Announcing the Best Performing Small Winery of 2019

Moon Curser Vineyards

By Anthony Gismondi

Moon Curser has been trolling the National Wine Awards of Canada for years surprising the judges with its “out there” grapes while slowing amassing a collection of gold and silver medals with such non-stream varietal wines as Touriga Nacional, Carménère, Tannat and Dolcetto. What looked like it could be a recipe for disaster has been anything but for co-owner and winemaker Chris Tolley along with his partner, winery manager, and wife, Beata Tolley, who made the jump to the top of the pack this year becoming the 2019 National Awards of Canada Best Performing Small Winery (10,000 cases or less) in Canada.

It’s been a storybook journey for the Tolleys who began taking wine classes in Calgary less than two decades ago and quickly came to the conclusion that owning a winery was the longterm goal. They soon left their jobs and headed for Lincoln University in New Zealand where they both took the one-year Graduate Diploma in Viticulture and Oenology. By 2004 they were back in Canada, where they bought an old cherry orchard on the east Osoyoos Bench in the south Okanagan Valley. By 2006 they had opened a winery.

Chris and Beata Tolley (Photo by Richard McGuire/MCV)

Twisted Tree, the original, somewhat conservative winery name was dropped after a 2011 marketing overhaul in favour of the Moon Curser moniker. The Moon Curser name embodied the rich history of the South Okanagan when gold smugglers would cross the border regularly during the night. If you have ever experienced a full moon in Osoyoos, you can see why the smugglers would curse the moon that made capturing them far too easy for border guards. As historical as their name is, the winery is hardly tradition-bound. One could argue it may be the most experimental producer in the country.

A lot of the Tolleys’ success is directly related to early one-on-one research done visiting local wineries where they discovered many were producing the same main-line grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. What the Tolleys learned on those early visits was it was the odd Viognier or Syrah that piqued their interest, and it’s been a part of Moon Curser’s (nee Twisted Tree) story ever since. In some ways, not having a traditional wine background and vast knowledge of the world of wine set the Tolleys free to do things others would have never considered.

Lake View (Photo by Kevin Dunn/MCV)

Certainly planting avant-garde varieties have set the winery apart and in some ways could be instrumental moving forward if temperatures continue to rise in the Okanagan. That said, not everything has worked. Early on, love for Italian varietals led to planting Corvina, a grape widely planted in Valpolicella in the Veneto, northern Italy. It never ripened, but on the other hand, the Arneis is thriving and is a fabulous addition to BC’s growing repertoire.

Much of Moon Curser’s recent success stems from old-fashioned, hard work. Now fifteen years down the road, the vineyards and the knowledge to look after them seem to have meshed. You can’t teach experience, but you can earn it one year at a time which is the real story of this small, hillside estate winery and one of the most exciting wine lineups in Canada.

Moon Curser Tasting Room (Photo by Kevin Dunn/MCV)

At the end of the competition, the winery walked away with several medals led by a Platinum for its remarkable ode to the Douro Valley, the 2017 Touriga Nacional. They followed that up with six gold medals for a 2015 Tannat, think Uruguay; 2018 Dolcetto, that’s Italy; a 2017 Malbec, that’s Argentina; a 2017 Tempranillo, a nod to Spain; a 2017 Petit Verdot a classic from Bordeaux; and one final gold for a 2017 Dead of Night, a blend of Syrah and Tannat.

Well, you get the picture, this is one very different producer, and in many ways, a poster child for what we always hoped would be the kind of innovative, family estate winery that would grab the title of the Best Performing Small Winery in Canada. All that is left for you to do is try the wine and eventually visit the winery to experience what the Tolleys did when they first got into the business, something new and intriguing and most of all different.

Moon Curser’s Medal Winning Wines


Moon Curser 2017 Touriga Nacional, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia


Moon Curser 2015 Tannat, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

Moon Curser 2018 Dolcetto, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

Moon Curser 2017 Malbec, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

Moon Curser 2017 Dead of Night, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

Moon Curser 2017 Tempranillo, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

Moon Curser 2017 Petit Verdot, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia


Moon Curser 2017 Carmenere, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

Moon Curser 2018 Arneis, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia


Moon Curser 2017 Syrah, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

Moon Curser 2018 Afraid of the Dark, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

A note from the National Wine Awards of Canada organizers: We continue to wrestle with the name of this singular award: Best Performing Small Winery. The word ‘small’ makes it sound diminutive and somehow lacklustre but that is not our intention. It would be tidy if the concept was to award Estate wineries, but that implies 100% ownership of the process which is far too difficult for us to enforce and ‘boutique’ seems so last century. The goal is to honour smaller wineries, those producing 10,000 cases or fewer, and within Canada there are hundreds. If you have a better descriptor please send it along and we will consider a change next year.