Howard Soon has just announced he’s retiring from his job as Master Winemaker at Andrew Peller Estates, aka Calona Wines, Sandhill, Red Rooster … and so on.

I figure it’s a really good time to tell the truth about Howard.

He’s one of the most sincere people you’ll ever meet in the wine industry—an industry already full of pretty good folks.

Howard is all about people. Flashback to 2004, when my wife, Heather, and I were visiting Calona Wines. Heather is a professional singer. She was seeking a venue to try out a new idea that involved performing Canadian contemporary classical music in unusual places. The plan was to incorporate some winery sounds into the pieces.

Howard, who was showing us around, was fully on board. As we walked past an enormous, empty 40 foot tall tank he flipped open the clean-out hatch and suggested Heather should sing into it. She put her head inside and sang a high note. You could hear it travel circuitously all the way to the top.

Howard Soon (r) with Tasting Notes performers (l-r) Kathryn Cernauskas, Heather Pawsey and Karen Shumka (TP photo)

Howard Soon (r) in 2004, with Tasting Notes performers (l-r) Kathryn Cernauskas, Heather Pawsey and Karen Shumka (TP photo)

Later that year, the winery concert—we called it “Tasting Notes”—was a huge success. Not the least because Howard led excellent wine tastings before and afterwards.

Early days

Howard has been a force in the BC wine industry for as long as I can remember. But it wasn’t always easy. A UBC Biochemistry grad, he started his winemaking career some 37 years ago. It was a time when most people weren’t enthused by BC wine. And that’s putting it mildly.

Calona’s Rougeon was one of the first more palatable Okanagan hybrid reds to come on the market. But Howard was one of those early visionaries who forged ahead, fully convinced that it was red vinifera which eventually would prove successful. And prove crucial to BC’s future.

Howard Soon's Artist Series Sovereign Opal featured painting by Robb Dunfield

Robb Dunfield’s work featured on Calona Artist Series Sovereign Opal

The original edition of Calona’s Artist Series wines featured artist Robb Dunfield, a quadriplegic who paints with his mouth. (Dunfield is also an ambassador for the Rick Hansen Foundation.) Not only were the labels remarkable. They also proved ideal vehicles for Howard’s wines.  Well made and well priced, they introduced thousands of new wine drinkers to the Okanagan’s remarkable range of varieties.

At the launch of the Artist Series wines, at Bridges (on Granville Island), I ran into Howard heading in. He was beside himself with excitement because Calona Wines, finally, had agreed to buy a decent press. He was convinced it would allow him to transform the wines—and it did.

Here’s what I wrote at the time: “While most were pretty excited about the whole event, winemaker Howard Soon was the most pumped, having just found out that Calona believed sufficiently in the possible future of winemaking in BC to buy him a serious press.  That press eventually became the crucial tool—beyond the vineyard—in the production of the reserve black label wines which preceded Soon’s award winning Burrowing Owl, Sandhill and Small Lot wines.”

Calona Artist Series Pinot Gris 1999 caused quite a stir. It won best white wine at the 2001 LA County Fair. A subsequent Wall Street Journal mention was one of the first hints that BC might soon be on the world wine map.


Howard Soon: The People Person

Howard has been one of the BC industry’s (and Canada’s) hardest working ambassadors. He’s always had that personal touch. He came to Vancouver to lead winemaker’s dinners back in the day when nobody even knew what a winemaker’s dinner was. (Or how to pair food and wine.) A natural, immensely knowledgeable and witty speaker, he knows how to put people at ease. And, most of all, take the snobbery and pretense out of wine.

Howard Soon introduces Peller Estates winemaker Stephanie Leinemann (2011)

Howard Soon introduces then Peller Estates winemaker Stephanie Leinemann (2011). The winemaker has since gone on to make wine at Withers Hills, in New Zealand, and assisted with the first release of Fitzpatrick Family Vineyards. (TP photo)

Another side of Howard of which most people outside the industry aren’t aware is the mentorship he’s given so many up and comers. He was among the first in the valley to not only hire women winemakers but also to fully hand them the reins of responsibility.

Going Out in Style

There likely couldn’t have been a better time for Soon to announce his retirement than in this week just past. His superb Howard Soon Red 2014 Meritage (from Phantom Creek) scored top honours as Red Wine of the Year at this week’s 2017 All Canadian Wine Championships. Plus, Sandhill 2014 Small Lots Phantom Creek Syrah won Double Gold. (Related: Howard was the first Okanagan winemaker to release a series of single vineyard, terroir driven wines.)

Howard Soon Red 2014, Red Wine of the Year, 2017 All Canadian Wine Championships (supplied)

Howard Soon Red 2014, Red Wine of the Year, 2017 All Canadian Wine Championships (supplied)

(He’s also the only winemaker in history to receive all 3 top honors at the Wine Access Canadian Wine Awards when, in 2009, Sandhill won for Red Wine of the Year, White Wine of the Year, and Winery of the Year.)

The notice from Andrew Peller says: “Howard plans on spending valuable time with his family, traveling and volunteer community work at home in his beloved Kelowna.”

Maybe. But my guess is, somewhere, sometime, he’ll also be making wine again. At least, I hope so.

Thank you Howard, truly and immensely, for all you’ve done for BC wine.