Fly­ing HIGH

Touring Okana­gan by he­li­copter to­tal rock-star ex­pe­ri­ence

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - FRONT PAGE - By Steve MacNaull

EVERY­ONE pays at­ten­tion when you ar­rive by he­li­copter. Thus, the wel­come cham­pagne as soon as we step out of the chop­per at Ex Ni­hilo Win­ery. The jeal­ous glances as we stride through Ex Ni­hilo’s out­door restau­rant, Chaos. And the pro­ces­sion be­tween pinot gris rows at The Vi­brant Vine Win­ery. My wife and I are on a Val­halla he­li­copter wine tour in the bur­geon­ing and beau­ti­ful Okana­gan wine re­gion just out­side Kelowna, B.C.

Of course, we’ve wine toured be­fore. Usu­ally just by bor­ing old car. How­ever, there was that time we rented a con­vert­ible to zoom over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fran­cisco to sip vin­tages in Napa. That was the pin­na­cle un­til, of course, we started to dart around in a he­li­copter. “When­ever I de­liver a group to a win­ery in the Bell 206 JetRanger, peo­ple on the ground crane their necks to see who are these rock stars ar­riv­ing by he­li­copter,” said our pi­lot, Devon Zanussi. By­standers, nat­u­rally, are dis­ap­pointed my wife and I are an ut­terly av­er­age cou­ple of baby boomers in­stead of Brad Pitt and An­gelina Jolie. How­ever, this day we’re not re­ally an ut­terly av­er­age cou­ple be­cause we have a he­li­copter at our dis­posal. We can’t help but feel spe­cial in this unique mode of trans­port, get­ting the VIP treat­ment at winer­ies. Af­ter a five-minute safety drill and in­tro­duc­tion at Val­halla He­li­copters’ head­quar­ters in West Kelowna, we lift straight up off the he­li­pad and start to soar over for­est, sub­di­vi­sions, the grace­ful arch of Okana­gan Lake Bridge and a long stretch of the lake, which this day is dot­ted with the white sails of many sail­boats in a re­gatta. Be­fore we know it, Ex Ni­hilo in Lake Coun­try is in sight and the tidy rows of grapes form sym­met­ri­cal eye candy from above. We de­scend, hover and Zanussi spot­lights his pi­lot­ing prow­ess by land­ing smoothly on an im­pos­si­bly small 10-foot-square he­li­pad on the lawn right be­side the vine­yard. Win­ery staffer Me­gan Flem­ing is wait­ing, her hair blow­ing from the force of the copter’s blades, with two glasses of Ex Ni­hilo’s SX Tous sparkling rosé. We ex­cit­edly ac­cept the prof­fered bub­bly and make our way to a spe­cial table on an el­e­vated lawn with a view of the lake at the win­ery’s Chaos out­door restau­rant. Owner Jeff Harder meets us there and we mar­vel at the table set with 18 wine glasses of dif­fer­ent shapes and sizes, seven for each my wife and I and Harder. We get straight to the tast­ings of pinot gris, ries­ling, chardon­nay, pinot noir, the Pri­vada red blend and fi­nally mer­lot icewine. In the midst of all this, piz­zas ar­rive from the out­door oven. One is an eggs bene­dict pizza, a nod to the fact it’s still be­fore noon, the other an in­spired use of hash browns and farmer’s sausage. My wife asks for more of the el­e­gantly-oaked chard to go with her pizza, I opt for ad­di­tional lush-but-dry ries­ling. We linger for a cou­ple of min­utes, count how lucky we are and then our pi­lot nudges us to get mov­ing. Alas, we have a sched­ule to keep. We board the Bell 206 and head over the lake, or­chards and vine­yards to The Vi­brant Vine in East Kelowna. We’re met at the he­li­pad by hosts Con­nor Charlesworth and Joanne McGre­gor at the edge of the pinot gris vine­yard and es­corted through the rows to the tast­ing room. Upon en­ter­ing we’re of­fered 3-D glasses be­cause this is the world’s only 3-D tast­ing room. In­deed, it’s a trippy ex­pe­ri­ence with all the art and wine la­bels pop­ping in 3-D. We taste six wines, paus­ing over Woops, the de­li­cious white blend with the up­side-down, shrink-wrapped la­bel. Ini­tially a mis­take, the win­ery now em­braces the blooper as a pack­ag­ing gim­mick. Sated, we climb back in the he­li­copter for a fi­nal bit of ae­rial es­thet­ics be­fore land­ing back at Val­halla’s hangar, vow­ing we’ll never be able to wine tour again with­out a he­li­copter at our beck and call. The half-day Val­halla He­li­copters heli-wine tour costs $1,575 for four pas­sen­gers.

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The path from the he­li­pad to the tast­ing room at The Vi­brant Vine Win­ery is through rows of pinot gris grapevines.

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