Story by Michelle Hopkins
OSOYOOS, BRITISH COLUMBIA — “Look. How cool are these Highland cows?”
It’s not an observation you are likely to hear in a restaurant in the Okanagan Valley. But here at Covert Farms, sitting outside around a long table with a lush foreground of mountains and myriad organic ground crops, it’s not much of a surprise to see a collective set of eyes watch as these magnificent cattle roam with their young ones.
It is early evening when we arrived at Covert Farms just north of Oliver. After a quick introduction from the farm’s chef, Derek Uhlemann, we all hop aboard a vintage 1952 red Mercury truck to pick our own organically grown strawberries that will become part of our salad.
As Uhlemann placed a large platter of roasted chicken (from the farm, of course) on the table, he says, “It doesn’t get much fresher than this and you don’t have to cover up the chicken with a lot of stuff.”
As we return from our tour of the farm, we are handed a glass of Covert Farms Family Estate organic wine (I went for the Amicitia 2011, a fabulous dinner wine), and platters of charcuteries. Imagine fields that spread toward the horizon and savouring food that was harvested hours before it lands on your plate. Authentic farm-to-table living has taken root in the Okanagan Valley.
What started as a necessity in this region in the mid-1800s has become a celebrated and much touted movement. To say that farm-to-table dining is a hot trend in the Okanagan, or for that matter across all of British Columbia, would be an understatement. It’s become a catch phrase that speaks to top chefs sourcing the highest quality ingredients directly from farmers and artisan producers and then having those ingredients prepared in succulent recipes that land on your plate while you visit your favourite eatery.
So, when I was invited to take part in an exploration of the Osoyoos and the Similkameen Valley farm-cooked style of eating — oh, and a journey to some fabulous local wineries — I was packing my bags.
Okanagan Pairs Fine Food with Celebrated Wines
The drive alone inspires all of the senses. With the sun’s rays peaking through the trees, we wind along the Hope-Princeton Highway in anticipation of our weekend escapade.
The whole Okanagan region is a patchwork of endless vineyards, orchards and gnarly trees covering what soon will be toasty-looking hills.
The region’s reputation for vine- and orchard-covered slopes, award-winning wines and panoramic landscape is one that draws people from across the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Best of all, devotees — such as myself — of great wine and fine cuisine flock to the Okanagan wine region because, well, it’s cheaper than heading to Europe or the Napa Valley and I’d argue just as scenic.
Our home for the weekend is the Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa. Situated on the Naramata bench, overlooking the shores of Osoyoos Lake, Spirit Ridge is quite unique in its architecture and artifacts — reminiscent of a Santa Fe pueblo. It is worthy of a tour through the 18,000-square-foot winery into its cellar, gift shop and through the long, narrow hallway — its walls are home to large frames, all of which tell the story of the Osoyoos Indian Band’s long, rich and colourful history.
Spirit Ridge is also home to the Nk’Mip Cellars (pronounced in-ka-meep), North America’s first aboriginal-owned and -operated winery. We sampled a number of their bold reds and smooth whites.
Our weekend began with a welcome dinner on the patio at Spirit Ridge’s newly named and revamped restaurant, Talon’s. The executive chef, Jamie Hertz, prepared at five-course menu using locally sourced ingredients, which included watermelon gazpacho, tapenade and potato-crusted Pacific halibut. As the sun set over the mountains that surround the Osoyoos lakeside, Hertz brought out dessert, a divine white chocolate and cherry pavé (a rectangular layer cake). Each course was paired with local wines, starting off with a Young & Wyse’s amber, Desert Hills’ gamay, a pinot gris from Orofino and Robin Ridge’s pinot noir.
The following morning, the Ontario-born Hertz gave me a cooking lesson for his watermelon gazpacho … I don’t even like watermelon and I had seconds.
“When you are working with some of the best local produce you can’t help but be inspired to create dishes that are simple but bring out the full flavour of the ingredients,” says Hertz, a former Top Chef Canada contestant.
Over the course of our two-day culinary and wine journey, we visited a few family-run wineries. Most, if not all, offer guided tours.
After a stroll of the wild English-inspired gardens and grounds at Oliver’s boutique winery, Stoneboat Vineyards, we sat for a picnic lunch hosted by doLci Deli & Catering. Every course was paired with the vineyard’s wines, while Stoneboat founder/general manager Tim Martiniuk provided a synopsis of the vineyards and its varietals. Over a glass of pinot noir, Martiniuk spoke of his family’s homespun success.
“My parents left Vancouver in 1979 to purchase a vineyard,” says Martiniuk, who returned to the Okanagan in 2008 from Ontario to help with the family business. “In 2005, we produced our first vintage and we haven’t looked back.”
I was taken by its Chorus Original Vines Blend 2011. According to Martiniuk, “The original vine’s blend is made up of the first varietals that were planted in 1963.”
Our trip came to a close at the boutique-style sustainable winery dubbed Clos du Soleil Winery in Keremeos in the Similkameen Valley. Sitting at another outdoor communal table (I want to dine like this all summer), Old Grist Mill executive chef Natasha Schooten sourced and showcased the bounty of Keremeos for our last meal before heading home.
Charlie Baessler, the operations manager, took us on a short journey of the viticulture and oenology of the winery. Originally from Switzerland, Baessler is committed to organic farming and how the team at Clos du Soleil is working towards further developing their vineyard’s biodiversity.
I came home with a couple of bottles of its 2011 Signature — a premium full-bodied red, which was named a winner in Vancouver Magazine’s 2013 International Wine Competition.
Too soon the weekend was over. We drove home breathing in the last vestiges of the sage-scented air, sated by the succulent cuisine and delightful wines we partook in.
MORE ABOUT WINERY TOURS IN THE OKANAGAN VALLEY
Where to Stay: Spirit Ridge Vineyard Resort & Spa, 1200 Rancher Creek Road, Osoyoos, BC (see map below)
Reservations: 1-877-313-9563 (toll-free telephone)
Rates: Nightly summer room rates are more than $200; the “Discover the Great Wine Estates” package starts at around $400 per couple.
MORE ABOUT ECO TOURS OF OKANAGAN
Location: Great Horned Owl Eco-Tours, 3827 35th St., Osoyoos, BC
Telephone: 1-877-495-0695 (toll free)
Notable: Greg Byron quit his job as an accountant to pursue his dream of operating his own eco-tourism business. His knowledge of the Okanagan Valley and its eco-system is vast and very interesting. He runs a number of tours — from wine and culinary, to birding and a gold-mine tour and everything in between.