Vino Ogopogo: Wine Tourism Okanagan Style

We recently returned from an “extreme wine” research trip to the surprising Okanagan wine region in British Columbia (click here to read part one of the series).

Surprising? Well, many U.S. wine drinkers find the very idea of Canadian wine surprising (ice wines apart), which is understandable since only a handful of wineries have successfully navigated the process to get distribution south of the border. The wines themselves hold many surprises, if you can find them.

And then there are the wine tourism opportunities. Wow! For a lot of people, this will be the biggest  surprise of all.

On the Wine Tourist Trail

Wine tourism has become big business as enthusiasts seek closer links to their favorite wineries, wine producers try to make more high margin direct sales and the hospitality industry has embraced the wine tourism trend. George Taber has written a fascinating book, In Search of Bacchus, that surveys the global wine tourist scene and gives a sense of the industry’s rising profile.

Wine tourism is a naturally appealing — even if you omit the wine! — because vineyards and wineries are often located in areas of real scenic beauty. But wine tourism in many areas has been slow to develop because vineyards are agricultural zones often  lacking in the expected tourist infrastructure and amenities. And at some point as more people arrive there is tension between farming and tourism. The debate over the Napa wine train captures some of this problem.

Vino Ogopogo

The Okanagan wine region in British Columbia has a decided advantage over most winegrowing regions. Usually the wine comes first and then the tourist infrastructure slowly develops. It’s the other way ’round here. The Okanagan region has spectacular scenery with four season sports and recreation opportunities that have long attracted visitors. At the center of it all is beautiful Lake Okanagan, a long narrow north-south body of water that feels like a fjord and has just about everything a tourist might desire, including a resident Lake Monster named Ogopogo.

Wine grapes are known to love to look down on lakes and rivers and so do people, of course. So the Okanagan developed its tourist infrastructure long before the current wine boom (which I’ll discuss in an upcoming blog post). We benefited from this timely development on our trip, staying right on the lake at the Summerland Waterfront Resort in Summerland, B.C. and enjoying meals made from regional ingredients at Local, a restaurant just next door. Sipping wine in the evening with the fireplace roaring, looking out across the lake to the vineyards on the Naramata Bench — well wine tourism does not get much better than this.

Raising the Stakes

As this region’s wine industry developed from the 1990s on, many wineries made very significant investments in wine tourist facilities — partly, I think, because of the need to compete with and complement the amenities already here in order to attract tourist business.

Direct sales of the kind that wine tourists provide are extremely important to wineries in this region. Every wine maker I talked to noted the cost and difficulty of getting distribution in other Candadian provinces to say nothing of entering the U.S. market. Direct sales are therefore key and tourists from Vancouver in the west, Alberta in the east and the U.S. down south are a big part of that business.

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery in Oliver a good example of a B.C. destination winery. Perched on a hillside, it is a beautiful facility in a great location that includes the winery, a tasting room, restaurant and an inn with a swimming pool. A must stop on the wine tourist trail, they count on cellar door sales to move most of  their substantial annual production.

Wine economics note: tasting room fees are still very low in this region — amazingly low for anyone who has visited Napa Valley lately. Most of the wineries I visited offered free tastings for a limited number of wines. At Burrowing Owl, a $2 donation was encouraged — the money goes to the a nature conservancy group.

Top of the World

The ultimate wine tourist destination in the Okanagan Valley must be Mission Hill Winery. Inspired by Robert Mondavi’s iconic winery in Oakville, Mission Hill sits atop a peak and looks out over the lake. The winery is stunning, with an entry arch that immediately made me think of the Mondavi winery and a soaring bell tower. Everything inside is strictly first class, too, including comprehensive tours that end with sommelier-led tastings from your souvenir Riedel glass.

As beautiful as the building is, I don’t seem to have taken any photos of it. I guess I couldn’t resist the view (shown above) looking down over vineyards to the lake below. I wasn’t alone: members of a photography club were buzzing around like bees making images of the vineyards, grapes, rose bushes, bell tower and, inevitably and unintentionally, each other.

Mission Hill is the cherry on the Okanagan wine tourism cake. Altogether, this wine region is quite a treat and sure to grow in popularity as the word gets out. We’ll be back — possibly staying at one of the guest ranches in the area, horseback riding in the morning and wine touring in the afternoon, or perhaps taking advantage of vineyard lodgings like the ones at Working Horse Winery.

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This is the second of my “extreme wine” reports on the Okanagan wine scene. Watch for the final post (on the region’s future) in a few days.

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