Where do we go, which wineries do we visit, how do we get in and a million other questions come our way every day about touring the Okanagan Valley.
For answers, we thought we would start by asking an expert to find out first-hand what it's like to visit the Okanagan Valley with someone else doing all the planning and driving.
We caught up with Experience Wine Tours' founder Matt Wentzell, grabbing a few minutes of his time while his group—enotourists from Scotland, Abu Dhabi, Switzerland and Houston—were tasting. It was just another day for Matt, who calls himself “lucky to be an ambassador of the Okanagan Valley.”
Matt and his wife Shannon moved to the valley to follow their passion and background for wine, food and hospitality. While taking wine education courses at Mission Hill Winery, Matt met Patty Ogden-Grady and soon began working with her wine touring company, while Shannon began working with Summerhill Estate Winery as wedding coordinator. After three years of on-the-spot learning about the touring business, and after Matt completed his wine education, the couple decided to launch their own company, founding Experience Wine Tours in 2012.
“We had a website and a van” recalls Matt. “And that was it.” It was important that the two of them be hands-on with customers and wineries and they continue to maintain that mantra today. “It was very important to show off local wine and food from the get go. I had worked with executive chef Mark Filatow from Waterfront Restaurant for six years, so we bought breads and spreads from him, and we visit farm stands for local produce to provide our guests a picnic. We were the first company to offer lunch with every tour.” These bespoke touches and attention to detail are what set them apart from others in the competitive tour marketplace.
In the winter of 2012 they went back to Vancouver where Matt completed the sommelier diploma program. When they returned to the valley in spring 2013 they felt confident enough to hire one employee, one day each week, so they could take a day off. Business grew organically, steadily, and by word of mouth, and soon Experience Wine had a reputation for quality and creativity. “We never want to be the biggest tour company” Matt says. “We want to stay small and focused.”
Paramount for Matt and Shannon are the people they surround themselves with. “The most important thing is having great guides, people just as passionate as we are about the wines and area.” He mentioned David Lancelot, long-time wine retailer at Marquis Wines in downtown Vancouver, and a relatively new move to the Okanagan, as one example. “Finding folks like that is the biggest challenge.”
David Lancelot, Experience Wine Tours Guide. Photo Credit: Cheri Caleb
The company now has four vehicles on the road: three vans and one SUV. While May through October is the busiest, they lead tours year-round. “Winter tours get a lot of attention now, and a lot of senior staff are at the wineries to welcome guests. With most wineries open year-round, especially close to Kelowna and Penticton, there is demand and availability every month of the year.”
Though the 2017 season was a tricky weather-wise, it turned out to be a big success for the company. “From floods to full-on drought conditions, there were definitely less people coming to the valley. But it seems those that were missing were tourists interested in water sports and outdoor activities. The wine and culture tourists still came.” Most of their clients are tire traffic, with Alberta and Metro Vancouver leading, but as today’s tour shows, their clientele is certainly international. “Instagram has been very useful in spreading the word,” notes Matt, and they have been ranked the number one tour company in the Valley for the past few years on Trip Advisor.
The company currently has four different set tours: Kelowna, Naramata, Okanagan Falls, and the South Okanagan Tour. The newest offering this season is the Platinum Experience, for private small groups in the SUV. With these tours, they cater to their clients’ wine experience and preferences, incorporating barrel tastings, meeting the winemakers, tasting library vintages and more.
When I asked Matt what the future held for his company, he was quick to reply. “We want to always be getting better. What more can we do and give to our clients? How can we show people the best time? There’s a lot of competition out there, but our goal is to be the best, and best ambassadors for the BC wine industry that we can be.”
For more tour information: Experience Wine Tours