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Fairways and vineyards in the Okanagan region

Joel ZuckermanBy Joel Zuckerman,

KELOWNA, BRITISH COLUMBIA - There might be a dozen worthwhile golf courses in the Okanagan region of British Columbia, but the wineries outnumber the courses by a five-to-one margin.

Yes, we golfers love to drink our beer in the 19th hole, and often on the course itself. Some of us will quickly switch to scotch, vodka or other liquor, depending on how much we want to either celebrate our successes or forget about our poor play. But here, near the scenic city of Kelowna (pronounced like "Arizona"), a wonderful amalgam of mountains, lakes and orchards some four hours east of Vancouver, the grape continues to gain prominence. Consider the Okanagan for a unique "golf and wineglass tour."

There are only 5,000 acres of grapes in the Okanagan region. It sounds like a lot but compared to 30,000 acres in Washington state and more than 400,000 acres in California, it's just a "boutique" wine region. But while it's small in size its reputation is big and continues to grow. Only geography geeks would be aware of this fact but the Okanagan region is the northernmost point actually of the Sonoran desert, which is most closely associated with Mexico.

The high desert locale affords warmer temperatures than California's Napa Valley in summer, with an hour more sunlight during the day. Sizeable Okanagan Lake helps to keep the climate temperate and the fortuitous atmospheric conditions have propelled the area into a position of prominence in the winemaking world. More than 60 wineries have sprouted, from "mom and pop" shops of 15 acres, up to commercial wineries with 1,000 acres or more.

Ice wine is a specialty of the area, where the fruit is left to freeze on the wine before harvest. Harvesting this sweet dessert-type wine isn't necessarily an annual occurrence, though. Sometimes the weather won't cooperate, so the success rate in producing an annual crop of ice wine runs at about 80 percent. The grape crop might be capricious but by contrast, the golf element in the Okanagan is a steady and occasionally spectacular presence. Like the local wine industry, the area's golf options continue to gain prominence, not just throughout Canada but increasingly from Washington, Oregon, and other western locales in the United States. Courses like Harvest Golf Club, Okanagan Golf Club and Gallagher's Canyon offer a unique blend of challenges, scenic vistas and the type of golf thrills that only a mountain environment can provide. There are pleasures of a different kind in the tasting rooms that dot the area, mini-taverns where you can sample the various Chardonnays, Reislings, Cabernets and Pinots produced throughout the region.

Wine was first produced in the region in the late 1800s. The vintner was a priest who planted and harvested grapes, making wines for sacramental purposes. A couple of commercial wineries started up in the 1920s and '30s, a few more came on in the '60s. But the boom began in earnest about 20 years ago. One of the leading lights in the area's wine industry is Mission Hills Vineyard, whose Chardonnay won an award as the very best in the world several years ago. The winery is owned by Anthony von Mandl, an entrepreneur of Austrian origin who's helped fund his ever-growing enterprise in part with the proceeds from sales of Mike's Hard Lemonade, a particularly fruitful invention of his (no pun intended) that has become something of a household name in the "ready-to-drink" beverage industry in the last decade.

Michael Joss is a sophisticated Englishman, probably not the intendeddemographic of the Mike's Hard Lemonade crowd. But there are few in the Okanagan region who combine the knowledge and affection for both fine golf and fine wine like Joss, who works at Mission Hills as director of guestservices and hospitality.

"Wine will never approach beer's popularity as an on-course beverage," admits Joss, who plays 20 or 25 rounds a season. "But there is the potential for wine to gain popularity among players. Our studies show that the demographics and psychographics of avid players are the same tendencies that lead to an appreciation of fine wine. Educated, affluent golfers are more inclined to learn more about fine wine than the average consumer. It's not even a '19th hole' sensibility but truly more about a good bottle at dinner in the evening."

Joss gives a few suggestions for those who might want to combine a close look at the greens and "the reds" in the same afternoon. "Mission Hills is close by Harvest Golf Club, and the Okanagan Golf Club, which are two of the premiere properties in the region." Other fine wineries in the immediate area include Cedar Creek, Summerhill, Grey Monk and Pinot Reach. "They are all within a half hour's drive of some of our better courses, including Predator's Ridge and Gallagher's Canyon."

Germanic wines are among the major varietals produced at these wineries. Gewertztraminer and Reisling are among the specialties, along with Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and several others.

Joss draws a parallel between golfers and oenophiles. "People who arepassionate about either endeavor tend to enjoy the finer things in life. You have to be able to write a reasonable size check to enjoy a good course or a good bottle of wine."

Joss smiles, swirls his glass and offers a final wry comment.

"There are only a few things in life that you can enjoy where proficiency isn't a requirement. People used to limit that thought to golf and lovemaking. But wine drinking is in the same category. Drink what you like, learn what you want and have a good time."

And in the Okanagan region in particular, it's easy to follow his advice. Both the courses and wine casks are of a particularly high caliber and well worth exploring in tandem.

Dining out

Dozens of worthwhile options exist. A small sampling would include Wild Apple Grill at the Manteo Resort for gourmet continental cuisine, Christopher's Steak & Seafood, The Teahouse for its orchard setting, Yamas Taverna for Greek specialties or The Vintage Room for seafood.

Stay and play

Amongst the best full-service choices are Manteo Resort in town, with wonderful lake views, swimming pool, health club and a variety of different accommodations. Thirty minutes away in the town of Vernon is rustic Predator's Ridge, with a lodge, stand-alone condominiums and brand-new Rituals Spa.

Joel Zuckerman is based in Savannah, Georgia and Park City, Utah. He is the author of five books, and his golf and travel stories have appeared in more than 100 publications around the world, including Sports Illustrated, Golfweek, Travel+Leisure Golf, Continental and Golf International.

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