TRAVEL | WINE

Okanagan Lake is the valley's most prominent feature and gives the region its identity as a travel destination, agricultural powerhouse and rising star in wine. We arrived in the Okanagan Valley the day after the smoke lifted. British Columbia had been reeling from more than 550 wildfires in mid-August, and wind currents spread smoke over much of the province, including Vancouver along the coast and the Okanagan's picturesque wine region, a four-hour drive inland. Winecountry vacation prep typically doesn't include regular checks for air quality alerts.

"We couldn't see the lake last week," said Cynthia Enns, as she and her husband, David, showed my wife and me around Laughing Stock Vineyards, the winery they founded 15 years ago near the city of Penticton. As we sampled Laughing Stock's delicious Bordeaux-style red blends and a drop-dead gorgeous syrah, I kept looking westward toward Okanagan Lake, only about half a mile away and stretching as far as I could see in a north-south direction. Some haze hung in the air, but we could see across the lake. Not being able to see the water at all must have been disorienting.

For the next four days, with an Airbnb near Penticton as our base, we drove up and down the Okanagan Valley, visiting more than a dozen wineries and stopping at more than a handful of fruit stands. Driving proved tricky at times, as the view of the lake lured our eyes from the road and we dodged groups of cyclists enjoying the hills and the scenery. And the weather cooperated, becoming increasingly sunny through the week, with temperatures ranging from the low 60s to the low 80s.

Okanagan Lake is the valley's most prominent feature and gives the region its identity as a travel destination, agricultural powerhouse and rising star in wine. The lake stretches nearly 84 miles but is only 2 1/2 to 3 miles wide. It is also deep — about 250 feet on average, and nearly 800 feet at its deepest. Because of the depth, it never freezes, instead providing frost protection to the farms and vineyards along its shores.

And those shores are popular with sun worshipers. The Okanagan Valley, which extends south to the U.S. border and includes Skaha Lake and Osoyoos Lake, is British Columbia's beach destination, more hospitable than the fjords along the Pacific coast. The towns of Osoyoos, Penticton (known for "peaches and beaches") and Kelowna have the look and feel of seaside resorts. Water sports, especially boating and personal watercraft, are popular. Hikers and cyclists can escape the perils of vinotourists along the twisty side roads by exploring the Kettle Valley Rail Trail, a 400-mile network of trails along abandoned train routes. Several nearby ski resorts offer winter fun. Okanagan Lake even has its own mythical sea creature, called Ogopogo.

One morning, Gordon Fitzpatrick showed us around Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards, a sparkling-wine specialist squeezed between Highway 97 and the western shore of Okanagan Lake near the small town of Peachland. As we sipped his delicious blanc de blancs, he pointed to the charred slope on the other side of the highway and described how an early July wildfire had threatened the winery. Then he pointed out a large rock outcropping near the far side of the lake.

"That's Rattlesnake Island, where legend says Ogopogo has his lair," he said, adding with a wink, "but you have to drink a lot of wine before he lets you see him."

We tried our best, but we never caught sight of the monster. For us, of course, wine was Okanagan's draw. But it wasn't the only reason we fell in love with the place. Count the views, the food and the people we met as reasons we wanted to stay. It was easy to sense the energy and excitement of a young wine region on the cusp of greatness.

Okanagan's wine industry was spurred into its current growth by the North American Free Trade Agreement, negotiated in the late 1980s. As government subsidies ended and cheap California wine poured into Canada, local winemakers accustomed to a captive market realized they had to improve quality to compete. This resulted in the Great Pullout of 1989, as growers pulled hybrid vines and planted European vinifera varieties. (The few remaining wines from hybrid grapes, such as Quail's Gate winery's Marechal Foch, have achieved a sort of cult status.)

Driving up and down the valley along Highway 97, where escarpment mingles with vineyards to create a stunning tableau, it's easy for U.S. wine lovers to think of California.

"People come here and say they had no idea there's a wine country here," says Sheri-Lee Turner-Krouzel, who, with her husband, Curtis Krouzel, founded 50th Parallel Estate winery in Lake Country, north of Kelowna.

There are similarities. There's a lot of money here. The economic boom of the '80s and '90s saw some wine lovers trade in their success in finance, medicine and the oil and gas industries to pursue a second career in wine. The vineyards they planted are now mature, and many of the wines are outstanding. The most Napalike winery is probably Mission Hill Family Estate. Owned by Anthony von Mandl, a former wine importer and art collector, the hilltop winery overlooking West Kelowna resembles Napa's Robert Mondavi Winery.

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