Trudy and George Heiss at an anniversary celebration
This year, the long driveway leading past
vines to Gray Monk’s grand winery is bordered with banners reading 50/40/30.
These are all important anniversaries in
the winery’s history. Founders George and Trudy Heiss are marking their 50th
wedding anniversary this year (the actual month was March). Grape growing began
on the property 40 years ago and the winery opened 30 years ago.
The symmetry is so neat only because zoning
and permitting disputes with local authorities delayed the winery by a couple
of years. There were not many wineries in the Okanagan in the early 1980s and
regulators did not know quite how to deal with applicants.
Gray Monk has legendary battles with
inspectors and regulators en route to its success. My favourite anecdote
involves the occasion when the owners were told that customer seating in the
tasting room was prohibited. In frustration, George responded: “What should I
do if someone in a wheel chair comes in? Ask him to stand up?”
That silly rule is still in place but not
What follows is the text of the Gray Monk
profile is the recent edition of John Schreiner’s
Okanagan Wine Tour Guide.
One of the Okanagan’s original estate wineries,
Gray Monk evolved over 30 years from a small winery with a modest footprint to
a grand winery styled like a European château. The wines also evolved.
Initially a white wine–house only, Gray Monk’s portfolio now stretches from
sparkling wine through reds to dessert wines.
The echoes of Europe
here are authentic. George Heiss, born in 1939, grew up in Vienna and apprenticed with his father, a
world champion hairdresser. His wife, Trudy, was born near Berlin. They met in Edmonton where both had hair salons. Hugo
Peter, Trudy’s father, began growing grapes in the Okanagan. George and Trudy
followed him there, planting vines in 1972 for the winery they opened a decade
Today, they count themselves one of rare
Canadian families with four generations in wine growing. Son George Jr., their
German-trained winemaker, has taken over Hugo Peter’s vineyard. His brothers,
Robert and Steven, manage the winery while Robert’s son, Kieran, has qualified
as a viticulturist.
The Heiss family has had a profound impact on
Okanagan wine growing. They were the first to import clones of Pinot Gris,
Gewürztraminer and Auxerrois from Alsace.
They facilitated the Becker Project, an eight-year trial of German vines that,
by its conclusion in 1985, proved the viability of varieties now among the most
important in the Okanagan. Among all the wine producers in North American, they
alone nurture the hard-to-grow Rotberger grape to make notable rosé.
Now making about 80,000 cases a year, Gray Monk
built its reputation with unoaked white wines that are expressive, fruit-driven
and juicy on the palate. Winemaker Roger Wong
joined the winery in 2005, making sparkling wines and reds. And after making
reds for a decade with purchased grapes, Gray Monk made a big bet on reds by
developing the Paydirt Vineyard, five hectares (12 acres) south of Oliver,
planted primarily with Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery made
its first Meritage red blend in 2009.
The quality of all Gray Monk wines is
consistently high, and that includes its popular Latitude 50 wines, which are
refreshing, easy to drink and affordable. The winery’s flagship estate wine is
Pinot Gris (the German name for that variety translates as “gray monk”). The
winery’s reserve wines are released under the Odyssey label. These are all
delicious and well priced for the quality. My favourite Odyssey wines include
the Pinot Noir, the Merlot, the Cabernet Sauvignon, the Meritage and the rosé
Photo: Gray Monk Estate Winery