The Nk’Mip people call it a desert, though technically the Okanagan Valley is a “semi-arid shrub-steppe.” From the narrow highway that snakes along the valley floor, it’s almost shocking how clearly you can see the precise track of the glacier that created this landscape-the peaks are sheer and sharp and sudden, the floor around the lakebed dead-flat. It’s chilly, and gray, and the air smells like sagebrush and cider and petrichor and … raisins. Ripe Merlot grapes, probably mere days from harvest, roll away, over the curve of the hill and into the distance. Here and there, a leaf has already shed its chloroplasts, revealing the crimson-purple pigments underneath. Beyond the vineyard, the lake glints in low autumn sun. This is a British Columbia that could easily confuse people who envision Vancouver, though as the crow flies it’s only about 400Km away. This place is stunning, and you don’t need to be looking at it with wine-goggles to think so-but augmenting the view with a really gorgeous Syrah certainly doesn’t hurt.
Though it’s been a great spot for orchard fruits for a long time, the Okanagan is quite a young wine region. Like, it makes the Willamette Valley seem middle aged. In fact, as we roll up to Phantom Creek Estates, carpenters are busy with finish work on their brand-spankin’-new facility, and gardeners in sturdy windbreakers are installing landscaping near the perimeter of Becker Vineyard. The area’s flagship vineyard was planted in 1977 amid skepticism that quality Vitis vinifera could survive there. Spoiler alert: Grapes can survive nearly anywhere, even under dicey conditions. Indeed, dicey conditions often provoke grapes to express themselves with a particularly extravagant beauty. Lucky us.
Phantom Creek was started in 2016 by Richter Bai, a Chinese expat and confirmed background character, seldom seen but often sensed. Serious money has gone into this place, and a clear investment of thought and energy into giving visitors a lavish experience. The winery itself is top of the line and insanely attractive. In the glass-walled special event tasting room (if you’re fortunate enough to penetrate the inner sanctum) you’re surrounded by cleverly engineered reflections of the huge, ridiculously stunning gold and topaz Chihuly chandelier over the round table. The grounds include a meticulously constructed mini amphitheater and a range of biodynamic-witchcraft plants are included in the landscaping. It’s thoughtful. Thoughtful and scrupulously clean and designed to create a feeling of opulence. None of which would amount to much if the wine sucked. People, the wine does not suck. In fact, given the thick veneer of wealth and exclusivity that distinguishes the place at first glance, it seems Phantom Creek has rather defied the odds on that score-this is not a style-over-substance situation (which is great because I can get those here in California). They’ve got Alsatian demigod Olivier Humbrecht as consulting winemaker overseeing aromatic whites, alongside Francis Hutt, who seriously knows his way around a Syrah cluster (he has some hilarious interpretive dance moves to prove it-yeah, you had to be there, but in all seriousness, consider being there).
Grape-choreography notwithstanding, these people are not just putting on a show. They’re farming thoughtfully (they’re transitioning their operation to organic and biodynamic certified; there’s a clearly hands-on “wine is made in the vineyard” mentality, and they’re on quite intimate terms with their sites). And that thoughtfulness carries over to the crushpad and all the way to the bottle.
On the day we visited, they’d just pulled the trigger on hand-harvesting Petit Verdot from the Phantom Creek vineyard. This, I learned, was destined for an audaciously nutsy-sounding co-fermented blend of Petit Verdot and Malbec. As a writer, I’ll just note that I appreciate a wine that approximates the experience of consuming ink. This blend of fussy, normally bit-part player grapes is quirky and vivacious, but grounded, with a candied violet quality and a tiny hint of something like wet cedar. The combination of high-density tannin-bomb grapes could easily have made a ponderous and aggressive wine, but this one’s lush and surprisingly playful. I think my favorite Phantom Creek red, though, is the Becker Vineyard Cuvee, a Merlot-dominant Bordeaux-varietal blend that’s insanely food-friendly and features a supple velvety texture and exuberant aromatics of smoke, spice, confit cherry and black plum, with soft accents of oak and balsam. Fans of Syrah should pay close attention to these folks as well-this varietal expresses itself so beautifully in northern latitudes that I am not sure why anyone north of Eugene, Oregon remains preoccupied with Cabernet. Savory, floral, rich but not generally heavy, it’s all about purple blossoms on the nose (violet and wisteria in particular) with a palate that modulates between black cherry and baking spice, vanilla and peppercorn, chaparral and smoke. (Those who love Syrah for its jammy or meaty qualities should note this is not that expression-leaner, more savory and more vegetal, and quite elegant).
If you’re not used to Canadian wines (and I was not, I went on this trip never having tasted one) be prepared for a bit of an Alice in Wonderland experience where things are familiar and exotic at the same time. The varietal whites at Phantom Creek are delicious and rather surprising if you go into them expecting a German-type Riesling or a California Pinot. If you’d asked me to describe Riesling in a sentence I would have said something about wildly effusive aromatics. But Phantom Creek’s has a confoundingly subtle and even subdued bouquet-it’s all about back end and texture. In place of leaping, perfumey, high-volatility notes of honey and lychee and jasmine and pineapple and lemon blossom, you get a textural symphony that invokes granite and shale and rain. Their Pinot Gris is equally surprising if you are accustomed to the piercing-acidity one-note wonder liquid lemon drop expression of the grape: It’s nuanced, has some gravitas, and displays precision and balance with notes of stone, tart apple, lime zest and traces of sweet spice. Oh, and their Viognier is lovely, with a bracing tension between a “sweet” bouquet and a very dry finish, proving this grape to be a cool-climate varietal to look for. Taut acidity, complex but not busy, with some beeswax and honeysuckle characteristics and a significant ration of wet rock.
Phantom Creek Estates is definitely positioning itself as a luxury brand and seemingly trying to balance that while cultivating a reputation for assiduous attention to craft. These are not cheap bottles (they range from $30 to $100 Canadian, a top price of around $75 US), but they’re not Screaming Eagle either. So, occasion-worthy, but you don’t have to be a hedge fund manager or on a manic rampage to get your hands on them. If you’re looking for something broadly food-friendly and rather thought provoking, you want to look into Okanagan Valley wines in general, and if you want an introduction to Okanagan wines, you could do worse than starting with Phantom Creek. There’s a great fusion of beauty and brains here, and a bit of a ‘tude, in a mostly charming way.
The Okanagan Valley is absolutely stunning, generally super low-key, and contains a true wealth of food and drink treasures. If you’re traveling to British Columbia, you absolutely must have dinner at The Bear The Fish The Root and The Berry at Spirit Ridge in Osoyoos-the food is stunning, locavore-forward, incredibly detail oriented and yet really refreshingly simple, a victory of substance over style and the elevation of humble ingredients (everything was fantastic but our table was blown away by things like bannocks and hand-foraged pine mushrooms and beet tartare). Ditto the new and unbelievably seductive Row 14 in Cawston, where they take “farm to table” very, very seriously and deliver homey but scrupulously executed dishes that deify the back-forty (roasted vegetables with sabayon, house smoked salmon, fresh farmstead cheese and housemade levain breads, a genre-defining carrot cake, and divine cider). Farms and orchards are everywhere, and wine and cider are thriving—all in a culture of sincere hospitality and the kind of respect for tradition that demands expanding on tradition, elevating it, being in a conversation with it. Meanwhile, if you can’t get there, you can approximate part of the experience with Phantom Creek’s lavish wines.