Lost in BC’s Wine Country

Naramata Bench is known for many things, notably its rich variety of wine, calming scenery and lovely hosts. To me, it’s a journey into a whole other world.

Before I start, I should mention that I’m not a ‘wine person’ per se. I prefer my craft beers and I generally stick to them very closely. That being said, wine has its own repertoire of surprises for one’s taste buds; it can be refreshing, tantalizing, divine even. This was my second trip to Naramata Bench, the jewel of the Okanakan Valley in British Columbia – and I can safely say, I appreciate wine (and wine-making) even more now.

After passing through the busy little city of Penticton around 11 a.m., we made our way up towards Naramata Bench. The sky was still a bit cloudy, but clearing up bit by bit, leaving us with a lovely breeze, when we arrived at our first stop of the day: Elephant Island Winery. We turned into the driveway and made our way up the hill among a thick cherry orchard, all ripe with big red cherries. I may have “tested” one or two along the way.

At the winery, we were greeted by a lovely little terrace, shrouded almost entirely by big cherry trees, along with a couple of big oak trees in the middle. I could tell it was getting hotter out as the clouds quickly dispersed, yet in this place, the balance of warm/cold was just right; no sun to cook us up, and no wind to blow away our glasses. One of the first tastings I had was a delicious cherry wine; and while I’m no wine connoisseur, I can say with utmost certainty that it was very refreshing and smooth, unlike any other wine I tasted before. As I took sips from my glass, I was surrounded by a calming cacophony of hundreds of birds nestled in trees, making me feel like I was standing in the shade of some amazon jungle.

The shady yet scenic view from the top of the Elephant Island Winery

I later found out that the winery’s name is intimately connected to its peaceful setting. The “elephant” is from what the original owner called this place; a white elephant, a middle-of-nowhere patch of land that was going to cost him more in the long run than what he paid for it. But the story didn’t turn out that way. He developed it, and turned it into a unique winery with its own look and feel, one that has lasted for many years. The “island” comes from the property’s initial purpose of being a family haven for picnics, adventures and a getaway from life’s turbulent waves. It certainly was an island, as all I felt within was peace.

A little elephant fountain completed the look and feel of Elephant Island
An old 1940’s Ford pickup adorned the rustic surroundings
No one really finds the back of a winery appealing, but I did. Aesthetically, it was so far removed from anything I’d seen in Canada that I felt I had suddenly transplanted to some European countryside

Sadly, it was eventually time to head off to the next winery and bid my farewell. As I walked back to the car, I was reminiscing of fond childhood moments spent with my grandparents at their vineyard in the Romanian countryside.

Winery after the winery, my wine tasting palette kept being tested, with everything from reislings, fochs, rosés, merlots, chardonnays, and many others filling my glass. Among the stops was Lang Vineyards, Naramata Bench’s oldest Marechal Foch, dating back 60-plus years.

Lang’s extensive vineyard and stunning view of the Okanagan Lake was a breathtaking combination
Our personal Lang favourites. Two foch bottles and a dessert wine

It was here that I had tasted one of the best foch wines around, complete with its peppered, smoky finish. By this point, it was around 1 p.m., and our stomachs were growling for something a bit more than just wine. As such, we made our stop at Bench 1775, another winery with easily one of the best views yet.

A massive cliff divides Bench 1775 from other vineyards to the east

As we sat down for lunch, I let my mind contemplate and process this place of paradise. I was suddenly overwhelmed by this gratitude that I was able to experience such a thing, and to have seen such natural beauty. It was also a reminder that around this time last year, things were not so peaceful in these parts. In 2018, B.C. suffered its worst wildfire season in known history, with more than 12,000 square kilometers burned to a crisp. The Okanagan was no exception, and during my first visit here last year, the air was thick with smoke, while the skies were peppered with helicopters and firefighting aircraft, all desperately trying to stifle countless wildfires that were burning uncontrollably in the area. Everyone’s takeaway from this is different, but mine is that this beautiful place, like many others on Earth, is very fragile, and can be taken away in an instant, should humanity continue its negligence upon this world.

Once we were finished our lunch, we were met with, what I thought, was a pleasant surprise: an entire convoy of Porsche 356 Roadsters, all perfectly parked beside one another.

Rare Porsche 356 Roadsters. Only car that didn’t belong was an unknown Lamborghini kit car, whose front bumper can be seen at the far end of the lot

I didn’t inquire as to what purpose these cars were here for, but it was, I assume, a motor gathering/wine tour, an event that is rather popular in this part of the Okanagan.

We continued our journey through Naramata Bench’s wineries, some well-known, others more off the beaten path. It was at this point in time that I can earnestly say I was beginning to feel the wine kicking in; not to the point of intoxication, but to the point where I was just… happy.

Little Engine vineyard

Fortunately, I was sober enough to realize that our stop at Little Engine Vineyard raised the bar a little bit; not only in terms of the class of wines offered, but its overall look and presentation. I also found a rather large “bird” parked on the grass in front of it.

This Bell Ranger III helicopter was part of a wine tour around the Naramata Bench

When I saw the helicopter – which was part of a wine tour through the area – I ran towards it with childish instinct, like that time I saw a really, really cool toy in the store and ran across the road (in front of a car) to see it. Shaking with excitement, I took photos of it from all angles; I even forgot about the wine.

A closer look at the Ranger’s cockpit controls. Its owners were nearby, but didn’t mind my infantile curiosity

After oogling the helicopter for a few minutes, I returned to wine tasting, covered in dust and bits of grass it blew around as it took its lucky passengers off to their next wine destination.

In truth, it was hard to ignore the kind of wealth this place so easily attracted; all the exotic and luxury cars, the helicopters… it almost looked surreal.

Someone decided to spice up their Naramata wine tour with a dash of Ferrari F355 Spider

Yet, despite all the cool – and very expensive – things, there was something much more humble about Naramata Bench. You don’t need to have a lot of money, or a lot of stuff, to come and enjoy this place. And, while tastings aren’t free, they’re not a fortune either, ranging from $5 to $10; and if you get a bottle, it’s waived anyway. Bottom line is, this luxurious paradise isn’t reserved only for the rich; it’s for everyone to come and enjoy, and appreciate.

Oh, and it’s not just wine, either. Several wineries are also creameries, offering mouthwatering cheeses to go along with the wine. Such was the Upper Bench Winery & Creamery, our seventh stop of the day.

View from Upper Bench Winery & Creamery. Cheese and wine? Yes please!

I hate to say it, but the cheeses easily won over the wines here. Everything, from the blue cheese, to several different types of goat cheese, did it for me; the paired wines also worked well, leading to tasting sensations that just made my knees weak.

In Naramata Bench, there’s always something for everybody…

By 3 (or 4?) p.m., I kind of lost track of how many wineries we’d been to, though I still reckon we hit around eight or so. Funny part is, there are countless more, dotted all over Naramata Bench, each one with their own flavour, atmosphere and feel. Among our last stops was Tight Rope, a familiar vineyard we visited last year.

One of the best views, I think, of the Naramata Bench valley, carefully draped in vineyards. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of the old Italian countryside, despite being tens of thousands of miles apart

Tight Rope was another special one to me. Not necessairly because of their wines; they were great; but because of the whole feel of it. The winery’s owners named it as a statement about life itself; being able to walk across the rope of life while balancing everything around it; work, relationships, family, personal dreams, and so on. I thought the intimate analogy worked well, and with the wine, it all just perfectly clicked together into a sense of immense harmony and peace.

That, at the end of the day, was Naramata Bench to me. It wasn’t just a wine tasting tour, but an opportunity to see within, to take a step back and breathe; to feel human, to feel real. Naramata Bench is the peace we all seek… yet few of us ever find.

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