In 1981, when Anthony von Mandl bought the winery that would become Mission Hill Family Estate in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, it was a gamble. Literally.
Von Mandl and I are sitting in the living room of his house, which is decorated with local folk art and Quebecois antiques, with views of Pinot Noir vines running down a hill toward slate blue Okanagan Lake. He tells the story of how he purchased Mission Hill, then a ramshackle collection of aluminum-sided sheds filled with "billions and billions" of fruit flies. "I'd pulled together all the money I had, all the financing available, and I was still about $100,000 short," he says. Knowing that the seller was a gambler, he made this proposition: "I suggested we toss coins for $20,000 off the asking price per tossand I won enough tosses to make up the difference."
Those aluminum-sided shacks are long gone. Von Mandl recently completed a new winery building at an estimated cost of $30 million. Surrounded by vineyards (there are 900 acres in total under von Mandl's control), the winery is surely one of North America's most beautiful. The winery's low, curved arches look out onto fertile grounds; in the central piazza, past a carved stone pelican (the bird is from the von Mandl family crest), is a 17th-century fountain originally from Austria. Visitorsand there are as many as 125,000 a yearcan look into the ground through an ancient Romanstyle oculus, which reveals the wine cellars blasted out of volcanic rock.
Von Mandl's art collection is another huge draw. In one room hangs Animal Tales, an enormous Chagall tapestry created by the painter and Parisian tapestry weaver Yvette Cauquil-Prince. In another room is a tapestry of a Paul Klee painting, woven by Cauquil-Prince 30 years after the artist's death. The Estate Room, a tasting room that visitors can tour upon request, houses a display of antique drinking vessels: 17th-century English glass flagons recovered from a shipwreck and, gently spotlighted in the center, a 2,400-year-old Greek amphora. In a separate vault is a display of Bronze Age and Chinese dynasty antiquities. Von Mandl amassed his impressive collection over the years, traveling around the world and asking trusted scouts to keep an eye out for potential acquisitions.
The story of Mission Hill's start, with those nerve-racking coin tosses, symbolizes just how risky the whole enterprise really was. In 1981, the Okanagan was not considered a premier wine region; it was known for jug wines and inferior varietals. Yet von Mandl, who began his career importing wine from a dirt-cheap office in the back of a Vancouver movie theater, believed in its potential. "I knew from the fruit!" he says. "From the stunning apples, pears, cherries, apricots. From the short, hot summers with their cool nights. I knew we could grow world-class grapes here."
And so, taking the profits he'd amassed by importing wines such as St. Jovian, an inexpensive Bordeaux that he made into Canada's best-selling white wine, he bought Mission Hill. It wasn't just the winery's decrepit condition that presented a challenge. Interest rates of 25 percent nearly put von Mandl out of business in the first few years. But he made some very good decisions early on. To keep money flowing in, he relaunched a hard apple cider the original winery had produced, increasing production from 18,000 cases to 300,000 in three years. He secured Canadian rights to California Cooler and Corona beer and created Mike's Hard Lemonade; all three became huge sellers.
"But all of this was to realize the vision," he says. And that vision has always focused on fine wine. Here von Mandl made some very good decisions too. One of the best was hiring winemaker John Simes in 1992. Fresh from a prestigious win for his Sauvignon Blanc at England's International Wine and Spirit Competition, Simes left New Zealand's Montana Wines (known in the United States as Brancott Vineyards) to work at Mission Hill. Soon he began winning more prizes in London. "The judges thought they'd made a mistake" when they gave the trophy for Best Chardonnay to Mission Hill's 1992 Grand Reserve Barrel Select, von Mandl recalls. "They said, 'It's from the Okanag...where?'"
Von Mandl and Simes both enjoy defying expectations and bucking trendsespecially the trend, led by California, toward very rich, dense, high-extract wines. According to von Mandl, "We're looking for elegance and finesse, wines that go well with food. We're much more rooted in Bordeaux and the Rhône that way."
Chef Michael Allemeier, who oversees the winery's Terrace restaurant, is grateful for this. Allemeier came to Mission Hill from Bishop's, the legendary Vancouver restaurant, last July. "This is where chefs want to go when they die," he quips, standing in the immaculate, top-of-the-line-everything kitchen.
Allemeier's cuisine is meticulously built around Mission Hill wines and local artisanal ingredients. He gets torpedo onions from a farm in Kelowna and organic hazelnuts from a farmer in Oliver, 15 varieties of heirloom tomatoes from a grower in East Kelowna and wild boar from a ranch in Enderby. "I can't understand chefs who want to buy their toilet paper and their produce from the same people," Allemeier says. When I ask him about the crates of yellow-skinned fruit I noticed stacked in the corner of one of the wine cellars, he says, "Oh, those. Quince. The dishwasher's boyfriend grew 8,000 pounds. See, those are the kind of relationships we want."
Allemeier's mission is to build flavor bridges between his food and Mission Hill's bottlings, and to that end, many of his recipes use wine as an ingredient. The shrimp he tosses in a vibrant salad with grapefruit and fennel get simmered first in a gingery broth spiked with Pinot Blanc. A generous dose of Pinot Gris enhances his creamy smoked-salmon bisque, and the Bordeaux-style Oculus is used to marinate and braise the meat for his succulent beef and vegetable stew with celery-root puree.
The last time I speak with von Mandl, we meet under the archway of the piazza in the late afternoon. He's off to London in the morning to present the same prestigious wine award that marked Mission Hill's earliest success. As the sun sets dramatically over the lake and the bell tower casts a long shadow, it's easy to imagine that von Mandl has accomplished all he's set out to do.
Von Mandl doesn't feel that way. "This is my life's work!" he says. And off he goes.
Timothy Taylor's first novel, Stanley Park, about a chef in Vancouver, was nominated for Canada's prestigious Giller Prize.