“I love innovation and doing something different,” says Master Winemaker Howard Soon at Sandhill Winery, and unofficial godfather of the Okanagan wine industry. A 36 year veteran of winemaking in our valley, Soon remains a pioneer of the highest order.
In 1980, fate and curiousity brought Howard Soon to the nascent Okanagan wine region. Calona Wines welcomed him as their new lab manager, and had the foresight to promote him in short order to assistant winemaker. By 1997, his passion and talent landed him the role of winemaker at Sandhill. His background as a scientist drives him to pursue excellence in the bottle, but as a winemaker, Soon is known for his ardent belief that great wine is made in the vineyard. Maybe it’s more appropriate to consider him a “wine alchemist”. Truly, what he creates has been infused with a little bit of magic.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the recently released Soon Series wines. The 2013 red blend was co-fermented (the grapes all five of the varietals were crushed, fermented and pressed together) –an ancient way of creating a blend, but not common practice today. A true scientist, Soon was skeptical until his hypothesis was proven; the resulting wine is in perfect harmony, and has a depth of flavour that can’t be recreated in any lab. As he describes his process, the veteran vintner chuckles at the realization that “innovation” in winemaking has come full-circle. Similarly, the 2014 single-block, barrel-fermented Chardonnay is a testament to old-world methodology. Soon’s expertise and grower Richard Cleave’s green thumbs showcase the exquisite result of careful, respectful winemaking. Only two barrels were made of each of the Soon Series vintages, and they’re only available at the winery. Hurry!
The Soon Series’ may be scarce, but fortunately, Sandhill has plenty of other excellent wines on hand this summer. Perfect for our glorious Okanagan weather is the award-winning Sandhill 2015 Rosé ($15.75) (Gold medal, Pacific Rim Wine Competition). Made from Sangiovese, it’s light in colour and fruit-forward, with a refreshing acidity that makes it expressive on the palette.
Also appropriate to the season is the 2015 Osprey Ridge Viognier ($16.99). Distinctively fruity and lively, this is simultaneously sweet and thirst-quenching –a precarious and masterful balance.
Such mastery is not surprising from a dynamo like Sandhill. It’s evident in everything they do. It’s fitting that their magnificent urban facility is the first of its kind in the Okanagan. The contemporary architecture is spacious and bright, funky and welcoming. It is a working winery; all of Sandhill’s wines are made in the back, and visitors can peek into the sleek barrel room, but more than just a building, it is an anchor of its neighbourhood and local community.
To that end, guests can take advantage of informative, interactive tastings, the readily-accessible wine shop and the regular community events the winery hosts. Throughout the summer, the tasting room is open daily from 10-6, and you can extend your visit with a glass in the sunny atrium. All year long, enjoy Friday night happy hour (5-8), featuring $5 wine and locally-catered appies, and lively local bands. Check the Sandhill Wines Facebook page for the summer lineup.
The approachable-yet-trailblazing vibe at Sandhill is a perfect reflection of the man at its helm. He may be the valley’s amiable elder statesman, but Howard Soon’s humble demeanour belies his progressive spirit. “Nobody knows it all,” he says. Perhaps, but the wines of Sandhill prove, time and again, that Howard Soon knows how to cultivate genius.
~ Abbey Westbury