When will we be too old to travel independently? Who knows?
Take our friend George. He had a knee replacement last year, cataract surgery this April and was waiting for open-heart surgery for a valve replacement and a bypass on an artery that was 60% blocked. We didn’t expect to be travelling with him this year.
His call surprised us: “Ron’s offered us his condo again. Would you guys like to join us?” For being such a good neighbor, the affable George was getting free accommodation in the South Okanagan, in June before temperatures soar and holidaymakers crowd the wine-tasting rooms.
How could Magellan and I say anything but “YES,” to what we dubbed “The Wine Country Workout.”
I first drank wine with George at conferences during the Chardonnay decade, when he in Vancouver and I in Calgary were part of an international business travel company. Magellan and I liked his forthrightness, keen interest in politics (he was instrumental in Vancouver’s TEAM and “a backroom boy” provincially for years), engagement with people and sense of humour. In the 90s he married the convivial Marsha and the four of us began drinking wine together around the world, trying to forget our golf scores at Lahinch and Big Sky and trying to remember the names of towns we loved in Cinque Terre and Tuscany.
This year, the vineyards were only a five-hour drive away in Osoyoos (pronounced O-sue-use) and the nearby Similkameen Valley. As the warmest spots in Canada, they are now home to more than 250 wineries. Here, deep glacial lakes provide irrigation for fertile valleys sandwiched between mountainsides clad with desert sagebrush and Ponderosa pines. While plenty of fruit orchards still line Highway 97, vast rows of grape vines now dominate the area, which has just been designated B.C.’s first sub-geographical appellation. Today, instead of cherries it’s wine with cherry notes—like Twelve from Lariana Cellars, a wine that visitors are buying by the case.
In the remaining cherry orchards, most of the farmers could use a proofreader. “There’s another ‘Cherry for Sale’ sign,” said George, laughing. “I wonder if it sold yet.”
He is a born salesman with a big smile and a big heart. “Hi, I’m George. What’s your name?” is his round-the-world door opener. It worked during our first wine tasting at Seven Stones Winery. Before long, George discovered the guy pouring the wine owned the vineyard. After tallying our bills for the cab sav and dark rosé, George talked him into letting us watch them launch a drone camera over the fields of grapes.
Nearby at Hugging Tree Winery, Marsha whispered, “Look at George flirting with the girls,” which continued down the road at Harker’s Organics, where because of George’s congeniality we discovered it is a fifth-generation enterprise that supplies Whole Foods, local restaurants and travellers like us.
Then it was on to Orofino (the name a tribute to the 1860s gold rush in this area), a winery owned by John and Virginia Weber, who were formerly from our home province of Saskatchewan. “I like your cab sav a lot better than your Red Bridge,” George told them. All this on the first day, while driving from Vancouver.
Golfing has always been a big part of our holidays together. Marsha was the president of the ladies’ group where she golfs and Magellan caddied at the Canadian Open at Jasper when he was a teenager, so they can announce their handicaps out loud. George doesn’t have one and mine is the sum of three full cartons of eggs. Nk’Mip Canyon, one of the many successful ventures of the Osoyoos Indian Band, revealed those handicaps. Except for George who surprised us by playing all 18 holes, hitting long drives and penciling a low score, as he did at the Band’s nine-hole Sonora Dunes—definitely the prettiest course in the valley. A snake crossed our path at Osoyoos course, but it was Fairview’s 127 slope that rattled us all. “I feel like I need to soak my hips in a hot tub after this much golf,” Marsha said after we’d all played 63 holes over six days. “I feel like I need to soak my head,” was my reply.
Twice after golf, George drove us up to Hester Creek’s Terrafina restaurant, its elevated view matched by the food, especially the Tuscan pizza with a glass of Trebbiano.
Time for more wineries. At Platinum Bench, Saturday afternoon entertainment began when the owner recommended a bottle that wasn’t available for tasting. “If I buy a bottle and it isn’t good, I’ll be back next year for a refund,” said George. At Road 13, George charmed a young woman who, before long, led us away from the vanload of girls at a stagette to the tasting lounge where Laura, the newest member in the Luckhurst family of owners, managed to out-charm George.
He did slow down one afternoon after 18 holes of golf, opting out of winery visits. But when we told him about Shannon Belkin’s painting of the back of a horse with its head turned as if watching visitors’ reactions to the syrahs at Le Vieux Pin, George orchestrated a return visit.
The four of us bicycled to Young & Wyse (we like their black-sheep story) and to Lariana, calling ahead to meet with Dan and Carol on the advice of B.C. wines expert John Schreiner. Carol told us where we could shortcut by crossing a steep ravine to access Haynes Point Park. “Are you sure you’re okay George?” Marsha asked as we climbed the hills back toward Osoyoos. He was. After cycling 15 km.
And so the sybaritic holiday continued. Food. Golf. Wine. Swimming and kayaking on the side. Our chatter mindful and mindless. George’s idea for a transportation corridor across Canada. Marsha’s thoughts on the book, All the Light You Cannot See. Magellan’s instructions on how to avoid topping the ball on the short-grass fairways. My recipe for poached salmon layered with herbs.
I would say the most fun George had was at Church & State. “I don’t think you’re supposed to be back there,” Marsha cautioned as he searched the shelves behind the tasting counter for the naughtier labels (available only at the winery) in their Lost Inhibitions series (labels like BITCHES GET SH*T DONE to which someone tweeted, “Finally, a wine that really knows me!”). Lining up bottles on the counter, George said, “This one’s perfect for Al, wait ’til Maldy sees this (“WTF Are You Talking About?”), this could be for Elaine’s birthday…”
Magellan and Marsha are the same age, born a day apart at the end of August. At Seven Stones Winery, I said to her, “We should have a joint party here for your next big birthdays.” “How about my next big birthday? It’s sooner,” quipped George, who had been peppering questions at the owner, George Hanson. (Funny when hearing picks up, isn’t it?) “How old will you be on your next birthday?” asked Hanson. George told him. There was a long sucking-in-air pause. “Wow!” said Hanson, “I wish I had your genes.”
Driving home on the highway near Abbotsford, George waved as he sped past. “You gotta admire Alpha George,” Magellan laughed. George, we wish you a happy birthday today—your 85th. Let’s celebrate your next big one together in our favourite wine country.
P.S. Given he walked from Gastown to Nordstrom’s after a VIFF film and lunch a few weeks ago, we’d say his bypass surgery in July was successful and George’s independent travel won’t be stopping anytime soon.
A New Leaf Tea & Gifts Café, 8306 Main St, Osoyoos. Great lattes and cinnamon buns.
Blue Mountain Vineyard, 2385 Allendale Road, Okanagan Falls. In the Mavety family business since 1971. “Sold Out” appears frequently on their wine tasting chart. Lucky for us their “champagne” was still available—at half the price of its French cousins.
Burrowing Owl Estate Winery/Sonora Room Restaurant, 500 Burrowing Owl Place, Oliver. Lovely food and great service on a patio overlooking the valley.
C.C. Jentsch Cellars, 45 22 Highway 97,Oliver. We liked the rosé, named The Dance, as that’s what Chris the winemaker does after a hard day in the field and half a bottle of this thirst quencher.) In a blind tasting of 12 Syrahs from around the world, the renowned wine expert Steven Spurrier rated CCJ’s Syrah #1.
Church & State 4516 Ryegrass Road, Oliver. Award-winning chardonnay and smile-winning labels on their Lost Inhibitions series.
Fairview Mountain Golf Club, 933 Old Golf Course Rd, Oliver. Prepare to be humbled.
Grist Mill and Gardens 2691 Upper Bench Rd, Keremeos. A B.C. heritage site (a must-stop for lunch on the drive in/out) with organic farm-fresh food and grounds where you can still see the water-powered mill from 1877 that was used to grind local wheat (grist) into flour during the gold rush days.
Harker’s Organics, 2238 Highway 3, Cawston. Fifth-generation growers of great produce.
Hester Creek/Terrafina Restaurant, 877 Road 8, Oliver. Cheese and other wine friendly products, too.
Hugging Tree Winery, 10002 Highway 3, Cawston. George liked their red.
La Stella Winery, 8123 – 148th Avenue, Osoyoos. Italian music is the muse here and every wine name notes that: Allegretto, Leggiero, Maestoso…
Lake Village Bakery, 6511 Main Street #5, Osoyoos. Good selection of breads and sweets.
Lariana Cellars, 8310 2 Avenue, Osoyoos. By appointment only. Only two wines, both exceptional.
Le Vieux Pin, 5496 Black Sage Rd, Oliver. It’s French-style service, where they change your glass to showcase the wine you’re tasting. And what a glass. Their Pin Syrah Cuvée Classique 2013 placed fifth in an international blind tasting at the 2015 “Judgement of BC” against 12 local and 12 international Syrahs.
Liquidity Wines, 4720 Allendale Road, Okanagan Falls. The best place to eat in the area, it’s been named one of the top 100 restaurants in Canada by Open Table. The patio overlooks Blue Mountain and the distant blue of Vaseux Lake, nature’s panorama competing with the owner’s collection of contemporary art and with the food on our table: grilled cheese enriched with short rib, Trotolle pasta with pulled chicken and an almond gremolata, garlic scape soup and vinegar beets with beetroot meringue.
Maverick Estate Winery, 3974 Highway 97, Oliver. Bertus Albertyn, the viticulturist at Maverick, tested soil temperatures for two years before planting his grapes. Stock up on his Sofia, a syrah turned into a port-like brandy.
Moon Curser Vineyards, 3628 Highway 3, Osoyoos. Quirky labels, like Dead of Night, which we shifted to our car along with a few bottles of Tempranillo, a rarely grown grape in this valley.
Nk’Mip Canyon Desert Golf Course, 6891 Tuc-El-Nuit Dr, Oliver.
Orofino Winery, 2152 Barcello Road, Cawston. We began drinking their wines years ago when John answered the phone himself and you could hear his kids in the background.
Osoyoos Farmers Market, Lions Park, 6607 Station Rd. Saturday mornings.
Osoyoos Golf Club, 12300 Golf Course Dr, Osoyoos.
Platinum Bench Estate Winery, 4120 Black Sage Road, Oliver. Murray’s camaraderie and Bernie’s quietude make for a lot of fun and Fiona’s artisan flatbreads are freshly baked on-site all day long.
Road 13 Vineyards, 799 Ponderosa Road, Oliver. Their sparkling Chenin Blanc (from 47-year-old vines) and Petit Verdot are outstanding (even international wine guru Steven Spurrier agrees).
Seven Stones Winery, 1143 Highway 3, Cawston. Famous for Row 128 Merlot, named after the vineyard’s best row of vines.
Schreiner, John, Best writer about BC wines.
Sonora Dunes Golf Course, 1300 Rancher Creek Rd, Osoyoos. Spice’s favourite in the area—beautiful desert plantings.
Stoneboat Winery, 356 Orchard Grove Lane, Oliver. Ambrosial. Their Verglas dessert wine has a honeyed aroma and tastes like a honey creme caramel laced with citrus and papaya—and is ranked among the best 100 wines in the world. It’s not available for tasting and is very expensive—thank you Colin for the opportunity.
Tinhorn Creek Vineyards/Mirador Restaurant, 537 Tinhorn Creek Road, Oliver. Saw a Blue Rodeo concert here once—spectacular amphitheatre.
Young & Wyse Collection, 9503 12 Avenue, Osoyoos.