Examining Okanagan Wine History

The Okanagan wine industry all started with a single Oblate priest, Father Charles Pandosy.

In 1859, the French-born priest was a pioneer in more ways than one. He was the first European settler in the Okanagan Valley. He founded the mission that bore his name in the area that is now Kelowna.

The Okanagan wine industry has come a long way from its humble start. Pictured above Stag's Hollow vineyard near Okanagan Falls. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Okanagan wine industry has come a long way from its humble start. Pictured above Stag’s Hollow vineyard near Okanagan Falls. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Noting that the land appeared fertile, Father Pandosy planted vines of the labrusca variety. While the wine produced from the grapes was suitable for sacramental purposes, it did not produce high-quality wines—the likes of which are now associated with the Okanagan Valley.

Following Father Pandosy, a number of small wineries emerged. Over the next century small amounts of wine were made from local grape varieties as well as fruits and berries.

Eventually, prohibition would lay its chokehold on the area, and many growers were forced to remove their vines to make way for growing other crops in their place. Even through a near half-century of prohibition, however, many vines survived, as did Canada’s winemaking industry.

Looking south from Tinhorn Creek Vineyards along Oliver's Miracle Mile. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking south from Tinhorn Creek Vineyards along Oliver’s Miracle Mile. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The next significant development came in 1925 when Charles Casorso planted vines in Rutland, and in 1930, his brothers Pete and Louis began planting in Father Pandosy’s home settlement of Kelowna. That operation still exists today and supplies Sperling Vineyards.

The oldest continuously operating winery in British Columbia, Calona Vineyards opened in the early 1930s. The first colorful person in the Calona story was Guiseppe Ghezzi who in 1931 organized a syndicate of Kelowna investors to finance what was originally called Domestic Wines & By-products.

When the Ghezzi group exhausted its funds in the first year, he turned for help to Kelowna grocer, Cap Capozzi, with the result that the Capozzi family is usually credited as founders of the winery. They were not—but without the Capozzis, it is doubtful Calona would have survived, let alone thrive.

Approximately 30 wineries are located within 15 minutes of Oliver including Le Vieux Pin located along the Black Sage Bench. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Approximately 30 wineries are located within 15 minutes of Oliver including Le Vieux Pin located along the Black Sage Bench. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To help raise more money, Capozzi brought W.A.C Bennett who owned a hardware store into the partnership. Ironically, Bennett, a future premier of British Columbia, never drank but, as a businessman realized that winery jobs were vital at the time—and still are. The two men traveled through the mining towns of the southern interior, selling shares to raise capital.

When they started there was something like four wineries in all of British Columbia. The wine back then wasn’t very good. People used to make fun of B.C. wines and say “why are you drinking that?”

In the 1960s French hybrids were introduced and became quite popular but it wasn’t until 1975 that a German grape researcher convinced growers that the Okanagan was capable of growing vinifera (fine wine grapes).

In 1966, Mission Hill Winery was officially founded, and since then the wineries in the valley have been experimenting with numerous varieties and blends. The decades that followed gave rise to a number of hybrid grape varietals as well as vinifera vines. All of this led to the production of an ever-increasing quality and variety of wine.

Since 1989, Quail's Gate Winery in West Kelowna has grown as small family business into a 60,000 case-per-year operation. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since 1989, Quail’s Gate Winery in West Kelowna has grown as small family business into a 60,000 case-per-year operation. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1988 the British Columbia government initiated a program to encourage replacing the old French hybrids and local grapes with the higher quality European vinifera. The growers were paid to remove non-vinifera crops and replace them with vinifera vines. The replanting program came in response to the adoption of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) which brought a flood of high-quality U.S. wine into the Canadian market.

Since the establishment of a formal regulatory system called the VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance) in 1990, the industry has grown rapidly. Today, most vines in the Okanagan Valley are less than 25 years old and many of its wineries are still run by the families who started them.

Today the industry produces some of the world’s most recognized varietals. The most produced reds are Merlot, Shiraz, Pinot noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Gamay noir; the most produced whites are Pinot gris, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Sauvignon blanc, Pinot blanc and Viognier.

Hillside Winery & Bistro is located on Penticton BC’s beautiful Naramata Bench. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hillside Winery & Bistro is located on Penticton BC’s beautiful Naramata Bench. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even with its long history, the bulk of the region’s success in the winemaking industry has grown in the last two or three decades. This is a glowing testimony to the value of Canadian winemakers’ perseverance and commitment to excellence.

Worth Pondering…
Products from the soil are still the greatest industry in the world.

—Dick Cooper, 1966

Leave a Reply