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First time to the Okanagan Wine Festival

Guzzle as much as you like or sip it slowly, this was Oliver’s Cornucopia

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It’s almost shameful that I have never previously made an effort to attend the Okanagan Wine Festival. Considering my father grew up in Oliver, I have been vacationing there since childhood, and the festival is in its 24 th year I really don’t have an excuse.

But this year it only took a mere suggestion to a good friend and her fiancé to get the wine idea swirling: "Monica, would you and John be interested in going to the Okanagan Wine Festival with me and Chris in October? My parents have a cottage on….."

Faster than a cork popping Monica definitively answered "yes" and started thumbing through the festival guide. That was the hardest part of the trip; the rest of it poured out like a feathery chardonnay.

With so many wineries in the southern Okanagan and only a few days available to us, we had to utilize our time well. We looked over a detailed map and chose our route. For those traveling without the aid of brochures or maps there are distinguishing road signs on Highway 97 that read "Wine Route" to help you out.

The southern end of the Okanagan Valley has the largest concentration of wineries so finding accommodation in Okanagan Falls, Vaseaux Lake or Oliver is your best bet. Fortunately my parents own a summer cabin located smack-dab-in-the middle of wine country, on the south end of Vaseaux Lake. Heaven on Earth? Absolutely. The cabin has idyllic views of the lake from the north and epic views of MacIntyre Bluff from the south. MacIntyre Bluff has become the quintessential signature shot for the Okanagan wine industry pictured on many travel brochures and the homepage of www.thewinefestivals.com.

We drove south past Oliver and then worked our way back, stopping at chosen wineries along the way. Burrowing Owl was number one. Because consumers cannot buy Burrowing Owl in liquor stores, it remains one of the most popular destinations.

When we arrived there was a flurry of activity both by visitors and workers – it was a gorgeous sunny day for early October and the winery was deep into the harvest.

Burrowing Owl is perched on a high terraced point on the eastern side of the valley 15 km south of Oliver. There’s a dining room, wine shop and clock tower offering delicious views of the surrounding vineyards. The entire landscape is verdant until about half way up the mountains, where lush green turns Sonora Desert dry. Points of interest are marked out to help appreciate the vistas and the four grape varietals growing abundantly: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Monica and John were quite giddy remembering this place – it’s where they got engaged.

Burrowing Owl is also known for its stewardship of the environment by developing several programs to protect its endangered ecosystem and wildlife. We discussed this with one of the proprietors, who also mentioned their proposed expansion to include accommodation units. Would continued development cause harm to this precious area and its natural inhabitants? We were reassured that strict environmental standards coupled with Burrowing Owl’s mission of highlighting sound enological and viticultural practices will prevent any upset to the area. "It’s standard in this region," he said.

"Inviting people to this area will only help to educate them about how symbiotic the wine industry and proper environmental practices are," I added. Indeed the Okanagan Wine Festival is doing just that. It’s rocketing the tourism industry into the stratosphere: planned developments include a multi-million dollar resort called Spirit Ridge in Osoyoos.

"Peaches and beaches" once characterized the attractions in this area, but time has aged the Okanagan, like a good wine, to a more sophisticated level. There were more than 160 events taking place during the 10-day Okanagan Wine Festival. One can choose to attend winery luncheons, barbecues, vineyard picnics, winemaker dinners, jazz afternoons, pig roasts, a rabbit feast and much more. Prices are Okanagan affordable, ranging from $35 to $85 per person per event and they all honour the region’s liquid goodness: wine.

We chose to attend one of the more low key events that afternoon: a salmon bake at Wild Goose Winery, namely because of proximity to where we were staying. Wild Goose winery is located just south of Okanagan Falls, within the soothing hills of seemingly unending vineyards.

We sat outdoors, listened to live music, helped ourselves to their catered buffet, made conversation with people next to us (visiting Americans from just south of the border), and drank a generous share of Wild Goose Autumn Gold, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer.

As event management goes, this little winery read the book on how to keep people happy. The salmon was delicious, guests won prize giveaways, everyone got a souvenir wine glass, and a fun-loving bubble machine put a sparkle in everyone’s eyes.

A self guided walking tour through the Wild Goose vineyards was pre-arranged with signage along the way explaining the local climate, growing conditions, and the process of harvesting. We gathered a full glass and proceeded, thirsty for vineyard philosophy. Monica made an inspired observation: "I taste peach. And pear. It seems to me the soil ecology that produces such healthy foods is producing the wines and evolving them together in a spiritual sense. Mmm, this is pure Okanagan in a glass."

The Okanagan Wine Festival is a trip you can do in a few days or the entire week. Guzzle as much as you like or sip it slowly because it won’t bleed your wallet dry.

Our next event the following day was Oliver’s own Festival of the Grape. For only $20 this was Oliver’s Cornucopia. It was during the afternoon and positioned as a family event (family spelled with caps in the brochure). The Kids Zone kept the little ones busy with face painting, crafts, and entertainment, allowing parents to swirl and taste their way through the wine tents. Everyone received three tickets for wine and food sampling upon entering. If you required more they were $2 and all the sampling ceased at 5 p.m.

Over 39 wineries, 15 food vendors, an Okanagan farmers-style market (with lots and lots of homemade preserves of every flavour you can imagine under an Okanagan summer sun), a concert stage and a grape stomp were all buzzing in high gear that afternoon at The Festival of the Grape.

As we made our way past the winery tables I picked up snippets of conversations: "…I’ll check it out on your Web site" and "Did you taste that new blend?" and "This has been our best year yet" – and it made me believe that this little town of Oliver, once known only for fruit growing orchards, has found an industry that’s envied worldwide.

Next year will be the 25 th anniversary for the Okanagan Wine Festival. It’s bound to be in everyone’s day timer, especially with many hotels offering package deals including West Jet flights to Kelowna. With so much to choose from, set your eyes south to Oliver, "The Wine Capitol of Canada", and try not to miss the community spirited but cosmopolitan flavour at The Festival of the Grape.

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