Whispering in Van Gogh’s ear

By / Magazine / March 26th, 2019 / 11

Anthony von Mandl, the proprietor of Mission Hill Family Winery in the Okanagan, is a visionary — a visionary with a touch of whimsy who never does anything by halves. 

He also has a penchant for hiring antipodean winemakers: John Simes, Darryl Brooker, Phil McGahan and Shane Munn are all from Down Under.

In 1996, von Mandl commissioned American architect Tom Kundig to remodel Mission Hill Winery at a cost of $25 million. Kundig created a temple of wine fit for Dionysus himself. The bell-towered winery with classical lines has become a magnet for the region. Its 60-seat Terrace restaurant, overlooking the lake, was named by Travel & Leisure magazine as one of the five best winery restaurants in the world.

At the 2013 Decanter World Wine Awards in London, Mission Hill’s Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir 2011 won the International Trophy for Best Pinot Noir in the World in the under-£15 price category. (Martin’s Lane is an homage label to von Mandl’s late father Martin. The Lane, he explains, “came from the double row of poplars on the winding road to our vineyard home.”)

Never one to rest on his laurels, von Mandl then went on to acquire CedarCreek Winery in Kelowna in 2014; the following year he sold the rights to Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Palm Bay, Okanagan Premium Ciders and Stanley Park Beers to Labatt’s for a reported US$350 million.

Soon after that, von Mandl embarked on his most ambitious project, creating a dedicated winery for Martin’s Lane which produces only two varietals — Pinot Noir and Riesling. 

The project is sited next door to CedarCreek. I have, in the course of writing about wine for some 40 years, never seen such a spectacular winery. Again, designed by Tom Kundig, “the building’s form,” writes the architect, “is conceived as a fracture down the middle, opening the interior spaces to daylight while one side follows the slope down the hillside and the other follows the horizon.” 

That’s architect-speak for eye-popping. 

And now for the von Mandl whimsy. Outside the winery, on its side by the entrance, is a massive bronze sculpture of Van Gogh’s head. Injured ear to the ground. Why, you might ask? Well, von Mandl tells it this way: “The Pinot Noir grape is the result of a remarkable series of genetic mutations that have evolved over generations. There is an interesting coincidence that both Pinot Noir and red-headed humans, another genetic mutation, both represent only approximately 1.9% of their respective populations.”

Intrigued by this coincidence, he commissioned artist Douglas Coupland to create a sculptural project entitled Redhead to celebrate the opening of the winery. Finding the red-headed von Gogh’s doppelganger involved a worldwide search.

The Van Gogh theme is extended to Martin’s Lane large format bottles — each has a large plastic ear adhered to the glass.

Now all of this would just be expensive window dressing were it not for the fact that Martin’s Lane winemaker, New Zealander Shane Munn, is producing some of the best Riesling and Pinot Noir I have tasted in Canada.

And the reason for this massive investment? “My vision for Martin’s Lane,” says von Mandl, “is to put the Okanagan on the world Pinot Noir and Riesling map, next to the top estates of the Côte d’Or, and Alsace, Rheingau and Mosel.”


Tony Aspler has been writing about wine for over 30 years. He was the wine columnist for The Toronto Star for 21 years and has authored sixteen books on wine and food, including The Wine Atlas of Canada, Vintage Canada, The Wine Lover's Companion, The Wine Lover Cooks and Travels With My Corkscrew. Tony's latest book is Tony Aspler's Cellar Book.

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