Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Okanagan through a travel writer's eye

Photo: Quails' Gate's Tony Stewart

After visiting Okanagan wineries frequently since 1976, you might expect I have a serious case of “Déjà vu” when I go back now.

The cure for the affliction of taking the region for granted is to see it through someone else’s eyes. Recently, courtesy of the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association, I had the benefit of whipping around the Okanagan and Similkameen in four days in the company of three travel writers.

Wine writers have are a bit single-minded in their interests. Travel writers are interested in far more than wine. They must tell their readers about the total experience of a region, not just where the good wines are. Total experience includes the best dining places, the comfortable and unique accommodations, the region’s vivid personalities and, of course, the visual splendour. It is all there in the Okanagan and seeing it from someone else’s perspective is eye opening.

Tony Stewart, the chief executive at Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, persuaded his partners – a brother and two sisters – to add a restaurant to this West Kelowna winery so that visitors would get what he terms a “total winery experience.” In fact, the Stewart family even considered building a hotel before deciding that line of business is just too far removed from their primarily business – making and selling wine.

“On an administrative basis, the restaurant takes up more time than the entire winery,” Tony admits. The Old Vines Restaurant, a showcase for Quails’ Gate and other Okanagan wines as well as regional cuisine, is open year-round for lunch and dinner under the creative hand of Chef Roger Sleimen, who has been there for five years.

The challenge is the seasonality of the business. “We get 10 times the traffic in August that we get in January,” Tony laments. “We have never marketed ourselves [meaning the Okanagan] as a culinary region.”

That is surely due to change, given the explosion in fine dining throughout the valley this decade. The wineries with restaurants – some seasonal, some year round – now include Gray Monk, Summerhill, CedarCreek, Quails’ Gate, Mission Hill, Little Straw, Sumac Ridge, Hillside, Lake Breeze, Hester Creek, Tinhorn Creek, Burrowing Owl, Nk’Mip Vineyards and, in the Similkameen, Crowsnest Vineyards.

Tinhorn’s Miradoro restaurant, operated in partnership with Manuel Ferreira who also runs Le Gavroche in Vancouver, opened last month, with 65 seats indoors and another 65 on a deck with a grand view of the valley. Hester Creek’s intimate 45-seat Terrafina opens this month.

Hester Creek also has a separate demonstration kitchen in its winery and offers cooking workshops for guests. Several winery restaurants offer cooking classes as way to bring in business in the shoulder season.

There are good dining choices beyond the wineries, of course. One evening, our little group was hosted at Bogner’s of Penticton. Darin Paterson, the owner and chef, bought the restaurant in 2006 shortly after running a Stockholm catering company for four years and, before that, working four years for the King of Saudi Arabia. A graduate of the North Alberta Institute of Technology, he had returned to Edmonton to open a restaurant. Frustrated by zoning issues, he and his Swedish wife were on their way to Vancouver, with time out for some Okanagan wine touring. Granny Bogner’s, as the restaurant was then called, had come on the market two days earlier and the Patersons snapped it up.

The restaurant is in a heritage building circa 1915 in the heart of Penticton and, is said to be haunted. No one is quite sure what the origin of the ghost is; however, it was the long-time home and office of one of Penticton’s first doctors.

If ghosts need food, Paterson’s kitchen must make this a very happy spirit. He sources local ingredients, including salad greens grown on the property and vegetables from his own farm. Local sourcing is a point of pride among many of the Okanagan restaurants. Staff at Tinhorn Creek’s restaurant like to point out the feedlot across the valley, even if it is a bit of an eyesore, as the source of their beef.

Accommodation choices have also come a long way in the Okanagan. A number of very good apartment resorts have been developed this decade, including at least three in Osoyoos - Watermark, Spirit Ridge and Walnut Beach.

Photo: Red Rooster Winery

Those who prefer more intimate accommodations must revel in the astonishing array of quality bed and breakfasts the length and breadth of the valley. Just behind Munson Mountain at Naramata, former hoteliers Michael and Linda Newton operate their luxurious Serenata Guesthouse Retreat on grounds so elegant (there is even a vineyard) that weddings as hosted here. It is a excellent base from which to explore the Naramata Bench wineries (Red Rooster Winery, among others, is in walking distance) and to hike on the nearby Kettle Valley Trail.

Photo: God;s Mountain proprietor Sara Allan

For character B&Bs, it would be hard to beat God’s Mountain Estate, a short distance south of Penticton on Eastside Road. It is located on a cliffside bench with breathtaking views to the west over Skaha Lake. There is an air of almost spiritual serenity to the sprawling white Tuscan-style villa and the 115-acre property. The owners, Sara Allan and Richard Goodall, keep it that way by not providing television sets and by asking guests not to play radios in their rooms.

“When you take away the mechanical devices,” she says, “people make their own entertainment.” In other words, bring your own guitar and involve other guests.

The former operator of a Bowen Island restaurant, she chanced upon God’s Mountain six or seven years ago when she was passing through the Okanagan and needed a place to stay overnight. The beauty of the property led her to buy it. She and Richard have been renovating it since, carefully maintaining its patina of age by furnishing much of it with antiques and art.

“I like old things and I don’t mind if they are broken,” she says. “And I like art. I don’t collect art for money; I collect it because I like it.”

The estate is used by Joy Road Catering for its wine maker dinners and Sunday evening “family” dinners on the newly renovated porch at the villa (and sometimes on the grass). In the past five years, chefs Cameron Smith and Dana Ewart have established their catering firm as, arguably, the Okanagan’s best caterer. Their dinners at God’s Mountain are among the hottest tickets for guests who come to discover the valley’s full experience.

Those who never stay at God’s Mountain can enjoy it vicariously. The grapes from the Riesling vineyard here are sold to Wild Goose Vineyards for the production of God’s Mountain Riesling. It is a very fine bottle of wine.

Photo: God's Mountain Vineyard


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