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BC's Vineyards: A History of Beauty (February 1, 2013)

As an Ontarian, it grieves me to admit it but British Columbia has the most beautiful winescape in Canada. The hills and mountains that enclose the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys offer vistas of incredible beauty, none more spectacular than the Naramata Bench, with vineyards that seem to float above the blue waters of the lake like a green eiderdown. The Fraser Valley reminds me of Western Australia, with its farms and trees, while Vancouver Island, its remarkable vineyards tucked into forest clearings, is a delight to discover.

Ontario is a horizontal region in that its vineyards run east to west pretty much along the 43° latitude; BC is a vertical region where the vineyards run north to south, from Salmon Arm to the Washington State border. The most southerly reaches from Oliver to Osoyoos are part of Canada's only desert, where the presence of rattlesnakes is just one of the challenges that winegrowers face.

I wonder if Father Charles Pandosy saw a wine future for this land of forests and mountains in 1859, when he created the first non-native settlement on the banks of L'Anse au Sable (Mission Creek). Today it bears the postal address of 3685 Benvoulin Drive, Kelowna. Sometime in the early 1860s Pandosy planted a vineyard to supply his Oblate mission and the settlement with wine and, in the process, he became the father of the BC wine industry.

More than any other institution, the Catholic Church is responsible for today's flourishing wine industry around the world – and indeed every other alcoholic beverage from beer to brandy and liqueurs. The monks of Europe kept the vineyards alive during the Dark Ages, and their missionaries carried vine cuttings along with their Bibles when they established religious settlements in the New World. Wine was needed to celebrate mass, and, wherever priests set down roots, they planted vines. British Columbia was no exception.

But the farmers who followed the example of Father Pandosy were more interested in fruit crops such as apples, peaches, and apricots than in grapes. Although there were experimental plantings as early as 1905, the first commercial vineyard in the province was planted by W.J. Wilcox only in 1920, some 88 kilometres north of Kelowna at Salmon Arm – not the most promising place to start, as it is the most northerly limit of wine growing in the province. This small plot yielded such grape varieties as Concord, Niagara, Delaware, and Agawam, for eating rather than fermenting. Six years later a grower named Jim Creighton planted a small vineyard in Penticton, an area that would ultimately prove to be one of the best sites for grape growing along the shores of Lake Okanagan.

The first wines in British Columbia were not made from grapes but from loganberries that flourished on the Saanich Peninsula of Vancouver Island. These beverages, made by the Growers' Wine Company, bore names such as Slinger's Logan and Logana. Only a few intrepid souls turned their attentions to wine grapes. Charles Casorso of Kelowna (the grandfather of winemaker Ann Sperling) was a pioneer winegrower who planted a vineyard on a 35-acre property at Rutland, near Kelowna, in 1925. The following year a farmer by the name of Jesse Willard Hughes, encouraged by Hungarian oenologist Dr. Eugene Rittich, bought a 45-acre vineyard in Kelowna, near the Pandosy mission, and planted vines that had been locally propagated. Hughes also purchased a 20-acre site east of Kelowna on Black Mountain. The larger vineyard in Kelowna prospered to such an extent that, four years later, wines made from these grapes were vinified at the Growers' Wine Company in Victoria. Encouraged by his success, Hughes expanded his Kelowna vineyard to 300 acres; however, the experiment at Black Mountain proved a disaster when the vines were wiped out by winter kill (frost).

But winegrowers are made from hardier stock, and in spite of initial setbacks they learned how to keep vines alive over the winter months and where to plant certain varieties for the best results. Today, at the time of writing, there are 237 grape, fruit and honey wineries in British Columbia in five designated viticultural areas – Fraser Valley, Okanagan Valley, Similkameen Valley, Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands, and Shuswap and Northern B.C. The critical mass of wineries is located along the 135 kilometre length of Lake Okanagan, a region that accounts for roughly two thirds of the wineries in the province. I say "at the time of writing" because there are more wineries to come. Everyone, it seems, wants to get into the wine business in BC.

If Father Pandosy could look down and see his vision fulfilled, he might well raise a glass of ambrosia to the ever-growing roster of winery owners of British Columbia who have proclaimed the town of Oliver the "Wine Capital of Canada."




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