The iconic Howard Soon and the new Vanessa Vineyard
As one of the founding members who helped shape BC’s wine industry, Howard Soon has an unwavering passion on making good wines, and has been for decades. His tireless effort has always been unfaltering, creative and solid. He was one of the small group of winemakers I met when Okanagan was the only wine region in BC and when nobody outside of the west coast was even aware of such existence. That was indeed the young and searching era of BC wines, when admittedly our products were less than stellar.
His biochemistry background led him a job working at a brewery lab but his immense interest in grapes and soils, tanks and barrels drew him into to the fascinating wine world, it did not take long for him to switch gear and joined Calona Wine’s quality control department. Howard’s desire to make better products sent him learning about grapes and terroirs, and delving into winemaking. His rapid promotion to becoming the chief winemaker was the testimony of his valuable knowledge and relentless efforts.
The arrival of NAFTA forced everyone in the field to elevate their games. To compete, BC vineyards began planting popular international varietals such as Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon etc. The demand for better winemaking skill to craft better wines was the foremost agenda for wineries. It did take a few years for the fast-learning BC Wine industry to gain momentum. BC wines started to shine in the international arena, garnering various awards in competitions, amongst them Howard’s wines.
Howard was the first to craft BC single vineyard wines to express terroir in the bottle. To satisfy his experimental instinct, he initiated a project to plant lesser known varietals such as Sangiovese and Barbera that went into Sandhill’s Small Lot series. Howard quietly embarked on a mission to craft wines worthy of recognition in the international stage. The awards he and his wines garnered over the years speak loudly to his dedication and determination to help pave the road for the young BC wine industry to a stronger and rewarding future. With his acumen, he never stops providing guidance to the next generation of winemakers under the Andrew Pellar empire and put his stamp on Calona, Red Rooster and Sandhill wines.
Howard did not stop at his laurel, though after waving an official goodbye to the Andrew Peller folks, Howard thought he was exiting into retirement. Yet his successful and decorated career spanning over 37 vintages persisted, he was quickly lured back into action to head the winemaking at Vanessa Vineyards in the Similkameen Valley. Established in 2006 as a grower with 75 acres planted out of 220 acres, Vanessa Vineyard is no stranger to Howard. In fact, it has been supplying premium grapes to Sandhill that Howard worked on. Howard is particularly excited with the Similkmeen terroir. It is this relationship and connection that provide the impetus and itch for Howard to hone his skill one more time.
Back in 2006, Howard was attracted to Vanessa vineyard because of the warm, dry weather of the Similkameen Valley that provides the ideal condition for red varietals to ripe fully, and that the rocky soil surface provides the perfect vine protection from winter frost. After all these years, all these elements come together for Vanessa, it is a no brainer to take advantage of the quality grapes to start crafting their own wines. While they still sell their surplus grapes and has a good relationship with the Andrew Peller empire, it is Vanessa’s vision to eventually increase their own production. Currently, their wines are available at restaurants and on-line through club membership, but they are working towards the goal to slowly increase production volume so the general public can get their hands on these delicious wines.
During my recent visit of Vanessa, I was given the opportunity to learn, touch and observe the key elements of the land and soil. At the beginning, the fields were scattered with large rocks. These were the enemies simply because no they could not do any planting but had to use labour and machines to painstakingly breakdown all those large rocks first. Interestingly, pebbles and sandy soils became friends to the vines with regards to providing protection and drainage. While the Similkameen Valley is ideal for the red varietals due to the long hot days, there are challenges in terms of the unpredictable weather changes. On the day of our visit, Howard had the crew working profusely in the vineyard to race against frost that may come unexpectedly. Since the need to a quick harvest was imminent, Howard commissioned a grape picking machine to do the job because hand picking would take too long. The gigantic grape picking machine is the newest top German-made model, with hydraulics moving up and down, it is designed to straddle the vines of any height and effectively shake the vines so bunches of clusters can neatly fall off the vines into the collecting compartment. This is my first encounter of such proficient mobile machinery at work in any BC vineyard. The experience was more than an eye-opener, it allowed me to peek into the different aspects and fine details a winemaker have to deal with constantly.
Another observation is that no matter which winery he is working for, Howard’s years of experience, high standard craftsmanship and work ethics shine through in his wines. Though still a new winery, Vanessa Vineyards club membership continues to expand as savvy wine lovers know, this is the best way to grab hold of those fine member-privileged wines.