When you think of wine country, you probably think of places like Italy or Napa, California. How about Canada? No? You should. Here’s why…
Although you’re probably smarter than me and already know these things, but as it turns out, the southern Okanagan region of British Columbia is actually desert land – the only desert in the country – and it makes an excellent location to grow grapes, as long as there is a good water source. Although farmers in the Okanagan region have been growing orchards full of different fruits, it wasn’t until fairly recently that they discovered that they could grow grapes equally well. And so, in even more recent years, many orchard farms have been converted into vineyards making the number of local wineries to skyrocket.
Today, there are over 180 wineries located between the U.S. border and Penticton, B.C. making a trip to wine country a little bit closer for some folks. With so many wineries to choose from, how do you decide where to go first? This can be a tough decision for any seasoned wine enthusiasts, but terribly daunting for complete newbies like myself. Fortunately, I recently traveled to the Okanagan and was given a grand tour of the area with smart people who taught me a lot. I can confidently share some of the best wineries to visit, recommend a great place to stay and offer other activities you can do while there.
Nine of the Best
Phantom Creek Estates
4315 Black Sage Road, Oliver, British Columbia
One of the most impressive wineries in the Okanagan is Phantom Creek Estates. Though they have been in operation growing grapes and making world-class wines since 1996, Phantom Creek opened its doors to the public for the first time in 2020 and was awarded its organic certification in 2022.
The property is beautiful. It has been recognized and revered as one of the best in the country, offering a variety of experiences for wine enthusiasts, great and small. During the spring, Phantom Creek offers a free outdoor market on the weekends featuring a variety of local vendors. On Fridays during summer, the estate presents an outdoor music series in the late afternoon.
The estate tours and tastings is impressive, with a 90-minute group tour beginning in the History Room with its overview of the South Okanagan. You’ll learn about the different vineyards of the Black Sage Bench, the Golden Mile and the Similkameen Valley as well as learn about the different soils used to grow the different varieties of grapes. The tour continues with viewings of curated art installations and information about what it means to be a natural and biodynamic winery. Then, you’ll venture into the winery itself and learn about the state-of-the-art techniques of creating today’s wine.
Other tasting experiences include a 45-minute seated tasting where a brand ambassador will guide you through a selection of exclusive wines with or without food pairings; private estate tours; and the Founder’s Cellar Tour which include a visit to the Founder’s Cellar with its special tasting room with floor-to-ceiling windows punctuated with a glass masterpiece by artist Dale Chihuly. The Founder’s Cellar Experience does it one better with an incredible five-course meal served with your tasting.
Phantom Creek’s restaurant is a treasure to be explored. With dishes created by Chef Alessa Valez, you can be assured that everything placed in front of you was prepared with the same philosophy as the making of their wines. The restaurant, with an outdoor patio, offers a selection of multi-course menus and seasonal chef’s specials that can be enjoyed with spectacular views of the South Okanagan and Lake Osoyoos.
1400 Rancher Creek Road, Osoyoos, BC V0H 1V6
Nk’Mip Cellars was the very first Indigenous-owned winery in North America. The facility is beautiful inside and out. (Be sure to notice the stained-glass window in the wine shop!) Here, you’re invited to explore their heritage while learning about their commitment to quality. You find a collection of local Indigenous artisan merchandise as well as some wine and food products.
The estate winemaker, Justin Hall is a character and if you get a chance to meet him, he’ll be ready to tell you a story or two. He is one of the first Indigenous winemakers in the world. Hall grew up in Osoyoos and is a member of the Osoyoos Indian Band. He joined Nk’Mip Cellars for what he thought was a temporary stop on his way to becoming a mechanic. However, after just a few days in, he was hooked.
The Patio Restaurant at Nk’Mip Cellars offers contemporary North American cuisine using farm-to-table creations made from locally sourced products. The restaurant offers lunch and afternoon lounge service Fridays through Mondays (weather permitting) on their large outdoor deck overlooking Lake Osoyoos and rolling hills.
The tasting bar offers regular wine flights and tasting flights with food pairings all year round. On the weekends in March and April, Mk’Mip Cellars offers the Four Food Chiefs Food and Wine Experience. The semi-private experience is presented in the Qwam Qwmt Gallery where you’ll sip and taste incredible and artful pairings of their best wines and gourmet food. Or go casual with their Wine & Wings events (also during the weekends in March and April) where Chef Ian presents three different seasoned wings to experience how well they pair with the wine. Charcuterie boards are available as well. (Top and middle image courtesy of Mk’Mip Cellars)
Culmina Family Estate Winery
4790 Wild Rose St, Oliver, BC V0H 1T0
The Culmina Family Estate Winery’s story began in 2007 when Don and Elaine Triggs purchased land atop the Golden Mile Bench, a result of a lifetime of passion. When their daughter Sara joined them in 2012, they named their venture Culmina (which translates to the ‘peak’ or ‘apex’ in Latin) and was chosen to reflect decades of knowledge in the wine industry. In 2019, Arterra Wines Canada purchased the winery, continuing to build on our founders’ legacy of crafting some of British Columbia’s most iconic wines.
The property includes the 10-acre Arise Bench which features a warm, rocky and mineral-rich soil ideal for Bordeaux inspired red varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah); Margaret’s Bench which is good for cool-varietals of grapes (Riesling, Chardonnay, Grüner Veltliner) and Stan’s Bench stretching north to south along the mountainside which is excellent for growing both red and white varieties of grapes. It’s all very picturesque.
The beautiful Tasting Room is offers a causal seated tasting experience which is open daily. The Provenance Tasting explores a variety of Culmina’s wines, including the exclusive Unicus (Grüner Veltliner) and Hypothesis, Culmina’s flagship Bordeaux-style red blend. The Élevage Tasting is personalized, which will introduce you to a selection of wines from Culmina’s portfolio based on your preferences. The Savoir Tasting experience, available from mid-May through mid-September, begins with a private, in-depth, and personal tour of the estate and finishes with a structured, seated tasting in one of the winery’s private rooms.
CheckMate Artisanal Winery
4799 Wild Rose Street, Oliver, BC, V0H 1T1
The story goes that Philip McGahan, an Australian-born lawyer, left Williams Selyem in the Russian River Valley in Sonoma to take up the challenge of running CheckMate Artisanal Winery. Unlike many of the other wineries in the area, CheckMate does everything by hand: all the canopy management, leaf-pulling and cluster-thinning is painstakingly done manually in order to ensure precision and gentleness. After studying the land and family-owned vineyards, McGahan came up with his own unique take on winemaking, letting nature take its own course. He believes that the “full potential of flavor expression” comes from no fining or filtration.
CheckMate offers one of the most unique tasting experiences in the area. As the name infers, everything here is chess-themed, from the naming of the wines (Knight’s Challenge Chardonnay, Silent Bishop Merlot, etc.) to the room’s decor. The room is set up more like a living room, with a peek into the happenings in the warehouse below and sweeping views of the mountainside.
CheckMate offers two tasting experiences: The Tournament Experience (a guided educational tasting of four wines, including two Chardonnays and two Merlots) and The Advantage Experience (presenting featured Chardonnays and Merlots).
Tinhorn Creek Vineyards
537 Tinhorn Creek Road, Oliver, BC V0H 1T0
Established in 1993, Tinhorn Creek Vineyards has grown into a thriving Estate winery who takes its responsibility for stewardship for the land, people and community seriously. Head Winemaker, Leandro Nosal grew up in Mendoza, Argentina where is surrounded by a culture of winemaking at an early age. This is due to the fact that his family has a history of four generations of growers and winemakers. Clearly, there was no way to escape it, and he hasn’t wanted to. With his desire to learn more about making wine, he traveled the world and firmly believes that low intervention is the best when making wine.
One of the jewels in Tinhorn’s crown is its Miradoro Restaurant, which is owned and operated by Manny Ferreira. Named Vancouver Magazine’s GOLD Best Winery Restaurants six years in a row, Miradoro Focuses on what they call modern wine-country cuisine, the restaurant offers Mediterranean culinary dishes created with items from local Okanagan producers, each designed to pair perfectly with their wines. The restaurant, which set atop a hill, offers amazing views of south Okanagan Valley and Golden Mile Bench. Open for lunch and dinner most of the time, Miradoro is closed during January and February.
Tinhorn Creek offers many experiences for visitors including a summer concert series, self-guided tours, vineyard tours, hiking on the Golden Mile Trail and more. The vineyards offer a tasting bar, a private tasting room and a retail store as well. Tasting experiences include the Seated Experience (sampling a choice of wines from the Golden Mile Bench and Black Sage Bench on the outdoor patio), Private Lounge Experience (a 60-minute structured wine tasting where you’ll learn the history of Tinhorn Creek and learn how the correct glass can make all the difference while tasting wine), Black Glass Blind Tasting (you’ll taste four samples of wine that is hidden in black glass. Guess two of the four wines and your tasting fee is waived!), Guided Vineyard Tour (offering an insider’s view of the estate vineyards and barrel cellar while finishing up with a wine tasting in the tasting room) and the Library Lounge Experience (discover perfectly aged bottles of wine as wine educators guide you through the process of cellaring and wine’s aging potential). (Images: Courtesy of Tinhorn Creek)
400 Smythe Drive, Penticton, BC, Canada, V2A 8W6
Painted Rock’s history began in the 1980s, when grants were given through the Vinifera Program. The program paid vineyards to remove high producing, inferior hybrids and plant vinifera. This was enough to convince John and Trish Skinner, who already had a belief that the Okanagan Valley had a huge, unrealized potential. They set up shop on a 56-acre bench on Skaha Lake in Penticton and years later took over what was once known as the largest apricot orchard in the British Commonwealth.
Gabriel Reis began his journey with Painted Rock in 2009 where he took the long journey to become today’s winemaker. Along the way, Reis was lucky enough to learn from the best of the best in the industry. For him, it is a way of getting back to his roots, as he grew up on a fruit orchard in Cawston, BC.
Painted Rock’s tasting room has a clean and fresh feel to it. It sits on a bluff overlooking the vineyards. Large glass doors make for a perfect view of Skaha Lake during a seated wine tasting when the weather is chilly, and they open when the weather if perfect. Their knowledgeable staff will guide you through their portfolio of wines while also addressing questions about the wine-making process. On the patio, enjoy a glass of wine and locally sourced cheese and charcuterie plate to complete your visit. Also, worth noting – Painted Rock is a dog-friendly winery.
425 Middle Bench Road N., Penticton, BC V24 8S5
You won’t find a happier bunch than the Holler family. Established in 1993, Popular Grove was one of the original five wineries on the Naramata Bench. In 2007, by Tony and Barb Holler purchased over 140 acres of estate vineyards. Today, the couple work with their four sons (Chris, Andrew, Matthew and Eric) crafting their signature red blend known as The Legacy along with versions of Cabernet Fran, Merlot, and Pinot Gris. To them, they reflect the character and richness of the Okanagan Valley and their philosophy: great wine brings us together.
The Restaurant at Poplar Grove offers sweeping views of Okanagan Lake while one enjoys dishes prepared by Chef Rob Ratcliffe. His take on food is remembering dishes that he grew up with in London and then elevating it to something spectacular. The lunch and dinner menu offers small plates (including beef tartare, scotch eggs, Parmesan gougeres) and large plates (pan roasted monkfish, braised chuck flat and lamb shank) and incredible “Through the Grapevine” Sunday Brunch.
The 20–30-minute Benchmark Wine Tasting Experience offers guests four samples of their best wines while learning about the winemaking process.
Little Engine Wines
851 Naramata Road, Penticton, BC V24 8V1
Why Little Engine? Owner Steven French says, “because each and every one of us has a Little Engine story” or maybe he just doesn’t like to be told no? “We can all relate to a story of overcoming obstacles and achieving greatness. The children’s fable of the Little Engine personifies will and determination, a winery dedicated to these same pursuits seemed befitting of the same title and so became, Little Engine Wines.”
Steven, who runs the winery with his wife Nicole, began their journey purchasing an apple orchard and transforming it into a field of grapes. All except one tree that was over 80 years old that he transplanted near the entrance. Today, weddings are performed in front of that tree.
Little Engine uses very low crop tonnage, which produces fruit with intense concentration. Grapes are hand selected with minimally-invasive wine making techniques to make their Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.
All tasting experiences at Little Engine are seated, guided experiences hosted by one of the winery’s associates. In the early spring, experiences are shortened to about 30 minutes where guests can try out four different wines. Beginning in May, tastings include five seasonal wines including signature varietals while seating on their lake view patio. These tastings take between 45-60 minutes, but if you have more time available, you might want to consider one of their Charcuterie Offerings. One features four different chocolates by famed chocolatier Julian Helman of Karat Chocolates.
Black Hills Winery
4318 Black Sage Road, Oliver BC, V0H1T1
The Black Hills Winery has been producing premium wines in the South Okanagan Valley since 1999 where their wine is known for their balanced, intense and complex wines. Their star player: Nota Bene, a Bordeaux blend which has been produced here for over 20 years.
Ross Wise, Black Hill’s Master of Wine has a thoughtful approach to wine-making focusing on low intervention winemaking practices. He also tries to tweak every batch that he creates with something that is uniquely him.
Originally from New Zealand, Wise found an interest in the wine industry after spending time in the vineyards of Central Otago. What sealed the deal for him was the combination of nature, farming, microbiology and the sensory aspects it needs in order to make a flavorful wine.
Black Hill’s Wine Experience Centre opened in 2012 just south of the original winery. It is open year-round, offering tasting experiences which get even better during the summer months as a curated food service known as the Tapas Kitchen is also offered. The Portfolio Wine Flight features a flight of five different wines (a combination of white and red). The Red Wine Flight showcased their most sought-after red wines including the rare Carmenere wine as well as new releases. (Middle image courtesy of Black Hills Winery)
Where to Stay
Spirit Ridge Lake Resort
1200 Rancher Creek Road, Osoyoos, British Columbia, Canada, V0H 1V6
As a sacred place of the Osoyoos Indian Band, Spirit Ridge is located in Canada’s only desert. It is a Hyatt property serving as a lake resort surrounded by the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, the Sonora Dunes Golf Course, the Solterra Desert Spa, three restaurants (The Bear, The Fish & the Berry; The Market at Spirit Ridge and Footprints Beach Bar & Grill) and MK’MIP Cellars.
The property offers 226 condos, suites and villas to meet your family’s desires/needs/wants with large rooms, spacious kitchens and cozy fireplaces. I stayed in the 55 square-meter corner condo in the Desert Suites building. It offered a bedroom with king-sized bed, flat-screen TV and fireplace in addition to the living room (with another TV and fireplace), full-sized kitchen and bathroom. The wraparound deck included a gas grill, outdoor seating and a soaking hot tub. It was elegant, but also warm and comforting at the same time. But Spirit Ridge also offers two and three-bedroom suites as well. The place is pet-friendly too.
The resort has two pool areas, one for families and one for adults only. While the kids might be upset that they can’t hang out at the adult pool, they’ll get over it pretty quickly when they find that the family pool features a large, water park-quality waterslide! Both include large hot tubs nearby. You’ll find a fitness center that looks out toward Lake Osoyoos and a 24-hour cardio gym located by the family pool.
Located in the Spirit Lodge, you’ll find The Bear, The Fish & the Berry restaurant offering modern food inspired by Indigenous roots. It gets its name from the Four Food Chiefs (Black Bear, Chinook Salmon, Bitteroot and Saskatoon Berry) which represent the key elements of Indigenous cuisine. The breakfast portions here are HUGE and while not as fancy as the restaurants found at the wineries, it is satisfying. I highly recommend that yogurt and fruit parfait and perhaps a freshly-baked pastry. It’s a great place to start the day, lingering over smooth coffee.
The Market offers a selection of handmade pizzas, vegetarian dishes and butcher block meats served alongside the resort’s entire south Okanagan wine selection. Footprints Beach Bar & Grill, located on Spirit Ridge’s private beach, offers a casual cantina style grill on a waterfront patio. The food is Caribbean style and the music is island-themed.
The Solterra Desert Spa has six treatment rooms where you can take in specials like the Desert Sacred Mud Wrap that covers the skin in warm, detoxifying mud and hydrating lotion.
Both newbie and well practiced golfers will enjoy the nine-hole course among the par 35 course of the Sonora Dunes Golf Course. With its views of the Lake Osoyoos, rolling hills and nearby vineyards, it’s really a one-of-kind experience. After a round of golf, rest up at the Sonora Dunes Clubhouse with its covered patios and open deck which overlooks the Nk’Mip Winery.
Wakepilot offers individually-curated experiences with their top-of-the line equipment, including their signature “Wakeboard and Surf Osoyoos” experience. Over at the Indian Grove Riding Stables, guests enjoy horseback trail rides through the Osoyoos desert and along mountain trails.
Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre
1000 Rancher Creek Rd, Osoyoos, BC V0H 1V6, Canada
Completed in 2007, the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre (pronounced “in-ka-meep”), is bigger than it looks as it was built into the hillside. Inside this interpretive space, you’ll understand more about the living culture of the Osoyoos Indian Band as you learn about their lands, legends and people. Unlike some traditional museums, this space offers a fun, interactive learning experience where young ones are encouraged to touch the displays in the education stations. History comes alive with two multisensory theater experiences telling the tales of Sen’klip (Coyote) and get an up close and personal look at the Western Rattlesnake.
Outside the facility, you can explore even more. The 50-acre site includes 1.5kms of walking trails which leads to the Living Lands, an exhibit showing a replica of a village with a traditional pit house and sweat lodge giving you a better idea of what life must have been like many years ago. The land is dotted with incredible metal sculptures created by Virgil “Smoker” Marchand and a trip wouldn’t be complete without taking in the view from the Chief’s lookout.
Eclipse Helicopters LTD
The best way to tour wine country is by air! Eclipse Helicopters LTD offers tours over south Okanagan’s backyard and trust me, it’s a ride that you won’t forget. There’s nothing like it. Have no fear, it’s all very safe. The company only uses high time pilots (all the pilots have averaged over 12,000 hours) so that you’ll have the most skilled aircrew available.
Eclipse offers experiences where you can visit one or two wineries, then travel to greater heights with a stop at the top with views that will blow you away. You can even add on a Mountain Top Picnic to complete the experience. The picnic includes locally sourced meats, cheeses, seasonal fruit, crudités and a locally crafted bottle of bubbly. Wineries available to tour include Painted Rock, CheckMate Winery, Phantom Creek Estate and others.
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.