There’s no place like the Naramata Bench

Gary Reynolds of Lake Breeze Winery
Gary Reynolds of Lake Breeze Winery

This cross-post to and is part of BCWL's account of their recent "Okanagan 2010" wine travels.

Visiting the Naramata Bench is like a ride in the country but with benefits. Naramata is the bourgeoning "sub-appellation" of the Okanagan Valley that features some of BC's very best independent winemakers. We visited some of our favourite wineries on a glorious sunny day last week. Whenever it's possible to speak with one of the proprietors for a few minutes, we get a quick download on what's happening with their business and the surrounding region.

As we always only visit a maximum of four wineries (three is preferred) we settled on Lake Breeze Vineyards, Marichel Winery, Hillside Estate Winery and Nichol Vineyard. Lake Breeze and Hillside are more substantial operations and big wine tourist draws. Each has an accompanying eatery staffed with a professional chef and very pleasant servers; lunch at either venue is highly recommended.

By comparison both Marichel and Nichol Vineyard wineries are comparatively small operations. Both are run by a husband and wife team who pour their souls into what they bottle. Interestingly, both of these small wineries feature the Syrah (or Shiraz) grape as one of their core varietals. It's a grape that requires the summer heat that the microclimates of the Naramata Bench provide. Both Nichol's and Marichel's Syrah wines are simply some of the best bottles of BC wine you will taste.

Lake Breeze Vineyards hold the crown for the most consistently fresh and crisp Pinot Blanc wine in the province. Achieving "double gold" medals and Lieutenant Governor Awards hasn't let them sit back on their laurels, however. Lake Breeze are stepping up their efforts on red wines as well. In fact, it's a point of pride for co-proprietor Gary Reynolds that visitors are now making Lake Breeze reds their reason to visit.

After Lake Breeze it was decided by the entourage of families traveling with us that we'd make Hillside Estate Winery our lunch stop. As we had kids in tow it was a relief to know they had a children's menu for the fussy eaters in our midst. The menu featured several delicious sandwiches and pasta dishes paired of course with Hillside wine selections. I opted for a grilled sandwich with cheese and pulled pork, and chose the recommended Cabernet Franc pairing.

The tasting room was nearly packed after we finished lunch, but the adults all decided to taste a full flight of Hillside wines. Hillside is one of the oldest independent wineries in BC. It was originally owned by a Czech immigrant couple who planted several varietals just to see which grapes would thrive on the former apricot orchard property. All those plantings are still lined up outside the renovated barn that the winery, tasting room and restaurant inhabits.

Hillside has gained a strong reputation in the past few years for very dependable reds. Their Old Vines Gamay Noir can be purchased at some stores in Vancouver and is really worth trying out. Some of those vines from the Old Country are also featured in one of the most fresh and fruit forward wines in BC – Hillside's Muscat Ottonel. Again, you might be able to find this in your local liquor stores with not too much difficulty.

Our stop at Marichel Vineyards after lunch was one of the highlights of the week. The other families (and all the kids) were getting restless in the Naramata heat, so they all headed off to the beach leaving just me and Stacey to visit Marichel. We were greeted upon arriving by the owner's Australian sheep dog named Sydney, who we learned was recently orphaned when her brother died. Owner Elizabeth Roskell, who was stationed in their small but charming tasting room, explained the dog was feeling blue at the loss of a sibling.

Richard Roskell is the other owner of this idyllic Naramata property that sits on the bluffs over Okanagan Lake. He's chief cook and bottle washer at Marichel, or more accurately the winemaker and vineyard manager. Richard kindly came in from the grapes to spend a little time chatting with us about his wine, his winery, and the future of the Naramata Bench.

Naramata: a place to grow?

As readers of know, one of our pet peeves is suburban sprawl. It seemed fitting to cross-post our report on Naramata to both and because of the spectre of sprawl in this increasingly popular part of BC. Make no mistake, the Naramata Bench is first and foremost a place to farm. Most of the land is designated for growing fruit – peaches, apricots and increasingly, grapes. But housing developers also see it as a place to grow as well.

Those who know the route into Naramata appreciate that it's a somewhat busy, twisting 2-lane twenty-minute drive that takes you in and out to neighbouring Penticton. Now at the end of that road is land zoned for a significant amount of new housing. Over 50 sites have been roughed in with the potential for at least 100 more. Most likely each household will have at least one if not two vehicles, and they will all likely drive that road during the same hours each week.

At least one of the developers mused aloud about doubling the size of the road, and perhaps continuing it through past Chute Lake and up into Kelowna. There would be significant opposition to such an idea today, but as the numbers of single-family residences increases, so would the appetite for expanded car commuter infrastructure.

This is something I pray never happens, as we will lose one of BC's great agritourism destinations if we do.

We wrapped up our visit to Marichel with a bit of discussion about their eye-catching new labels, their two different Viognier white wines, and of course more talk about Australian sheep dogs.

Our last stop of the day was at Nichol Vineyard. This small winery punches way above its weight class in terms of quality. They've also stepped up their marketing efforts lately, and updated their branding with a new label. Winemaker and owner Ross Hackworth was not on-site when we arrived, but I still have the memory of our conversation on his deck last August, which you can view here.

– cross-post by Mike. For more about our recent visits with some of BC's best winemakers, be sure to check out in the coming days. Exclusive videos, photos and interviews will be featured in our "Okanagan 2010" coverage.