Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Travels with Chili: Okanagan's Lake Country

It helps if you think about BC's Okanagan region as a squished Willamette Valley, only instead of a river running its length, there is a series of long lakes glistening from its head in Kelowna to its toes in Osoyoos. And rather than being cloudy and/or raining 222 days a year, it has about that many sunny, dry days. Which means the irrigated floor of this narrow valley is lush farmland known for its fruit orchards, and the hills that enclose the valley, unlike the lush green found here, are dry and scrubby.

In addition to orchards, the area was historically known for growing table grapes and producing some pretty mediocre (to put it kindly) wines. Then about forty years ago some visionary started planting vinifera grapes on the drier "bench" lands between the valley floor and the hills. The soil of these benches is primarily sand and gravel left from the Pleistocene-era glacier that carved out the valley, perfect for growing wine grapes.

Gene Covert with McIntyre Bluff behind him.

So it was appropriate that our first stop was to visit Gene Covert, owner of Covert Farm Organics and co-owner of Dunham and Froese Estate Winery. The land was purchased by Gene's grandfather in the late 50s and was conventionally farmed until the late 90s. That's when Gene and his wife Shelly decided to convert the farm to organic agriculture. Located at the narrower northern end of 14-mile-long Osoyoos Lake, the winds that blow up the valley are blocked by a large rocky promontory called McIntyre Bluff. The air circulation from these winds helps Gene grow grapes and vegetables that don't grow as well in other parts of the valley.

During the conversion to organic, a friend and local restaurateur, Mary Theodosakis, introduced them to a new revenue stream in the weeds they'd formerly fought with pesticides. On a visit to the farm with her young family, Mary saw, growing among the farm's tomatoes, the "horta," or greens, her mother used to prepare in Greece. And now Coverts' purslane and amaranth are featured in the farm's store and on some of the valley's hottest restaurant menus.

Our next appointment was at Hester Creek Estate Winery, with dinner at Terrafina, the property's brand new Tuscan-themed restaurant. The winery also boasts five "villa" rooms that look like they'd be a nice splurge for a night or two, considering their gorgeous views of the lake. Our tour guide, the bubbly Sarah Lefebvre, tasted us through the wines—we particularly loved the reserve cab franc—then escorted us to our terrace table for dinner. Restaurant co-owners April Goldade and Chef Jeremy Luypen came out and introduced themselves, insisting we sit down and eat while our seared scallops (above right) were still warm. For a restaurant that's only been open a few months, Luypen is presenting an ambitious menu that shows potential to become a real showcase for the region's cuisine.

A tasting at Road 13 winery the next day included an introduction to their new winemaker, J.M. Bouchard (left), a handsome young French-Canadian with big ambitions. He said his job thus far had been as babysitter to the wines made by the vineyard's previous winemaker, known for big, juicy, internatonal-style pinots. He was obviously excited to start his first harvest at the winery, which, like Oregon's, was delayed due to the cool temperatures early in the summer.

Wine tasting first thing in the morning had us longing for lunch, so we zipped back to Osoyoos and into Dolci Deli, where owner Annina Hoffmeister has become known for her house-made bacon and a German-style dried, smoked meat called bündnerfleisch. She said that in the southern part of Germany where her family hailed from, the meat was traditionally hung in the large fireplace opening where the exterior would become blackened by the smoke from the fire. I can only imagine how delicious that might have been, if her version is any example. She also makes and sells her own jams, which made nice gifts to bring home, though I saved her rhubarb rosemary for myself.

All this wine tasting and eating made us feel like we needed to insist on having a light dinner that evening at Tinhorn Creek winery and their new restaurant, Miradoro. I should have known better.

Read the other posts in this series, The Great Okanagan Road TripMagical Moment, Perched In Penticton, Penticton Personalities and Crazy for Kelowna.

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