Photo: Courtyard and bell tower at Mission Hill
John Simes, the legendary chief winemaker at Mission Hill
Family Estates, is turning over the cellar to Darryl Brooker, the currant
winemaker at CedarCreek Estate Winery.
Darryl becomes Mission Hill’s chief winemaker with the 2015
vintage. John will now devote himself totally to managing the Okanagan
vineyards that support Mission Hill and its sister wineries.
Mission Hill and the other wineries are operated by VMF
Estates, the holding company set up in 2014 by Mission Hill proprietor Anthony
von Mandl. The personnel change was announced today by VMF Estates.
The VMF wineries in addition to Mission Hill include
CedarCreek (purchased in early 2014), Martin’s Lane (under construction near
CedarCreek) and CheckMate Artisanal Winery. The latter is the former Antelope
Ridge Winery on the Golden Mile, which Von Mandl acquired in 2012. The first
CheckMate wines are expected to be released later this year.
Darryl Brooker clearly was one of the key assets that came
with the purchase of Mission Hill.
Born in Canberra
in 1973, Darryl (left)
is a graduate of Charles
He has a Bachelor of Applied Science - Wine Science, as well as a graduate
diploma from Adelaide
University in Wine
He made wine at Villa Maria Estate in Hawkes Bay
and at Mountadam Vineyards in Barossa Valley in Australia. He came to Canada
when he was hired to launch Flat Rock
Cellars in Ontario
He moved to the Andrew Peller group, working at Hillebrand and Thirty Bench,
before joining CedarCreek in 2010.
embraces both traditional and new world winemaking practices. He employs wild
yeasts; he ferments some wines in concrete eggs. In 2013, CedarCreek became the
first Okanagan winery to ferment some reds in a 400-litre clay amphora made in Italy.
was also tasked with designing the new Martin’s Lane Winery, now completing
construction. He also made the 2014 vintage for Martin’s Lane, a winery
specializing in Pinot Noir and Riesling.
He is certainly stepping into big shoes. No winemaker has
had as much impact on the Okanagan as John Simes, beginning with the 1992
Chardonnay that won the prestigious Avery’s Trophy at the International Wine
& Spirits Competition in London
in 1994. It was almost certainly the first major award to an Okanagan wine from
an international competition.
Born in 1950 at Palmerston North, near Wellington,
the capital of New Zealand,
John (below) at first put his applied science degree to work with an ice cream company.
He joined Montana Wines Ltd., then New Zealand's largest winery, in
1978 and moved quickly from managing the bottle cellars to become a senior
winemaker and vineyard manager.
In 1991 Mission Hill’s von Mandl began wooing John, whose
wife Sheilagh is from Vancouver.
The winemaker pondered the offer throughout the first half of 1992, accepting
just before the vintage in the Okanagan.
He arrived at Mission Hill in September 1992, with some of
the early grapes already arriving. "Most of the grapes in the Okanagan are
harvested at the end of September and into early October. I had a chance to
start to get things changed in the way the fruit was processed in the
winery," he told me a few years later. "We totally changed almost
everything that happened with the grapes, including when they were picked. I
spent a huge amount of time trying to sweet talk the growers into not
harvesting, to leave the fruit hanging on the vine."
Most of the Chardonnay for the award-winning wine came from
vineyards in the Oliver area that have since been acquired by von Mandl. John
was impressed as soon as he saw the grapes. "I could tell the fruit was
brilliant," he told me. "I called Anthony [von Mandl, Mission Hill's
owner] and I said this fruit tastes as good as I've ever seen Chardonnay taste.
It cries out for new oak for barrel fermentation."
With the immediate green light from von Mandl, John had
about 100 American oak barrels shipped to the winery in time to barrel-ferment
the Chardonnay. Some of the Chardonnay
also was fermented in stainless steel tanks and the two lots were blended into
the 1992 Grand Reserve Barrel Select Chardonnay, as the wine was called.
The award put the Okanagan on the map. It certainly
transformed Mission Hill. "In terms of our company, the impact has been
phenomenal," John told me later. "It gave everyone in the organization confidence
that we could do it, that the resource existed to make international quality
wines, and that if we did, people would pay reasonable dollar values for them
that would give us sufficient return to re-invest. Until that wine, the
business confidence, from the owner of the company right down to the sales
guys, wasn't there."
In the year after winning that award, Mission Hill began a
$10 million capital expansion program. It included almost one million litres of
new stainless steel processing equipment and hundreds of new oak barrels. In
1996 the winery purchased vineyard property, its first, at Osoyoos and began
planting 150 acres of vines on a sun-baked site on the Canada-United States
border. The winery has invested continually since then, both in vineyards and
in state of the art winemaking facilities.
"The Chardonnay was the start," John said.
"The Chardonnay is no longer the only wine which has done something worth
talking about internationally.”
The pinnacle of the Mission Hill portfolio is Oculus, the Bordeaux blend that John
first created in 1997. It crowns a large and impressive portfolio of wines,
many of which are grown on the nearly 1,000 acres of estate-owned vineyards.
These vineyards now get John’s full attention. “I see our
vineyards as the last frontier in allowing our wines to become amongst the most
sought-after in the world,” he said in a statement. “With the von Mandl
family’s commitment to continually raising the bar and their commitment to
leading edge research and technology in our vineyards, there is no telling
where we can go from here.”