In Canada’s wine country, Okanagan Valley flows with quirky charm

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Okanagan Valley is British Columbia's premier grape-growing region

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge plan to visit a winery in the valley

CNN  — 

A sort of modernized log cabin with a sweeping view over a dramatic valley, the Hatch looks more like a wilderness camp than a winery.

Its logo is jarring, and weird, and kind of funny: a man with a birds-nest for a head, an egg hovering, UFO-like, just above – like an idea, poised to hatch, or to be swallowed down the hatch.

The whole place feels like an irreverent response to the pretension that viniculture often inspires. Inside, I encounter more of the unexpected, including a few hobos.

“These are wines that don’t get the recognition they deserve,” Jesse Harnden, the official “arch deacon” at the Hatch explains with a crooked smile.

Fittingly, the labels for the varietals selected for their “hobo series,” from Cab Franc to Muscat to Semillon, are specially-designed by a local artist named Paul Morstad, depicting ironically-drawn, shabbily-dressed gents who would look perfectly at home in a Depression-era bread line.

The whimsy continues all around me – labels with triceratops and flying pigs and a very strange-looking creature, playing a banjo.

“Every one of our wines has a story,” says the arch deacon.

I’m in the Okanagan Valley near the city of Kelowna, which sits at the center of one of Canada’s fastest-growing wine regions.

A scheduled stop Tuesday on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s late-September royal visit to British Columbia, Kelowna, a city of 117,000, and the surrounding area is less known than Sonoma or Napa or even Niagara, but this valley has changed dramatically in the last three decades.

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Lovely terroir

Bisected by a warm, narrow, 84 mile-long lake that runs almost all the way to the US border, the Okanagan Valley is a place where calm waters are fringed by low mountains, and where wineries on the surrounding slopes have grown from just 17 in 1990 to more than 160 today.

With Okanagan Lake beaches and plenty to eat and drink, this region isn’t just a destination for the royals – rather, it’s fast becoming a prime vacation spot for an ever-increasing number of Americans, here to taste the fruit of the soil and enjoy the other benefits of this lovely terroir.

During my two weeks in the region, I drink my own weight in wine, touring a number of vineyards and learning along the way that the valley’s unique climate creates excellent wine.

Sitting in a rain shadow, summers here are hot and dry, with days in June stretching from 5 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and daytime temperatures reaching well into the 90s. Those conditions are ideal for Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and a number of other varietals.

At Mission Hill Family Estate in West Kelowna – which Wills and Kate are scheduled to visit – I enjoy a tasting down in the winery’s barrel room, then sit down for a fresh lunch on their terrace. While I eat, I savor both the view and the food, which is sourced from local farmers and supplemented with produce grown right on site.

Further down the road, I visit the western outpost of Jackson-Triggs, a major national label, for a unique food-and-wine sampling experience, tasting fresh, locally sourced bites with their natural Okanagan wine pairings.

And I even strap on my hiking boots and walk the soil at Quails’ Gate, climbing through the vines in West Kelowna and tasting some of their Merlot – served up from the back of a pickup truck – while watching the late-afternoon light reflect on Lake Okanagan.

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Mom-and-pop places

I get my feet wet, too – quite literally – at the House of Rose Winery. While some wineries here (including Mission Hill and Quails’ Gate) radiate sophistication, the charm of the Okanagan can be found in its many small, mom-and-pop places like House of Rose.

This is where I slip off my shoes and socks, climb a small set of steps and slide into the muck, placing my bare feet into about a foot of juice and skins and vines, the last remnants of a few thousand partially crushed and awfully runny grapes.

The red slush is surprisingly cold, and I grit my teeth as I give them a good stomp. The proto-vino slides through my toes, slimy and unpleasant, as I pull up the bottom fringes of my shorts and do my very best to keep the grape juice from splashing onto my limited supply of clothes.

After a couple minutes, I’ve had enough; climbing back out of the barrel, I chat with Aura Rose, the current owner. Still family-run, House of Rose was opened by her father, Vern, a retired teacher, in 1993.

They cultivate just five acres on site, making three white wines, three dessert wines, a rosé and three reds, including their bestseller, a full-bodied blend called Hot Flash.

The blend’s name was born on an evening when Aura and a number of other women of a certain age were sipping wine and eating, admittedly a bit tipsy, and one friend underwent an actual hot flash.

“Women love it,” she says with a wan smile. “And it’s great with cheese.”

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Local sourcing

With good wine you often find excellent food, and that’s true in the Okanagan, too.

On a Saturday morning, I browse the local, twice-weekly Kelowna farmer’s market, following the crowd from a mall parking lot to its adjacent location. I survey the organic offerings at its 165 stalls – from apples and peaches to kale and green onion and lettuce – chatting with some of the sellers about the unique, and usually excellent, growing conditions in this valley. The same sun and soil that produce those grapes, they say, also grow the bounty I see before me.

For a taste of the area’s finest flavors, all in one place, I have dinner at Raudz, a Kelowna institution for the past fourteen years. Chef and co-owner Rod Butters made his name in high-end hotel kitchens, including a stint with Four Seasons. His stripped-down space in downtown Kelowna is fastidious about sourcing from the valley.

“We use 100 different small producers,” he notes as he swings by my table.

He boasts that 92 percent of all their ingredients and 99 percent of their wines by the glass come from local sources. I dig in, sampling everything from a savory pork cheek confit to a delicate venison carpaccio.

The next day, I make the short trip from my lakeside hotel to tour a number of other spots in the walkable center of the city, all places that use Okanagan ingredients.

At Broken Ladder, I sip cider made with apples from local orchards. At Okanagan Spirits, I down some spruce-infused gin and cherry-infused liqueur, learning how even this distillery follows the seasons in its offerings. And at the Beer Institute, I chat with self-professed beer geeks, sampling their unfiltered, unpasteurized brews, some of which are made with hops they grow themselves, on-site.

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Quirky appeal

And then, with a friend at the wheel, I ride just out of town, driving along the lake and up onto a promontory that overlooks it, to the Hatch, where I think I enjoy the stories as much as the wine I’m tasting (both are excellent).

So-called “chief steward” Andrew Melville tells me that their raison d’etre is to showcase the individual vineyards from which their wines are sourced.

He also explains about the funny job titles.

“We wanted to be unlike other wineries, so it seemed redundant to have titles like ‘manager’ or ‘assistant night janitor,’” he says. “For what I do, chief steward sounded great, had a ring to it, was weird but also fitting in a strange way.”

He adds that all the quirk I encounter is intentional.

“We created ‘the Hatch,’ pun intended, as our hatching ground for various forms of art, wine, vineyards, stories and so on,” he says, adding that he feels that their logo basically says everything we need to know about what they do.

“We had a ‘bird’ and ‘egg’ concept going, and then we found Paul and that painting just tied it all together, much like Lebowski’s rug,” he said.

Sounds about right – for this fresh, fun, slightly funky part of the left coast.