Oh, Canada: In Okanagan country, the wine is as scintillating as the scene

Perhaps it's because British Columbia's Okanagan Valley was a tourist-friendly vacation destination long before it became wine country. Perhaps it is simply that Canadians love to party. But I have come to believe that nowhere on earth is wine touring so festive, so accommodating to a wide variety of interests, and so stunningly beautiful as here.

Wait a minute, I hear you thinking. Wine country? Okanagan?! (and isn't that spelled Okanogan?). First things first. The Okanogan Valley becomes the Okanagan Valley once you cross the Washington/Canada border at Oroville/Osoyoos. No one seems to know why; it just does. Driving north out of Oroville, you are in scrub desert — the Sonoran desert to be precise. The southern part of Canada's Okanagan is the northernmost extension of this same desert, which reaches all the way into Mexico.

You will see cactus and other desert plants, and you will be dry, for rainfall here averages less than 6 inches a year. But the Canadians have a cure for that dryness, and it comes in elegant bottles of lip-smacking riesling and luscious chardonnay; bracing pinot (blanc and gris); floral gewurztraminer and rich, barrel-fermented sauvignon blanc. If red wine floats your boat, you'll find chewy syrahs and soft merlots along with dense, textured Bordeaux blends and thrilling pinot noirs that could fool you into thinking you had landed in Beaune.

In fact, more than 220 vineyards, 5,500 acres of grapes and 60 wineries are arrayed along the bluffs bordering the string of gleaming lakes that run north from Osoyoos to Vernon. Many are the sort of small, artisanal, family-run enterprises that tourists love.

Not all of them have tasting rooms, but most participate in festivals that highlight each of the four seasons. Okanagan winter has its Ice Wine Festival, a tribute to one of the rarest dessert wines in the world. In early May, the Spring Wine Festival heralds the vineyards bursting into bloom, and on the second weekend of August the Silver Star Mountain Resort celebrates wildflower season with wine tastings, seminars and concerts.

But the big blowout is in early October, when the 10 days leading up to the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday are given over to a dizzying array of tastings, competitions and food-and-wine events. This harvest celebration has become one of the leading festivals in North America, and advance reservations are a must. For a good overview of the fall festival, as well as a full plate of touristic resources, visit the Okanagan Wine Festivals Web site (www.TheWineFestivals.com).

For a less boisterous experience, consider heading up to B.C. in late September, before the fall festival but after the summer crowds have thinned. You will find the countryside beautiful and the wines surprisingly good. You may have read that Canadian wineries experienced all sorts of problems this past winter, including killer frosts and an epidemic of ladybugs in the wine vats. Yes, but those were in eastern Canada. In B.C., all went well; the 2002 vintage was one of the best on record.

If you're looking to make one place your headquarters, set out for Kelowna, which is centrally located and close to many of the major wineries. Several nonstop flights daily (from Seattle) are available on Horizon Air.

Whenever you visit, an absolute must-see is the Mission Hill Family Estate Winery in Westbank, just across the lake from Kelowna. Perched on a commanding peak that overlooks a vast expanse of lake and valley, the spectacular winery, which just opened last fall, was designed by Tom Kundig of Seattle's Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects. The Greco-Roman architecture is enhanced by a wonderful collection of art and antiquities.

In August, Mission Hill is hosting Vancouver's "Bard on the Beach" Shakespeare company, performing "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the outdoor amphitheater on the winery grounds. The play will run Tuesday through Sunday evenings at 7:30 p.m. The toll-free number for tickets ($30) is 1-877-739-0559. Winery tours and food and wine seminars are also offered daily, but visitors planning to arrive during the busy summer season are encouraged to call ahead for reservations (1-800-957-9911).

The Okanagan wine country stretches about 100 miles from south to north, but wineries are close enough to each other that long drives can be avoided. However, for those who would rather let someone else watch the road, several companies offer a variety of guided-tour packages. Okanagan Wine Country Tours (www.okwinetours.com, 1-866-689-9463), based in Kelowna, will show you four wineries in four hours or plan more extensive overnight excursions, some mixing wine with golf, skiing or float-plane adventures. VIP Wine Tours, in four-, six- and 10-passenger vehicles, are offered by Okanagan Limousine (www.ok-limo.com, 1-877-295-9373). Okanagan's Finest Wine Tours (www.hellobc.com, 1-800-435-5622) has packages that include lodging, meals and chauffeured wine touring. And for those who want to really immerse themselves in the winery lifestyle, Tinhorn Creek Estate Winery offers a Wine Lovers' package that includes three or four nights' lodging right in the vineyard, a tutored wine tasting and more (www.thewineloversclub.com, 1-888-484-6467, Ext. 204).

Though by no means exhaustive, my own brief visit to the Okanagan this past spring turned up a number of exceptional wines. Along with Mission Hill, I can particularly recommend the wines of Black Hills, Blue Mountain, Burrowing Owl, Cedar Creek, Inniskillin, Jackson-Triggs, La Frenz, Poplar Grove, Quails' Gate and Tinhorn Creek.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines" and a free-lance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Seattle Times' Wednesday Food section. He can be reached via e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com</>