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A slap and a kiss – bike winery tour in Osoyoos

By Rachel Shoniker, January 30, 2014

“If there is wine along the way, then I’ll get on a bike,” my 64-year old father candidly blurts out as we’re picking up our rental bikes at HeatStroke Cycle in Osoyoos, BC. The nervous excitement in the bike store is palpable. Nobody in our group, which consists of my white-haired parents, my burly husband and our chubby-cheeked two-year old daughter, has ridden a bike in several decades.

The last time I rode a bike was in the second grade when I proudly owned a purple bicycle with a glittery banana seat.

We are about to embark on a wine-infused, secular pilgrimage to the Black Sage Bench between Osoyoos and Oliver. While these revered wineries aren’t categorized as holy places of worship, they do attract a loyal following of devotees.

For my dad, this excursion is all about the wine. With age, he has become increasingly devoted to the local BC wine industry. As if sent by the wine gods, crates of wine regularly appear on my parents’ doorstep. For the past nine years, each delivered bottle wears the same familiar label — La Frenz Winery in Penticton, BC — an award-winning winery with which he is undeniably obsessed.

While my dad’s motivation is wine, our adorable toddler is here for the bike helmet. Richard, the owner of HeatStroke Cycle, hands our quiet and observant tot a white bike helmet with blue fish on it. Without cracking a smile or speaking a word, she takes the small helmet out of his hands and places it on her tiny head. For many months, our brown-eyed munchkin has been secretly trying on other children’s bike helmets in the playground. Today is finally her day to wear her own.

My motivation for this adventure stems from an old love affair with the magnificent landscapes of European wine regions — a romantic flame that was ignited when I traveled overseas as a free-spirited 19-year old. For decades, I’ve dreamed about cycling through the heavenly countryside of Bordeaux or Tuscany, cruising through charming villages and past ancient churches, slightly giddy from wine. The Okanagan’s wine country allows me to rekindle that flame and play out my love affair, without the long flight overseas and the mind-numbing jet lag.

On the day of our bike journey, we wake to glorious sunshine and a flawless blue sky. Energized by child-like enthusiasm and caffeine, we leap on our bikes and depart our Osoyoos rentals. The lake is unruffled and smooth like a giant mirror. Tiny swallows chirp and sing as they playfully chase each other. The surrounding barren and rocky mountains seem as inviting and tranquil as the glass lake. Large homes with breathtaking views creep up the sun-basked hillside. I exhale as my stress and worries instantly melt away with the awe-inspiring scenery.

Before long we reach Highway 97 and start our 10-km ride to the turn off to Black Sage Road. Vineyards and orchards appear on either side of us, spilling down from the mountains to the lake, which soon becomes a river. The flowing tapestry of vineyards reminds me of an expensive silk-on-silk Turkish carpet that locals once tried to hustle us in Istanbul. I find myself smiling and laughing as I relish in the incredible view. Even the big 4×4 trucks (a staple possession in small town BC) and RV campers that whiz by us can’t dampen my mood.

We make a final descent, speeding down a steep hill on the highway that shoots us into the heart and soul of our adventure. We turn off the highway, cross over the river and approach the first winery on our excursion.

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, a beautiful caramel-coloured building with a small viewing tower, is perched on a hill, keeping watch over infinite vineyards and a calm river below. With its elevated position, unrivaled view and stunning architecture, Burrowing Owl strikes me as a modern-day castle. Of course the royalty housed here are not people, but barrels of extraordinary wine.

It’s 10:30am and Burrowing Owl is bubbling with activity. Outside, a small group gathers for a wedding. Two German-speaking ladies with long grey-blonde hair watch as an employee helps them with two barrels of wine. Inside the wine shop, it’s equally busy. Jennifer, a pleasant lady who has been working for Burrowing Owl for several years, starts our day by pouring us samples of the Chardonnay, followed by the Sauvignon Blanc. The delicate aromas of sweet fruit instantly trigger my brain’s happy hormones.

If there is one winery on the Black Sage Bench that can be compared to a place of worship, it’s Burrowing Owl Estate Winery. People come from everywhere to pay their respects. More than 100,000 people migrate here every year. It’s no secret that Burrowing Owl creates some of the best wine in the world. Their list of awards is many pages long. The name Burrowing Owl stems from the adorable owls that have sadly become endangered species. The winery donates its tasting fees to burrowing owl conservation and rehabilitation organizations, helping to raise $50,000 per year.

Some people claim that if you don’t take chances in life, you will never know what could have been. Jim Wyse, the founder and owner of Burrowing Owl, took these chances, moving to the Okanagan with a dream of owing a vineyard. In 1993, this Ontario native and previously successful business man bought land and planted vineyards. Five years later, Burrowing Owl Estate Winery was constructed. Today, Jim’s son Chris continues his father’s passion, as Burrowing Owl’s president.

With vineyards whistling past us, we fly down the hill from Burrowing Owl. After a short, scenic ride on Black Sage Road, we turn on to a dusty dirt lane, leading to our next winery stop. We spot a slender elderly man wearing a turban sitting on a lawn chair in front of a palatial house. A giant Mastiff calmly glances at us and then lazily stretches out his enormous cinnamon-coloured body in the doorway. Neither the elderly man, nor the monstrous creature make a sound.

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Desert Hills Estate Winery

We tactfully step around the lethargic guard dog (who we later learn is named Ali) and push open the sturdy wood door. On the other side, we are greeted by a stylishly-dressed man with dark hair and gentle eyes. Randy Toor, together with his brothers Jessie and Dave, is the passionate and proud owner of Desert Hills Estate Winery.

As Randy tells us his story, dozens of glistening medals beam on display behind him. These hard-working and driven brothers have acquired more loot, than a pirate’s treasure in a fantasy movie. Desert Hills Estate Winery has won more than 400 awards! Randy pulls out a letter that notifies them of Desert Hills’ performance in a recent international competition. As he reads us their stellar results, his smile broadens and his shining eyes reveal this modest man’s pride. Desert Hills Estate Winery cleaned up…again.

The Toor brothers learned to excel at this business by growing grapes for several decades for other vineyard owners. Their wine maker boasts circa 45 years of experience. Under his expertise, Desert Hills holds their red wines back for three years (longer than most wineries) before releasing them to the public. This means one thing — exquisite wine that is whole-heartedly ready to be consumed upon purchase. Much to my surprise and delight, my dad signs up as a wine club member. After nine years of inflexible obsession with La Frenz Winery, Randy at Desert Hills wins a loyal new devotee.

As we get back on our bikes, a car full of people arrive. They appear to be family. A small boy walks up to Randy and gives him a hug. The elderly gentleman sitting on his lawn chair warmly greets the familiar visitors. Desert Hills produces award-winning wine, but there is nothing pretentious about this winery. The inviting and relaxed vibe here makes us feel like we’re visiting family friends in the country, rather than an uber successful winery.

We continue our journey, blissfully riding along the romantic and quiet rural road. Surrounded by vineyards in every direction and pedaling under the vibrant blue sky, my love affair that was sparked several decades ago is alive and going strong.

Church & State

We swiftly arrive at our third winery. As I step into the tasting bar, I forget for a moment where I am.

Featuring a stunning wood ceiling, lustrous concrete floors and an ultra sleek bar, this chic space reminds me of a trendy city lounge, the kind that I vaguely remember from my single and childless days. I self-consciously glance down at my old gym clothing/bike wear. Of course there is no dress code at Church & State, but nevertheless I find myself wishing I was wearing a pretty sundress and strappy sandals.

This state-of-the-art facility gives wine-loving adults a feel of modern tasting rooms of the future. Massive windows behind the bar offer an intriguing view of dozens of wine barrels in storage. Expansive sliding glass doors open to the vineyard and a comfortable outdoor sitting area. Although this beautiful tasting bar is what initially demands your attention, it’s Church & State’s award-winning wine that turns visitors into raving fans. I glance at my dad for his thoughts on the wine. He is quietly content, sitting at the bar and savoring his glass of Merlot. “It has a really nice blackberry flavour with a smooth finish,” he comments. He takes another sip and smiles.

Kim Pullen, the owner of Church & State, turned his dream of owning a winery into reality in 2004 when he bought a winery on Vancouver Island that was gradually sinking towards failure. In 2010, the former tax lawyer and fish farm entrepreneur, opened the contemporary tasting bar that dazzles us during our visit today. Impressively, he designed this fabulous space himself.

We step back into the beaming early afternoon sunshine. As we leave Church & State behind us, I can feel my legs becoming lazy. Thankfully, it’s an easy ride to the next winery.

Silver Sage Winery

Inside the tasting room, a cheerful and witty dark haired woman with a strong foreign accent commences our wine tasting with a profound statement: “Your glass of wine should be as big as your problems“.

She reaches into a bucket of ice for a slim bottle dressed in a chic wrapper. A red chili pepper elegantly dances in the midst of the mysterious fluid, suspended similar to a marionette puppet. As she swiftly pours us a sample, she mischievously warns us that the taste resembles “someone slapping you and kissing you at the same time.” My husband lets out a roar of laughter that rumbles like thunder throughout the room. Anna is the lively and charming owner of Silver Sage Winery. Free-flowing wine accompanied by incessant jokes is clearly this entertaining entrepreneur’s winning combination.

Behind the curtain of jokes is a passionate woman who worked hard to manifest her dream. Anna Manola and her husband Victor (who unfortunately passed away in an accident in 2002) emigrated from Romania and bought land in 1996 in the prime grape-growing valley between Osoyoos and Oliver. They worked hard, clearing and planting a vineyard. The name, Silver Sage, stems from the bounty of sagebrush that originally covered the land.

Anna and Victor were both raised in families with ample experience in growing grapes and making wine. Although only roughly one third of the size of British Columbia, Romania is the 11th largest wine-producing country in the world. Wine is an integral part of the Manola’s history and culture. Wine is who they are.

After purchasing a case of wine, we spill out of the tasting room, slightly tipsy and giggling. As we rest on a bench under a towering willow tree on Silver Sage’s peaceful property, it hits us that we have almost a 20-km trek back to our lakefront resort. The dark circles under our toddler’s inquisitive brown eyes remind me that it is past her nap time. We pack our bikes into a taxi van and pile ourselves into a second cab. As we drive back along Black Sage Road and Highway 97, I watch the beautiful vineyards, lush orchards and desert mountains pass by the window.

We drop our rental bikes off at Heatstroke Cycle and enthusiastically share the details of our adventure with Richard. He politely smiles. When we finish our story, he enlightens us that he could have spared us the long ride from our Osoyoos vacation rental to Black Sage Road. As a bike winery guide, Richard shuttles you and your bike from Osoyoos to the tour’s starting point. This allows you more energy and time for the important part of the journey — sampling amazing wine!

Visiting the wineries on the Black Sage Bench inspired me in a way that I had not expected. The stories of Jim Wyse and his family, the Toor brothers, Kim Pullen and the Manolas remind me of what it takes to manifest dreams. One — unwavering belief. Two — plenty of motivation and discipline. Three — intense and inspired passion. With these three vital components, anything is possible!

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