Food / Things I Like / Travel

Where the Sonoran desert ends… a day in the Okanagan Valley

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Kelowna (pronounced “coll-oh-nah”), British Columbia, sits at the northernmost tip of the Sonoran Desert. You know, the one that starts in Mexico. Its terminus is in Canada. I didn’t know that until quite recently. Shielded from the Pacific by several mountain ranges and situated in the arid desert north, Kelowna and the Okanagan Valley is a sweet spot for winemaking. And although probably well known to Canadians, the Okanagan feels like an undiscovered gem to me. One that others should visit now while it still has rugged edges and an unassuming quality.

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Recently I was lucky to be along for a spectacular tour of the Mission Hill Winery in the Okanagan Valley, as a guest of Anthony von Mandl, the proprietor. I was there with members of the Distinguished Restaurants of North America. The visit capped off a week of amazing gastronomy in Vancouver. More on that to come in the near future.

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Von Mandl has already been honored for his contribution to Okanagan viniculture, and has a background in wine selling to boot. But establishing and running a winery takes major bucks and he earned his the hard way… by inventing and distributing Mike’s Hard Lemonade. He has plowed his malty profits into the creation of the Mission Hill Winery as an homage to his family and as a cornerstone for the future.

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Every detail matters. From your first glimpse of the winery via a narrow driveway that tapers into a controlled entry (to frame a view) to the proportions of the buildings. And the wine? It’s remarkable, too. Truthfully, you could visit Mission Hill and not taste a sip, demur all offers of morsels, and still enjoy yourself. The view plus the architecture make the experience memorable. Designed by architects Olson Kundig, the winery has the feel of a European monastery but also feels timeless. This is intentional. There’s a bell tower, sweeping views of vineyards and the lake and then there’s the symbolic imagery of pelicans. Pelicans are sacred to von Mandl, representing caring and self-sacrifice.

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Because I was tagging along with restaurateurs and chefs, I got to experience the gastronomic side of Mission Hill, not just taste the wines. From our first glass of rose and freshly baked gougères to a visit to the winery’s teaching kitchen and garden, we advanced to the von Mandl dining room whereupon we feasted upon Chef Matthew Batey’s creations. When Batey describes the food all I can hear is “nom, nom, nom, poetry.”

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I’m not an oenophile so I won’t attempt to describe the wines I tried. They were really good and paired with fresh food prepared by Batey, the experience felt exceptional, luxurious and nurturing.

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Note: I was not compensated for my visit to Mission Hill, but they did feed me and give me wine to drink on-site, so that sort of counts; however, they did not ask me to write about them in any way.

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