Grapes are not a new crop in the Okanagan. In 1860, Father Charles Pandosy founded a Catholic mission in Kelowna, midway along the lake, and planted the province’s first vineyard. Over time, a wine industry evolved—much maligned, and deservedly so —sustained by protectionist trade policies. But when new agreements opened Canada to imports of good, modestly priced California wine in the mid-1980s, the homegrown stuff stopped selling. In response, the British Columbia government paid growers to replace old vines with new premium-wine varieties. Winemakers got serious about their craft, the local industry was reborn and wine tourism found its stride. Since 1989, acreage committed to wine grapes has increased tenfold, and tasting rooms are nearly as common as fruit stands.
A life-size bronze of Father Pandosy presides over Mission Recreation Park in Kelowna, near his modest chapel and several other original mission buildings that have been preserved. A far bigger draw for visitors, however, sits on the opposite side of the lake, atop a sun-warmed hillside with magnificent views across rows and rows of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines. About 15 years ago, Anthony von Mandl, a Vancouver-area wine merchant, bought an abandoned winery and began a transformation that would take six years and $35 million. The result is Mission Hill Family Estate, a world-class winery with an award-winning portfolio.
The label first achieved recognition for its Chardonnay, made from grapes purchased from other growers. Today, the winery harvests its own vines, mostly in the hotter, drier southern end of the Okanagan more suited to red grapes. Its most prestigious wine—as big as the views—is its Bordeaux-style Oculus, a blend that varies from year to year.
Mission Hill’s signature feature is a 12-story bell tower housing four bronze bells. There’s a grassy amphitheater that hosts live music and theater; a long, arched loggia; underground cellars with room for about 800 barrels; and an “education room” for displaying a Marc Chagall tapestry and numerous antiquities. There’s also an acclaimed restaurant, Terrace, an outdoor, colonnaded structure with an arched copper roof and expansive views. It’s open for à la carte lunches from May through October and for five- and eight-course tasting dinners from mid-June until September. The winery itself is open for tastings and touring year-round.