While Wine Trails has been around for 30 years now, the history of wine in BC goes back much further.
The Late 1800s
In the 1860s French Catholic missionaries brought wine production to British Columbia. Father Charles Pandosy, a French Oblate priest, was the first to plant grape vines for sacramental wine. He planted Labrusca grapes, which are known for their “foxy” or musky smell.
As it turned out, the Okanagan area was perfect for grape growing, and over the next few years many tried their hand at becoming vintners.
1932: Domestic Wines and By-Products
If the surnames Ghezzi, Casorso, Capozzi and Bennett sound familiar, it’s because they were some of the founders of the wine industry in the Okanagan. In 1932, they started Domestic Wines and By-Products Co., making wine from all the extra apples growing in the Okanagan.
In 1935 they renamed their company to Calona Wines, and they began to use grapes to make their wines. Calona Wines still exists today and shares a building with Sandhill Wines. The Calona brand transitioned to the Conviction label and today Calona, Conviction and Sandhill are now all part of Andrew Peller Limited.
1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s
Wines continued to be made over the years, both from fruits and local grapes. Then, in the 1960s, French hybrid grapes, which were less susceptible to frost, were introduced into the Okanagan Valley. In 1975, a German grape researcher convinced the growers they could grow vinifera or European grapes.
In 1977, Harry McWatters arrived in the Okanagan. Harry is to this day considered the pioneer of the Okanagan’s modern wine history. He started Sumac Ridge Estate Winery in 1980 and See Ya Later Ranch in 1995. He passed away in 2019 and is deeply missed.
In 1978, Walter Hainle produced the area’s first ice wine. It wasn’t on purpose, though—it happened because of an early frost. The ice wine turned out to be so good and so popular that ice wine is now much sought-after in both the BC and Ontario wine-growing regions.
Then, in 1988, the BC government gave grape growers $8,100 an acre to pull out the Labrusca grapes and plant vinifera. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) was formed in 1991 to ensure the quality of wines and that they contain 100 per cent grapes.
Then, in 1994, Mission Hill Family Estate in West Kelowna won the International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC) Avery Trophy for Best Chardonnay in the World. Yes, you read that right, in the entire world. Quite a feat for an industry that was still quite young in British Columbia.
It was this highly sought-after award that made people stop and reconsider BC wines as being world-class.
What started out as a priest making sacramental wine has turned into a billion-dollar industry. The BC wine industry contributes $2.8 billion each year to BC’s economy. There are now over 370 licensed wineries in BC, 280 of which are grape wineries.
The wines come from nine different growing regions: Okanagan Valley, Similkameen Valley, Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island, Gulf Islands, Thompson Valley, Shuswap, Lillooet and the Kootenays.
Within those regions, there are five sub-regions: Golden Mile Bench, Okanagan Falls, Naramata Bench, Skaha Bench, and the Cowichan Valley.
There are approximately 10,000 acres of grapes planted on about 930 vineyards across BC. Of those, 49 per cent are for white wine and 51 per cent are for red wine.
The BC wine industry employs over 12,000 people and produces over 1.5 million cases of wine each year, much of it sold right here in Canada.
With over 160 years of history behind them, it’s no wonder BC wines are so enjoyable.