AFTER weeks of Vancouver's spongy, puddly summer, the sight of a few cumulus clouds smudged through blue sky over Lake Okanagan hardly merits a second look.
Except to marvel at how they are reflected in the sparkling water.
Everyone you encounter - winemakers, sommeliers, restaurateurs and hoteliers alike - will tell you repeatedly that this is the coolest summer they can remember in the usually dusty valley. But with a glass of chilled rosÃ© in your hand and warm sun on your shoulders, it all starts to sound like baseless grumbling.
Of course, there are the grapes to consider. Usually at this point in July, the clusters of fruit are beginning to look like grapes, but this year fruit set has only just occurred. What will be grape clusters are now just sprays of hard green pellets.
With a few weeks of steady sunshine, the fruit will get the light and heat it needs to ripen. So as I taste my way around the valley during this year's Summer Okanagan Wine Festival I offer up a silent prayer; I'd like to enjoy the outcome of this harvest at a future fest, so the sun needs to make a solid commitment here.
This year's summer festival was the first to take place throughout the valley, rather than solely in Silver Star Mountain Resort as it had in past years, explains Blair Baldwin of the Okanagan Wine Festivals Society. With the number of wineries now up to 122 in the region and accommodations and restaurants finally able to meet the needs of wine-loving tourists, this seemed like the right time to celebrate the season with 10 days of tastings, dinners and parties from Osoyoos to Kelowna.
Though the inaugural year of the festival has wound down now, there is still plenty to sip and sample in B.C.'s biggest - and yes, still sunniest - wine region. From south to north, here are just a few highlights from my recent travels there.
Nk'Mip Resort I love this place. It sounds silly, I know, but there is something bewitching about the way the winery and hotel are snugged up against the hills, with endless vistas of the vineyard, Lake Osoyoos and the surrounding desert; www. nkmip.com.
Covert Farms Organics Though it is hidden away on a mesa north of Oliver, this organic farm didn't get its moniker for being sneaky. Rather, founder George Covert started the farm here in 1961, and it has stayed in the family: grandson Gene Covert continues to grow some of the tastiest veggies and berries you've ever tried. Pick it yourself, or buy it from the market, where you can also order a latte to fuel your travels. The family also runs Dunham & Froese Estate Winery, where they make organic and biodynamic wines; www.covertfarms.ca.
Meyer Family Vineyards If you're serious about Burgundy-style wines, visit this tiny winery backed up against Peach Cliff in Okanagan Falls. The owners and winemaker focus on small case lots of just a few single vineyard varietals - mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir - that are expressive of this unique place of origin and have enough structure to be cellared for a while; www. mfvwines.com.
See Ya Later Ranch Hungry for lunch? Stop in at this canine-friendly winery for a pulled pork sandwich and a glass of Nelly rosÃ© on the deck, while you take in one of the best views of the valley; www.sylranch.com.
The widest variety of B.C. VQA wines in the valley, possibly even in the province, has to be at Local Lounge and Grill at the Summerland Waterfront Resort Hotel and Spa (a great spot to check in for the night, by the way). The wine list features an incredible 180 wines produced all within 100 kilometres of the restaurant, "by choice, not by license," explains partner Christa-Lee McWatters Bond. With a name like Local, it just makes sense; www.thelocalgroup.ca.
The grandest experience is at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery in West Kelowna. Tour the knock-your-socksoff underground cellars that were blasted into volcanic rock (a great escape on a hot day), admire the architecture, and listen for the bells of Mission Hill to mark time through the day.
There are four tiers of wine to sample in the wine shop, and then settle in at the Terrace Restaurant for pretty and sophisticated cooking by executive chef Matthew Batey; www.missionhillwinery. com.
For more help in planning your next trip to the Okanagan, visit www.totabc. org.