calmness to the table as a member of the wine industry technical committee working on charting a path forward for a young industry, notes McWatters. “He realized that credibility for the industry was essential.”
About Soon’s passion for wine, McWatters points out: “He gets excited about the gold medals he’s received for wines, but he always recognizes others on the team and their contributions.” Global recognition for Soon’s wines has helped shine a brighter light on the Okanagan Valley, he adds. Even though on the world stage B.C. wines are a drop in the bucket, world wine judges know that our wines are food- friendly, he notes.
McWatters adds that introduction of the Vintners’ Quality Alliance during the 1990s in B.C. was the single most important change to the industry, towards giving it credibility in the minds of consumers. They gained confidence in the local wine industry as the bar was raised for B.C. wines.
“If you go back to the 1980s, there were some pretty scary wines out there,” McWatters notes with a laugh. Unfortunately, there were some wineries where visitors would taste wines and it would turn them right off the local wine industry, he recalls. That’s rare now, but the industry has to take the next step beyond the VQA program and implement the use of sub-appellations on the label, he feels. Those wines not accredited by the VQA program should only be permitted to have ‘Product of Canada’ on the label, so consumers can choose.
Small Lots program Soon’s implementation of a ‘small lots’ program with Sandhill Wines, using grapes from only one block in a single vineyard instead of blends from different parts of the region, was a new concept that focused on the terroir of the wine, and it was one that resonated with consumers, who could then identify with the grower as well as the winery.
Cleave’s Phantom Creek vineyard was involved in that Small Lots program at the beginning, and it was expanded to include Robert Goltz’s Osprey Ridge Vineyard, near Phantom Creek, and later, Vanessa Vineyard in the Similkameen, the King Family Vineyard in Naramata and Hidden Terrace.
Cleave notes only the better
vineyards are used for the Small Lots wines; only high-quality fruit. It was an idea spawned by Soon and Ingo Grady, who has also been in the B.C. wine industry for decades and is currently president of Phantom Creek Estates winery. (The new premium winery includes the Phantom Creek Vineyard purchased from Cleave by Richmond businessman Richter Bai, who is currently building on the nearby Sundial Vineyard which he purchased from McWatters. The new winery is set to open next year.)
such as a difficult winter that can damage vines or the crop. Cropping lower does help the vines go through winter better, though, he notes. This year’s Sandhill vintage will be in the hands of a Soon protege, winemaker Sandy Leier, who worked with him for the past 11 years at Sandhill and Calona Wines, along with a couple of contract winemakers, during the transition.
“It was interesting learning from someone who was instrumental in revolutionizing the wine industry in B.C.,” Leier says.
“He was a wealth of knowledge and is such a good teacher. He likes to mentor people and he’s always there to help. I enjoyed learning from him. He’s passionate about making wine and he’s funny, but he likes things ‘just so’ and that’s important when you’re making wine.
“Our strength is in our team because we’re a large winery. We use each other’s palates. We don’t shut anyone out. You have to fit into the team,” she says.
However, Soon has no qualms about leaving the team. “They won’t need me,” he says with a confident grin.
Both he and Leier have backgrounds in chemistry, but didn’t intend to go into the wine industry when they were in university.
Cleave says Bai has high ambitions for B.C. wines.
Soon also produced pretty
impressive wines from some mediocre equipment, he adds.
Cleave admits he got a better deal from the winery for cropping at a lower tonnage and producing the higher-quality grapes. Without such incentives, he says growers have no reason to produce fewer grapes, even if they are higher quality for wine production.
It requires the right rootstocks, careful canopy management and reduced tonnage, as well as the right water and nutrition management to achieve that high quality for the cellar, he emphasizes.
And, then there’s the wild card: Mother Nature can throw a curve ball
It was a fitting retirement gift for Soon when he learned the day he announced his retirement, that his second vintage of Howard Soon- labelled wine, the 2014 Meritage from Phantom Creek Vineyards, took top place at the All-Canadian Wine Championships. The Sandhill 2014 Small Lots Phantom Creek Syrah won double gold at the same competition— a double victory.
He says he told Cleave in 2013 that he wanted to make “the best red wine ever.” So, even though there were three different clones of different varietals in that vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec, Cleave suggested all of them be picked and crushed together—the old way. “A blend should be seamless and crushing them together made that happen; complex chemistries are happening together that way,” explains Soon.
British Columbia FRUIT GROWER • Fall-Winter 2017 7
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