Sip, sip away on an Okanagan bus wine tour

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      The best thing about leaving the driving to someone else while on a wine-touring vacation is that you leave the driving to someone else. No complicated formulas to calculate in your head: Wine Tasted – Time Between Glasses + Last Meal + Ability to Tolerate Alcohol = No Fun.

      You can take turns driving, but the last time I did a wine road trip this way, my “half a glass and I’m drunk” friend would make noises of jealousy when it was her turn to drive, and was all “Oh! Too bad you can’t swallow” when it was mine. Miraculously, our friendship survived the trip.

      There are several ways to leave the chauffeuring to somebody else when wine touring: a sommelier-driven custom tour, such as Wine Your Way Tours, and the OK Wine Shuttle, which is available for private hire or as part of a hop-on, hop-off service through South Okanagan wineries for a flat daily fee. But one of my favourite ways to leave the driving to someone who’s not imbibing is with the B.C. Wine Appreciation Society, a nonprofit dedicated to, yes, the appreciation of B.C. wines. Every year, husband and wife team Brian Glaum and Kristal Kaulbach organize a BCWAS weekend bus tour to a B.C. wine region chosen by association members. (The next tour takes place September 14 and 15.)

      When I joined the group two years ago, the first day of our two-day trip was a tour of the South Okanagan, including the wineries of Oliver and Osoyoos. (On the second day, we visited the Similkameen Valley.) The narrow, 160-kilometre-long Okanagan Valley is home to 80 percent of the province’s vineyards.

      We had a set itinerary, but if you’re customizing your own tour, how do you choose where to go? There are now over 200 grape wineries in the province, 45 of which are in Oliver and Osoyoos. BCWAS’s strategy is simple: select based on the quality of wines and the wineries’ ability to accommodate a busload of 47 wine lovers.

      We started our day in the South Okanagan with a wine and cheese tasting at Cassini Cellars. Established in 2009, it has won more than its share of awards. I picked up bottles of Viognier, Chardonnay, and Maximus—their flagship red.

      Lunch was at Hester Creek Estate Winery’s Tuscan-style restaurant, Terrafina, after sipping in their expansive tasting room. This winery is a must-see—for its wines, its tasting room with seats around a bar, and its restaurant (have the potato and truffle pizza). It also has villa suites boasting accommodation with a view, though I’ve not seen or stayed, just heard rave reviews.

      Church & State Wines offered a view of its own—of Coyote Bowl vineyard—and a patio to savour while sipping. Black Hills Estate Winery, known for its cult-favourite Nota Bene red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, was next; give their Alibi White blend a try. Since my visit, the winery has opened a new 3,000-square-foot tasting room and wine shop.

      After a break to freshen up at our hotel for the weekend, the Walnut Beach Resort, we loaded back onto the bus. One past participant had told me she felt like they were cattle being transported by chartered bus, but I didn’t find that at all. If you want a fully organized, no-fuss tour (hotel and meals included), you must hop on and off a bus at designated times—and in our case, the bus impressively arrived and left on time, every time.

      Our last winery of the day was Tinhorn Creek, another must-visit. My criteria? Fabulous wines, a beautiful view, and something extra that makes the winery stand out from the rest. While winemaker Sandra Oldfield is a staunch supporter of B.C. Cabernet Franc, you’ll either love it or you won’t. (I now have acquired a taste for it.) But it’s their Pinot Gris and rosé that fill my wine-swilling heart. A beautiful outdoor amphitheatre for their summer concert series provides sweeping views of the valley, and their award-winning Miradoro restaurant is a delicious stop for dinner.

      Those were the South Okanagan wineries I visited while touring with BCWAS, but there are two more that I’d recommend. Road 13 Vineyards’ new addition—a seated executive lounge—offers more sophisticated, adult tasting (no children allowed) with sleek floor-to-ceiling windows with fantastic views. They’ve also added food pairings. The winery is perhaps best known for its Old Vines Chenin Blanc, but their sparkling version won me over. Owners Mick and Pam Luckhurst are often available to chat.

      This June, I’ll be returning to the South Okanagan to visit the French-style Le Vieux Pin and its sister winery, Italian-style LaStella. The wines are simply amazing—elegant and lively—but LaStella also boasts a spectacular view of Osoyoos Lake from its sun-drenched patio. At Le Vieux Pin, a 20-minute drive away, you’ll meet the landscapers—two Nigerian dwarf goats, and miniature sheep—that eat the leaves around the grapes for better exposure to the sun. Both wineries serve tasting flights in glasses made specifically for the grape variety.

      I prefer to sip, not spit, while on vacation, so I’m a fan of leaving the driving to someone else. For a no-fuss, all-pleasure vacation, I’d do the bus tour again.

      Of course, if you want the flexibility of flitting when the mood strikes, you could always take a chance on your friendships, and take turns driving.