The Golden Mile region lies south of Oliver on an east-facing bench backed by gentle mountains. The rich history of the area dates back to 1918 when the Southern Okanagan Lands Project was established following the passage of the Soldiers Land Act. Up until that point most of the activity in the region centred on an area four kilometres west of Oliver called Fairview. This old gold mine community dating back to the 1880s was created to work on the Stemwinder, Smuggler, Joe Dandy, Strathyne, Susie, Tinhorn and Wide West claims.
The Soldiers Land Act was spearheaded under Liberal Party Premier John Oliver and his Minister of Lands, T. D. (Duff) Pattullo. Known as “Honest John,” Oliver was a simple man of considerable integrity. He governed BC through some difficult times, including the readjustments after World War I and the economic depression of the early 1920s.
The “Act” was a priority for Honest John as it permitted the British Columbia government to purchase 22,000 acres of land from the Southern Okanagan Land Company for use as a soldier settlement to accommodate returning veterans from WWI. The settlement scheme included the establishment of a town site (appropriately named “Oliver”); the subdivision and sale or lease of lots in the region; and the construction of an open-canal gravity irrigation system, completed in 1927, stretching from a dam at the outlet of Vaseux Lake to the Canada/USA border.
To get the canal from the east side of the Valley to the benches on the west – known today as the Golden Mile – a 1,940 foot (591 m) long, six-and-a-half-foot (2 m) diameter wood-stave pipe was constructed that ran directly beneath the centre of Oliver. This water main, combined with the arrival of electricity from the West Kootenay Power and Light Company in 1922, meant that canal and river waters could be pumped up onto the Valley’s benches. The long canal turned what was previously cattle ranging land into a lush ground crop and fruit-growing region that dwarfed what was occurring elsewhere in the province. The importance of this canal and irrigation system to the transformation of this region cannot be overstated.
The Golden Mile had an abundance of rich soil and good air drainage which would help crops escape spring frosts. Starting a new orchard from scratch was a back-breaking exercise without the modern conveniences of today. Orchards took years to establish, and many landowners chose to grow ground crops in this thriving soil in the interim. Veterans taking advantage of the province’s easy payment plans bought five- and ten-acre plots, planting tree fruits and ground crops. Oliver became known as the “Cantaloupe Capital of Canada.”
On May 24, 1923, the first train arrived in Oliver. A few months later the first cantaloupes were sold and the response was so overwhelming that 44 carloads were put on the market the next season. The region thrived until the 1930s when activities slowed down because of the hard economic times. In 1935 and 1936 a small boom occurred in mining with the reopening of the Morning Star at Fairview, and in the lumber industry with the opening of a small sawmill.
With water added to the region’s bounty of sunshine, Oliver grew in population between 1926 and 1936, from 500 to 1800, and became a prosperous community centred on agricultural abundance. Ultimately the canal irrigation system that was constructed between 1918 and 1927 was handed over to the citizens of Oliver and Osoyoos in 1990.
According to archived records, the first lot in the new development was sold to D. P. Simpson on March 4, 1921, followed by F. W. Nesbitt and C. Leighton. George Mabee, John Burns and Guy P. Bagnall bought the first lots south of town. These men all planted orchards the same year. They formed the Oliver Produce Association with H. Earle, the first president, and joined with the Oliver Cooperative Association in 1923.
Wildlife in the 1920s was plentiful, with mule deer roaming the hills and whitetail deer in the bottoms and along the river. Trumpeter swans were numerous, some annually wintering on Vaseux Lake. Pheasants had been imported during the First World War and thrived along with blue grouse, burrowing owls, small Mexican rabbits, salamanders, blue tailed lizards, rattlesnakes, blue racers and bull snakes. The rivers ran heavy with salmon direct from the Columbia River and included sockeye, dog, spring and kokanee.
It is said that the Golden Mile was given its name because of its location, geography and resulting temperatures and ideal growing conditions. The Golden Mile is located off the Valley floor in the upper bench. This is particularly important when there is a fall frost as it is less likely to reach, and therefore damage, plants in the area. This makes it ideal for ground cropping as the positioning allows for additional warmth from the rocks, which benefits the crops and lengthens the growing season.
The temperature in the Golden Mile can be six to eight degrees warmer than what is found along Highway 97 at the bottom of the valley. This was critical in the early years for the area wineries because of frost. Vines cannot be exposed to early or severe frost – the leaves turn brown, photosynthesis and ripening stop, and the plan is easily wounded and even killed. Past years have seen a distinct temperature shift and the lower-lying areas along Highway 97 are significantly warmer than in past decades. But traditionally, grape crops needed to count on a longer, warmer season through mid to late October for crops to properly ripen. This can be relied upon in the Golden Mile.
Joe Busnardo, who currently owns Divino Estate Winery on Vancouver Island, planted the first commercial vineyards on the Golden Mile in 1969. He planted vinifera grapes and didn’t get a lot of support for the practice for over a decade.
The Golden Mile is unique. Nowhere else in the world are you going to have this combination of soil, this type of soil, at this particular latitude and altitude with this climate at this level of exposure. More simply, it is the conspiracy of these variables to make a wine that no one else in the world can make. The resulting wines will have fingerprint of the Golden Mile terroir as we continue to learn what works well given all of these elements.
Road 13 Vineyards does not want to be like any other wine region.
We are making Okanagan wines – Road 13 wines.