In the B.C. winery beginning, there were monks.
And God’s monks, said, “let the earth produce grapes, and our monastery produce wine.”
History does not record if God saw that it was good, but that was indeed the beginning of wine-making in British Columbia when Oblate monks first planted grapevines at their Kelowna mission in 1859 so they could make sacramental wine used as part of Catholic mass rituals.
The first 115 years of wine-making, evolving from sacramental to recreational, relied on vines native to eastern North America and transplanted to the friendly climates of B.C. In 1974, the first experiments began with planting European vines and that led, by 1990, to the development of the modern, and highly lauded, B.C. wine industry.
When I think of B.C. wines, I think of the Okanagan Valley, which is inland and nestled between the Coastal and Monashee mountain ranges. But wine is also grown in several other parts of the province, according to the Wines of British Columbia: Similkameen Valley, Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, and the Gulf Islands.
The Okanagan has a distinct climate, situated in what the wine growers call a “rain shadow”: unlike the infamous damp of coastal B.C., this area has low annual average rainfall and in some respects approaches desert territory. Summers are hot (warmer than the famous Napa Valley wine region in California), and with long summertime daylight hours due to the northern latitude.
All of this combines to make, in many instances, stunningly good wine.
I live in Ontario, half the continent away from B.C., and we rarely see B.C. wines for sale here; for a well-argued screed on why, check out this 2013 article from BC Business magazine. I had no idea of the depth and breadth of B.C. wines until I travelled to Vancouver for business and pleasure, and sampled local offerings from wineries such as Sumac Ridge (what is this wondrous Chenin Blanc?) , Gray Monk, (hello, Pinot Gris!) and Mission Hill. While Sumac Ridge has since been absorbed into the international wine, beer, and spirits giant Constellation Brands, Gray Monk and Mission Hill carry on as independent wineries; in 2014, Mission Hill bought another one of the original family-founded Okanagan wineries, Cedar Creek.
I had never thought of doing a trip to the Okanagan as the lure of friends and family to visit in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island is too great anytime I get on a plane to B.C., but one year I had the opportunity to attend a work conference in Kelowna, B.C. Fortuitously, one of the recreation options was a bus tour to valley wineries. Sign me up!
We got to the aforementioned Cedar Creek, as well as to the first commercial Okanagan winery, Calona Vineyards (now owned by another wine conglomerate, Andrew Peller Limited) as well as Quails’ Gate and Summerhill Pyramid Winery.
We were there only a couple years after major fires had ripped through the forests of interior B.C. and the aftermath was shocking— the vineyards were not affected, but looking up from their lushness, you’d see charred or clear-cut ruins around them. The wines we tasted had a lushness to them that you get from all that sunshine and warmth. And we knew we only just had but a sip: the British Columbia Wine Institute reports there are now 275 licensed grape wineries in the province and 162 of those belong to the institute, which began as a regulatory body but has now evolved into a trade association.
I don’t know when I’ll get back to B.C. — soon, I hope — and one of the first things I’ll do, after breathing in the cedar-scented air that hits you when you leave the Vancouver Airport, is catch up with dear friends over Okanagan sunshine in a glass.
All photos: Kelley Teahen. The main photo is of the Summerhill Winery.