One of the best ways to experience Southern British Columbia is to follow the "Wine Route" signs that line its highways and byways. You don't have to be an oenophile or a foodie to reap the benefits of dropping in on some of the hundred-plus wineries scattered around the region – from Vernon to Salt Spring Island. If good food, good wine and meeting nice folks who are eager to share their passions are in your travel plans, these emblematic burgundy and white beacons will lead you to discoveries that you will savour for a long while.
On Vancouver Island
In the Cowichan Valley south of Duncan, the Wine Route winds through a maze of country roads amidst fertile meadowlands where evidence of the good life are plenty. As she drives past an artisanal cheese-maker and a farm that rears specialty meats and poultry, Kathy McAree, former national food company executive, now enthusiastic culinary tourism insider and owner of Travel with Taste Tours Ltd. explains, "This place is a treasure trove of talents. Each year more award-winning vintners, chefs, growers and producers set up shop on Vancouver Island. Yet there is an organic feel and a real sense of history and community…."
As if to illustrate her point, rounding a corner along a tree-lined stretch of tarmac, the landscape opens up to gently sloping vineyards hugging a 100-year-old farm house with a wraparound veranda that is now home to the petite tasting room of the island's first estate winery, Vigneti Zanatta. As Loretta Zanatta, the intense and focused Italian-trained winemaker in the family, sampled her uniquely-styled, aromatic, classic method sparklers – poetically named Glenora Fantasia, Fatima and Allegria – from behind the granite-topped bar; Fatima DeSilva, ebullient, Mozambique-born, self-taught chef and operator of the on-site restaurant, Vinoteca, was crafting deeply-flavoured Mediterranean-Asian-influenced dishes such as Ling cod with Thai basil, yam puree and rapini, and Pinot noir-rosemary-braised lamb shanks with soft white polenta to go with them. Suffice to say, lunch was a treat.
In nearby Cobble Hill, at Merridale Ciderworks, a producer of un-pasteurized ciders from local and estate-grown cider apples (marked on the wine trail by virtue of its active participation in the Vancouver Island Vintners Association), history is in the making. With the opening of their new Cider House last year, owners Janet Docherty, a tireless champion of local culinary tourism, and her husband Rick Pipes, lawyer and cider-maker, have turned this 13-year-old cidery (which they acquired in 2000) into the area's premier destination. The new building – carefully designed to blend in with the older barn-like buildings on the property – with its cathedral ceilings, fieldstone fireplace and expansive windows overlooking the surrounding orchard and deer pond, is now home to Merridale's tasting bar, retail shop, and the new La Pommeraie Bistro, which served its first guests on April 30th this year. Contracted to London-born Torontonian chef John Waller and his pastry chef spouse Tracy Croteau, the restaurant currently features a global-inspired menu with chalkboard specials that highlight local seasonal ingredients.
Also in the neighbourhood, and well worth a visit, is Cherry Point Vineyards, which underwent extensive renovations after it was bought by the Cowichan Tribes last year. After tasting their award-winning 2004 Gewurztraminer and the solera-style Blackberry port in the new West Coast-inspired Longhouse wine shop, visitors can now relax on the 1,200 square foot patio, centred around a traditional First Nations salmon barbecue pit.
Across Brentwood Bay, near the famed Butchart Gardens, you'll find the colouful Marley Farm Winery – the realized dream of Jamaican-born developer Michael Marley (second cousin to reggae legend Bob Marley) and his fruit wine hobbyist wife Beverly. On this kids-friendly farm populated with grazing sheep, geese, horses, chickens, turkeys, ducks and pigeons, a sample of their grape and fruit wines is often accompanied by a basket of Jamaican patties, and always, some jolly good tales. Look for a kiwi wine that is hand-squeezed by Michael and two hundred of his closest friends, and a new line of barrel-aged vinegars made from kiwi, blueberry, peach and loganberry labeled with local kids' artwork.
The Naramata Bench Community and cooperation, born of proximity, are also bywords of another section of the BC wine route, the Naramata Bench. Fourteen wineries and counting – members of the Naramata Bench Wineries Association (www.naramatabench.com) – now dot the scenic 10-mile (16 km) stretch of road that hugs the eastern shore of the southern tip of Okanagan Lake between Penticton and the quaint country township of Naramata (population: 800), making it arguably the most compact and picturesque wine touring area in the valley. Whether one's dropping in for a day or staying a week, visitors are greeted with such warmth and enthusiasm only a close-knit community can offer.
At Joie's fire engine red farm house, you won't get a wine tour replete with fermentation tanks and racks of oak barrels. With their inaugural vintage (2004) of wines now nearly sold out, what you will get is a choice of weekend or five-day epicurean retreats, fashioned after popular European-style agri-tourism experiences, conducted in their outdoor kitchen adjacent to their garden and apple orchard by owners, chef-sommeliers, Heidi Noble and Michael Dinn. A typical program might include a foray into the nearby hills for morel mushrooms or a trip to the Penticton farmers market for baby leeks, Jerusalem artichokes or "the best ever" pecan pie; cooking classes and wine seminars; and an al fresco feast on their expansive lake view deck.
Just up the road, at Elephant Island Orchard Wines, tastings of unique, food-friendly wines made from Stellar cherries, Barlett pears, crabapples and black currants are offered with a personal touch by Del and Miranda Halladay in their homey family courtyard, shaded by the foliage of a quartet of majestic birch, eastern oak and maple trees. Like so many other wineries in this area, they offer accommodations onsite; in this case a loft-like guest suite with two double beds and kitchen facilities on the second floor of their barn-style wine shop.
Another idyllic spot to while away a lazy afternoon is in the meticulously landscaped compound of Lake Breeze Vineyards. Perched on a slight bluff, this gem of a winery commands a panoramic view of the lake and the surrounding vineyards from its tasting room, on-site guest cottage and busy patio restaurant, Mahdina's, headed by ex-Vancouver chef Marcus Kharboutli. Gentle and soft-spoken like the refreshing breeze that sweep through his aptly named property, owner Gary Reynolds, retired senior administrator from the Edmonton Public Schools (in Alberta), is gracious and hands-on, and can often be found leading discussions on their wine portfolio which includes a unique-in-Canada Pinotage.
By contrast, Poplar Grove, whose wines and cheeses have achieved near-cult status of late, exudes rustic, country charm. Owner Ian Sutherland – former high pressure boiler wielder, self-professed ex-hippie, and now self-taught "journeyman" wine and cheese-maker (who also wielded his own fermentation tanks) – while always seems to be tinkering, is never too busy to chat. In June, the expanded tasting bar with viewing window into the refurbished cheese room opened to guests. Here, winery-only releases of Gamay, New Block Merlot and Gewurztraminer will be paired with rich Double Cream Camembert, the popular Tiger Blue and the heady, new washed rind cheese named Harvest Moon.
Novice or experienced wine tourists alike will be impressed with the gorgeous one-year-new site and facilities at Prudence and Beat Mahrer's Red Rooster Winery. Flanking the central "Wishing Fountain", a hangar-sized winery building now houses their expanding wine production. And the separate wine shop, with its swooping roof line extending over a wrap-around patio, is home to a roomy gift shop populated with, well, roosters of all shapes and sizes. Ask to taste the wines that were served to Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Regina in May this year, or pick up a bottle of "Minus 13" Special Late Harvest Pinot Blanc bottled in honour of the Year of The Rooster.
Stephen Wong is a Vancouver-based freelance food, wine and travel writer, cookbook author and much-sought Food and Beverage Consultant.