The Okanagan Valley wine industry has a rich history. In fact, it is likely the most important chapter in the history of winemaking in Canada. There is barely a single wine connoisseur or even casual enthusiast who hasn’t had at least some exposure to the wines from this region.
While there have been many winemakers who have come and gone from Canada’s winemaking landscape over the years, there is a great debt of gratitude owed to those who paved the way, particularly in the Okanagan Valley.
Okanagan Wine: The Beginning
It 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 to settle in the Okanagan Valley area. He founded the mission that bore his name in the area that is today known as Kelowna.
While he was establishing his ministry as a missionary, Pandosy noted that the ground in the surrounding area was quite fertile. He started planting the region’s first vines with the intent of making sacramental wine for use in the church Mass. He began with labrusca grapes, which produced wine that was sufficient for celebrating the sacrament but lacked the level of quality of the wines vinted in the valley today.
Since Father Pandosy’s pursuits were more spiritual than enterprising, he continued with his own winemaking endeavors while other growers continued making use of the valley’s fertile ground, planting more varietals of grapes and creating a wider variety of quality blends over time. It wasn’t long before several small wineries emerged.
Okanagan Vineyards Amid Prohibition
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, plenty of vines survived, as did Canada’s winemaking industry.
In 1925, Charles Casorso began planting 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 goes by the name of Sperling Vineyards.
Later on that decade, the Casorsos had a high degree of influence over winemaking in Kelowna. They founded Calona Vineyards, which now stands as the oldest continuously operating winery in British Columbia.
Building a Solid Reputation
In 1966, Mission Hill Winery was officially founded, and since then the wineries in the valley have been experimenting with all kinds of 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.
The vinifera grapes in particular produce some of the best quality wines in the region, putting Okanagan Valley on the map as a world leader in high-quality wine production. It took until the late 1980s for the vinifera varieties of British Columbia to really make their mark, but the reward has been clearly worth the journey and the patience of the diligent winemakers of the region.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) played a particularly large role on the exposure to Okanagan varieties. The Canadian government responded by offering winemakers incentives to pull their lesser-quality grapevines and replace them with the much more prized vinifera varietal.
Worth the Wait
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.