"Chefs in Vancouver talk about us like we're a cult winery, but the reality is, we're small and we plan to stay that way," says Ian Sutherland, winemaker and owner of tiny Poplar Grove Winery. Sitting on his deck, looking out over vineyards and orchards to Okanagan Lake, Sutherland seems to enjoy the notoriety.
Poplar Grove recently started making cheeses in addition to its acclaimed wines, and so far the demand for both has far outstripped supply, much to Sutherland's delight. "We love being sold out," he says.
A former apple orchard, Poplar Grove is perched on the Naramata Bench, a 20-mile ridge running along the east side of Okanagan Lake. Sutherland and his wife, Gitta, bought the property 12 years ago, gradually building up their wine production to the still small level of 2,000 to 2,500 cases per year.
Getting to this stage required dedication and tolerance for debt. "Luckily, I had very little vision about what it would be like," says Sutherland.
Indeed, 20 years ago, few people envisioned how winemaking in the Okanagan would grow. Today more than 5,500 acres of premium wine grapes have been planted in the region, replacing older vineyards planted with inferior grapes. Though that number is small compared to Napa Valley or Sonoma County, and most of the area's 60-plus wineries are small, don't be fooled: the Okanagan is not all homegrown and quaint.
The region's potential is being tapped by some major players like Mission Hill Family Estate and Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate, which have built state-of-the-art wineries, brought in consultants, and raised the bar for quality. The hot southern growing region near Oliver has such potential that it has been dubbed the Golden Mile.
Labels like these are beginning to make a name for Okanagan wines. "The big guys are very aggressive ― they've got to go to export," says Howard Soon, master winemaker for Calona Vineyards, one of the oldest (1932) and biggest wineries in the area.
Soon, who grew up in Vancouver, never set out to become a master winemaker. He came to Calona with a degree in biochemistry and experience in the brewing industry. Now he's one of the region's most respected winemakers. "We're not a great big wine region, so to be recognized on the world stage, we have to be making really good wines," says Soon. "I think any visitor who comes to see us will recognize that we're doing that." Calona is now planning a new winery and visitor center for its top-of-the-line label, Sandhill.
The new standard for Okanagan wineries was set in 2002 when Mission Hill built its soaring hilltop winery ― a modern, Mediterranean-style complex with a panoramic view of Okanagan Lake. Now many midsize operations are going all out to attract visitors. Their enthusiasm adds to the sense of excitement about the Okanagan wine scene, and the new energy that is enticing visitors and top chefs from all over.
A changing food scene
"A lot of chefs would look at this area and say, 'Oh yeah, that's where I want to be,'" says Rod Butters. Chef and proprietor of Fresco, Kelowna's standout restaurant, Butters should know. He was chef de cuisine at the acclaimed Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, B.C., for four years before moving here in 2001 with his wife, Audrey Surrao. Though Butters was happy to leave the rainy coast for Okanagan sun, the region's bounty was the real attraction. "It's a big candy store out here," he says. Even on a Tuesday, dinner is busy, with signature ice-wine martinis delivered to table after table. Butters's open kitchen smoothly turns out sophisticated dishes like red-ripe tomato soup, its sweetness heightened by gin's bitter edge, or duck breast with raspberry-tarragon sauce and crunchy sel gris (sea salt).
After serving desserts such as an intense chocolate tart with nectarines or sweet peach-raspberry ice cream, Butters finally has a chance to relax. He points out regulars such as a Canadian senator at one table and visiting chefs at another. "We have a great local following - we work at that," he says. Excellent food brings them, of course, but it doesn't hurt that he buys ingredients from 30 to 40 Okanagan suppliers.
One such grower is Little Creek Gardens, whose perfect organic greens are named on Fresco's menu. You'll also find them at Old Vines Patio and the Terrace at Mission Hill, whose pressed sandwiches and unbelievable view make it the Okanagan's don't-miss lunch spot.
Many wineries have outdoor dining with spectacular lake views - popular places to take in the best of what this long, sunny valley offers. Or you can do what locals do: stop by fruit stands and wineries to pull together a picnic. Pack a basket of crisp Sunrise apples from Arlene Sloan, a wedge of creamy Camembert from Ian Sutherland, and a cold bottle of Howard Soon's Pinot Gris, and head to the sandy shore of Okanagan Lake. Spread a blanket and enjoy a delicious reminder of the delicate balance of tradition and innovation in western Canada's land of plenty.