In the center of British Columbia, near the very bottom of Canada, there is a desert.
Dust kicks up and hovers in the air with each step, as if trekking through the Arizona outback. But on the horizon are mountains of green foliage, a series of aqua blue lakes, and, in the distance, rolling vineyards as far as the eye can see.
The Okanagan Desert, defined as an antelope brush ecosystem, is actually just a small narrow finger stretching past the United States border and not quite reaching the city of Penticton.
Surrounding the desert, however, are wide, ranging grasslands that look and feel as arid and dry as the official desert territory. But within that inhospitable land there is fertility. The desert and surrounding region that makes up the South Okanagan also doubles as wine country, bursting with brightness.
A short trip south from Penticton brings us to See Ya Later Ranch near the small town of Okanagan Falls, a small but important footnote in the area’s geography and history.
The wines of See Ya Later Ranch celebrate the lively legacy of Major Hugh Fraser, a colorful character who purchased Hawthorne Ranch high above the Okanagan Valley in 1919.
Here he planted vines and seeded a legend. The ranch was his home for more than 45 years, each year adding to a rich mix of truth and fiction involving elaborate gatherings and plenty of dogs. The Major was a prolific letter-writer, and the story is that he signed his correspondence with the light-hearted note, “See Ya Later”.
These days, visitors love See Ya Later Ranch for its well-crafted VQA wines served in an unbeatable setting overlooking the Valley. The tasting room and wine shop are located in the Major’s 1900s home—made of original hand-split stone—while the patio is the perfect perch to enjoy a bottle of wine and take in the view of the surrounding valley, vineyards, and lakes.
A jaunt back into the desert, down through the valley, brings us to an oasis of another sort: Oliver, a town that appropriately bills itself as the “Wine Capital of Canada”.
Prior to the development of the wine industry, almost all of the agricultural land in the Oliver area was planted first to ground crops and later to fruit trees such as cherries, apples, apricots, and peaches. Many of the local orchards are owned by immigrants from Portugal in the 1950s and India in the 1980s.
Today the “Wine Capital of Canada” is one of the best wine-growing areas in North America. The sun, the soil, the climate, and the topography have created special and unique terroirs that are evidenced by their thriving vineyards. Oliver has the largest concentration of both vineyards and commercial wineries in British Columbia.
Approximately 30 wineries are located within 15 minutes of Oliver, many of them located along what is known as the Golden Mile Bench, just south of Oliver.
With dozens of wineries and more popping up every year, being thrifty with time is essential. With many wineries in their toddler years, Tinhorn Creek Vineyards presides as one of the most mature residents. Established in 1993, the winery is one of the best known from the region and, perhaps, all of British Columbia. Its roster of award-winning wines is impressive, but CEO, president, and trailblazer Sandra Oldfield is constantly looking towards the next season.
A slow and steady approach has built Tinhorn Creek Vineyards into a benchmark 35,000-case winery with a number of fantastic amenities.
Opened in 2011, Miradoro Restaurant features panoramic views of the scenic South Okanagan Valley below. Aptly named, Miradoro roughly translates to “Golden View” in Portuguese. Overlooking the farms where the produce on the plate is plucked from, it’s fine dining done on a larger scale than many of the other winery restaurants, but with the same care and finesse.
For years, Tinhorn Creek has been very conscious of their place in the unique and delicate South Okanagan desert landscape. They continue to evolve with developments aimed at minimizing their impact on the surrounding environment.
While not as romantic as a new wine release or the announcement of their concert series lineup, there is a buzz in the air about the winery, as all involved seem keen to not only make delicious wine, but do it in a sustainable way.
To live off the land in the South Okanagan, one must be close to it: understanding the soil, enduring the harsh summers and cold winters, and tending to the changes that come each year.
Where to Stay: Desert Gem RV Resort, Oliver; NK’mip RV Park and Campground, Osoyoos; Walton’s Lakefront RV Resort, Osoyoos
This is not another place.
It is THE place.