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Okanagan Is a Spectacular Wine Region Within Easy Reach

Canada’s Okanagan Valley sits on the U.S. border but offers a strikingly different wine experience

Zach Geballe By September 17, 2021
Okanagan Valley Dirty Laundry Vineyard
Okanagan Valley Dirty Laundry Vineyard. Photo courtesy of Wines of British Columbia.

Wine travelers have a myriad of options and destinations along the American West Coast, from California to further north into Oregon and Washington State. But there’s another remarkable and vibrant region located just beyond the Canadian border. Tucked behind the rain shadow of the Coast and Cascade Mountains, British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley is laying claim as a preeminent tourist destination. It offers high-class wines in a strikingly beautiful setting, featuring stunning views of Okanagan Lake.

Spanning from the U.S. border up past the town of Vernon, the region extends to the theoretical northern boundary of Vitis vinifera cultivation. This extreme latitude gives the region long days during the summer, while the high desert environment ensures both ample sunlight and heat during the day. Once the sun sets, significant temperature drops allow for fully ripe wines that retain bright acidity.

While those long days and cool nights span the entire region, Okanagan Lake’s moderating influence is felt much more keenly as you move up the valley. Wineries in the northern portion of the region near Kelowna, the largest city in the region, often focus on cooler climate varieties like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling, both as still and sparkling wines. Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as Rhône grapes like Syrah and Grenache, thrive in the hotter areas near the border.

Be among the first

In the middle is the town of Penticton and the Naramata Bench, beloved by Christina Hartigan, wine director at AnnaLena in Vancouver. “The Naramata Bench is my favorite subregion,” Hartigan says, “because so many of the wineries produce the style of wine I like to drink: elegant whites and more restrained red wines. There’s a great density of wineries along the bench which makes a day there a great adventure. You could visit Bella, Lock and Worth, Nichol, Terravista, Roche, and 1 Mill Road, as well as stay at the Naramata Inn,” where acclaimed Vancouver chef Ned Bell is a co-owner.

As it turns out, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the region was already seeing increased American tourism, with a 25% increase from 2018 to 2019 according to data from TELUS Insights, with an average of 80,000 to 100,000 American tourists per month during summer 2019. Yet general awareness of British Columbia wine is low in the United States, which provides opportunity to wine lovers and entrepreneurs alike.

We’re basically Palm Springs, but with wine. It’s such a beautiful area with gorgeous lakes, beautiful mountains, and really, really delicious wines that are a tremendous value, especially when compared to more pedigreed regions.

Matt Wentzellco-owner of Experience Wine Tours

Matt Wentzell is the co-owner of Experience Wine Tours, based in Kelowna. He organizes and leads tours of the wine region for dozens of groups a year, including many Canadians. But he takes special delight in welcoming Americans. “I take great pleasure in showing off the region,” he said, “especially to people from the States. It’s so cool for me to get to show people this place for the first time.” Especially because when people think of Canada they often envision arctic, snowy landscapes. But as Wentzell revealed, it’s desert-like in the Okanagan. “We’re basically Palm Springs, but with wine. It’s such a beautiful area with gorgeous lakes, beautiful mountains, and really, really delicious wines that are a tremendous value, especially when compared to more pedigreed regions.”

Finding the wines

For Americans who want to get to know the wines of British Columbia, tourism alone won’t cut it. Access to the wines in the U.S. is crucial for getting these wines the acclaim they deserve, yet until fairly recently, it was almost impossible to find them outside of small numbers of a few wines in limited markets.

Canadian native VJ Gandhi sensed an opportunity. “Growing up, my family and I frequented the Okanagan, but when I fell in love with a Silicon Valley engineer and moved to the Bay Area, I couldn’t believe that the wines from B.C. weren’t in the U.S.,” she said. “I had worked as a partner with the province during the 2010 Winter Olympics and had made contacts with some wineries then, and eventually I thought someone needed to bring wine to the US, and I thought that could be me. I got into business about three years ago. I started everything from scratch, and I’m still very much in a building and creation phase.”

Okanagan Falls overlooking Vaseaux Lake.

Okanagan Falls overlooking Vaseaux Lake. Photo courtesy of Wines of British Columbia.

What Gandhi has created so far is Kascadia Wine Merchants, a largely direct-to-consumer online portal based in California that currently can ship wine to over 30 states and offers bottles from over a dozen Canadian wineries. Her initial focus was on giving Americans who had visited the Okanagan Valley a way to buy the wines that they’d enjoyed, as well as providing for Canadian expats like herself, but she’s found that a growing number of her customers are “Americans who just buy our wines because they love it. Maybe they first encountered it somewhere else but they’ve never been to the Okanagan.”

While wines from the Okanagan Valley and other British Columbia regions, like the nearby Similkameen, offer tremendous potential, the region does have challenges to confront. Like the rest of the West Coast, wildfires and the attendant smoke taint are an ongoing and growing concern: at the time of writing, nearly 300 wildfires are active in British Columbia. While the presence of Okanagan Lake serves as a bulwark against drought, warming temperatures might present challenges at the same time as perhaps unlocking new opportunities even further north. One thing seems certain, though: British Columbia’s days as an unknown wine region are numbered.