I hear her coming up behind me. The sound of running shoes padding along a dirt trail winding through the vineyards of British Columbia’s Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country has become familiar to me as I run the Half Corked Marathon. This unlikely annual event sees participants wearing elaborate costumes trot along an 18-km route through the vineyards, stopping every kilometer for a wine tasting.
Already, I’ve been overtaken by folks dressed as a synchronized swim team, the rock band, Kiss, a fruit salad and a pair of runaway brides, so I don’t mind Barbie-in-a-box leaving me in the dust. After all, as the organizers will tell you, winning the Half Corked Marathon is not the objective -- in fact, if you cross the finish line first, you’ve missed the point.
What began a decade ago as a fun marketing idea inspired by France’s Marathon du Medoc and with only a few hundred runners, has morphed into a wildly popular extravaganza with 1100 entrants randomly selected from a lottery of thousands.
In the hottest region of Canada, it is the hottest ticket in town.
Happily, for non-runners, the event is flanked by a weekend full of other festivities drawing locals and tourists alike, from a party at the finish line to barbecues and outdoor concerts, to a fancy al fresco dinner wherein the winemaker is not only seated at your table but pours your wine.
Held in May, Half Corked serves as an early kick-off to summer and a host of other events that celebrate the gorgeous wines and culinary offerings being served up in Canada’s only desert-like region.
Fun and frivolity in serious wine country
If the run is zany, know that Oliver Osoyoos takes winemaking seriously. Named after the two towns that anchor the region -- Oliver to the north, and, Osoyoos, 20 kilometres to the south on the Washington-State border – this winemaking mecca lies at the southern most part of the Okanagan Valley.
If you have had the good fortune of visiting many wine regions you’ll be happy to know that the vistas hold up to those on the world stage. Miles of vineyards set against a backdrop of mountains, rivers and lakes nestled next to quaint towns oozing rural charm, and oodles of eateries and 41 wineries beckoning visitors to sip and savour.
My balcony at Spirit Ridge, a family resort with a laid-back southwestern design that suits the desert vibe, overlooks Osoyoos Lake. From my perch, I can almost hear the entrepreneurial spirit of the region -- the gasps of disappointment and giggles of glee as wine-makers, artisanal foodies, restaurateurs, hoteliers and outdoor outfitters fiddle and fuss striving to make their mark.
But let’s peel back the history of this land. Let’s take away the jet skis and new developments that dot the lake and go back to the early 90s when, just before the wine industry took root, the area was a sleepy place for retirees. Go back further to the 20s, when, thanks to the construction of an irrigation system, the land became alive for decades to come with farms and orchards. Rewind even more to the late 1800s when the region saw its heyday during the Gold Rush. And then, to the thousands of years when Canada’s Indigenous people occupied these lands.
Actually, I’m sitting on Band land right now.
Spirit Ridge rests on a small part of the 32,000-acre Osoyoos Indian Reserve. The Band owns Nk’Mip Cellars, (pronounced in-ka-meep), North America’s first aboriginally owned winery situated right next door. Nk’Mip winemakers, after consulting with Band elders, names their wines in the Okanagan language. Its premier tier, for example, is called Qwam Qwmt (pronounced kw-em kw-empt), which means “achieving excellence”. If you’re looking for a lovely red with an interesting story, to me, the Qwam Qwmt Merlot is the bottle to take home. And, it pairs beautifully with cheddar. I know this because I took Nk’Mip’s wine and cheese tour. After a walkabout complete with a historical and cultural lecture, we sat down to five local cheeses paired with five wines in the private underground cellar. An unbeatable experience for $25.
But that’s the thing about Oliver Osoyoos that’s even crazier than the Half Corked run. It’s affordable.
More not-to-be-missed experiences:
A Backyard BBQ in Rust Wine Co.’s Front Yard
The patio at Rust overlooks the vineyards on Golden Mile Bench and is situated next to a guesthouse built in the 19th century as a bunker for gold miners but relocated here log by log in the early 60s. The house provides a rustic charm but even more charming is the Chef, who as part of the winery’s summer barbecue program, serves up sausages and beef tenderloin on a cutting-board like a backyard, working-the-grill Dad. This is where rustic meets magic. Grub is served with wine or craft beer. Tasting of 6 wines is free. Tasting of 6 premium tier wines is $5, waived on purchase.
A Welcome Tasting at Here’s the Thing
The newest winery in the region opened mere days before my visit and so I marveled at the bravado of its flushed owners, a couple who, after successful careers, decided they were too young to retire and wanted instead to take the plunge into the wine world. You can’t miss their patch of heaven situated on Black Sage Bench. Look for two buttercup-coloured buildings easily visible from the road. Tastings of 6 are either free, or carry a minimal charge, waived on purchase.
Making a move at CheckMate Artisanal Winery
As tastings go, this one is sheer lux and held in “The Installation”, a glass structure perched high on Golden Mile Bench and offering staggering views. Designed by Seattle architect, Tom Kundig, the structure is meant to allow visitors to slow down and connect with the high-end merlots and chardonnays painstakingly crafted by Philip McGahan and his winemaking team. Bottles range from $80 to $120. Tasting of 4 is $20. Or, by appointment, which is strongly encouraged, 6 wines is $30.
IF YOU GO: Air Canada offer daily flights from Toronto to Vancouver where you can rent a car and enjoy a 4 ½ -mile drive to the region. Or flights from Toronto to Kelowna can get you there more quickly. Rent a vehicle, and take a scenic 2-hour drive south.
This story appeared in Dreamscapes Fall/Winter 2018 issue.
Have you participated in the this race? Did you make it to the Finish Line? I’d love to hear your insights so please share your comments below!