Reinventing the Okanagan: The Vintners

Exploring the wineries of British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, where the Lake District meets Napa Valley

Blame it on NAFTA.

If it wasn’t for changes to arcane agricultural tariffs in the 1994 North America Free Trade Agreement (and its U.S.-Canada predecessor, the 1989 FTA)—growers in this historic Canadian fruit basket might never have begun switching out their Concord table grapes for viniferous stock like cabernet, chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Noir.

A (small) selection of favorite Okanagan wineries

In 1988, there were 14 wineries in all of British Columbia. Today there are 100 in the Okanagan alone, and B.C. wines have evolved from the infamous Baby Duck—considered not bad to drink if you were already drunk—into sophisticated vintages that are winning awards across North America and Europe.

In addition to fostering such high-end boutique vineyards as Quail's Gate and Burrowing Owl and the tour bus–friendly Mission Hill and Hillside Estate (all save Mission Hill feature excellent restaurants), the Okanagan has inspired several hobbyists to make the leap from tinkering with homemade hooch to opening their own mom-and-pop wineries. (And, on its own page, the amazing story of North America's only Native-operated winery.)

Laughing Stock Winery

That, of course, is a path lined with peril for even the most experienced vintners, so you'd figure a couple of young financial consultants who leave successful careers in the investment industry to open a winery on the Naramata Bench north of Penticton—the epicenter of the Okanagan's burgeoning wine country—are asking for trouble when they call their new endeavor Laughing Stock (

"The name is a playful reference to our past," said co-owner Cynthia Enns of trading financial stock for grape stock. "Who would be crazy enough to give up their day jobs to start a vineyard?"

But for Cynthia and her husband, David—who had been making wine in their Vancouver garage for years—it was about more than starting a new business.

"Everybody says they want to pursue their dreams," said Enns. "We decided just to do it. It became a crash course in making wines."

Laughing Stock, which opened in 2003, focuses far less on the whites for which the region is renowned in favor of big, complex reds that are to the Enns’ own preference—especially their flagship, the Bordeaux-style blend Portfolio.

It’s an unusual approach—especially their dismissal of the area’s popular dessert Icewine—but now the Enns are riding the bull market of Okanagan wines—and nobody is laughing at them.

Their 2006 Portfolio took the gold at the Canadian Wine Awards; Food & Wine magazine named their wines one of the "100 Must Tastes" of 2007; and their Pinot Noir—always a tricky grape—earned a bronze in the heart of Pinot snob territory at the Los Angeles County Fair.

Clearly, B.C. wines have come a long way from the days of Baby Duck.

Black Widow Winery

Three years before the Enns established Laughing Stock, Dick and Shona Lancaster had bought a retirement property just up the road that came with four acres of vines.

Dick Lancaster had been training to be a vintner since he was a teenager crafting homemade wine back in Montreal, and he continued to tinker with oenology throughout four college degrees, several accounting jobs, and 17 years as vice president of finance for a mining company in Vancouver.

"I had always wanted to get involved in the wine industry," said Lancaster. "But it took a while until we were in a financial position to try it out." For their first several years in the Okanagan, the Lancasters focused on expanding their vines, improving the irrigation and growing system, and selling the grapes to an established winery nearby.

By 2005, Lancaster was ready to borrow the equipment at Laughing Stock to do a test pressing of Pinot Gris.

It won silver at the All Canadian Wine Championship. In 2006 the Lancasters officially opened Black Widow Winery (, named for the dangerous denizens of their ancient farmhouse.

"It’s a lot of work," said Lancaster. "Since I've been retired, I haven't had any time off." He sees himself on the cutting edge of the region's continuing expansion, as many other Canadians are flocking to invest in the Okanagan Valley.

"As time goes by," said Lancaster "It's going to develop a better infrastructure for tourists."

Witness the Lancasters' latest project: they built a new house on the property (to replace the old, spider-infested one), and set aside two rooms to operate as a B&B (open June–mis-Sept; €195 per night).

Speaking of local B&Bs...

Tours Under $995 G Adventures

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in August 2013.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.