As a contributing writer for Food and Wine Trails magazine, my first request for assignments is always for wineries and related businesses in the Naramata area. We have been visiting the area for many years and have never failed to enjoy our visits, and to marvel at the continued addition of wineries in this, certainly one of Canada’s most beautiful areas.
The winding Naramata Road runs roughly parallel to the Kettle Valley Trail, a great walking and cycling route that affords fabulous views from the hillside. Constructed on an old railbed, the trail gently climbs, making it an inviting route for virtually anyone who wants to get out of the car for a while.
When we first started visiting the Naramata Bench, a relatively narrow strip of land to the north of Penticton on the east side of Okanagan Lake, there was a delightful smattering of wineries, most of them small producers. Now more than 30 wineries show up on maps, 21 of which belong to the Naramata Bench Winery Association.
Popular Grove was the hot new winery on the bench in our early visits and the wines sold out quickly. With a new winery and the addition of the Vanilla Pod Restaurant, we look forward to a visit this month, during which we will also pick up a variety of the winery’s wonderful cheesemaking facility.
One of our regular stops was always Lang Winery, where a reliable and large variety never failed to provide surprises. We loved giving the winery’s maple-flavoured dessert wine as gifts. One of my favourite experiences came on a day when I was no longer tasting after visits to many wineries. My wife came out to find me wandering in the vineyard and recommended I taste the newly released Marechal Foch. That particular variety has never been my favourite, but I took a sip and the aroma and flavor of smoked salmon made me break out laughing — it was completely unique and a delightful surprise. It was the vintage made in 2003, the year of a huge wildfire that caused tremendous damage between Penticton and Kelowna. Smoke had been absorbed by the Marechal Foch grapes and the result was serendipitous, indeed.
On one memorable visit we sat on the new patio at Lake Breeze Vineyard on a hot summer day, enjoying a glass of their amazing Ehrenfelser white wine and a plate of delicious food. For an hour we felt as though we had been transported to Europe as we enjoyed the spectacular view of the lake and vineyards that seemed to slope right down to the water.
The tiny Kettle Valley Winery was only the third winery licensed in the Naramata Bench and owners Bob Ferguson and Tim Watts and their families celebrated their 20th anniversary last year. The tasting room is as understated as they come, but the wines have been consistent winners over the years and we have always enjoyed the Pinot Noirs. We have similarly fond memories of our visits to another small producer, Nichol Vineyards, where we used to sample and chat in a tasting room that got crowded when four people arrived at the same time.
Hillside Estates was always a must-visit. The hospitality in the tasting room has always been superb and the shop is fun to wander around between samples. And I don’t think there is a restaurant in the province that has given us more consistently great memories as we visited with various members of our family. The view from the top-level patio is marvelous, as is the food.
Last year was a rare one that we didn’t get to Naramata, so we are excited to be setting off for a quick visit. In the next few columns, I’ll talk about some of the new wineries we plan to get to, and about the changes we have seen in the last 20 years.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.