The sound of running shoes padding along a dirt trail winding through the vineyards of British Columbia’s Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country has become familiar to me as I run the Half Corked Marathon. This unlikely annual event sees participants wearing elaborate costumes trot along an 18-kilometre route through the vineyards, stopping every kilometre for a wine tasting.
Already, I’ve been overtaken by folks dressed as a synchronized swim team; the rock band, Kiss; a fruit salad; and a pair of runaway brides, so I don’t mind Barbie-in-a-box leaving me in the dust. After all, as the organizers will tell you, winning the Half Corked Marathon is not the objective. In fact, if you cross the finish line first, you’ve missed the point.
What began a decade ago as a fun marketing idea inspired by France’s Marathon du Medoc and with only a few hundred runners has morphed into a wildly popular extravaganza with 1,100 entrants randomly selected from a lottery of thousands.
In the hottest region of Canada, it is the hottest ticket in town.
Happily, for non-runners, the event is flanked by a weekend full of other festivities drawing locals and tourists alike, from a party at the finish line to barbecues and outdoor concerts to a fancy alfresco dinner wherein the winemaker is not only seated at your table but pours your wine.
Held in May, Half Corked serves as an early kick-off to summer and a host of other events that celebrate the gorgeous wines and culinary offerings being served up in Canada’s only desert-like region.
If the run is zany, know that Oliver Osoyoos takes winemaking seriously. Named after the two towns that anchor the region—Oliver to the north and Osoyoos 20 kilometres to the south near the Washington-State border—this winemaking mecca lies at the southernmost part of the Okanagan Valley.
If you have had the good fortune of visiting many wine regions you’ll be happy to know the vistas hold up to those on the world stage. Miles of vineyards set against a backdrop of mountains, rivers and lakes nestled next to quaint towns oozing rural charm, oodles of eateries and 41 wineries beckon visitors to sip and savour.
My balcony at Spirit Ridge, a family resort with a laid-back southwestern design that suits the desert vibe, overlooks Osoyoos Lake. From my perch, I can almost hear the entrepreneurial spirit of the region—the gasps of disappointment and giggles of glee as winemakers, artisanal foodies, restaurateurs, hoteliers and out-door outfitters fiddle and fuss striving to make their mark.
But let’s peel back the history of this land. Let’s take away the jet skis and new developments that dot the lake and go back to the early 1990s when, just before the wine industry took root, the area was a sleepy place for retirees. Go back further to the 1920s, when, thanks to the construction of an irrigation system, the land became alive with farms and orchards. Rewind even more to the late 1800s when the region saw its heyday during the Gold Rush. And then, to the thousands of years when Canada’s Indigenous people occupied these lands.
Actually, I’m sitting on Band land right now.
Spirit Ridge rests on a small part of the 12,950-hectare Osoyoos Indian Reserve. The Band owns Nk’Mip Cellars (pronounced in-ka-meep), North America’s first aboriginal-owned winery situated right next door. After consulting with Band elders, Nk’Mip winemakers name their wines in the Okanagan language. Its premier tier, for example, is called Qwam Qwmt (pronounced kw-em kw-empt), which means “achieving excellence.” If you’re looking for a lovely red with an interesting story, to me, the Qwam Qwmt Merlot is the bottle to take home. And, it pairs beautifully with cheddar. I know this because I took Nk’Mip’s wine and cheese tour. After a walkabout complete with a historical and cultural lecture, we sat down to five local cheeses paired with five wines in the private underground cellar. An unbeatable experience for $25.
But that’s the thing about Oliver Osoyoos that’s even crazier than the Half Corked run. It’s affordable.