Research Wineries in the Okanagan Valley
Every best laid plan starts with a bit of research. Read up on some of the regions and wineries that are in the Okanagan Valley. It’s a fairly small area on the global scale, however, it is generally split into the viticultural regions of Kelowna/Lake Country, Penticton/Naramata, Okanagan Falls, Oliver/Osoyoos and Golden Mile Bench. Take a look at what each region has to offer and make a list of your personal “must see” wineries to help set out an itinerary and route. Another thing to consider is the timing of your visit. For example if it is the middle of the busy summer, larger, more notable wineries can be very crowded.
Ask: ”what am I really here for?” The answer to this question will help you get the most out of the experience. Are you visiting wineries to learn more about wine? To improve your tasting skills? Perhaps you simply want to catch a buzz. Whatever the answer, tailor your plan around this goal. I will revisit this point a lot before I’m done here!
Based on your answers create a sort of mission statement and let the staff know what you are looking to get out of your time at their vineyard or winery. The more they know about what brought you there and what you like the better they can lead you in the right direction for your tasting.
If you are out to learn something during your wine tasting in the Okanagan Valley you should ask every question that pops into your head. The industry is so dynamic, and winemaking is an ancient art, so there are no stupid questions! The wine geeks you’ll meet along the way will (hopefully) love to talk wine, and would be interested in educating you as well.
Know the Etiquette
But don’t be a snob, please. That’s as important as learning some basics as a first timer. Snobbery deters new comers and that’s never good for the industry as a whole. If you don’t have a lot of experience at wineries just ask for a crash course at your first stop. I for one love teaching the basics of tasting and I like how everyone eventually develops a routine and a style.
If you’ve already done a bit of research you should by now know what you’re looking for and where you’ll find it. You can usually just pop in for open tastings but some of the smaller wineries are by appointment only. Also, if you are with a large party it would be wise to call ahead and let the wineries know. Give as much notice as possible. You should also call ahead and book a private tasting/ tour if you wish to really be engaged in the experience. Public tours and tastings can be VERY busy in the high season. Most tasting room winery staff will have tourist shell shock by mid summer. Another time to be honest with what you want to get and make the right move to suit. Paying for a private tour and tasting is almost always worth the value if you’ve ever seen how cramped, boring, and disconnected the overcrowded, pubic experiences can be at peak times.
Get a Driver
It’s just way more fun if there’s a DD. Join a tour or charter a van with some friends. Guilt free, worry free fun! I recommend my friends at Canadian Craft Tours and their Kelown/Okanagan tour- tell them James sent you!
“Food is the body of good living, and wine is the soul.” I suggest stocking up at a local farmer’s market in the Okanagna Valley to get the best locally prepared eats. A mix of cCheeses, meats, fish, famous Okanagan fruit, breads and spreads make a perfect picnic basket to dip into at every spot along the way. It’s no secret that some wines become whole when they meet food and others challenge something to compete with them on your palette. OH! and…NEVER forget dark chocolate.
Visit the Vines
I have heard many winemakers say that, “you cannot make high quality wine with a bad raw material.” I encourage you to ask for a tour through the vines or get permission to just walk there yourself. There is a certain romance here; the vines can make you feel like you’re connected to a simpler time than ours. The technology has changed but one thing has remained constant, and that is that people who have loved wine for centuries have always shared the grapes in the purest form. I also believe a lot can be learned about a winery by how they treat viticulture; for this truly is the difficult part. Absorb the energy from the vineyard, feel the farm, and listen for the growing vines as they tug and pull themselves toward the Sun.
I sincerely hope you enjoy all that Canada’s premier wine region offers. I’ll look forward to seeing you out there!
James’ Top Wine Tasting Tips
1. “It’s not an umbrella, and it’s not a bocce ball.” My favourite reference for how to hold your glass (use various accents for fun). Gentle but firmly hold the stem of your wine glass. It’s like a hot date or a flower; you don’t want to let it go but, don’t crush it with affection!
2. LOOK for colour and clarity. Contrast and “legs”. You don’t have to be an expert just take a quick mental note of what you see! Older red wines will often have softer colours and may feature a rust coloured contrast from the centre of the wine to the clear rim. On the opposite side, most whites will get darker in colour with age. The “legs” of the wine can give you a fairly good indicator of sugar and alcohol content. Watch for how fast the drops fall and how they meet each other as they fall.
3. Swirl and Smell. Arguably the best part. I once heard a Frenchman say to swirl inward, toward your heart for good energy to come to you from the wine. I love how romantic it is…and I’m sure science supports it. If you need some stability you can place your glass on a flat surface, hold the bottom of the stem like a pencil and draw some big circles. Then don’t waste any time in getting your nose in the glass. I prefer to sniff with my mouth closed, and then open. It gives me more feeling in my nose. Try out some different ways and ask for pointers. Most people I know say they get more off the nose of a wine than the taste and I would agree. Don’t try too hard to define scents, just see where your senses takes you. Make a note of anything that stands out, and try not to limit yourself to food smells.
4. Sip away! Drink as fast or as slow as you want. Spit if you please. This is the truly fun part, and comes back to what you want to get out of this. Take note of the layers of bursting flavour on your palate or just drink away. Just please be responsible, and don’t taste so hard that you forget to simply enjoy.
If you develop a “standard operating procedure” then there is a better baseline to compare wines. You will also begin to pick up on those subtle differences that you didn’t notice before.
James is originally from Ontario and now resides in Vancouver, BC where he is closely attached to the thriving beer and wine scene. He is passionate about educating others and loves to help connect the dots from farm to glass. James also loves anything truly Canadian and hopes to some day create his own wines that reflect the strength and diversity of the Great, White, North.