Touring Okanagan by helicopter total rock-star experience
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.
The path from the helipad to the tasting room at The Vibrant Vine Winery is through rows of pinot gris grapevines.