Summer is here, the fields are ripening and our feet are getting itchy. It's time for a road trip. This week, the Dish goes to Vernon in the North Okanagan, an idyllic region spackled with sparkling blue lakes, majestic mountains and rolling hills. Don't believe anyone who tells you that Vernon and its surrounds is a dead end for foodies. We found lots of tasty nosh.
One of the most welcoming differences between Vernon and Kelowna is the former's lack of chain restaurants. The downtown core still feels like an old-fashioned small town. There are plenty of high-quality, family-run dining spots to choose from, including EATology. Located inside the Greyhound bus station, this is a cute, top-notch breakfast and lunch spot that I highly recommend for terrific stuffed French toast and corned-beef hash.
Mackie Lake House, circa 1910, has recently begun offering a lovely high tea in its heritage sunroom. Local teas from Lumby's Organic Tea Grannies are served with fresh-baked scones, thick cream, ripe strawberries and savoury treats on vintage china.
Grapevine Restaurant at Gray Monk Winery, one of the oldest in the Okanagan, has a new chef who is knocking out solid comfort fare. Think Tuscan salads, salmon tartare, slow-braised beef and pan-seared steelhead. With its stunning lake views, this patio is easily the most picturesque dining spot in the area.
The North Okanagan's cool climate isn't the best for growing grapes, but some varietals (riesling and pinot noir, in the right settings) do exceptionally well. Where once there was only one winery – Gray Monk – on the map, now there are six. You can hit them all in a day on a Scenic Sip Tour or at your own leisure.
Ancient Hill Estate Winery is notable for its leathery baco noir, an old hybrid varietal that was almost entirely ripped out of the region when the provincial government offered incentives to replant with vinifera. However, with proper tending, these misunderstood grapes can make very good wine.
Intrigue Wines offers extremely quaffable, very affordable wines under its Social label. (Part-owner Roger Wong is also the winemaker at Gray Monk.) I Do sparkling with the red-heart label may look kitschy, but it's actually quite a lovely light, crisp, Provençal-style rosé.
If you have to skip one winery, take a pass on Arrowleaf Cellars. The new glass-and-concrete facility may be gorgeous, but the wines, in my opinion, have always had an unpleasant musty flavour. Enter Ex Nihilo Winery at your own risk. I took one look at the tasting room's tacky art gallery, which appears to be culled from amateur drawing courses, turned around and walked away.
The one winery you can't miss is 50th Parallel Estate Winery. Owned by Curtis and Sheri-Lee Krouzel, a dynamic duo from Alberta, this state-of-the-art, gravity-fed winery is a modern architectural stunner. Specializing in pinot noir and already racking up international awards, 50th Parallel counts winemaker Grant Stanley, who was lured away from Quails' Gate, as a co-owner. His newly released 2013 pinot noir is showing huge promise.
Drink (other stuff)
The BX Press is a new hard cidery located on a third-generation apple orchard within the Vernon city limits. The barn-style tasting room is fashionably designed in a modern Wild West motif, right down to the bottle labels printed on biodegradable paper made from stone, with their cute frontier characters. Don't miss the Prospector, a complex, astringently lip-smacking cider pressed from a variety of rare, highly tannic heritage apples.
Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery has recently expanded to a new site with a showcase, 50-plate copper pot still. It's the largest of its kind in North America – a hole had to be punched through the roof to fit it in. In addition to its award-winning spirits and liqueurs, the distillery is now producing whisky aged in local wine barrels.
Need a pick-me-up? Ratio Coffee and Pastry is an adorable pop-up food cart located downtown, just outside the Vernon Public Art Gallery's temporary Okanagan Print Triennial (exhibited in airy shipping containers). Using excellent beans roasted on Vancouver Island, owner Andrew McWilliam pulls a mean macchiato.
The Vernon Farmers' Market is the oldest and largest in the Okanagan, with more than 140 vendors. The abundance of fresh produce and reasonable prices will make city slickers cry(only $5 for a dozen organic eggs). Do be sure to try some of the fantastic local cheeses: Terroir's deeply earthy Gruyère, Bella Stella's pungent, brie-like formagella and Triple Island Farm's sharp Gouda (especially the stinging-nettle variety). There is something good going on with the milk here.
Davison Orchards Country Village is a fun stop for families with its Crazy Cow Kids Corral and apple-cart tractor tours. Stock up on fresh produce at the peak of the season and dig into a piece of homemade pie at the Deep Dish Café.
Bakers will be in whole-grain heaven at Rogers Foods, just a short drive out of town in nearby Spallumcheen. This historic mill now buys direct from local growers. The company's ancient-grains breakfast cereals and granolas are deliciously chewy. If staying in town, you can stock up on every wholesome staple imaginable at their bulk-food store.