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Mission Hill – Canada's Tribute to the Wine World (June 10, 2003)

Anthony von Mandl had a dream: he wanted to make Mission Hill Family Estate Winery a beacon to the world for the wines of British Columbia.

Perched on top of a hill above the town of Westbank in a spectacular setting overlooking Lake Okanagan, the winery he bought in 1981 was unashamedly patterned on the one Robert Mondavi created in the Napa Valley.

Like Napa, the Okanagan Valley is nestled between two ranges of mountains – the Monashees to the east and the Coastal Mountains to the west – and it lies 155 miles east of the Pacific Ocean.

The style of the original Mission Hill, with its eighteenth-century antiques, tiled floors and whitewashed walls, was reminiscent of the Mondavi model, as was the owner's penchant for associating his enterprise with cultural events, for example supporting the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

In order to improve the quality of Mission Hill wines in the early 1990s, von Mandl hired a New Zealander, John Simes, who was Montana Wines' chief winemaker. Simes rewarded his boss's gamble in bringing him halfway across the planet by winning the Avery Trophy at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London in 1994 for the Best Chardonnay in the World with his Grand Reserve Chardonnay 1992. Once his wines improved, von Mandl turned his sights on the winery itself.

Anthony, as his staff calls him, also owns a beverage alcohol importing company called Mark Anthony Brands, and the success of its sales of Corona beer and Mike's Hard Lemonade in Canada helped to finance a complete make-over of the Mission Hill winery. He showed his confidence in the future of the British Columbia wine industry by investing $35 million in rebuilding his winery and purchasing new vineyards.

Mission Hill Family Estate Winery, Westbank, British Columbia

The result is astonishing. The totally renovated property is the most extraordinary wine facility I have seen anywhere in the world. If Dionysus, the god of wine, dreamed of a cathedral to celebrate the fermented grape, he could happily take up residence here.

The most dramatic feature, visible (and audible) for miles around, is the slender bell tower, whose four bells, commissioned by von Mandl and cast in France, chime every quarter of the hour. You enter the winery under a large concrete arch that frames the tower and the winery buildings. The feeling is of entering a Greek temple with its solitude, its sense of calm, the elegant proportions of the buildings and the open green spaces.

Von Mandl hired Seattle architect Tom Kundig to transform the Mission Hill winery. Kundig visited the site and remembers being overwhelmed by its natural beauty. He recognized intuitively that anything he did would be secondary to the landscape itself.

According to the company's brochure, "Kundig recalls that first tour of the site with von Mandl, thinking, only half jokingly, that he was in the presence of a madman. The weather was bad and his prospective employer had gone on ahead of him, leaving Kundig out of hearing range for most of the walkabout. But that didn't stop von Mandl. The animated expression and wild gesturing convinced the architect to take a chance and sign on for what he now admits has been the project of a lifetime."

Underground barrel cellars, with oculus, at Mission Hill Family Estate Winery

The finished product is now one of the architectural wonders of the wine world. As dramatic below ground as it is above, Mission Hill boasts a magnificent crypt-like barrel-ageing cellar that extends in a gigantic L-shape under the winery. It had to be blasted out of the rock face, much of which has been left exposed – a subtle contrast to the smoothness of the concrete arches and buttresses. The visitor can look down on the cellar from outside at ground level through an "oculus" – a large lens-like piece of glass set in a well that directs the only natural light to the cellar below.

And Oculus is the name Anthony von Mandl gave to his flagship red wine, a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Truly, this is a winery worth your trip to the Okanagan.

Facts about Mission Hill
Total Acreage: 900 (700 acres owned by the winery and 200 acres under long term contact with growers)
Total sales: 14,000 cases
Varietals: Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Semillon and Vidal (for Icewine production).

Mission Hill Family Estate
1730 Mission Hill Road
Westbank, Okanagan Valley,
BC, Canada V4T 2E4
(205) 768-6448




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