A HISTORY OF BC WINE

 

Part 1 - Early Winemaking in British Columbia

 

Wine has been being made in British Columbia for over a century.  The B.C. wine industry, however, dates back formally only to the period after WW1 in the 1920s.

 

Some visionary credit for the development of the wine industry in BC should go to Father Charles John Felix Adolf Marie Pandosy, if only to embellish the charm of the myth that has him founding B.C.’s wine industry in the Okanagan Valley.  Pandosy arrived in the Okanagan with a group of Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1859.

 

Writing to his Oblate superiors, Pandosy described the mission site, east of what is now Kelowna: “It is a great valley situated on the left bank of the great Lake Okanagan… …and I myself believe that if Father Blanchet is able to send us, next year, some vine cuttings, we shall be able to start a plantation.”

 

In the Okanagan, as in California, Mexico and throughout South America, sacramental wine flowed deeply in the footsteps of questing Catholic Missionaries in search of souls to save. 

 

Although there is no record of Father Pandosy ever selling wine, Mission Hill wines named its early “Pandosy Cellars” wines in his memory, helping seal the good Father’s romantically historical (but erroneous) role as the founder of the wine industry in B.C.

 

 

 

Built on Loganberries: The Birth of B.C.’s Wine Industry

 

The City of Victoria was founded by the Hudson's Bay Company on March 14, 1843, as a trading post and fort.  Although it is seldom acknowledged, there were already plantings of grape vines on Salt Spring Island, at that time.  The gnarly ancient vines can still be found in scattered abandoned farm sites on Salt Spring.

 

Salt Spring was the breadbasket that grew food for the growing community of 425 souls just an hour away, by rowboat, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.  The Catholic Church was just as evident on Salt Spring, then, as it was in the Okanagan six years later when Father Pandosy arrived.  Men made wine for sacramental use. 

 

With the discovery of gold on the British Columbia mainland in 1858,Victoria became the port, supply base, and outfitting center for miners on their way to the Cariboo Gold Fields.  With all that gold (…and good and bad fortune!) riding the wave of the Gold Rush, it is difficult to believe that some surplus wine did not find willing buyers.

 

Started in 1921, Growers’ Wines was opened in Victoria in 1923 by farmers who were growing loganberries on the Saanich Pensinsula.  At first it produced sweet port-styled wines:  “Logana” made solely from loganberries and “Vin Supreme” from a blend of loganberries and blueberries.  Later its leading brands included “Slinger” wines, named for jockey-turned-winemaker Stephen Slinger and popular with British Columbians for the next 50 years.

 

Making wine from fruit, rather than grapes, is a recurring theme in the history of B.C. winemaking.  It cropped up again in the 1930’s as the industry built itself.  It will continue to be an aspect of B.C. winemaking throughout the industry’s history and is still a force in British Columbia’s wine scene today.

 

 

B.C.’s First Professional Grape Growers & Winemakers

 

In 1926, almost 70 years after Father Pandosy recognized the potential, Jesse Willard Hughes, an agricultural entrepreneur from Iowa, was planting grapes at Pioneer Vineyards - east of Kelowna. 

 

The credit for contracting Hughes first grapes for winemaking generally goes to Growers’ Wines.  In fact, those first $100/ton wine grape contracts were signed with Victoria Wineries (B.C.) Ltd.  By the time of Hughes’ first grape shipment from the Okanagan to the winery in Victoria, in 1930, it had been acquired by Growers’ Wines Ltd.

 

Around the same time Guiseppe Ghezzi was busily organizing a syndicate of farmers and investors – largely of Italian immigrant origin – that eventually included Peter Casorso, Pasquale (Cap) Capozzi and W.A.C.Bennett.  They opened Domestic Wines and By-Products Co. in 1932 to take advantage of the great glut of apples in the Okanagan during the Great Depression.

 

“The company’s original apple wines – Okay Red, Okay Clear, Okay Port and Okay Champagne – were a bitter disappointment,” according to the company’s own historians.  “Many bottles re-fermented on liquor store shelves and had to be thrown out.”

 

By 1935, grapes had begun to find their way into the wines and Calona Wines Ltd. was the syndicate’s new name.  Sales languished until the establishment of a military base in Vernon brought an influx of money to the Okanagan thanks to World War II.

 

J.W.Hughes continued to expand his vineyards by acquiring and planting 235 acres at Okanagan Mission in 1937.  Through the late 1940’s he passed his properties on to H.D.Powell, Martin Dulik and Frank Schmidt.  Many of these families are still closely associated with B.C. winemaking as growers and winemakers.

 

 

The Growth Of An Industry: 

From Domestic Wines and By-Products Co.  To Vincor International

 

Guiseppe Ghezzi’s son Carlo Ghezzi turned over the management of Calona Wines Ltd. to Cap Capozzi and his sons Herb, Joe and Tom in 1960.  The Capozzis modelled Calona Wines on California’s giant Gallo Wines and they marketed their products aggressively in B.C. and throughout Canada.  Bright packaging innovations and celebrity associations helped drive Calona’s growth. 

 

Herb Capozzi had a successful career as a tackle with the Montreal Allouettes and the Calgary Stampeders before getting into the family business.  He was a much sought after banquet speaker and usually insisted that Calona wines be served at these functions.

 

Casabello (who, in 1974, pioneered the bottle that doubled as a decanter - once emptied - in B.C) and Mission Hill wines  both opened in 1967.  By that time Calona Wines had overtaken Growers’ Wines as the industry leader in sales and Calona spent close to $1,000,000 on what Capozzi Sr. called “the most modern and up-to-date winery in all of Canada”.  Things were warming up in the B.C. wine industry!

 

Ontario’s Jordan Wines Ltd. bought Victoria’s Growers’ Wines in 1973 and merged it with their B.C. subsidiary Villa Wines, taking the name Jordan & Ste-Michelle Cellars Ltd in 1976, when they relocated the winery to Surrey. 

 

Another Ontario giant, T.G.Brights & Co, acquired Jordan & Ste-Michelle in the 1980s, merging it with Cartier (formerly Casabello Wines) & Innsikillin Cellars in the mid-1990s.  This conglomerate consolidated their operations in Bright’s Oliver winery and ultimately became the B.C. division of Vincor International.

 

 

Trials & Tribulations In The Vineyards:

                                        The Becker Project

 

While the series of start-ups, mergers and acquisitions that shaped the B.C. wine industry were taking place in Okanagan vineyards, smoky back rooms and corporate boardrooms, the industry was evolving by-the-bootstraps from the vineyard up to aspire to noble heights in the world wine scene.

 

From a base of loganberries, spurred on by Calona’s failed attempt to turn apples into wine, the grapes that fuelled the B.C. wine industry by 1975 were almost exclusively hybrids.  Hughes’ original 1926 plantings were primarily labrusca varieties, native to North America, adequate for sweet fortified and sparkling wines but “too musky and grapey” to make high quality, world-class dry table wines.

 

Years ahead of their time, in 1930, Eugene and Virgil Rittich, two Hungarian brothers, planted classic European vinfera varieties near Kelowna.  Eugene Rittich was winemaker for Growers Wines’ from 1935 to 1957 and, as John Shreiner muses in “The Wineries of British Columbia”(1994), the brothers presumably supplied that winery with grapes.

 

It’s interesting to think that chardonnay, chasselas, sylvaner, muller-thurgau and perle of csaba – as well as red blauburgunder – were likely components of those early Growers’ wines in the 1930’s.  Having to bury the vinifera vines every winter to avoid killing frosts may, however,  have dissuaded other grape growers from following their lead, then.

 

During the “Pop!” wine expansion of the Okanagan vineyards in the 1960s government agriculturists recommended red vinifera/labrusca hybrids like de chaunac and marechal foch and the ubiquitous local white labrusca - Okanagan riesling.  Winter-hardy and dependably productive, this kind of less-than-absolutely-perfect combination of vines was, at that time, the basis of B.C.’s mostly sweet and sparkling winemaking industry. 

 

Experimental vinifera plantings in the ‘50s and ‘60’s were decimated in the bitter winter of 1968-69.  Despite that setback, in 1974 the provincial government imported 4000 assorted vinifera vines from Washington and California.  Gewurztraminer, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot were spread through eighteen sites in the Okanagan.  They were almost all killed in the hard frost of the winter of 1978-79.

 

In 1976, Dr. Helmut Becker of Germany’s famed Geisenheim Wine Institute toured the Okanagan Valley, invited by his student Walter Gehringer, then assistant winemaker at Andrés Wines.  Intrigued by the potential of the valley, Becker supplied 27 different classic European vinifera varieties for trials that ran from 1977 to 1985.

 

In what came to be known as the “Becker Project”, pinot blanc, auxerrois, schonburger, scheurebe, ehrenfelser, muller-thurgau and riesling emerged as the base vinifera varietals for the maturing winemaking industry in the Okanagan. 

 

Trial and error proved to growers that many of the winter-kill problems (and thin, acidic wines) were largely the result of overcropping – expecting the vines to consistently produce a maximum number of grapes, between 5 and 10 tons per acre.

 

Bunch-thinning and vine management reduced the size of the crops but proved crucial in maintaining the health, vigour and survival of the delicate and “noble” vinifera vines.

 

More recently, a trend towards warmer winter temperatures – global warming? - has combined with good viticultural practices to enhance the survival rate of vinifera plantings.  Carefully chosen sites and scrupulous vineyard management have prevailed.

 

 

Building The Industry: The “Pop!” Wine Boom

 

The Grape Growers Association was established in 1961 by provincial government decree, not quite coincidentally, just in time to participate in the “Pop!” wine boom.

 

British Columbia consumers, through the 1960’s up until 1978, were discovering and enjoying “Pop!” wines.  This phenomenon was driven by the U.S. wine industry’s successful campaign to woo U.S. soft drink and beer drinkers with low alcohol carbonated wines that made a popping sound when opened.

 

There is an old European tradition of combining the remnants of all the wines at a party in a single bowl, at the end of an evening, and calling it the “cold end”.  The German word for end is ende.  German for duck is ente.  In the U.S. Cold Duck was devised as a low alcohol sparkling wine that not only attracted soft drink and beer drinking consumers but – at only 7% alcohol/volume – it also attracted less tax.

 

Andrés Wines introduced their version of Cold Duck in Canada in the mid-1960s.  They followed that with similar sweet red and white wines called Chanté. In 1971 they created Baby Duck – a soft-drink-sweet blend of red and white Chanté wines. 

 

Hugely successful, Baby Duck was the best-selling domestic wine during the 1970s and it hatched numerous imitators:  Canada Duck, Love-A-Duck, Kool Duck, Daddy Duck and Fuddle Duck were joined by Cold Turkey, etc… All of these wines driving the runaway expansion in the wine trade in the 1960s and 1970s were concocted from water, sugar and grapes that were judged unsuitable for making good quality dry table wines. 

 

Baby Duck was originally made from “musky” native labrusca varieties such as concord and bath - and Andrés simply couldn’t get enough of them.  As well as encouraging local grape growers to plant more of these high-yielding and hardy varieties, B.C. wineries were obliged to import grapes and inexpensive finished wines from California.

 

It was in this climate of accelerating demand and unquenchable growth that the Grape Growers Marketing Board was formed, in 1970, to negotiate grape purchasing contracts with B.C.’s major wineries and ensure that all of the B.C. wine grape crop found buyers, when imported grapes might be cheaper.  The Marketing Board’s negotiating influence effectively eliminated growers’ individual accountability for the quality of their grapes.

 

At the tail of the “Pop!” wine boom, in 1978, the L.D.B. had doubled its listings to 1470 different products, more than twice what they had ten years earlier.  Curious consumers were trying imported, dry, classic red and white wines from Europe and liking them.

 

The attempts of  big wineries to make classic wines with labrusca or hybrid grapes were seldom satisfactory.  But Growers had no incentive to plant fragile and lower-yeilding vinifera vines.  Something needed to be done to drag B.C. winemaking into a brighter future.  Of all the major wineries, only Mission Hill embraced the proposed changes.