Photo: Winemaker Howard Soon
Veteran winemaker Howard Soon has been named to the Order of Canada.
He is believed to be just the second individual from the BC wine industry to receive this award. Mission Hill Family Winery owner Anthony von Mandl was named a member of the Order in 2016.
“Created in 1967, the Order of is one of our country's highest honours,” according to the Governor General’s web site. “Presented by the Governor General, the Order honours people whose service shapes our society; whose innovations ignite our imaginations; and whose compassion unites our communities.”
Howard is the current winemaker at Vanessa Vineyards, the Similkameen winery he joined in 2017 shortly after retiring from Sandhill Wines, one of the BC wineries operated by Andrew Peller Ltd.
On Howard’s retirement, Craig McDonald, the senior winemaker at Peller, paid this complement to him: “As a fellow winemaker, I will remain in awe at his depth of knowledge, dedication to the craft and unwavering passion toward never compromising wine quality. Indeed, Howard has served the wine consumer well and has touched so many industry professionals along the way it’s too numerous to count. Howard’s legacy continues on with Sandhill and with the many winemakers he has mentored over the years, all respecting his experience, wisdom and dedication to their learning.”
Craig described Howard as “the longest serving winemaker in Canada - amassing an incredible 37 consecutive vintages.” This year’s vintage at Vanessa will be Howard’s 40th.
He was born in 1952 in Vancouver, the grandson of a shopkeeper who emigrated from southern China in the 1880s. Howard graduated in biochemistry from the University of British Columbia in 1974. After five years in the brewing industry, he joined Calona Vineyards in 1980 as a quality control supervisor, became assistant winemaker in 1981 and subsequently was promoted to chief winemaker.
Howard has been the winemaker for Sandhill Wines since that winery’s inception in 1997. Sandhill stands apart from most British Columbia wineries because it is dedicated to making primarily single vineyard wines. Each year those wines put the spotlight on six to eight distinctive terroirs.
“I believe terroir is a quest,” Howard told me in 2005. “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, then the wine will take care of itself. Really to me, terroir is the expression of the fruit quality. What the grape is giving you, that’s what terroir is to me – a true expression of what is in the fruit.”
Sandhill has won an impressive number of awards, including at least nine at the Lieutenant Governor’s Award of Excellence. Since 2004 Sandhill Wines have won about 100 gold or double gold medals in regional, national and international competitions. Just one example: double gold and best in category with a 2011 Small Lots Chardonnay at the Chardonnay du Monde Competition in France.
The BC wine industry gave Howard the Founder's Award in 1998. In 2015, he received the Vancouver Wine Festival’s 'Spirited Industry Professional' in 2015.
In his typically modest fashion, Howard did not claim complete responsibility for the Sandhill single vineyard strategy. He described the history to me in a 2005 interview:
“I can’t claim credit for it. I think it was collusion between us and marketing. 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.
“We had the Artist Series [at Calona]. 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. Ironically enough, in a parallel track, we made the first vintage, 1997, for Burrowing Owl in our winery [Calona], working with Bill Dyer.
“At the same time, marketing had the concept that we needed to push up into the premium area. Artist Series is more retail. We need something that is more premium. They asked what we could do. I said, one of the simplest ways of going premium is single vineyard. Let’s give credit to our growers.”
The first Sandhill wines were made with fruit from the Sandhill Estate Vineyard, then owned with Burrowing Owl Vineyards (a partnership later dissolved). Over the years, other premium vineyards were also enlisted for Sandhill.
Arguably, the gem was Phantom Creek Vineyard, a seven-acre parcel on Black Sage Road planted and farmed by Richard Cleave. He is as iconic as a grower as Howard is legendary as a winemaker.
“I have known him for years, ever since he was growing grapes at Pacific Vineyards,” Howard told me in 2005. “That is now where Burrowing Owl is. Dick got through the free trade period [when most Pacific Vineyards was pulled out] by growing market vegetables. He was growing peppers and stuff. He said, ‘Howie, I’ve got my own vineyard.’ He had started growing grapes and selling them to home winemakers. They were pretty good grapes. Even I didn’t realize how good they were.”
Richard asked Howard to make wine for him. “I said I’ll see what I can do,” Howard recalled. “His first fruit was 2000 – three years after the first Sandhill wine. I made some Syrah, one barrel of Syrah, just under 20 cases. It was superb Syrah, but it was only one barrel. But we realized that Dick had something going.” Phantom Creek became the second single vineyard in the Sandhill portfolio. Ultimately, the vineyard grew some of the best Sandhill wines.
The vineyard was acquired early in 2016 by a Richmond-based Chinese entrepreneur, Richter Bai, who is now developing the Phantom Creek Estate Winery.
“I’ve worked with Vanessa Vineyard grapes since its founding,” Howard said on becoming Vanessa’s winemaker in 2017. “I believe it is unlike any other vineyard due to the site’s unique topography, climatic conditions and soil types – the perfect combination for making truly distinctive wine.”