Winemaker Won’t Rest on Laurels

Anthony von Mandl, owner of Mission Hill Family Estate Winery, has a new artisanal winery called CheckMate
Mission Hill Family Estate Winery in B.C.
Mission Hill Family Estate Winery in B.C.

ANTHONY VON MANDL puts his money where his palate is.

If you’re not familiar with the name, von Mandl is the proprietor of Mission Hill Family Estate Winery in West Kelowna, BC, and the Vancouver-based Mark Anthony Wine & Spirits importing agency.

In November 2015, von Mandl sold off the Mark Anthony Group’s ready-to-drink brands, including Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Palm Bay vodka soda, Okanagan Premium Cider and Stanley Park beers, to Labatt for a reported US$350 million.

One could expect a man might, after such a coup, retire for a life of leisure, free from the pressures of the business world. Or, if he is so passionate about wine, he might buy himself a vineyard in Burgundy, a château in Bordeaux or a property in Napa near to where his hero, the late Robert Mondavi, built his winery and on which von Mandl modelled the redesign of Mission Hill.

But von Mandl is not a man to rest on his laurels. I first met him in 1976 in the cellars of Louis Roederer Champagne in Reims, France. At the age of 22, he was representing his uncle Josef Milz, who owned a winery in the Mosel wine region.

My next point of contact was in 1981 while researching my book, Vintage Canada. I had heard that von Mandl had purchased the Mission Hill winery from Ben Ginter. Ginter originally dubbed the property Uncle Ben’s Gourmet Wines, and legend has it that the deal was sealed with a best-of-five coin toss. (Ginter, incidentally, owns a minor footnote in Canadian history as the man who created a Baby Duck knock-off called Fuddle Duck. The beverage was inspired by Pierre Trudeau mouthing un-parliamentary language in the House of Commons on February 16, 1971, and trying to exonerate himself later by claiming the phrase he used was not “f--- off” but “fuddle duddle.”)

Anthony von Mandl invested heavily in Mission Hill, and in 1992 he lured Montana Wines’ chief winemaker, John Simes, from New Zealand to settle in the Okanagan. Simes repaid his employer’s gamble by winning the Avery Trophy for the Best Chardonnay at the 1994 International Wine & Spirits Competition in London with his Mission Hill Grand Reserve Chardonnay 1992.

Once the wines improved under Simes’s watch, von Mandl turned his sights on the winery. He invested $35 million in the purchase of vineyards and the redesigning of the Mission Hill cellars and the building above them, complete with a 12-storey bell tower with four bells that were cast in France. The results were stunning, and Mission Hill became BC’s destination winery.

In January 2014, von Mandl announced that he had purchased CedarCreek Estate Winery in Kelowna from former senator Ross Fitzpatrick, an acquisition that added more vineyard land to the Mission Hill group, now totaling some 800 hectares.

In 2015 von Mandl finished the construction of his Martin’s Lane winery in Kelowna, named for his late father. This state-of-the-art facility concentrates on Pinot Noir and Riesling. (At the 2013 Decanter World Wine Awards, Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir 2011 took the trophy for the Best Pinot Noir in the World in the “under £15” category, which prompted the building of a winery dedicated to this brand.)

The latest enterprise of the indefatigable Anthony von Mandl is CheckMate Artisanal Winery, set high in the hills of the southern Okanagan at the old Domaine Combret Estate Winery facility in Oliver, BC. Here the concentration is on Chardonnay and Merlot. To make these wines, Von Mandl reached out to an Australian winemaker at Williams Selyem Winery on the banks of Sonoma County’s Russian River. Philip McGahan, a lawyer who saw the light and turned to wine, began his winemaking career in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. A quiet, studious man, McGahan had gained a great reputation as a Chardonnay specialist.

CheckMate’s chess motif is carried through to the names of the six Chardonnays produced in the Okanagan: Queen Taken, Attack, Little Pawn, Capture, Knight’s Challenge, and Fool’s Mate.

I am here to tell you that these are some of the best Chardonnays I have tasted from Canadian vineyards. If there were a Grand Cru system for wines grown along the Golden Mile Bench the Okanagan’s first and only sub-appellation so far all of these wines would merit inclusion. I say that without reservation because I attended a blind tasting in Toronto recently at which the CheckMate portfolio was pitted against some top white Burgundies and Chardonnays from Sonoma and Argentina, all vintage 2014.

The CheckMate Chardonnays are not inexpensive. They range in price from $80 (Fool’s Mate) to $125 a bottle (Queen Taken) and are available for purchase online only to members of the CheckMate Club. Or, you might discover them on some exclusive restaurant wine lists.

For his contribution to the Canadian wine industry, Anthony von Mandl was awarded the Order of Canada in June 2016. The citation read: “(for) innovative contributions to grape growing in the Okanagan, and for creating world-class and award-winning wines that have enhanced Canada’s international reputation in this industry.”

Well-deserved recognition indeed.

Tony Aspler is the author of 17 books on wine, including his latest, Canadian Wineries.