British Columbia’s premier wine country boasts vineyards, top-notch restaurants, and a stunning landscape.
The most magnificent winery in North America is not in Napa or Sonoma or even Walla Walla. It sits poised on a hillside in southern British Columbia, with a commanding view of shimmering Okanagan Lake below. An architectural cross between a monastery and a postmodern Tuscan castle, Mission Hill Family Estate was built at great expense—some say $30 million, others $40 million—by Anthony von Mandl, a Vancouver wine importer and entrepreneur who’d struck gold with the pop libation Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Its arched entrance was hand-chiseled from a five-ton limestone block. Bells cast by the renowned French foundry Paccard nestle in a 12-story tower, and a Chagall tapestry adorns a reception room.
Years ago, von Mandl considered investing in Napa. But rather than become “the 1,800th winery in California,” as he says, he chose to make a statement outside the quiet city of Kelowna, four hours east of Vancouver, in a climatologically challenged viticultural region known for peaches, glorious vistas, and the occasional potable riesling. Not surprisingly, siting his winery there was deemed an act of folly when von Mandl announced his plans in 1998. Lately, though, Mission Hill has become a symbol of the Okanagan Valley’s arrival as a world-class destination for wine and food.
To anyone making the spectacular lakeside drive to Kelowna from the U.S. border two hours south, the boom is evident. Vineyards seem to be everywhere that pine trees and rock formations aren’t. The region has grown from 32 wineries in 1995 to more than 80 now, nearly all of them open to visitors. (Calling ahead is a good idea.) Hotels are springing up, and half a dozen inns or rentable condo compounds—many with vineyard views—have been built or are being planned at wineries.
I’ve roamed the Okanagan three times in as many years, most recently last October. I ate roulade of chicken breast with popcorn foam, followed by steamed black cod with warm apples, followed by braised rabbit with cinnamon and nutmeg—and nearly every major ingredient was local. I stayed at a new resort, the Cove, that has vaulted ceilings and flat-screen televisions but remains well priced for U.S. visitors despite the muscularity of the Canadian dollar. I toured Burrowing Owl, an exquisite 11-room inn surrounded by grapevines. And I savored a range of wines—a brisk chenin blanc from Quails’ Gate, an earthy pinot noir from Tantalus, and robust merlots from Le Vieux Pin—that far outclassed anything I’d tasted before from the Okanagan.
The region’s residents have caught the fever. At the local outpost of Joey’s Global Grill, a Vancouver-based chain, two dozen Okanagan Valley wines are featured. I came on a Monday at noon, munched a fish taco while sipping a floral $8 gewürztraminer from Sumac Ridge, and saw a table full of o≈ce workers enjoying a bottle of local pinot gris. Down valley in Penticton, a quirky Greek restaurant called Theo’s offers a choice of more than 100 local wines to pair with its rustic rabbit, lamb shoulder, and even braised calamari.
I stopped at Cedar Creek winery one afternoon during the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival. Held annually in late September or early October, it includes themed wine dinners at most of the region’s best restaurants, usually starring a single producer, and it attracts crowds—or what pass for crowds—with its welcoming wineries and accessible vintners. A dozen or so visitors were browsing Cedar Creek’s gift shop and tasting bar, sampling inspired oddities such as a deliciously crisp white wine made from a local grape called ehrenfelser and talking up food and drink in a way that would have seemed inconceivable even a few years ago.
That night, during an ambitious dinner at Fresco in downtown Kelowna, Quails’ Gate wines took center stage. I’d met the talented Rod Butters, Fresco’s chef and owner, when he cooked at the Wickaninnish Inn on Vancouver Island more than a decade ago. Now, between lecturing the room on the science of popcorn foam and putting the last touches on an entrée of braised veal cheek, he rhapsodized about the region. “Chefs are coming now from Whistler and Calgary, and they’re coming for a reason,” said Butters, who serves as chair and head cheerleader of the Okanagan Chefs Association. “I see it as validation.”
Butters noted the arrival of Bernard Casavant as chef at the Sonora Room in Burrowing Owl’s mission-style winery at the far end of the valley. Sure enough, a standout dish of my visit was Casavant’s seared halibut with Tofino shrimp, served beside a minerally pinot gris. Burrowing Owl’s owner, Jim Wyse, has now decided to keep the restaurant open year-round.
Not far away, I came on a boutique winery taking a similar chance. Le Vieux Pin is located in a cottage that could have been imported from Bordeaux’s Pomerol district if the paint weren’t quite so fresh. Inside, jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux played on the sound system as proprietor Anthony Burée showed off the 2005s—his first vintage—including two merlots that sell for as much as $65 a bottle. A 2006 cabernet franc had room-filling aromatics and the thrilling concentration—a silky texture on the tongue—usually found only in wines from warmer regions. I’d never had a better Canadian wine.
Does the world need another $100 cabernet, which is where Le Vieux Pin seems to be heading? Perhaps not, but von Mandl insists that the Okanagan—with just 7,000 acres of vines—gets a lift from such big-cachet wines.
I ate lunch with him on the terrace at Mission Hill. It had been a changeable day—hail had just fallen, causing panic among vineyard managers who weren’t done harvesting—but now a sky of cornflower blue had spread over the lake. Each dish chef Michael Allemeier sent out had the composition of a still life and the vibrancy of ingredients that clearly hadn’t traveled far—cheeses, for instance, from cows and goats just a few miles away. As we sipped pitch-perfect riesling and looked out on the whitecapped lake below, I realized there was nowhere else I would have wanted to be.
Photography by Andrea Johnson
This article was first published in July 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.