I'm not quite sure what first drew me to Naramata, a small village situated on the east side of B.C.'s Okanagan Lake. It may have been the sparkling view of the lake below and the warm breeze that hits you as you meander your way through the winding roads. It could have been the easy access to some of B.C.'s best wine producers.
Aside from its undeniable charm and obvious appeal to the wine loving set, it's the locals who have cultivated Naramata's unique culture. A culture that is completely unique in comparison to the larger wine districts in the region.
The Naramata Bench begins on the south side of Okanagan Lake after you pass through the neighboring town of Penticton, stretching 19 kilometres along a dramatic cliff overlooking the lake. A combination of the soil, climate -- and some say the slight breeze off the lake -- have helped make Naramata one of Canada's premiere grape-growing territories and a top destination for wine enthusiasts.
I've spent several summer vacays on the Bench, bouncing between vineyards and grazing on locally produced fare but it's the laid-back vibe and slow approach to life that I've grown to love. No one is in a hurry and no one has a smartphone stuck to their ear. Very rarely does one witness a speeding car or a sense of urgency. Don't get me wrong, the folks you find in the tasting rooms, bistros and shops take a refined approach to service, and guests are treated very well. Yet it's their enthusiasm and pride for the region that encourages visitors to revel in all that Naramata has to offer and to just chill for a bit.
There are still plenty of sunny days left to explore this quaint corner of the Okanagan. Fall brings about several wine and food festivals, so rubbing elbows with wine makers is that much easier. Here are some of my personal picks that show case the best of the Bench.
I've never found a Chardonnay that rivals the La Frenz signature "peaches and cream" Chard. I would kill for a bottle of the 2004 (hint hint). Try their award winning Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier and by all means, enjoy the view. After all, it was featured on the $100 banknote from 1954 to 1975.
New to the Bench is 3 Mile Estate Winery, a family-run boutique winery nestled among the upper vineyards of Naramata Road, aptly named as it's situated just three miles from the town of Penticton. Stop by their tasting room to sample the 2012 Cab Merlot and the 2011 Pinot Gris. While you're there, visit the art gallery, currently exhibiting the Okanagan's own Janis Blyth.
If you're looking for a place to rest your weary self after hitting a few wineries, stop by Lake Breeze and snag a seat on their garden patio. With beautiful views of the lake and the surrounding vineyard, it's the perfect place to enjoy a glass of their Seven Poplars Sauvignon Blanc and a charcuterie.
Reminiscent of a French chateau, the bistro at Hillside Estate Winery is a must on any wine tour itinerary. The rustic-chic architecture, perfectly manicured gardens and patio play host to some of the best food and wine in the region. Try the Muscat Ottonel... if you can get your hands on some.
If you're up for a picnic in the park or some sustenance during a day at the beach, pick up all the fixings at The Bench Artisan Food Market. Locally made cheeses, preserves and freshly baked goods are but a few of the tasty delights you'll find at this gourmet deli cafe.
The Naramata Bench is home to several B&Bs but nothing as darling as the Apple D'or Guesthouse. Overlooking orchards and vineyards, perfectly placed within walking distance of several of the Bench wineries, Apple D'or offers three distinctly decorated suites, each with a kitchen and private patio.
If you're looking for a little romance, you'll want to consider a stay at the Naramata Heritage Inn & Spa. Located in the village of Naramata just steps away from Okanagan Lake, the wine bar features a world-class selection of local wines and the guest rooms are nothing short of luxurious.
The 2012 Okanagan Fall Wine Festival runs from Sept. 28 through Oct. 7, beginning with the B.C. Wine Awards Reception & Tasting on Sept. 27.