It’s often easy to forget where you are in the world when sipping house-made wines on a lakeside patio while overlooking a valley ripe with vineyards. When it hits you, the realization that you’re in British Columbia may take a moment to set in, as western Canada hasn’t always been thought of as a world-class wine destination.
But with a near-perfect blend of wine touring, outdoor adventures, and stunning scenery, BC’s Okanagan Valley is solidifying its standing among the world’s elite wine destinations. Just a four-plus hours drive east of Vancouver (or 45 minutes by plane), the area is attracting travelers who want more than old-fashioned, sedentary, and expensive wine tour vacations. Here’s why the Okanagan Valley is the next Napa Valley.
1. The city of Kelowna has it all.
With just under 200,000 people, the Kelowna area is the urban hub of the Okanagan Valley. It’s big enough that everything you need is nearby, but it’s also a tight-knit community where locals see familiar faces among the people strolling or biking along the waterfront. You can be on a lakeside hiking trail within 10 minutes of grabbing a coffee in the heart of city, and you can view the vineyards just across the lake from downtown. Kelowna, and the Okanagan Valley in general, is just one of those places that people come to and never want to leave.
Kelowna is also where the BC wine movement started. In 1859, a forward-thinking French Catholic priest named Father Charles Pandosy planted the first wine grapes in the valley. These days, Father Pandosy is enough of a local legend that an entire area of Kelowna is named after him, and it’s no coincidence that Pandosy is one of the hippest parts of town. It’s an easy place to forget about your troubles, because, seriously, what problems do you have that can’t be solved by a few glasses of bubbly?
2. You don’t need to be a wine expert.
The Okanagan Valley has a humble but optimistic honesty to it, the kind that drove straight out of Napa the day the first cable TV camera crew showed up. This makes it the perfect place to learn about wine culture and ask questions without drawing awkward looks. Even the snobbiest BC oenophile is no more intimidating than the crusty old regular at your local dive bar. You might be daunted at first, but the ice will break as soon as the first cork is popped, and you’ll quickly find yourself reveling in half-tossed stories about the smoke taint that crushed the 2003 vintage and why Hester Creek’s Cab Franc is the only thing you should drink after a day on the water.
Commercial wines didn’t hit the region in force until the 1970s. Back then, winemakers came from all over the world and spread their seeds across the valley just to see what stuck, resulting in a still-evolving story of trial and error that has found increasing precision over the last few years. Even today, it’s not uncommon to find that the person who crafted what’s in your glass and the person explaining it to you are the same individual. Your odds of chatting it up with a winemaker are even better in winter, when the crowds thin and the seasonal water hounds make their way back home.
3. You’re surrounded by incredible outdoor activities.
The Okanagan Valley is flush with nature and all the activities that come with it, no matter the season and no matter the weather. It’s Canada’s only ‘desert’ region, and the endless sunny days of summer will beg you to step beyond the patio. You can climb the Skaha Bluffs, kayak in Okanagan Lake, and sneak in some whitewater rafting in between tastings. Or head down to Penticton, grab a tube and a cooler that won’t sink, and spend an afternoon floating your way along the Penticton River Channel that connects Okanagan Lake with Skaha Lake.
In winter, Big White Ski Resort is just an hour away — not to mention you’re less than two hours from the Powder Highway, so skiers and boarders have every reason to rejoice. The valley is also a haven for golfers, with nearly three dozen golf courses spread from north of Kelowna down to the town of Osoyoos, just north of the U.S. border. The outdoor options make for a balanced trip: you can easily burn off the calories from all that wine.
4. You can boat your way between wineries.
Three wineries throughout the valley have boat docks, all located on Okanagan Lake. If you have access to a boat, you’re sure to turn some heads as you pull up to one (or heck, all three) of them. Quails’ Gate is the closest to Kelowna, located just across the bridge over Okanagan Lake heading south.
Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards, which specializes in sparkling wines, sits between Kelowna and Penticton and also has a boat dock. If you’re a total baller, you could actually arrive at Fitzpatrick Vineyards by helicopter — but pulling up on a kayak or boat allows for a slightly more discreet entrance. The third winery you can reach by boat, Bench 1775, is the furthest south, located above Penticton on the Naramata Bench.
5. Or do a fuel-free tasting tour in Penticton.
BC wine country is an optimal place to visit if sustainability is your jam. After you land in Kelowna or Penticton, you’ll probably have to take a van to wherever you’re staying. But after that, a fuel-free wine tour is more than doable. The most popular option is to rent a bike or e-bike and pedal your way from place to place.
The Kettle Valley Rail Trail connects a number of the wineries in the region and allows you to get some movement in between drinking sessions. Just be sure to rent a trailer so you can take a few bottles back with you. For those driving an electric vehicle, charging stations are readily available throughout the valley and at hotels, including the Penticton Lakeside Resort.
6. The farm-to-table food scene is on point.
Have you ever tried geoduck? Don’t look at a picture, just do it. Your trip to the Okanagan Valley isn’t complete until you do. Beyond this local delicacy, you’ll find fresh veggies and seafood on the menu at nearly every winery in the region. Quite often the vegetables on a chef’s menu are picked from his own garden out back, a nod to the valley’s rich soil.
You can sample locally sourced food across the valley, but for the ultimate palate-tester head to the country’s first Aboriginal-owned winery, Nk’Mip Cellars. Their site on the Osoyoos Indian Reserve is home to a full resort with multiple kitchens, presenting a historic take on Okanagan cuisine. Their hyper-local menus include BC seafood complementing the valley’s produce for a culinary experience as memorable as the wine itself.
7. It’s still affordable.
You’re not going to find any $75 tasting fees with stiff pours and a hurry out the door in the Okanagan Valley. Covert Farms, for example, charges CAD $59 (about 45 USD) for a full tasting, charcuterie board, and tour of the winery and farm. The price includes the chance to pet their free-ranging Scottish Highland cattle, snap a photo with a llama, and, if you’re there in early summer, devour a bucket of fresh strawberries that you handpicked from their orchard.
Not every spot offers a full-on “Little House on the Prairie” vibe, but being able to walk in the door, sample what’s offered, complement the grapes with locally sourced food, and carry on without having to slyly sneak off to the restroom to privately check your account balance is still doable here.
8. The views are incredible.
The hardest part about drinking wine in the Okanagan Valley is holding onto your glass. The vast majority of the valley’s 182 licensed wineries sit shoreside on Okanagan Lake, creating a backdrop that commands as much attention as the bubbly in your glass.
As you’ll quickly learn, a patio table is the place to be. Vineyards dot rolling hills as far as the eye can see, their deep green leaves giving way only to crisp blue water and rising peaks. It’s quite easy to get distracted and loose grip on your beverage — leave that white shirt at home to avoid showcasing any ensuing fumbles.
9. And of course, there’s the wine itself.
Across the valley you’ll find a collection of quirky, unique wineries that have yet to be taken over by relentless hordes of snobby tourists more interested in Instagram selfies than embracing the tranquility of casual wine touring. None in the region exemplify this more so than Summerhill Pyramid Winery, where proprietor Stephen Cipes infuses his biodynamic wines with a bit of spirituality. Each bottle spends no less than one month in a massive pyramid-shaped wine cellar resonating with the sacramental energy fields that only a pyramid is believed to provide. In addition to Summerhill, a number of wineries are or will soon be certified organic and producing biodynamic wines — meaning you’re not going to drink pesticides along with your pinot.
The region’s northern location gives it extended sunlight hours throughout the short, hot growing season, where temperatures regularly top 90 degrees — leaving the end product with a mouthwatering acidity that complements the region’s fresh seafood and veggies. While rieslings and other whites dominate in the north, pungent and flavorful reds are the staple on the valley’s southern end. Across multiple varietals, over 75 wineries in the region opt for bubbles, and you should follow suit if you want to order like a local. Just don’t call it champagne.
If you fly into Kelowna, Experience Wine Tours can pick you up at the airport and give you the lowdown on the entire valley. You can customize your tour or take their recommendations. Just be sure to plan your trip either north to south or vice versa to avoid driving up and down Highway 97 more than necessary. Harvest is in full swing during September and October, an exciting time to be around, but summer weekends are also packed with special tastings and events.
No matter when you come, you’ll reach pure nirvana if you’re a fan of merlots, pinots, or rieslings. Chardonnays and sauvignon blancs are common as well, but even the casual rosé drinker will feel right at home.
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