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Sandhill: Back in time with Kelowna’s urban winery

by Sipping through the Okanagan, Wine & Food

1932
Kelowna

Another revamp is underway for British Columbia’s original winery (established in 1932), including the soft fade to black for its oldest label, Calona Vineyards. Its signature varietal table wine, Sovereign Opal, will be presented under the Sandhill label. 

The urban winery in downtown Kelowna has welcomed not only the wines of Wayne Gretzky Estates but will transform its tasting room, adding a craft brewery and a rooftop patio. 

For Sandhill, a smaller intimate tasting room will honour the boutique winery’s immigrant roots, focusing on small lots including Italian varietals of Sangiovese and Barbera.  

It was the early 1930s when Giuseppe Ghezzi reached out to investors Cap Capozzi and W.A.C. Bennett to invest in Calona Vineyards. In the 1960s, they developed one of the first large vineyards in Kelowna. The conglomerate Cascadia Brands bought Calona in 1971, sold its vineyard investment and opted to simply buy grapes.

The roots of the current parent company also run deep. Peller Estates, which acquired Cascadia Brands in 2005, was founded by Hungarian immigrant and entrepreneur Andrew Peller.

“My grandfather started our business in the Okanagan nearly 60 years ago, and we have always been inspired by the Valley’s promise to make wines that rival the very best in the world,” says current president and CEO John Peller. John took the reins from his father Joseph in 1995.

Originally named Andrés Wines, Peller Estates started with a plant in Port Moody in 1961 (producing the infamous Baby Duck) and quickly expanded across the country. In 2020, its expansive wine and spirits portfolio earned over $382 million in sales.

Why now is the time to join a wine club

We turn the corner and I spy our table, elegantly set with wine glasses — four to a setting. I’m just a bit excited as there’s already a glass in my hand as I approach my seat for the guided wine tasting. 

The golden wine in my glass is exquisite, offered to me when I walked through the doorway of the winery and greeted by name. 

This is a concierge service. This is VIP service. This is wine club service.

Despite the winter day, the view is breathtaking from the tasting salon windows (offering nearly a 180 degree vista). The vineyards stretch as far as one can see, up the hillside, down the valley and up the other side of the valley. We’re tasting in the heart of wine country in Oliver, B.C.

Our host presents a distinctive small food pairing designed to accentuate each varietal wine. For the next 40 minutes, we’re guided through an engaging conversation about the wines on our panel, learning about the distinct vineyards they hail from. 

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Mission Hill Estate Winery delights wine club members with an exquisite flight of wines, each thoughtfully paired with a delectable small bite. This curated selection showcases the perfect harmony between the wines and gourmet accompaniments, offering a sophisticated tasting experience. Photo by Yvonne Turgeon

These premium wines and elevated tasting experience, often overlooked by locals in the Okanagan, shine for their outstanding quality and service, offering a level of excellence that is difficult to rival. Yet, this experience faces the threat of vanishing.

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Jesce and Charlie Baessler remain optimistic about B.C. wines and have committed to replant the vineyards at their Similkameen Valley winery. 

Wine clubs offer a dual benefit: treating members as VIPs while supporting vineyard owners and winery entrepreneurs during challenging times. This $2.1 billion industry requires our support more than ever.

The harsh winters of December 2022 and January 2024 have inflicted unprecedented damage on Okanagan and Similkameen Valley vineyards, leading to significant crop losses for many. Despite this, the resilience of farmers and the optimism of small business owners, like the team at Corcelettes Estate Winery near Keremeos, shine through. They’re embracing this challenge with a comprehensive replanting program, aiming to innovate, enhance sustainability, and improve wine quality.

At Corcellettes, Charlie and Jesce Baessler have decided to undertake an extensive replant program. In their note to wine club members, they share, “We continue to look for lessons in these last two winter events, and our need for innovation has never been greater. There is good news though— we have an opportunity to replant and rearrange varietals to more complimenting areas and soils across our five unique vineyards, use the latest technology and materials to increase our environmental sustainability, and no doubt, improve the wine quality you’ve all come to love from Corcelettes.”

At Tantalus Vineyards in South East Kelowna, the extent of total vine damage will not be fully known until Spring but is estimated at essentially 100 percent. 

The team recently shared, “We are simply heart broken by this latest hit, particularly after last year’s damage from the December 2022 winter. But we wanted to share that we have been actively working in the background alongside our industry peers and governing organizations to steer towards a path to sustainable recovery, however that may look. Despite these setbacks, Tantalus remains committed to our team of passionate individuals and to forging ahead with tending to this special site.”

Naramata wineries like Tightrope Winery have been out in the vineyard starting some winter pruning—and also hoping for the best. As their recent social media post relays, they are “giving the vines some love after what has been a tough winter so far.”

I urge you to do more than share their hashtags of #shoplocal and #smallbusinessupport. 

Love B.C. wine? Support your favourite small boutique wineries by signing up for their wine clubs. 

Now is a critical period for B.C. wineries as they try to project cash flow for 2025, 2026 and 2027, years where there may be a scant amount of wine available for release — if any at all. Having a dedicated group of wine club members could be the pivotal factor that enables them to remain operational through these sparse years. 

Your support could be the game changer that keeps them in business.


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About The Author

Yvonne Turgeon

A published columnist and features contributor, our publisher Yvonne Turgeon has an editorial career spanning three decades. She loves writing, wine and all things Okanagan (but hasn't given up her Rider green). She is the founder of Thompson Okanagan Trends Magazine and new publisher of Orchard & Vine Magazine. Subscribe to the print magazines.

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