As a wine destination, Naramata is about as remote as it gets in BC’s Okanagan Valley. There’s only one road in and one road out and heaven help you if an accident stops traffic in your path.
The Naramata bench wine country, which runs north/south on the East side of Lake Okanagan, starts just north of Penticton on a grid of roads hosting a number of great wineries. Just past La Frenz Winery the bench land narrows and Naramata Road becomes a drivers only lifeline to home. All side roads lead to the lake and Naramata Road dead ends in the village of Naramata.
Naramata is on the way to nowhere. It’s a destination in and of itself.
For this reason, my husband Bill and I hardly ever make it past La Frenz on the occasions we drive up from Oliver. 2007 was probably the last time we drove there, on a tour with relatives.
Last month we decided to make an afternoon of it and go all the way to find out what’s new in Naramata. What we found was astonishing.
There are so many new wineries in Naramata, they have yet to be added to the maps. Thus, our goal for the day was to seek out and explore the new and different faces and brands on the deep end of the Naramata Bench.
Just short of the town itself, we took a left on Upper Dubeck Road and headed downhill to Serendipity Winery. I’d met owner Judy Kingston several times and was inspired by her story of post-head injury professional reinvention enough to come out and see her place.
After a car accident forced her to walk away from a career in Toronto law in 2005, she bought and converted the bowl-shaped 12.5 acre parcel of apple and cherry orchards into vineyards growing seven different varieties of grapes.
Kingston designed and built a compact winery and then released her first vintage in 2008. Her signature blend Serenata quickly won double gold medals at the San Francisco Wine Competition. Not bad for a beginner.
Kingston took us on a tour of the winery, as well as the verdant vineyards where we met her vineyard manager Craig MacKenzie. They were all excited about the arrival of their new winemaker, Bradley Cooper, (no, not that Bradley Cooper), formerly of Township 7. Serendipity has enough room to allow him to make his Black Cloud Pinot Noir there.
Serendipity wines are all solid and memorable. We took home the fresh, fruity Sauvignon Blanc, which sparkled with baked halibut, as well as the deep, complex Serenata Bordeaux blend that we’re keeping for the holidays.
When we asked Judy and Katie what new winery we should visit next and have a picnic, Katie instantly blurted, “Marichel. I love their syrah/viognier!”
On our way to Marichel, we got sidetracked by another new addition to the Naramata Bench.
Legend Distillery is located in a former doctor’s office right off Naramata Road on the lake side. You can see the shiny copper stills in the front windows. Around back is a rustic tasting room which lets out to a lovely patio overlooking the mighty Okanagan. What a place to sip cocktails.
We found co-owner Dawn Lennie at the bar, mixing drinks. She told us she and her husband Doug had been planning the distillery for years but were waiting for the province to change the laws regarding micro-distilleries and tasting rooms. Finally they started distilling in June and opened the tasting room in July. Talk about newness.
Their gin is called Doctor’s Orders and comes in an opaque brown jug-like bottle. Using the vodka as a base, they infuse two kinds of juniper, coriander, citrus, and mint, plus secret ingredients: native elderberry, lavender and apple.
Dawn said in addition to commercial dried juniper, they use the Rocky Mountain Juniper that grows wild in these parts.
In the spirits of Legends, they plan to tell stories with their spirits. The vodka is for the Ogopogo Lake monster, the gin recalls the doctors who prescribed it during Prohibition, but the whiskey is as yet unnamed. I suggested a gold mine motif, since whiskey is what miners drank back in the day.
We took home a bottle of the vodka and have been loving it ever since.
By the time we made it to Marichel Vineyards, a short distance away and also on the lake side, we were starving. It was our plan to buy a bottle of white wine and enjoy it with the sandwich fixings we’d brought.
Marichel Vineyards is at the end of residential Littlejohn Road in a gated compound with broad views of the lake. The winery is housed in the homiest of split-level structures I’d ever seen. Entering the tasting room is like stepping into someone’s kitchen, with a big picnic table in the centre.
Four wines were on the menu: an Estate Syrah, a Viognier, the Syrah/Viognier Katie had described and a vintage end Viognier on sale for $100 per case. All of them were good. I was tempted toward the bargain wine, but we took the Syrah/Viognier instead since it’s kind of unusual in the Okanagan.
Soon, a busload of tourists flooded the tasting room and we made for the door, asking if picnicking would be possible.
Our hostess introduced us the owner, Richard Roskell standing by, but he regretted to inform us that eating and drinking were not permitted on his grounds. Apparently, there is a license for that which he did not possess.
By then our stomachs were growling.
Back on Naramata Road, we decided to lunch at a newish winery with a low profile, Terravista Vineyards. I’d fallen in love with their whimsically labeled wines at tasting months before, so now, if we could just find the road to the winery.
Finally, turning left on Sutherland Road, and uphill past some nice homes we found Terravista one the west slope facing the lake. The modernesque cement slab building is practically burrowing into the hillside and the tasting bar is halfway out site.
A group of young ladies were tasting there with a man young enough to be their brother, and he seemed to be holding court at the tasting bar. As he geeked out over the wine, I’m thinking, how hard does he need to work to impress these gals. The co-owner Senka Tennant – former owner of Black Hills Winery – engaged him while pouring, making me wonder, who is this guy.
Turns out he was Dwight Sick from Stag’s Hollow Winery and the girls he was with were his daughter and her friends.
We opted for their single varietal Viognier to drink with lunch and asked Senka if picnicking was allowed.
She looked at me as if I asked whether fruit rots in the vineyard. “Of course,” she answered.
After that group had left, and as we sat on the cafe tables in front of the open air winery, Bob Tennant drove up on his ATV and proceeded to poke around in the winery. Senka then jumped on her bicycle and rode off, saying something about picking peaches, presumably at her house across the driveway.
After a few minutes, Bob took off on the ATV and we were left awkwardly and bafflingly alone in the winery. Just two wine tourists, poking at our grilled vegetables and sipping our wine, in perfect quietude.
We could have heard spill of wine drop, it was so silent. It felt strange having the place to ourselves and after 10 minutes I wondered if we should leave a light on before we go.
Then, another group drove up, parked and approached the winery. They smiled at us like we worked there. So, fortified by the wine I’d drunk all afternoon I decided to get up and pretend this was my winery. Maybe I could pour for them.
My psych-out failed when Bob came rumbling down the drive way, followed by Senka on her bike and I realized they must have a surveillance system alerting them to visitors. I didn’t even got close to the door.
As Bob poured for the group and Senka headed back to her peaches, we said our goodbyes.
Naramata: Smile of the Manitou
Heading south on Naramata Road, we laughed about our adventures and the folks we met. We agreed that while a lot of things have changed on the Naramata Bench, the place is still very much the same. Still quirky and full of characters who know how to reinvent themselves.