With the 38th annual Fall Okanagan Wine Festival underway, it’s time to look back on the Valley’s 159-year history of wine.
We’ve come a long way from pioneer Father Charles Pandosy whipping up some sacramental wines to the 300-winery strong, world-class industry we have today.
It all started with French Oblate priest Father Charles Pandosy.
He wasn’t just the first European settler in Kelowna in 1859, but the first to plant grape vines for wine.
Granted, it was nasty Labrusca (also called Fox grapes) for sacramental wines.
However, it proved the Okanagan was prime for grape growing and would be the forbearer of the astounding wine industry to come.
The Okanagan’s first commercial winery was launched in 1932 by Guiseppe Ghezzi, Peter Casorso, Cap Capozzi and W.A.C. Bennett, who would go on to be premier of B.C. for 20 years.
It started as Domestic Wines & By-Products Co. to make wines from excess apples.
But by 1935 the name was changed to Calona Wines and grapes were used to make the vintages.
It still exists today, sharing the building in Kelowna’s North End with Sandhill Wines.
While wines are still made under the Calona brand, there’s been a transition to the Conviction label.
Calona, Conviction and Sandhill are now all part of the Andrew Peller Limited empire, which has wineries in Ontario and several more in the Okanagan, including Gray Monk, Red Rooster, Black Hills, Tinhorn Creek, Peller Estates and Wayne Gretzky.
Labrusca grapes are hardy, but they make sub-standard wine, especially for today’s more sophisticated palate.
Classic European vitis vinifera wines are considered the best, but are frost-prone.
As such, Okanagan grape growers held off planting vitis vinifera varieties.
The first major pull out of Labrusca saw 650 acres switched to classic European varieties in 1979.
The real pivotal point came in 1988 when a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) ruling against the protective barriers that favoured domestic wineries came down.
The B.C. government offered grape growers $8,100 an acre to yank Labrusca in favour of vitis vinifera.
In total, 2,400 acres were switched and the modern-day Okanagan wine industry was born.
Harry McWatters is considered the pioneer of the Okanagan’s modern wine industry.
He arrived here in 1977 to launch Sumac Ridge Estate Winery in Summerland in 1980 and See Ya Later Ranch in Okanagan Falls in 1995.
While he sold the wineries to Vincor, which later became Constellation, which is now Arterra (Great Estates Okanagan), he continued to innovate as a consultant and founder of Time, McWatters Collection and Evolve wineries.
Along the way, McWatters was a founding member of the B.C. Wine Institute, VQA Canada, B.C. Wine Information Society, Okanagan Wine Festivals Society and B.C. Hospitality Foundation.
He’s been honoured with the Order of B.C., Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal, Award of Distinction form the Canadian Vintner’s Association, Spirited Industry Professional Award from the Vancouver International Wine Festival and been inducted into the B.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame.
The 1991 formation of the B.C. Wine Institute also saw VQA (Vintners’ Quality Alliance) coming into being.
The certification demands wines earning the VQA seal be true to the grape varietal they are made of and contain only 100 per cent grapes.
The institute has since given up regulatory control of the VQA to the B.C. Wine Authority, but VQA continues to ensure the quality of Okanagan wines.
The institute now promotes VQA wines and wine tourism across the province and around the world and puts on events showcasing VQA wines such as Chef Meets Grape.
Hardly a week goes by now without an Okanagan winery boasting of one award or another.
But the first major award that really brought international attention to Okanagan wines came in 1994. That was just a few years removed from the time when Okanagan wines, protected behind considerable trade barriers, rarely rose above the level of plonk in terms of their overall quality.
But in ‘94, Mission Hill Family Estate on Kelowna’s Westside won the ISWC Avery Trophy for ‘Best Chardonnary in the World’.
Yes, the world.
It’s hard to overstate the impact this one award had in elevating the image of all Valley wines. It was the first major award for an Okanagan winery, and it shocked even the judges.
They were so surprised they tasted the wines twice to make sure they’d got it right.
It’s a vital and lucrative part of the national wine industry now, but icewine owes its existence in Canada to one man — Tilman Hainle.
In 1978, he and his father Walter were the first to leave grapes on the vine beyond the normal harvest time in their Peachland vineyard, waiting for the fruit to develop the right concentration of sugars and flavours that would yield icewine.
“That was the first big building block for the icewine component of the industry within which we — Canada — have become the world’ preeminent producer, in terms of both quantity and quality,” noted wine Jurgen Gother, writing in a 2009 article in the Georgia Straight.
The value of icewine exported from Canada last year was more than $24 million, almost half of the product shipped to China, according to Statistics Canada.
Sadly, in 2012, the Hainle’s former Peachalnd home and property were destroyed by a wildfire that swept through part of the town.
“It certainly has a lot of significance, not just in terms of our history but it’s a significant piece of Canadian wine history as well,” a sombre Hainle said of the loss.
The Okanagan Valley Wine Train was a charming but ill-fated tourist attraction that operated from 1999 to 2002.
Edmonton entrepreneur Bob Nagel, who ran a successful bus tour company, purchased several 1960s-era rail coaches to diversify his business.
The Wine Train rolled from downtown Kelowna to Armstrong, where passengers got off to enjoy a Las Vegas-style show while eating a buffet dinner.
Though the Wine Train afforded a unique way to see the gorgeous, lake-and-farm dappled countryside, it was never a financial success. Nagel lamented once the venture had cost him more than $1 million.
The real Okanagan railway was also a money loser in its latter years, and now even the tracks have been ripped up. The good news, however, is that the right-of-way has been bought for public use, and the 49-km long Okanagan Rail Trail between Coldstream and Kelowna just opened this week.
It was probably the least appealing wine-themed event ever staged in the Okanagan.
In August 2014, dozens of creamy cheese and gravy poutines were stomped on in a wine barrel in Kelowna’s City Park.
Three people then competed to see which one of them could drink down the resulting 72 ounces of foul-looking, mashy liquid in the fastest time. Tim Brown was the winner, somehow quickly getting it all down much to the delight of 800 onlookers.
“It was probably the most gag-inducing thing I’ve ever drunk in my life,” Brown said of his triumph. “But I did manage to keep it down, foot fungus and all.”
The crowd-pleasing event was a promotion for Smoke’s Poutinerie, a national chain which organized the competition in 17 cities with a nod to local variations.
In Calgary, for example, contestants ate poutine flavoured with bull testicles. In Kelowna, the event was a variation on a familiar grape-stomping competition.
In 2018 the Okanagan wine industry is booming.
From humble beginnings, there are now close to 300 wineries in the province producing world-class wines.
Wine has become one of the Valley’s four tourism cornerstones along with beaches and lakes, golf and skiing.
The 38th annual Fall Okanagan Wine Festival underway now exemplifies that with close to 100 events up and down the Valley luring locals and tourists alike to sip, eat, have fun and spend.