Mission Hill Winery

Guided by the grape

Sampling the craft, technique and passion of the Iconic Wineries of British Columbia.

When approaching Mission Hill Family Estate from the air, it’s the winery’s dramatic 12-story bell tower punctuating a clear blue sky that first captures one’s attention. This is a citadel in the service of world-class ultra-premium wines situated predominantly overlooking British Columbia’s pristine Okanagan Valley. From its magnificent hilltop perch, Mission Hill has come to represent the finest winemaking—not only within Canada, but globally—a timeless landmark, heralded by The New York Times as “the Versailles of the Valley.”

Mission Hill Winery
Mission Hill Family Estate with its signature bell tower

The Okanagan Valley is one of the world’s last great undiscovered wine regions, extending north from the Canada-US border for 100 miles (160 kilometers). Formed by volcanic activity and not one, but two glacial ages, this is winemaking on the edge. Wild and elusive, the unique latitude and altitude conspire to create an ideal landscape for producing wines with tremendous elegance and distinctiveness.  

The dramatic tone established by this breathtaking setting signals something very important is happening here. The visuals whet the appetite for what is yet to come—a taste of some of Canada’s most coveted wines. The Okanagan is one of the world’s smallest wine producing regions with just under 11,000 acres under vine, compared to 43,000 in Napa and 270,000 in Bordeaux. A vintage of a particular wine might produce as little as a dozen barrels, wines that are prized by collectors around the globe.

Today, the Okanagan is home to 340 wineries and a vibrant agro-tourism industry. It’s an amazing discovery—with the feel of Napa perhaps 25 years ago—one of the most breathtaking places on the planet to make great wine.  

Almost half a century ago, the story here was quite different. That’s when Anthony von Mandl, who began his career importing wine out of a 100-square-foot office in the back of Vancouver’s local civic theatre, set out “without a dime to his name” to build his dream. At the time, there was just a handful of wineries in the region, none of them producing anything of note, but he believed in the Okanagan’s winemaking potential. 

Anthony von Mandl, Founder of the Iconic Wineries of British Columbia
Anthony von Mandl, Founder of the Iconic Wineries of British Columbia

Von Mandl is a deeply private and humble individual, yet his self-assurance and drive has allowed him to achieve what can only be described as an audacious dream: “To build one of the world’s 10 most recognized wineries in a region few have even heard of.” 

A bold vision, with numerous obstacles to overcome from the onset—starting with the fact that no one believed in his outrageous dream, let alone was prepared to invest. His only option was to completely self-finance. “I had to be creative and build entire new businesses to self-finance my dream.” Driven by an innovative spirit and sheer determination, he built his Mark Anthony Group into a multi-billion-dollar global drinks company, whose hallmarks include a portfolio of iconic wineries, handcrafted spirits and ready to drink beverage brands.   

Von Mandl was born in Vancouver and his parents relocated the family to Vienna, Austria, when he was nine, where their lives were immersed in all aspects of European history, art and culture. 

After graduating university in 1972, von Mandl apprenticed in the wine trade in Europe before returning to Vancouver to begin his career as a wine importer at the age of 22—he was the first in Canada to call himself a wine merchant. After several incredibly challenging years, he turned his passion to winemaking in the Okanagan Valley. In 1981, he risked everything to purchase a near bankrupt winery, one of only five wineries in the valley at the time, renaming it Mission Hill after its incredible hilltop location.

Red Barn Winery Okanagan
Red Barn Winery in the stunning setting of the Okanagan Valley's Black Sage Bench

That same year, von Mandl was invited to speak to the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce, in which he described his vision for the region: “When I look out over the valley, I see world-class vinifera vineyards winding their way down the valley, numerous estate wineries, each distinctively different, charming inns and B&B cottages, seducing tourists from around the world … In short, the dream is the Napa Valley of Canada, but much more.” He received polite applause from the membership, and they wished him well. 

The next year, the future looked anything but promising as inflation soared to 21 percent—it took everything he had just to keep his business afloat. “I had to continue to drive sales…but sales of what?” The winery had been producing some cider, but it tasted terrible; he had hardly given it a second look. “I quickly learned that innovation comes from desperation.” The imaginative entrepreneur went to Switzerland to work with experts in flavor innovation and packaging design to create the world’s first flavored hard ciders. Consumers loved the brand, and he tripled the size of the cider market in Canada, which kept his winery dream alive. 

This ingenuity proved successful again in 1996, when von Mandl created an entirely new alcohol beverage category: ready-to-drink spirits, with the launch of Mike’s Hard Lemonade—a brand that has become an American icon. In 2016, his White Claw Hard Seltzer completely transformed the U.S. drinks industry and became a social phenomenon—the most successful new beverage launched in America since prohibition. His latest venture is a collaboration with football legend Lionel Messi to create a next generation hydration drink that will make a positive impact on people’s health and wellness, globally. Despite his many successes, one can never lose sight of the fact that each one of these initiatives grew out of sheer necessity to self-finance his winemaking dream. 

It took 13 long years before von Mandl finally realized his winemaking dream had legs when Mission Hill stunned the wine world by winning the trophy for Top Chardonnay Worldwide at the 1994 International Wine & Spirit Competition in London. In 2013, lightning struck twice when Mission Hill won Top Pinot Noir in the World at the Decanter World Wine Awards, the world’s most prestigious wine competition. 

Little Pawn Chardonnay - CheckMate Artisanal Winery
Little Pawn Chardonnay from von Mandl's CheckMate Artisanal Winery continues the legacy of exceptional chardonnays with five consecutive 100-point scores.

Following the Top Chardonnay win in London, von Mandl realized that award-winning wines weren’t enough to place the Okanagan on the world wine map. Someone had to build a destination winery that would attract visitors from the world over. With this objective in mind, he set out on an international search and met Tom Kundig in Seattle, a young, then-unknown architect who shared his vision. “Little did I know that Tom would go on to become one of America’s greatest contemporary architects.”

Together, they assembled teams of craftsmen from all corners of the globe to transform Mission Hill into an architecturally stunning international landmark. The winery asserts Kundig’s modernist sensibility and reflects von Mandl’s meticulous precision and personal touches at every turn. “We are rushing through life,” says von Mandl, “the intention in the design is to transition the visitor from the hurried pace of daily life into the world of winemaking.” 

An elemental experience awaits the visitor with art objects by the likes of Henry Moore and Marc Chagall, invoking a state of immersion and wonderment throughout the estate, inviting visitors to slow down pause and appreciate an experience that stimulates all the senses.

Mission Hill’s Bordeaux-styled red wine, Oculus, is the ultimate expression of the Okanagan Valley. This wine, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, perennially scores in the high 90s and is the result of the meticulous selection of grapes that have been specifically nurtured for this ultra-premium rare wine.

Winemakers come from around the world and deploy their artistry to harness the promise of the valley’s diverse soils, deposited by retreating glaciers, that are especially suitable for producing disparate grape varieties. This means that different vineyard blocks planted with the same grapes can yield vastly different flavor profiles, due to the soil influences amplified by variations often referred to as a site’s micro-climate.

Martin's Lane Winery, designed by Tom Kundig
Martin's Lane Winery in the Okanagan Valley, designed by Tom Kundig

While Mission Hill is Canada’s only five-time Winery of the Year, von Mandl’s collection of Okanagan wineries also includes Martin’s Lane Winery, named after his late father Dr. Martin von Mandl, which focuses on just two varieties: Pinot Noir and Riesling. Further south, CheckMate Artisanal Winery produces extremely limited quantities of Merlot and Chardonnay, which have been awarded the pinnacle of winemaking excellence—five consecutive perfect 100-point scores. 

At Martin’s Lane, which made its debut in 2018, von Mandl once again teamed with Tom Kundig to capture the raw, rugged elements of the surrounding landscape in the design. Carved deep into a mountainside, the six-level winery is entirely gravity-fed, meaning no pumps or other intrusive machinery is employed in the winemaking process. The winery is purpose-built to handcraft Pinot Noir, the most challenging wine to make, so delicate it has a well-earned reputation as the “heartbreak grape.” 

Von Mandl has always taken a long-term approach to his craft. Nowhere is this more evident than in the family’s Estate vineyards that have now been converted to 100% organic farming. This ground-breaking undertaking is critical for preserving the pristine natural environment of this region, and further driving the quality of the wines. 

Martin's Lane Winery
Spiral staircase at Martin's Lane Winery

In addition to winegrowing, the Okanagan Valley provides a remarkable bounty of local natural ingredients featured at Mission Hill’s seasonal outdoor Terrace, named “One of the Top Five Winery Restaurants in the World” by Travel+Leisure magazine. Here the winery chefs curate an unforgettable al fresco dining experience with dishes that feature local, sustainably sourced food, paired perfectly with Mission Hill’s award-winning wines. 

It’s quite likely that, absent von Mandl, the winemaking trajectory of the Okanagan Valley may well have taken a different turn. Having delivered on his vision for the region with astonishing precision, what’s left for von Mandl to achieve in the region is anybody’s guess. But it’s a sure thing that he’ll keep at it—tireless, fearless and ever ready for the next challenge.

“We know there is no such thing as perfection,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what awards you win, what recognition you have. The only thing in the world that is perfect is nature itself.”

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