Even after 15 years of living in the Okanagan Valley, first as a restaurateur and now with a table–at–the–farm dinner series, I find that B.C.’s southern interior still keeps me guessing. Beyond lake and mountain views, the land is incredibly edible. I fell for its ancient volcanic and glacial earth, and microclimates galore that make soil composition shape–shift from gravelly to sandy loam within 10 metres. With harsh winters and short growing seasons, it seems unlikely that this would be the province’s largest grape–growing region. But since I moved here from England, the over 250–kilometre–long Okanagan has boomed. I decide to take a mini road trip from Kelowna down Highway 97 to check out three recent and very different additions to the ever–evolving wine scene.
From mega–estates to micro–cellars, the latest crop of wineries in British Columbia’s South Okanagan are full of contrasts that keep the area as fresh and flavourful for visitors as it is for locals.
“Beyond lake and mountain views, the land is incredibly edible.”
Exploring the lush and wild 320–acre Garnet Valley Ranch, it’s as if the DeLorean transported me to late–1800s settler days, except for modern luxuries like a (spotty) cell signal and a solar–panelled Airstream trailer for overnight guests. The land is unspoiled, the view uninterrupted by neighbours and noise is on mute. Opened in June by Christine Coletta and Steve Lornie of Haywire Winery, the leafy vineyard and semi–arid hills feel familiar, but unlike anything I’ve seen.
Coletta, who has been at the forefront of organic grape–growing for more than a decade, guides me around their grounds humming with biodiversity: blooming lavender fields, beehives and a restored pond with resident heron — Disneyland for sustainability nerds like me. They’re keeping a bit of room to grow and leaving the rest wild. Their huge responsible–agriculture–focused land contrasts the 1,200–case small–lot production, which includes 65 acres of certified–organic pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling. “The land is an extension of us, so we have to take care of it,” says Coletta. “We wanted varieties that would express beautifully without any makeup on.”
This is the highest vineyard in the valley, at around 680 metres above sea level. I’m taking in mountain views, when a whiff of campfire gets me daydreaming about my next staycation at one of the winery’s three campsites.
As I head one hour south to Oliver that afternoon, the land becomes more desert–like. Even from a distance, the luxurious Phantom Creek Estates looms large. In an area gaining mega–projects, I’m welcomed by two hovering seven–metre–tall mythical angel figures by contemporary Chinese sculptor Wu Ching Ju.
There’s no shortage of farm–to–table winery restaurants in these parts, and I’ve tired of repetitive B.C. spot prawn and woodfire pizza. Then, executive chef Alessa Valdez joined the winery’s team in 2021, a year after it opened. A former chef at Toronto’s Buca Yorkville and Alobar, she showcases farm–fresh produce with French technique and hints of her Filipina roots. Cured steelhead trout gets clad with chili–pickled cucumbers, egg yolk caramel and XO vinaigrette. After devouring tender bavette (seriously, the table knife did the trick) with broccolini, togarashi and choron sauce, and not–too–sweet strawberry and matcha genoise, I’m satisfied without needing a nap — ideal for wine tasting.
Lured by live music, I wander outside to the patio with a mineral–rich glass of riesling in hand. Given the building’s stature and integration of mixed–media art, I wrongfully assumed Phantom Creek Estates might have arrogance to match. Sure, it’s beyond splashy, but everything from the vineyard’s scraggly cover crop to the diversity among its patrons and staff alike make intimidation fade away.
The next day, I pull into the parking lot of the District Wine Village, a circular 15–unit watering hole and outdoor music venue where sleek buildings surround a buzzy open–air pavilion. Land prices for vineyards have soared, selling for an average price of $250,000 per planted acre. This community hub is helping microwineries start up in 1,500–square–foot spaces, like Apricus Cellars did in August 2022.
This is a winery without its own vineyard, but with Sam Baptiste at the helm, they don’t need one. The former Osoyoos Indian Band chief has been growing grapes at Nk’Mip Vineyards, which also supplies North America’s first Indigenous–owned and –operated Nk’Mip Cellars, for 32 years. Winemaker Aaron Crey (Stó:lō First Nation) explains how, after sourcing fruit from Nk’Mip, everything from pressing to bottling happens via equipment owned by District Wine Village and shared amongst its wineries.
Walking into the 1,000–square–foot production facility, I see oak barrels racked to the ceiling, while the leased stainless steel tanks fill the rest of the space. Besides growing Apricus Cellars’ portfolio of approachable wines, Crey hopes to inspire others. “I want this to eventually be a jumping–off point for other aboriginal people to learn about the industry, come and pour wine with us, learn about the land here, and maybe take that knowledge back to their own communities.”
I smile on the winding drive home. I’m happy the Okanagan Valley is still setting new benchmarks, remaining as varied as its microclimates.