Master winemaker Howard Soon joins Vanessa Vineyard

After a rocky start – literally – Similkameen winery’s reputation is growing fast


You can be forgiven if you have never heard of the wines of Vanessa Vineyard. But here’s a heads-up: When your paths cross, you’ll surely be hooked.

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The Similkameen winery’s reputation is now set to soar with the news that Howard Soon has joined as consulting winemaker. Soon recently left Sandhill Wines, following 37 years at its parent company, Andrew Peller Limited, and is one of Canada’s most admired winemakers.

Vanessa Vineyard’s story began a little more than a decade ago, when business partners John Welson and Suki Sekhon came across a rocky 220-acre parcel of southwest-facing grazing land on a mountainside of the Similkameen Valley. With the flourishing interest in Okanagan Valley wine, Welson and Sekhon surmised there would soon be a shortage of grapes to slake wine lover’s thirsts.

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Howard Soon is one of Canada's most admired winemakers. - Lionel Trudel photo

Investing in a site that could potentially be planted to vine would allow them to sell grapes to producers desperately wanting to appease their growing clientele.

Welson and Sekhon contracted the Okanagan’s most respected vineyard planners and managers, Richard Cleave and Robert Golz, who have developed some of the Okanagan Valley’s most prized vineyards.

“We brought them in to see if we were crazy or not,” Welson says, laughing.

While surveying the rugged site and its terroir, Cleave was resolute in stating that it would be hell to plant vines there – but the grapes would be incredible. It was one of the best sites for growing red grapes, in particular, that the consultants had ever seen.

Cleave and Golz agreed to join the project under one condition: Vanessa Vineyard was to grow only premium grapes. The varieties selected were Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Viognier.

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Planting in this mountainside of the Similkameen Valley required removing and pulverizing a lot of rock. Contributed photo

Purchasing the parcel was easy. But what came next was a nightmare.

The site was covered in rocks. When they removed the rocks, there were more rocks. Boulders had to be buried and a rock crusher was brought in. Once the rock was pulverized it was placed back into the soil.

Equally frustrating was planting. It took double the time expected to plant 75 acres of vines. However, as arduous as stony soils are for planting, they are advantageous for ripeness – rocky topsoil attracts sunshine, harnessing additional heat and producing fruit of enviable weight and sweetness.

Within two years, Vanessa Vineyard had its first crop. Wine giant Andrew Peller Limited scooped up a small percentage of that harvest for quality testing. By the third harvest, the grapes were going into Peller’s premium Sandhill Wines.

After several years of witnessing wines made from their fruit winning awards, Welson and Sekhon took on a new challenge – making their own wine. It was a decision approached with great consideration.

Thanks to their relationship with Andrew Peller, they found a facility to produce their wines at Red Rooster Winery on the Naramata Bench. Under guidance from Sandhill’s master winemaker Howard Soon and Red Rooster winemaker Karen Gillis, the first Vanessa Vineyard label wines came out of the 2012 vintage.

Ever since, the wines have been gaining accolades and their portfolio cautiously expanding. This summer, a tasting room was unveiled on the estate in Cawston. Adding more gravity to Vanessa Vineyard’s success was this week’s appointment of Soon as consulting winemaker, after he recently retired from Andrew Peller. 

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Vanessa Vineyard's tasting room opened this summer. Lionel Trudel photo

“I’ve been there since day one, offering advice, and I’m committed to helping them. I don’t want to work for just anybody; I want to pick my spots,” Soon says.

He says he recognized the potential of Vanessa Vineyard’s unique terroir years ago.

“Nothing [here] is easy, but it’s worth it,” he says. “The wines are powerful and big, with lots of fruit.”  

• Tasting room: 1090 Highway 3, Cawston, B.C.


Note: This story has been updated since originally published.

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