Northwest Winery of the Year 2009: Wild Goose Vineyards

Wine Press NorthwestMarch 13, 2009 

In today's world, red wines get most of the ink. They are sexy, they generally fetch higher prices, and they create more buzz among "serious" wine lovers.

Yet making great white wine is at least as difficult as making reds, as most winemakers will attest. And making some of the greatest white wines anywhere are the folks at Wild Goose Vineyards in Okanagan Falls, B.C., our 2009 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year.

The vineyard and winery started very much on a whim.

In 1983, Adolf "Fritz" Kruger was a semi-retired electrical engineer. The German immigrant raised his family in the Lower Mainland and had never been involved in the wine industry. He and his wife, Susie, moved to a log home near Cache Creek, in the Interior of British Columbia. They happened to visit a friend who was growing grapes in the Okanagan Valley and decided that was a perfect retirement project.

"They decided they'd rather do this than sit in caribou country," said son Roland Kruger.

Initially, Fritz looked for a 5-acre plot, but after getting his sons Hagen and Roland involved, they planted 10 acres near the town of Okanagan Falls.

The Kruger family planted its vineyard in 1983, selling grapes to wineries such as Mission Hill. At this time, wineries tended to dictate to growers what they should grow - and prior to 1988, those grapes often were hybrid grapes rather than the more desirable European varieties. However, Fritz turned that model on its head, planted Riesling and Gewürztraminer and told the wineries what they could have.

"Luck plays a large role," said Hagen. "We planted the Riesling at a time when the 'experts' said we were crazy. We're lucky because we now have these 25-year-old plants that are only going to get better as they get older."

In the late 1980s, the B.C. wine industry was in transition. The government paid growers to tear out the French hybrid grapes and replant with classic European varieties. The Krugers never figured they would get into the winemaking side of the business but decided to go in that direction in 1990. First, Fritz had to lobby the provincial government to create a new category of wine producers known as "farm gate wineries," which had to farm at least 3 acres of vines and use 75 percent of their own grapes. Farm gate wineries were approved in June 1990, and Wild Goose was the second winery to get its license, after Lang Vineyards.

"Dad was an amateur winemaker," Hagen said. "He had some winemaking books, but he went to U.C. Davis to get books written in English. At that time, there were no consultants. There were 18 wineries here in 1990, and you jumped in with both feet and did your best."

Fritz was the winemaker until 1998, when he turned the operation over to his sons, with Hagen as winemaker and Roland as general manager. This year, Fritz turns 78 and still is going full blast, working side by side with his sons.

Hagen caught the winemaking bug when he was 16 and spent a summer in Germany, where he learned about and appreciated the attitude Europeans have toward alcohol.

"Growing up in Vancouver, I wasn't quite focused," he admitted. "At that time, a seed was planted and winemaking was something I wanted to pursue."

The family brought in winemaking consultant Christine Leroux, who mentored Hagen on many of the fine points of the business.

"She taught me stability in winemaking and helped me fine-tune my skills," Hagen said. "I guess I was an apt student."

Indeed. In the past decade, Wild Goose has emerged as being much more than a small, family-run operation. Year after year, the Krugers' wines have measured up against the best around, winning dozens of gold medals across Canada and North America. In the past three years, Wild Goose wines have earned five Platinums and one unanimous Double Platinum in Wine Press Northwest's annual "best of the best in Great Northwest" competition. All were for white wines, which make up 75 percent of Wild Goose's 9,000 cases of wine. In 2007, we honored Wild Goose as our British Columbia Winery of the Year.

The winery is best known for its Rieslings, of which it makes no fewer than three styles, and Gewürztraminers, of which it produces two separate bottlings.

"Riesling truly is made in the vineyard," Hagen said. "It really expresses its place, the soil it's been grown in and the site it's grown on. Riesling needs a good site to do really well. We spend a lot of time in the vineyard, nurturing the plant along, and it really pays off."

In recent years, Wild Goose also has focused on Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. And Autumn Gold, a blend of Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Blanc, is the winery's best-selling wine. Hagen and Roland's mother, Susie, has played a key role in that.

"Mom has played a huge role in developing this business," Roland said. "In the early days, you always left the winery with a bottle of Autumn Gold because it was her favorite wine. In those years, the wines were good quality, but our mom always helped sell that wine."

The tremendous success Wild Goose enjoys with white wines only pushes Hagen toward success with reds.

"It takes a lot more resources to make a good red wine," Hagen said. "As we grow, we're able to afford these resources, and it really helps in our red wine program. I realize we're doing well with our whites, but it's a great challenge to me, and I put a lot more effort into the reds. I don't want to be one-dimensional."

Hagen crafts four reds: two Merlots, a Pinot Noir and a unique dessert wine known as Black Brandt. Made with Maréchal Foch, Black Brandt is a Port-style wine that is not fortified with brandy, but rather is continuously fermented. In other words, Hagen adds sugar to the wine during fermentation until it reaches about 17 percent alcohol.

One wine Hagen doesn't produce is ice wine, a specialty in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley.

"I'm sorry, but I grew up in Vancouver," Hagen said with a deep chuckle. "So to be out in the cold at minus-9 (Celsius), that's not my style."

Already, the third generation of Krugers is involved in Wild Goose. Hagen's son Nick, 23, works in the cellar, side by side with his father, and Alex, 19, works in the vineyard.

"They want to do this for a living," their proud father said. "They seem to be really enjoying it and showing a lot of good work ethic. It's great to be able to work with your sons and make great wines," he added. "What more could you want?"

Indeed, Wild Goose remains very much a family operation, and that's the way they like it.

The Kruger brothers look around the rest of the valley and watch beautiful buildings being erected with a slight amount of envy. But they know they have something a lot more important.

"I'd love to have a nicer winery," Roland said. "I'd love to have my own office. But when we sit down and really reflect on the strengths of Wild Goose, it's wine and family."

Wild Goose Vineyards

2145 Sun Valley Way, Okanagan Falls, B.C.

250-497-8919

wildgoosewinery.com

Hours: Tasting room open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily April 1-Oct. 31 or by appointment.

Directions: Driving north on Highway 97 between Oliver and Okanagan Falls, turn right onto Oliver Ranch Road, then follow the signs to Wild Goose.

About the Winery of the Year awards

The Winery of the Year is selected by the editors of Wine Press Northwest and is based on a set of criteria, including longevity, quality, reputation, industry involvement, facilities and other considerations. A winery may win the award only once.

Past Pacific Northwest Wineries of the Year
2008: Dunham Cellars, Walla Walla, Wash.
2007: Elk Cove Vineyards, Gaston, Ore.
2006: Barnard Griffin, Richland, Wash.
2005: Ken Wright Cellars, Carlton, Ore.
2004: L’Ecole No. 41, Lowden, Wash.
2003: Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, Summerland, B.C.
2002: Columbia Crest, Paterson, Wash.

Regional wineries of the year are selected by the editors of Wine Press Northwest based on blind tastings, visits, accolades and other considerations. Wineries of the Year must have completed at least five vintages, while Wineries to Watch must have been in business no more than five years.

2008 winners
Washington Winery of the Year: DiStefano, Woodinville
Washington Winery to Watch: Tildio, Manson
Oregon Winery of the Year: Bethel Heights, Salem
Oregon Winery to Watch: Brandborg, Elkton
British Columbia Winery of the Year: Gray Monk, Okanagan Centre
British Columbia Winery to Watch: Le Vieux Pin, Oliver
Idaho Winery of the Year: Indian Creek, Kuna
Idaho Winery to Watch: Williamson Vineyards, Caldwell

ANDY PERDUE is editor-in-chief of Wine Press Northwest.

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