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He may already own three Okanagan wineries, but this innovative proprietor is just getting started.
Imagine an It’s a Wonderful Life scenario in which Anthony von Mandl was never born. The Okanagan, far from the swank destination it’s become, looks like a slightly updated version of its pre-1980 self—lots of A&Ws, a few steakhouses and duelling Super 8s lining Kelowna’s Harvey Avenue, housing road-tripping families who like to take back a crate of peaches to Red Deer in the back of the Grand Caravan. The wineries, such as they are, would be of two camps: the behemoths, cranking out jug wine from whatever grapes they were able to get to max ripeness, or a handful of very niche spots, seldom tasted, visited even less, hoping desperately that someone from Wine Spectator might stumble upon them and make them a star. B.C. consumers, having never been exposed to local wine, would be content with a selection at the BCLDB that mirrors that on the shelves of the Safeway in Bellingham—at double the price. And our wine lists would likewise be doctrinaire affairs, indistinguishable from those of the Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Indianapolis. Talk about a nightmare.
But, thankfully, none of this happened. Instead, in 1981, a 31-year-old Tony Mandl, possessing altogether too much moxie and not nearly enough cash, decided to buy one of the five wineries in the Okanagan when interest rates were pushing 20 percent and the local wine happily doubled as gum remover. And then with Mission Hill Family Estate, he set about the absurd task of making wine that would stand on par with the greats he had tasted in his travels to Europe. And when—against all odds—the first few accolades came pouring in (like the 1994 chardonnay winning Gold at London’s International Wine and Spirits Competition), he didn’t do the sane thing and take the profits and run, but instead plowed the money (and then some) back into hiring up-and-coming Seattle architect Tom Kundig to create not just the most impressive winery in B.C. or in Canada, but one that eclipsed anything in Washington or Oregon as well. And then he set up a restaurant that eschewed casualness in favour of creating great food to pair with wines in a setting so spectacular that it still ranks among the world’s best.
Perhaps the craziest aspect of all is that with his ultra-premium CheckMate Artisanal Winery setting its sights on being at the perfect climatological locus of future wine greatness, and the likewise ultra-premium temple of pinot and riesling that is Martin’s Lane just opening its new winery doors, we may simply be at the halfway point in this innovator’s career.