Feature Article
  Sign In
Subscribe to our newsletter
Bookmark and Share  
print this article    

Feature Article

Sandhill Mater Winemaker, Howard Soon

In making single vineyard designated wines that reflect their terroir, winemaker Howard Soon focuses on the process, rather than the outcome.

Okanagan Valley (DVA)

An interview with Sandhill Master Winemaker, Howard Soon

''When a guy buys a bottle of wine, it is an expression of a place. When we are tasting wine from the Okanagan Valley, it should have a taste that is different from Australia.''

~ Howard Soon, Winemaker - Sandhill Wines

by John Schreiner
April 10, 2006

This spring, Andrés Wines Ltd., which bought Calona Vineyards and Sandhill Wines last year, is expected to announce plans to build a dedicated Sandhill winery on Black Sage Road in the south Okanagan. This will take Sandhill’s processing operations from the vast Calona winery in Kelowna and plant it in the Burrowing Owl Vineyard, the primary source of Sandhill fruit.

There is a growing trend among the larger Okanagan wineries toward releasing premium wines with single vineyard designations. Sandhill has been a single vineyard producer exclusively since its first vintage in 1997.

The single vineyard trend has two explanations – the commercial and the viticultural.

The commercial reason is that wineries can command a premium for top flight single vineyard wines. The new SunRock wines from Jackson-Triggs – named for a block within the company’s larger Bull Pine Vineyard – fetch roughly a 20 per cent premium.

The viticultural reason is that the Okanagan’s comparatively young vineyards now are sufficiently established that the vines are starting to express individual terroir. Clearly, Jackson-Triggs thinks that the SunRock block is one of the best performing blocks in Bull Pine and thus deserves to be singled out.

Sandhill was launched by the owners of Calona Vineyards. The strategy was to develop a family of premium-quality wines. Established in 1932, Calona is the oldest continually operating winery in the Okanagan. It had a private reserve tier of wines in the mid-1990s but, encumbered with a colourful history, Calona did not have a premium image.

The Sandhill strategy has succeeded brilliantly. The wines, reviewed separately on AppellationAmerica.com (see my Okanagan Valley Wine Notes), typically score in the high 80s. Increasingly, the wines are achieving scores of 90 or better, notably the releases under Sandhill’s “Small Lots” program. Wines under that program are produced in volumes ranging from 70 cases to, at most, 500 cases.

Currently, Sandhill has designated five vineyards. These are:
  • The 70-hectare (174-acre) Burrowing Owl Vineyard (BOV), which includes the proposed winery site. This vineyard includes Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Gamay, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, along with the Okanagan’s first blocks of two Italian reds, Barbera and Sangiovese. Most vines were planted between 1994 and 1999. The soil is predominantly sand. BOV also encompasses another 40 hectares (100 acres) owned by Burrowing Owl Winery. Cascadia Brands, the holding company of both Calona Vineyards and Sandhill, was a sponsor and formerly a 50%-owner when the Burrowing Owl Winery was launched in 1997, in parallel with Sandhill. When the relationship was unwound three years ago, Cascadia exchanged its interest in the winery for two-thirds of the vineyard. Both portions of BOV are farmed by the same vineyard managers.
  • The three-hectare (seven acre) Phantom Creek Vineyard, is operated by Richard Cleave, one of the managers of BOV. Major varieties are Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot. On the downhill side of Black Sage Road, this vineyard’s soil is also sandy.
  • The nearby tiny Osprey Ridge Vineyard is owned by Robert Goltz, Cleave’s partner and also a manager of BOV. This is a source for Viognier.
  • The 17-hectare (43-acre) King Family Vineyard on the Naramata Bench where Rod and Don King ripped out orchards in the early 1990s for vines. Pinot Gris is the key variety from this vineyard that gets vineyard designation from Sandhill. The soil is rich enough that excessive vine vigour is a challenge.
  • The three-hectare (seven-acre) Seven Mountain Vineyard near Westbank operated by Tony Petretta, the son of a pioneer Okanagan grape grower and an employee at the Calona winery. Sandhill launched its first Gewürztraminer in 2004 from his grapes.
Howard Soon is Sandhill’s winemaker. Born in Vancouver in 1952 and a microbiologist, Soon joined Calona in 1980. He is the longest tenured winemaker in the Okanagan and one of the most respected. In particular, the rising quality of Sandhill’s wines has turned him into a winemaking star. He wears his stardom lightly, sharing the credit for Sandhill’s wines with growers by co-signing Sandhill labels with them.

In the following conversation, Soon recounts how the Sandhill concept was born and he reflects on what he is learning about terroir.

John Schreiner: What was the genesis of the single vineyard concept with Sandhill?

Howard Soon: I can’t claim credit for it. I think it was collusion with the marketing department. Perhaps some wineries don’t have the communication channel between marketing and production. We do. We have always had that because we are brand focused.

Calona had the Artist Series. I kept wanting to slip the grape growers in on the back label. It was important to me. I felt you’ve got to give credit to the guys who are growing the grapes. Marketing said: “Howie, that’s not the right place for it.”

At the same time, Burrowing Owl Winery started up. We were partners with Jim Wyse [whose family now controls the winery]. We made the first vintage, 1997, for Burrowing Owl in our winery [Calona], working with Bill Dyer [Burrowing Owl’s former consulting winemaker].

Marketing [at Cascadia] had the concept that we needed to push up into the premium area with our wines. They asked what we could do.

I said: “One of the simplest ways of going premium is single vineyard wines. Let’s give credit to our growers.” We decided to use the best vineyard we could – Burrowing Owl.

Sandhill captured a lot of the wishes and desires of other people who came to the table. For instance, Dick Cleave. I have known him for years – ever since he was growing grapes at Pacific Vineyards. That is where Burrowing Owl is now. [The former Pacific Vineyards, originally planted in the 1960s with hybrid grapes, was also briefly owned by Calona until it was sold in the early 1970s. Cleave was the long-time vineyard manager there. Most of the grapes were pulled out in 1988 as part of the industry’s adjustment to free trade and the land was largely idle for five years until Wyse and his partners bought it and began planting vinifera.]

Dick Cleave got through the free trade period [when most of Pacific Vineyards was pulled out] by growing market vegetables. He was growing peppers and stuff. He established a new home and vineyard, seven acres in size. He started growing grapes and selling them to home winemakers. They were pretty good grapes. Even I didn’t realize how good they were.

He said: “Howie, I want you to make some wines for me.” I said: “Dick, I work for Calona and Sandhill. I’ll see what I can do.”

His first fruit was 2000 – three years after the first Sandhill wine [from BOV]. I made some Syrah, just under 20 cases. It was superb Syrah, but it was only one barrel. But we realized that Dick had something going there, so his Phantom Creek became the next vineyard we brought on.

Then we talked about whites for Sandhill and decided to bring in the King family with Pinot Gris. (We couldn’t do the Pinot Gris from BOV even though we owned some of the fruit because it was all dedicated to Burrowing Owl.)

It was almost a no-brainer. The King Pinot Gris went into the 1999 Calona Artist Series that won best white wine of show at the Los Angeles County Fair. What we are trying to do is bet on sure things, things that we know have a history.

JS: If you are doing single vineyard wines, how does terroir express itself?

HS: First of all, you have done the right thing by not mixing the vineyards all up. I don’t think you can do terroir if it is not just a single vineyard. They have to go hand in hand.

I believe terroir is a quest. It is a process, which is the way we do our wines, too. We’re always trying to make better wines, so we focus on process, not outcome. We are always doing the best with everything that we do in the vineyard, then the wine takes care of itself.

We do have some ideas and goals as to what the outcome should be. But it kind of takes care of itself if you have good grapes. We make decisions to protect and express the terroir, and not be a winemaker that goes over on top of the fruit.

Really to me, terroir is the expression of the fruit quality. Our slogan is “a true expression of the vineyard” and that’s what we are trying to do. Sandhill BOV Chardonnay

We do use barrels, but like seasoning in food. We don’t do malolactic fermentation in Chardonnay anymore – although we may go back a little bit some day. But right now, I am happy: if we have great Chardonnay fruit, we will barrel-ferment it, because the oak needs to be there as a seasoning. But I don’t need ML because ML interferes with the fruit expression. It takes away the individuality. The vineyard can be expressed if you allow fruit to come through, not the ML.

There’s a situation where site selection is also part of terroir. You don’t grow something that doesn’t work. You would not grow Gewürztraminer in that vineyard and say, that’s the terroir of Burrowing Owl [because the site is too hot for the variety].

JS: With eight or nine vintages from BOV behind you, how has the fruit evolved?

HS: I think there has been more depth of flavour and more nuances, particularly with varieties that are more on the marginal side. Like Sangiovese or Barbera. 2003 was a hot, ripe vintage and we are seeing those varieties produce great wine. In a marginal year like 2001, not so much – a thin wine with not very much flavour. You would say there is not too much terroir expression in that wine. Fully ripened fruit, when it suits the vine, will give us the terroir we want.

JS: Is there a variety that performs well every year?

HS: Chardonnay. But we have had issues with nematodes down there. We are replanting.

Pinot Blanc is one of the oldest blocks we have at BOV. It is pretty exciting to see how it is coming along, from just simple fruit-forward wine to wines with all sort of nuances – lime rind, minerals. Everybody thinks that the terroir expression is the taste of the soil or the rock. I believe the sand [at BOV] is granitic because the cliff behind it is all granite. I believe there is ground-up granite in that sand and maybe that’s the minerality that we are tasting [in the wine].

JS: How old are the Pinot Blanc vines?

HS: They must have been planted in 1985 … pre-free trade. I remember making a 1987 Pinot Blanc.

JS: Have you made the Pinot Blanc the same way every year?

HS: We have since the 1990s. It is barrel-fermented in American oak. There is a lineage of awards and acclaim for that wine.

It’s not heavy oak. I say that a touch of oak reflects skill. I look for that when I taste other people’s wines. It shouldn’t be the main thing you taste. If there is too much oak, then you are not protecting the terroir. You are flavouring the wine and I don’t think that is right.

When a guy buys a bottle of wine, it is an expression of a place. When we are tasting wine from the Okanagan Valley, it shoul


Reader Feedback

To post your comments on this story,
click here

Most Popular