How Anthony von Mandl is leading the organic wine movement in British Columbia
A four hour drive east of Vancouver is the wine country of Western Canada. The Okanagan Valley is a summer playground for wine enthusiasts, golfers, water sports fanatics, and visitors to the area’s many resorts. The 155-mile valley is home to 84 percent of British Columbia’s vineyard plantations, which include everything from Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah to Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling. According to WineBC.com, the valley has just over 8,800 acres of vines with an equal split between white and red varieties.
The current proportion of certified organic wineries in the Okanagan Valley is approximately 5 percent. By comparison, IWSR data released by Forbes in 2019 cites the global organic production rate at around 3.6%. By the end of 2021, 20% of vineyards are expected to be certified organic, pushing the region to claim one of the highest proportions of certified organic vineyards of any wine region in the world.
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In the foreground is Anthony Von Mandl, founder of the Mark Anthony Group, who in addition to creating White Claw Hard Seltzer and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, leads the charge of organic certification with six wineries in British Columbia. The campaign to increase the number of organic wineries in the Okanagan Valley is led by the Mark Anthony Vineyard Group, which has gone through various stages of organic transition over the past three years. Once certified, the flagship region of British Columbia will increase from 5% to 20%.
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The Mark Anthony Group oversees many BC wine brands, but six wineries in particular are involved in the organic business: Mission Hill Family Estate, CedarCreek Estate Winery, Road 13 Vineyards, Liquidity Wines, Martin’s Lane and Checkmate Artisanal Winery. (The Mark Anthony Group has declined to verify exactly how many brands it oversees, likely aimed at maintaining the distinction between its organic businesses and the non-VQA or craft-focused brands it owns.)
Robert Achurch, the group’s senior winemaker for wineries in the southern part of the valley, says the directive to go organic came from above. âIt’s top to bottom 100%. It is Anthony’s belief that it is the right thing to do as steward of the land. The idea of ââleaving her in a much better shape than the way we found her.
A step back from von Mandl is Darryl Brooker, president of Mission Hill, who was the CedarCreek winemaker when the organic transition talks began six years ago. âIt took us about 18 months to two years to do our research, travel the world and see how others are doing it,â he says. âConverting a 20 acre vineyard is one thing, but converting so many wineries in different parts of the valley was a much bigger undertaking. “
Although the vines are scattered throughout the valley, most of the vines (especially in the central part of the valley) are adjacent to Okanagan Lake. CedarCreek’s current winemaker, Taylor Whelan, says that fact alone has been a big inspiration for change. âIt’s pretty easy to understand that the runoff from the vineyards goes straight back into the lake,â he says. âThis is also where our drinking water comes from. This is where recreation takes place. This is where we get water for agriculture. So it’s a pretty closed loop here. We came to the conclusion that we did not want to continually introduce new types of pollution and contaminants, such as Roundup, into the system.
Plan the organic transition over 3 years
The proposal to switch approximately 1,300 acres of vines from six wineries to organic viticulture and winemaking was noble. Instead of delegating a small team to oversee the progress, von Mandl and Brooker agreed to leave responsibility for the vineyards with two main winemakers, one at the northern end of the valley and one at the south. The responsibility of the wine transition, however, was to sit down with the winemaker of each winery.
Whelan says he appreciates the decision: âIt’s the only realistic way to do it. Each winemaker has a unique way of making wine, using a certain set of products, âhe says. Winemakers, including Whelan, âneed to go through the process and find the procedures and products that will work for them. [them] post-transition. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
Organic winemaking standards limit the type and amounts of yeast, yeast nutrients, and filtration. Add to that the differences in soils and microclimates, and a preferred strain of yeast in one area may behave completely differently in another. Each winemaker should be able to choose the variants that best suit the style of wine they want to make.
In the vineyards, Brooker says staggering the transition over three years was a strategic approach. The transitions began in the northern vineyards, followed by the central part of the valley in the second year, then finally the southern vineyards in the third year. âWe spread it out over three years so that we could learn and transfer that learning as we go,â says Booker.
Part of this learning process, according to Achurch, is having a good understanding of the valley’s soils and the fruits it produces. This itself can take years of research, even outside of organic farming. âYou plant in it and you see fruit three to four years later, then you see quality fruit eight years later, then you start to see its true character 15 years later. It’s definitely a long game, âhe said.
Achurch says the main goal of organic transition has been to better understand how to make the soil more self-sufficient. The soils of the Okanagan Valley vary in nutrients and density. In the southern sections, most of the soils are either sand or rock based, both of which are well drained, meaning they don’t hold much moisture or nutrients.
âOur goal has been to increase soil structure and water-holding capacities in compost and cover crops so that nutrients and a wide variety of soil life can be maintained,â Achurch said, adding : “I would say this has been our biggest challenge, but it’s also the biggest success. The amount of understanding we have in our soils now, compared to before we started the journey, is insane.”
An overview of organic wine making in the Okanagan
Organic viticulture has been a part of the region’s history since the 1980s. At that time, it was mostly organic producers who sold to various wineries, including the Buchler family in Oliver, the Harbeck family in Okanagan Falls and the Hainle family in Peachland. However, there was no organic wine standard in Canada at the time.
Summerhill Pyramid Winery CEO Ezra Cipes says part of her family’s legacy has been helping create this standard. âWhen we started in 1987, the time it took to go from conventional to organic was seven years,â he says. âNow it’s been three years. “
One of the most important aspects Summerhill pioneered in helping to reduce the time taken to make the transition to organic farming has been one of the most important aspects of the vegetation cover management techniques. Before the establishment of national standards, few believed that quality wine could be produced without exposing the soil.
Cipes continues, âOur winemaking team was part of the board responsible for creating the national standards for organic wine in Canada. There were no standards for organic wine in Canada until 2007.â¦ We shared everything we learned with the BC wine industry so we could all live in a healthy community that does something. of which we are all proud.
Coincidentally outside of organic farming, Summerhill and CedarCreek have had a relationship for decades. âWe have been neighboring winegrowers for 30 years. Now the three vineyards on our bench [Summerhill, CedarCreek, and neighboring St. Hubertus] are organic, âCipes says. “I am extremely proud that our common hillside of vineyards has evolved in this way, and our friendship and collaboration have never been stronger.”
What this means for the Okanagan and Canadian wine
For the global wine industry, assumptions that organic wine is less upscale or not as good as regular wine are long gone. Winegrowers and producers such as Bonterra in California or Frog’s Leap in Napa also continue to allay such suspicions for consumers.
âEven though we have these restrictions on what we’re allowed to do in the cellar and vineyards, the thing I’m most proud of is that the wines keep improving,â said Whelan. âWe get better and better every year. “
For Brooker, chasing after first place in the world for the highest proportion of certified organic vineyards is somewhat of a moot point. âThe data is always two or three years old. Because there are so many certification bodies, it is difficult to get the exact data.
A 2019 news article published by BeverageDaily indicates that France has increased its organic vineyards by 250 percent over the previous decade. Nationwide, 10 percent of vineyards planted are organic with some regions, like Alsace, allegedly up to 17 percent. But Booker still believes the Okanagan has a chance to overcome that. âWe have a chance, as a valley, to have the highest percentage of cultivated land in the world,â he says.
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