Women in Wine…The Passion of Pioneers

Women in Wine come from all walks of life. Teachers, therapists, lawyers, students, hairdressers…they have all followed their dreams into the vineyards of the Okanagan Valley.

Down a busy but picturesque road that overlooks Okanagan Lake in Naramata, stands Serendipity Winery. The Proprietor, who runs the winery with her daughter, is a living example of serendipity.

After fighting back from debilitating injuries suffered in a car accident, Judy Kingston realized that her life as a Toronto lawyer had come to an end. At a loss to ignite her own passion, she came upon an old orchard that was for sale in Naramata while on a quick getaway to the Okanagan in 2005. “I decided I’d put an offer in and by the time I got back to Toronto, I owned an orchard!” says Judy. Then she got to work.

“After being a Bay Street lawyer, I became a farmer. My daughter Katie O’Kell came out in 2011 to help for nine months and during her stay she cancelled her plans for law school. “

Their business cards say a lot about the way they approach and run their winery. Judy’s title is Fearless Leader, while Katie’s is Second-In-Command. There is little they cannot – or will not – do, and they have learned the business from the ground up.

Judy laughs at the realities she faces every day and takes it all in stride. “When I look out the window, the first thing I think is ‘aren’t I blessed to be here?’ and the second is ‘What the hell have I done?’ I never even had a garden in Toronto, but it’s very soul-satisfying to work in the vineyard.”

Katie is also a realist. “I’m always thrilled when the bottling takes place. I panic afterwards. Then I think what have I done? Now I’ve got to sell this stuff one bottle at a time!’”

Judy and Katie are comfortable working together and have ironed out any minor issues over the years. “During the first three or four years, we were so very busy that lots could have gone wrong, but we went through it all without time to think.” They make their decisions together and maintain that a tight family and strong values is key to their success. From the original grape planting 11 years ago, this mother and daughter partnership has grown and blossomed along with their wines.

A passionate nature and vibrant personality are common to the highly successful women in the Okanagan’s wine industry. And as any of them will tell you, their good fortune comes on the back of years and decades of hard work. Their stories are as fascinating and unique as the women themselves.

Few people know more about making consistently delicious wine than Quails’ Gate Estate Winery winemaker Nikki Callaway. Although she was born in Calgary, she grew up in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Her family often rented homes in numerous countries to directly experience the culture, wine and culinary delights. “I grew up with wine as part of my culture,” says Nikki. “There were always big dinners and special functions with different herbs, spices and foods. I loved to go to the spice markets.”

She returned to Canada to get her Masters’ Degree in Microbiology and spent her summers working in kitchens in Dubai. Her wine education began in France, where she accepted a position as a picker in Beaujolais. After learning some tough lessons early on as a young woman in a male-dominated field, she hung on and earned a Masters in Viticulture and Oenology, then headed to South Africa to be assistant winemaker at Waterford Wines. A four month internship at Mission Hill Winery in the Okanagan in 2009 turned into four years, and in 2013 she joined Quails’ Gate as their winemaker.

“I like the feeling and structure of a mid-sized family winery. I manage the vineyard and winemaking, and I’ve got an experienced team. Together we’ve raised the bar. I believe in perfectionism and consistency,” she said.

Nikki believes women are more culinary and have a slightly better palate. “This is the new generation of women in a young industry. We adapt well to new ways. More women are succeeding and it takes perseverance. This is exactly what you see in the Okanagan.”

There is no other woman in the wine industry with as much experience and depth as Trudy Heiss of Gray Monk. Along with her husband, George, they have helped define today’s estate wineries after planting their original grapes in 1972.

Trudy is forthcoming about the art of operating a top-notch winery. Her role in the industry is legendary and she was involved in most, if not all, milestones the Okanagan wine industry has experienced in the past 40 plus years.

Gray Monk Estate Winery is a family-run gem in Lake Country. Breathtaking in its beauty, they have developed a fiercely loyal customer base that extends across BC and Alberta, and Trudy, George and their three sons have won countless international awards.

Trudy and George were Edmonton hairdressers when they decided to move to the Okanagan and start growing grapes. They continued to work as hairdressers after planting their grapes, to make ends meet. “In 1980 we produced our first vintage, 175 cases of Pinot Gris. This year, we’ll do about 93,000 cases,” Trudy said.

Back then, Trudy and George personally laid 32,000 linear feet of water systems on their knees after their workday was done. Trudy has undertaken every task at Gray Monk except make the wine. She and George have never had a personal argument and very seldom disagree over business. Her favorite place is high atop the tractor, driving through every row in the vineyard. “We bottle memories, we don’t sell wine; we sell the experience.”

Two wineries in Southeast Kelowna are operated by hands-on, accomplished women. Marina Knutson, a Vancouver occupational therapist, and her partners purchased land for SpierHead Winery and planted the original vineyard in 2008. As with many of her female counterparts, she planted, dug holes, pulled irrigation lines and worked the vineyard. The winery building opened in 2010.

She and her husband, Bill, grew up in Kelowna and after attending UBC lived in Vancouver. They spend about 90 days a year here and, as Marina declares, it is a full time job even when she is away as she constantly has to deal with winery business. Teamwork is essential at SpierHead, and she and Bill, a lawyer, create the long- term vision for the winery.

“We’ve finally got it,” she states. “We’ve built our tasting room, the patio and event area are done and we’re completely surrounded by vines. The biggest part of our dream has been to create great wines, wine we’re proud to serve to our friends.”

Marina says she’s been on a sharp learning curve since the beginning. “I love learning, and I think women love to learn. With wine, the more you learn, the more you realize you need to know. It challenges you physically, mentally and intellectually.” She points out that the ‘best sniffers’ are women of child-bearing years. Women have a strong sense of smell which they’ve developed to take care of their babies.

Marina is the Membership Chair of the Les Dames d’Escoffier, the BC chapter of an international organization for women in the food, wine and hospitality industries. Their goal is to provide scholarships to women who enter these fields.

At nearby The View Winery, yet another strong, capable female is at the helm. Meet Jennifer Molgat, a tireless juggler of family, operator of a successful business and initially, she taught school at the same time!

She and her husband dreamed of starting a boutique winery and when her father, orchardist Chris Turton, approached her to get a winery license for their property, The View Winery was born. In 2007 they produced 500 cases of Pinotage and Gewurztraminer, both award-winning wines in 2008. This fun and distinctive winery has become Jennifer’s way of life. “We now employ 15 full time employees. I’ve learned a lot through these young people. They’ll do anything if you empower, trust and support them.”

The View’s iconic Red Shoe logo was born after she and her husband went dancing on their anniversary, ending the evening with a bottle of bubbly. When she placed her red shoe in the top of the bottle, a brand was born. “The Red Shoe (theme) has taken on a life of its’ own,” says Jennifer. “I now own 27 pairs of them. “

They have been producing award-winning wines, Wards Cider and Bling – a must try summer sipper – in the years since. Jennifers philosophy is to surround yourself with excellent people you can learn from and then empower them. “They’ll make your company successful. We consistently place well with awards. This year our Gewurztraminer was awarded gold at the All Canadian Wine Championships.”

Jennifer and her fellow Women in Wine have combined courage with hard work. Okanagan residents and wine aficionados from around the world have enjoyed the results of their efforts, as their dreams have become a reality.

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