On our wine tours, one of the questions consistently put to our guides is “when did the Okanagan wine industry start?” With that in mind, we thought we’d put together a brief history for those of you who are interested. Of course, this history is short and not intended to be comprehensive, but it does outline some of the important developments in the formation of the Okanagan wine industry.
The history of winemaking in the Okanagan Valley is long and storied and began with Father Charles Pandosy in 1859. Pandosy, a Frenchman, was the first European settler in the Okanagan area. An Oblate priest, Pandosy came to what is now Kelowna as a missionary. He noted that the land appeared fertile. Pandosy planted the first vines in the region, with the wine earmarked for Church sacramental purposes. While, Pandosy was the first, he was certainly not the last to plant vines in the valley.
Father Pandosy planted vines of the labrusca variety and while the wine produced from the grapes was suitable for sacramental purposes, it did not produce high-quality wines – the likes of which are now associated with the valley. Nevertheless, following Father Pandosy, a number of small wineries emerged. However, prohibition forced the wineries to remove their vines and plant other crops instead.
The next significant development came in 1925 when Charles Casorso planted vines in Rutland. 1930 saw Pete and Louis Casorso, Charles’ brothers, plant vines just off what is now Casorso Road in Kelowna. That vineyard presently supplies Sperling Vineyards.
The Casorsos were influential in launching Kelowna’s Calona Vineyards, which opened in the early 1930s. Calona Vineyards is British Columbia’s oldest continuously operating winery. Another significant event occurred in 1966, as that is the year that Mission Hill winery opened.
As the twentieth century progressed, Okanagan wineries started experimenting with hybrid grape varieties and eventually vinifera vines, allowing them to produce much better wines. The vinifera grapes produce wine of a high-quality and it is this development that has allowed the Okanagan to compete for wine awards on the world stage. However, it wasn’t until the latter part of the 1980s that vinifera vines really took hold in the Okanagan. This was thanks, in part, to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the influx of American wines on the Canadian market. As a result, the Canadian government introduced a vine pulling scheme where they paid growers to remove non-vinifera crops and replace them with vinifera vines.
It is from this point that the Okanagan wine industry has really grown in the last couple of decades to become what it is today.
To arrange a tour of some of the Okanagan’s wonderful wineries, please contact us.