Anyone who has made the pilgrimage to the Napa Valley can understand that terms like "jaw-dropping" and "over-the-top" do not begin to meet the challenge of describing the massive, theatrical and ostentatious wineries that have been built there in the past two decades.
Even little old Walla Walla boasts a mansion-turned-winery — Basel Cellars — whose sheer size and audacious use of exotic hardwoods leaves the unprepared visitor gasping for adjectives.
But if I were asked to name the North American winery that best captures the beauty, the history, the industry and the magic of the total wine experience, that dazzles with finesse as well as sheer power, and that invites the visitor to return, again and again, to make discoveries, it would be Mission Hill Family Estate in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley.
Owner Anthony von Mandl bought the property in 1981. Apart from a spectacular hilltop view just across Lake Okanagan from the town of Kelowna, its main feature was an abandoned winery. "Deplorable" is how von Mandl remembers the condition of his new purchase. At the time, Okanagan wines were not much better. But from the vantage point of 2003, visitors to Mission Hill can look back and see that the impossible dream von Mandl nurtured — to build a world-class winery and make world-class wines — has come true.
"I wanted to create a place that would give wine lovers a reason to come to an unknown region," von Mandl says. It took him 15 years to turn the original, decrepit winery into a fully functional, modern-day operation, with hundreds of acres of vineyards planted to the classic European vinifera grapes, and with a New Zealand-born winemaker, John Simes, consistently elevating the quality of the wines. Then the real work began.
To design and build the physical winery that would fully express his vision for the region and its wines, von Mandl hired Tom Kundig, a partner in Seattle's Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects. Kundig had designed museums, churches and art galleries, private homes and country cabins, but never a winery.
"Anthony saw it as an advantage that I had no preconceived ideas," the architect recalls. "It was very clear from the start that he wanted to build a place that people would remember for the rest of their lives. The expectations were as high as they could possibly be."
The site itself — a breathtaking, windswept hilltop with a commanding view of the valley, mountains, vineyards and lake — inspires grand visions. "The place is a given," explains Kundig. "It's there, it's free, and it's just incredible. So we knew that the architecture would have to take a back seat to that location."
Beginning with that majestic landscape, the goal of the design — what the architect terms "the big idea" — was to reveal that place, as best as possible, with the architecture.
For me, at least, the winery succeeds more by integrating itself into the location, wrapping itself around, over and inside the location, than by taking a back seat. The buildings reference the history of Western European design, from a Romanesque loggia to a Renaissance bell tower. There's a natural, outdoor amphitheater, where live music and theater performances are staged; a gorgeously lit barrel room that inspires the sort of reverence usually reserved for a grand cathedral; and an entire room devoted to displaying an exquisite tapestry by Marc Chagall.
But beyond the grand scale and concept of the place, countless little touches inspire and sustain a visitor's interest. The doors you open, the handles you grasp, the chairs you sit in, the places that are private and introspective, all conspire to give you good memories of being at the winery.
There is a sense of graceful balance throughout, inviting visitors to linger, to contemplate and to return. Art and history mingle effortlessly, so that a winemaking tour becomes a lesson in the development of wine containers over the past 2,000 years. The vision is grand but never grandiose, and the aesthetics of the winery enhance, and are in turn enhanced by, the art and antiquities it showcases.
"One thing we picked up from winemaker John Simes," notes Kundig, "is that really superior wine is wine that stays with you. You remember it because it has complex layers to it; it never really lets go. That was the intention on the winery; that the longer you spend on the site, the more ideas and details are revealed.
"What we wanted the winery to feel like," he concludes, "is when you crossed the gate, you could drop the bags of stress and tension and just enjoy what wine drinking can represent — the celebration, the food, the culture, the tradition and the history."
To make a trip
Mission Hill Family Estate is open seven days a week year-round, with the exception of Dec. 25-26 and Jan. 1. Daily tours and tastings are offered from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the hour. A $5-per-person charge may be applied toward the purchase of wine or items from the gift shop. Special "Estate Room" tastings may be arranged in advance, featuring flights of reserve wines from multiple vintages.
Web site: www.missionhillwinery.com
Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines" and a free-lance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Seattle Times' Wednesday Food section. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.