Questions and Answers between Anthony von Mandl, founder and owner of Mission Hill Winery, B.C., Canada, and Porthos
– Making world class wines in Canada? What an unbelievable concept… How is this possible?
– First of all, let me situate our magical valley for your readers. We can be found just north of the wine-growing region in Washington State, on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountain range. The Okanagan Valley has a splendid history of growing a wide variety of fruit including apples, peaches, cherries, apricots, pears and grapes. Many visitors remark that the Okanagan Lake is like the Lago di Garda.
Contrast that with the fact that we’re at the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert (it starts to the far south of us in Mexico). Thanks to the mountains, we enjoy a rain shadow that allows our temperatures to rise to +40 degrees centigrade in the summer. Our long hot days and cool nights are ideal for growing exceptional grapes. Our microclimates are unlike any other wine-growing region in the world. In the Okanagan, we enjoy on average two and half-hours more sun than California during our peak-growing season. So, thanks to the wonder of Mother Nature, it’s possible to make world class wines in Canada.
– Tell our readers about Mission Hill. How has it changed in the almost 20 years that you’ve owned it?
– The changes are breathtaking. When I fulfilled my dream and purchased the winery in 1981, it was badly rundown and in need of major repairs. Undaunted, my family and I worked side by side to turn Mission Hill around. We were committed to seeing it through in spite of unbelievable obstacles. It was to be our legacy...a very personal project.
Slowly, we began to make some inroads. But, I wasn’t satisfied. In the late 1980s, I began a three-year search for a new chief winemaker who could help put Mission Hill on the world wine stage. I was able to convince New Zealander John Simes to join our family business. Prior to coming to Canada, he was chief winemaker at Montana Wines where he helped put New Zealand on the world wine map.
He arrived just as the 1992 harvest got underway. As the leader of Mission Hill’s winemaking team, John’s skill and dedication allowed us to soar to new heights. Our 1992 Grand Reserve Chardonnay, from John’s first vintage, was judged to be the best Chardonnay in the world at London’s prestigious International Wine & Spirits Competition. When the distinguished panel realized they had given top honours to a Canadian wine, they insisted on re-tasting everything again. Mission Hill still won and that recognition helped to put us on the world wine map. We’ve never looked back.
In 1996, we purchased our first vineyard property in the Southern Okanagan Valley. Today, 80 per cent of our Mission Hill Family Reserve Wines come from our own estates; estates that range from the Canada/U.S. border in the south to Oliver and north to Mission Hill in Westbank, British Columbia.
As you can see , I have not done this alone. My family stands with me today as always. I’ve searched the world to find a talented team of professionals who share my passion for wine and my unwavering commitment to quality. In just two decades, Mission Hill has been transformed into one of North American’s premiere wine destination sites. When the expansion is complete next year, we’ll be able to offer our guests a truly memorable visit.
Some of the changes that are underway include the construction of two Bordeaux-styled cellars, blasted out of volcanic rock. We’re also building a San Giminiano-like 12-storey bell tower with four handcrafted bronze bells cast by the Paccard Family Foundry in Annecy, France. The bells of Mission Hill will ring daily and will serve as a landmark, welcoming visitors from the world over to the Okanagan. Our expanded wine & food interpretation centre will feature a test-kitchen modeled after the one found in New York’s Le Cirque restaurant.
– Who are your customers and why should they buy Mission Hill instead of a wine from California?
– Right now, the vast majority of our customers are Canadians. We have expanded our distribution arm into Washington State and the United Kingdom, but it’s still early days yet. In the main, our customers are people who understand and enjoy quality wines. Mission Hill has a tremendous reputation, especially in Western Canada. We want to build on that success…on that word of mouth appreciation for our wines.
To your point about why someone should buy Mission Hill instead of a wine from California, I will only say that I know first hand the commitment to quality that goes into every bottle. I don’t believe it should ever come down to an “either or” type situation. Try a bottle of Mission Hill Family Estate wine. If you like it, try another. You should sample widely because the world of wine has much to offer.
– How do you see the international wine market? Is it a great opportunity or the end of the world as we know it?
– At Mission Hill Family Estate, we see the international wine market as an opportunity, as something to discover. We won’t rush in blindly though. We want to understand your market, your customers and your traditions before we come calling.
I recently hosted Tuscany’s pre-eminent winemaker Piero Antinori and his family at Mission Hill. They visited our estates and sampled our wines and I know they came away impressed. It was a very special time for me…an occasion to build a relationship, to open a dialogue with one of the world’s leading wine families.
– What is the personality of Mission Hill Wines? Is it what you hoped for?
– I believe that our wines are simply elegant. It’s what we consistently strive to promote as a philosophy within Mission Hill Family Estate. If we can achieve that consistently, and I believe we can, I could not hope for anything more.
----------Many thanks to Catherine McMonagle and Corinne Kovalsky for their precious help.