B.C. wine country ramps up its profile with some great winter dining

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      British Columbia’s wine industry has seen incredible growth during the past couple of decades in both quality of wines and quantity of producers. With about 90 percent of the province’s vineyard acreage set in the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys, and the number of wineries now in the hundreds, the tourism draw continues to grow while local amenities and services occasionally struggle to keep up. And with many people ditching the quicker pace (and higher prices) of Vancouver and other large cities in favour of wine country’s elbow room, the push to bolster both those amenities and regional profile continues.

      Recently, we’ve been seeing these needs being met by local visionaries, with many of them exceeding local expectations due to their experience, savviness, and quality standards.

      About a year ago, local chef Derek Uhlemann opened Oliver Eats in the South Okanagan, a culinary hub featuring well-pulled espresso beverages and a good array of pastries, snacks, salads, and sandwiches made from wholesome regional ingredients. Although locals appear to enjoy having a place to stop for a quick bite that’s not in the fast-food realm, it’s the retail aspect that sees a constant refrain of “Oh, we really needed something like this down here.” In the deli case and on shelves are an array of artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, imported pastas, olive oils, condiments, and more. Let’s just say you can pick up way beyond what’s stocked at the local No Frills.

      Back in May, former Acorn chef Brian Skinner and his wife, Christina, opened Frankie, We Salute You! in Kelowna. This is the first time the Okanagan has seen a restaurant wholly devoted to his style of elevated plant-based cuisine, and people have been flocking to the place since the doors opened. Although it was a slight gamble to open an all-out vegetarian joint in a small city with rural surroundings, it’s from those surroundings that seasonal ingredients are sourced. Think things like shiitake Bolognese pappardelle, or the highly addictive “sweet-corn queso” with charred poblano peppers and house-made chili-lime chips washed down with local craft beer, cider, cocktails, and wine.

      Meanwhile, there’s a palpable buzz in Cawston in the Similkameen Valley these past few months about Row Fourteen, the new restaurant at Klippers Organics that is situated, literally, between rows 13 and 15 in one of their orchards. Chef Derek Gray, formerly of Savio Volpe here in Vancouver, helms a kitchen with a wood-burning stove and a wealth of local produce right outside the doors.

      My wife and I ate there a few weeks back and were blown away by the food, the rustic and open handsome interior, and the impressive selection of Similkameen wines, along with a generous number of craft beers and made-in-house Untangled ciders. It’s not just a place that’s “good for a Cawston restaurant” but one that could be plunked down in Vancouver’s downtown or Gastown and be a ringing success. Dishes like slow-roasted celeriac with caramelized whey, leek oil, and crema or lamb-and-pork sausage with stewed chickpeas, lamb jus, parsley, and roasted-garlic sauce prove that their winter fare is every bit as tasty as what’s on tap in the heart of the summer.

      That’s a good reminder that wine country is indeed open for business in the winter; there’s plenty of touring and tasting that can be done when a break from holiday preparations is in order.

      Finally, District Wine Village in Oliver, a project dubbed “Canada’s first wine village”, has just been announced by the folks at Greyback Construction, who are behind the ambitious venture. The team, which was behind the development of flashy destinations like Painted Rock Estate Winery, Black Hills Estate Winery, and Miradoro Restaurant at Tinhorn Creek, aims to break ground in early 2020 on what will be a hub of small-scale wine, craft beer, and cider producers. They’ll have 16 production facilities with tasting bars for those who aren’t able to have their own brick-and-mortar operations.

      Director of operations Michael Daley—formerly of Vincor and the B.C. Tree Fruits Cidery—will be overseeing this venture, which will also house a multipurpose amphitheatre (with a 600-person capacity), an on-site vineyard, culinary outlets, and more. The goal is to have five producers in-house and able to crush by next year’s harvest.

      Although developments this bold often suffer from tangles of red tape and potential NIMBYism, word is they’re all-systems-go after unveiling the project to residents and industry at recent community meetings. There’s a general feeling of excitement and anticipation—a rising tide floats all boats, and all that.

      This is just a handful of the latest developments. Great strides have been made around local wine country during the past year alone; the future certainly looks bright.