History of Wine Making in the Okanagan

History of Wine Making in the Okanagan

The first vines in the province were planted for the purpose of making sacramental wine at the Oblate mission, established in 1859 near the present-day site of the Summerhill Pyramid winery. Commercial winemaking became a serious endeavour in the 1920s, but Prohibition stymied development, and government became a regulator rather than an encourager of winemaking talent.

History of Wine Making in the Okanagan - Calona VineyardsIt wasn’t until W.A.C. Bennett—one of the original partners in what today is known as Calona Vineyards, the oldest operating vintner in the province—became premier in 1952 that government turned its attention to fostering the industry. The province looked favourably upon local industry and in 1962 mandated that bottles labelled as B.C. wine had to contain wine made with at least 50 per cent B.C. grape juice. The proportion increased to 65 per cent in 1965, then 80 per cent in 1969. Acreage increased as local juice requirements did; between 1961 and 1970, the B.C. grape harvest rose from 1,600 tons to 9,038 tons.

Soon after, in 1974, a federal trial of vinifera grape varieties from Helmut Becker of Germany’s Geisenheim Research Institute showed the potential for widespread plantings of noble, rather than hybrid or native Vitis labrusca varieties. The province began licensing estate wineries in 1980, and by the time the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement took effect in 1989, the province had 13 registered wineries.

Major Milestones

  • 1859: First grape vines in the province are planted, to produce sacramental wine at the Oblate mission near Kelowna.
  • 1920s: Prohibition stymies development just as B.C. winemaking gets off the ground.
  • 1952: W.A.C. Bennett, an original partner in what today is known as Calona Wines, becomes premier; he would be premier until 1972.
  • 1962: Provincial government decrees that wine labelled “B.C.” must be made from at least 50 per cent B.C.-grown grapes.
  • 1965: Wine labelled “B.C.” must be made from at least 65 per cent B.C.-grown grapes.
  • 1969: Wine labelled “B.C.” must be made from at least 80 per cent B.C.-grown grapes.
  • 1961: B.C. grape harvest: 1,600 tons.
  • 1970: B.C. grape harvest: 9,038 tons.
  • 1974: A federally funded trial finds that B.C. is suited for growing noble, rather than hybrid or native Vitis labrusca varieties of grape.
  • 1978: Province of B.C. issues first estate winery license.
  • 1989: Canada-U.S. Free Trade pact takes effect.
  • 1989: Federal and provincial governments fund a massive pullout of older vines and replanting with vinifera varieties.
  • 1990: Provincial legislation creates the B.C. Wine Institute; the VQA appellation is created.
  • 1994: Mission Hill receives Best Chardonnay award at the International Wine & Spirit Competition (widely recognized as putting B.C. wine on the international map).
  • 2005: Provincial government establishes the B.C. Wine Authority to administer a new set of production standards for B.C. wine.
  • 2012: Federal government amends the 1928 Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act with Bill C-311, suggesting inter-provincial free trade in wine may be near.
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