Food lovers brake for edible attractions during Fall Okanagan Wine Festival
The Okanagan Valley is home to about 140 wineries, and most people who travel there aren’t seeking vinegar. In fact, a wine that tastes like vinegar generally signals that things have gone sideways. But at Valentine Farm in Summerland, Kim Stansfield stands proudly behind her product.
“We like to say that vinegar is wine’s higher calling,” Stansfield says with a smile. “It’s the process after the winemaking.”
Stansfield co-owns the two-acre vineyard with her partner, John Gordon. While the pair grow Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Gewürztraminer grapes, their job isn’t done once they’ve made wine. They ferment the wine and then infuse it with fruits and herbs grown on the farm, such as tarragon, plums, and raspberries. The results are delicate, certified-organic red and white wine vinegars, which they sell on the property at a tiny shop called the Vinegar Works. Visitors can stop by, have a taste, and learn about the fascinating process of making vinegar. (If you’re lucky, they’ll show you the mysterious “mother” starter, a gelatinous mass that resembles a fish fillet.)
With the Fall Okanagan Wine Festival kicking off tomorrow (September 29) and running until October 9, now is a great time to visit the Thompson Okanagan. The drive through the region couldn’t be more beautiful, with rows of green vines ripe with clusters of plump purple grapes. Events take place from Armstrong in the north to Keremeos in the south, and the schedule is packed with wine tastings, seminars, winemakers’ dinners, and more.
When you need a break between sips, there are plenty of small enterprises such as the Vinegar Works that are worthy of a diversion along the highway. I tagged along on a recent food-lovers’ road trip organized by Watermark Beach Resort and visited a range of culinary entrepreneurs. All are open to drop-in visitors through October; check websites for hours. After you chat with these passionate producers, you’ll notice their edibles cropping up on restaurant menus, allowing you to put a face to local culinary names.
Quality is the common thread. At the Vinegar Works, Stansfield explains why she grows her own grapes. “All vinegar is made from alcohol,” she notes. That could be grain alcohol, cider, or wine. Introducing bacteria from the air into the alcohol allows it to ferment into vinegar. So why not just use another vineyard’s seconds? “Bad wine equals bad vinegar,” she replies. “We make the best wine we can. Like anything, you have to start with a good product.”
Three kilometres from CedarCreek Estate Winery in Kelowna, Ofri Barmor can appreciate the DIY imperative to make the best product. She owns Carmelis Artisan Cheeses, where 25 goats graze on a rocky hillside with million-dollar views of Okanagan Lake. Barmor started making her own goat cheese when she was living in Israel and she couldn’t find a reliable supply for her lactose-intolerant daughter. (Some cheeses labelled “goat’s milk” actually contained cow’s milk.) Her forays led to a business, and then the family relocated to Kelowna in 2003. She now produces a range of 100-percent-goat-milk cheeses, including fresh feta and aged goat Gruyère.
With a “high quality, low quantity” philosophy, the dairy keeps busy selling its cheeses locally. You can sample them at the shop, including their signature Goatgonzola blue cheese, which is quite mild. “We realized that people like goatless goat cheese,” Barmor says wryly of the North American preference. Or, if you want a sweet treat, choose one of the dozens of flavours of delicious goat-cheese gelato, which Barmor makes in small batches on-site.
With the fall harvest in full swing, spray-painted signs for roadside produce stands call out to drivers. In Oliver, change the radio station and you might miss the turnoff for Covert Farms Organics, which is located five minutes up Seacrest Hill from Highway 97. The charming shop on this 600-acre farm has a picnic area and café where you can grab a homemade muffin, quiche, or adobe-smoked chicken taco.
The farm has been in the Covert family since 1959, and a shiny, fire-engine-red ’52 Mercury pickup truck parked outside the shop lends it old-time charm. Third-generation Gene and Shelley Covert now run the place and last year won the Outstanding Young Farmer of the Year award for B.C. They’ve been expanding the farm’s certified organic production since 2006, and when I visited offerings included organic peaches, zucchini, basil, and purslane, as well as some delicious, thin-skinned Armenian cucumbers. (The new Terrafina restaurant at Hester Creek Winery uses Covert produce, and executive chef Jeremy Luypen later told me that the farm’s potatoes “are some of the best potatoes you’ll eat in your life”.) The shop also offers tastings of Dunham & Froese wines, for which Covert grows the grapes.
For those wine-tasting in the Similkameen Valley, Harker’s Organics in Cawston is the place to pull over. Look for the sign boasting “the hottest peppers on earth”, referring to the bhut jolokia chili peppers they grow, along with 79 other varieties.
The farm has been going for five generations, and young couple Troy and Sara Harker are passionate about making it sustainable for the sixth generation—their children Kaydence, 6, and Ayaka, 2. “You can always tell a good organic farm by the weeds,” Sara says laughing, as the kids trail her around the fields, picking squash blossoms, popping cherry tomatoes in their mouths, and munching fresh-picked corn straight off the cob.
The Harkers grow everything from Honeycrisp apples to 40 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and 15 varieties of basil. Their produce can be found in Vancouver at Capers Whole Foods under the Harvest Moon label. But if you stop by their veggie stand looking for something in particular that’s not on the shelves, they’ll run out and pick it for you. Plus, you can sample Rustic Roots organic fruit wine in the tasting room, where five generations of Harker wedding photos hang.
Sara explains that each generationhas added something new to the farm to keep the family business thriving. She and Troy started the winery in 2008, making wine from organic fruit such as peaches, plums, and apples. “I like to call it somewhat of an internal insurance policy,” she says. “If something happened to the apples, we could harvest them, crush them, and turn them into wine.”
The couple also initiated a restaurant program, brokering organic produce for 15 organic growers in the Similkameen and delivering it to 25 restaurants from Kelowna to Osoyoos. These include the new Miradoro Restaurant at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, and Watermark Beach Resort in Osoyoos.
“Their produce is unbelievable,” raves Watermark’s chef de cuisine, Natasha Schooten, at her restaurant. “The first time I tasted the peppers they brought over I almost cried.” Like an increasing number of chefs in the Okanagan, Schooten is a big supporter of local products, including Carmelis cheese and Vinegar Works vinegar.
All these quality ingredients add up to one great harvest meal—especially when you add a glass of wine, made from grapes grown just up the road.
Access: For information on the Fall Okanagan Wine Festival visit their webiste. Produce from Covert Farms stars in a luncheon that takes place at Spirit Ridge Resort in Osoyoos on October 1. The same day, Harker’s Organics and Rustic Roots Winery will celebrate their Harvest Moon Festival on the farm. Watermark Beach Resort in Osoyoos is participating in several wine-fest events; see the Watermark Beach Resort website. For tourist information on the region, see the Hello BC website. The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism BC and the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association.