoos, the Similkameen wineries often get passed by too quickly by drivers on Route 3 who are eager to get to their Osoyoos or Kootenay vacation destinations. As a touring region the Similkameen suffers from being farther away from the Okanagan (where there are more accommodations) and being on the road to the Okanagan. The more adventurous wine tourist are richly rewarded for venturing here however because the valley is filled with small, family run, boutique-style wineries that are making wines on a whole new level.
The Wine Islands Vintners Association represents wineries on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands making it the only association that spans two VQA Designated Viticultural Areas. There’s lots to do here and in my opinion, if the Okanagan is our Napa, the Islands are our Sonoma. Ok, the size ratio is way off but the agricultural focus is not. The Islands are not only focused on wine. There is a lot of food-related agri-tourism integrated seamlessly with wine along with ciders, mead, and other fine beverages. In an area that seems completely odd (aka not dry) for grape growing, creative wines are made here that are finally starting to develop a wider following. As a touring region, there is no way to get through this place in a day or even a week. There are too many nooks, crannies, and ferry schedules to contend with. It’s a great place to explore by following your nose, letting one thing lead to another.
In the far north of the Okanagan (where it is technically not even the Okanagan anymore) is the Shushwap Wineries, which have developed a website promoting wine tourism in their region. It’s not really a new wine region (Larch Hills has been around for years) nor are grapes completely new to the area (first vineyard was in 1907, before Oliver even existed). The northern latitude means that they must use different grapes than in the Okanagan but to me, this is what makes it interesting. As a wine touring region, the Shushwap is convenient for travellers on the Trans-Canada highway but like the Similkameen, has to work a little harder to get people off the road long enough to try their wines. It’s a different style of wine making and it’s a style that I think is unique to B.C. and worth checking out.
And then there’s Kelowna…
Although the first winery in the Okanagan was in Kelowna, it has unfortunately remained the latecomer to the regional marketing game. Confusingly, it is also the most disparate with at four smaller regions represented by associations. (Maybe they need an association of associations?) Thankfully recent years have seen a concerted effort on the part of wineries here to organize themselves into associations to attract wine tourists as that sector grows more competitive. Starting in Kelowna, the organizations loosely follow the compass.
The largest region near Kelowna actually across the lake in West Kelowna. The Westside Wine Trail represents the biggest diversity of wineries (in terms of production size) within the smallest geographical area. There are all sizes of wines from garages and quonsets to large commercial production facilities, organic producers to, well, not organic producers. Mission Hill tends to top the pyramid here as an attraction and literally sits atop of Mount Boucherie. Other wineries are tucked neatly into their vineyards on the slopes looking east. It’s difficult to imagine an organization that can represent the myriad interests of such a diverse group but the Westside Wine Trail does it and apparently quite successfully. As a touring region, everything is relatively close together just like in Naramata which makes it easy to spend the whole day there. Many wineries are also open year round.
Kelowna’s Fab 5 Wineries represents the wineries on the benchland east of Kelowna, historically known as the K.L.O. Benches (named after the Kelowna Land and Orchard Company that subdivided the land in the late 19th century). As the name suggests, there are 5 wineries in this group which is a perfect leisurely wine touring day trip. The wineries are all small, boutique productions and many are quite fun and creative with their marketing image. As a wine touring region, it seems like a completely different world even though Kelowna is so close. The views of the valley and lake are unique and far more expansive than in any other wine region. There is a lot of history here as well since First Nations, fur trappers, pioneers, ranchers, and orchardists all recognized the beauty of this part of the Okanagan.
The Lakeshore Wine Route encompasses four wineries on the south side of Kelowna. The wineries operate some of the oldest continually producing vineyards in BC. CedarCreek has been operating as a winery the longest while Tantalus’s vineyards are older but has been a winery for less time. The established winery names draw visitors here because, just like Naramata, this is a road to nowhere. People have to want to come here rather than just stop off on their way to somewhere else. They have been flocking there for years which is a testament to the quality of the wines produced there. As a wine touring region, the Lakeshore wine route is geographically small and makes an excellent afternoon tour destination. Eager tourists who head there in the crisp morning will find it even better with less crowds and beautiful views of the lake in the morning.
Last on the scene is the Scenic Sip, an exciting new association that includes wineries north of Kelowna in the area known as Lake Country. Like Summerland, there is a wide diversity of landscapes to see at each stop, making this an aptly named wine trail. There’s a lot of energy here from the younger wineries which pairs well with the long-established wineries like Gray Monk, who have been successfully attracting people to drive up Camp Creek Road for almost 35 years. As a wine touring region, this is the first place that people can see flying into Kelowna. You are literally mere minutes away from your first winery wine tasting coming out of the airport. The higher elevation of wineries like Gray Monk and 50th Parallel mean that there is a much grander view of Okanagan Lake than anywhere else in the valley. The lake itself is more narrow here, more steeply walled, and far more green compared to Osoyoos’s brown. Worth a day trip but it may take you a little longer to get to all of the wineries here in the summer so plan extra time.
Newest on the scene is the Kamloops Wine Trail. It’s so new that I haven’t actually visited this region yet. It’s absolutely on my list and I look forward to heading there. With hot summer temperatures, the Kamloops area has a lot of potential for growing grapes. It’s the winters that will make or break this region, not only in terms of viticulture but also for visitors. There has been some great social media promotion and interaction from this region. It’s also exciting to be able to see the early days of a future wine region which makes now the time to see Kamloops.
The wineries in the Kootenays are not yet organized into an association and perhaps it is still too soon in their development. The Fraser Valley used to have a winery association but that quietly disappeared, at least online. Perhaps a new group of winery owners will feel the need to come together and promote their region.
So have fun touring one (or many) of B.C’s wine regions. Let me know about your experiences. Please post a comment if you have any questions. Happy wine trails and cheers from wine country!