WEST KELOWNA, British Columbia — John Simes, head winemaker for Mission Hill Family Estate since 1992, is leaving the cellar to oversee the vineyards for winery owner Anthony von Mandl.
Darryl Brooker, who joined von Mandl’s team last year with the purchase of nearby CedarCreek Estate Winery by VMF Estates, will take over as chief winemaker at British Columbia’s most iconic property as part of the transition announced Wednesday.
“No winemaker has had as much impact on the Okanagan as John Simes,” wrote John Schreiner, the dean of British Columbia wine writers and author of 15 books on the Canadian wine industry.
Mission Hill, created in 1966, was purchased by von Mandl in 1981, when the Okanagan Valley wine industry stood at just five brands. Simes’ impact was virtually immediate as the New Zealand native produced the Mission Hill 1992 Grand Reserve Chardonnay, which won the title as the Best Chardonnay in the World at the 1994 International Wine & Spirit Competition in London.
“This was the first time I knew my dream had legs,” von Mandl stated in a news release. “John has gone on to transform not only our wines, but the world’s perception of our region – indeed he put the Okanagan Valley on the world wine map. Along the way, John was also instrumental in assembling our family’s extraordinary collection of estate vineyards located throughout the valley from West Kelowna in the north, to Osoyoos in the south, on the U.S. border.”
Simes’ wines, $35M renovation transform Mission Hill
Those early scores and awards generated by Simes gave von Mandl confidence to continue to develop the wine program and showpiece facility. In 1999, von Mandl launched Mike’s Hard Lemonade in the United States. Sales of the heavily promoted malt beverage allowed von Mandl to invest a reported $35 million as part of a six-year renovation project of Mission Hill.
Earlier this year, Reuters reported that von Mandl’s Mark Anthony Group put Mike Hard Lemonade on the market with an estimated price tag of $1 billion. His business interests also include Long Shadows Vintners as he sits on the board of directors for the star-studded Walla Walla winery launched in 2003 by Allen Shoup, retired CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
Simes, born in 1950, now turns his focus to the 1,000 acres of vineyard owned by von Mandl’s VMF Estates. Those holdings represent about 10 percent of the 9,800 acres planted in the province.
Viticulture long has been a pursuit for Simes. At one point, he served as both head winemaker and vineyard manager for New Zealand giant Montana Wines, which is where he was working when von Mandl wooed him to the Okanagan Valley.
“I see our vineyards as the last frontier in allowing our wines to become amongst the most sought after in the world,” Simes said. “Our terroir and microclimates are found nowhere else, and it now comes down to a relentless quest to drive the most in terms of quality and distinctiveness out of each and every vine.
“Twenty years ago, no one believed that wines like Oculus, Compendium and Perpetua were possible, or that an Okanagan Pinot Noir such as Martin’s Lane would make the world stage in London,” he continued. “With the von Mandl family’s commitment to continuously 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.”
Brooker transitions from CedarCreek to Mission Hil
The transition will be gradual. The plan is for Simes to put together the final blends for wines from the 2014 vintage, and the Kiwi will continue to consult with Brooker. The Aussie native’s new responsibilities also will include Martin’s Lane, the small-production brand for Riesling and Pinot Noir named for von Mandl’s late father — Dr. Martin von Mandl.
“It will be a privilege to make some of Canada’s most iconic wine brands found exclusively in the Mission Hill portfolio – wines that deliver exceptional quality in every vintage,” Brooker said. “The passion behind the Mission Hill brand and the unwavering commitment to help put the Okanagan Valley on the international wine map is something I am incredibly motivated by and excited to be a part of.”
Brooker spent four years working for the Fitzpatrick family at CedarCreek before the sale of the winery and 110 acres of vineyard to von Mandl in Februrary 2014. Brooker’s career started with Mountadam Vineyards in Australia before moving to Villa Maria in New Zealand. In 2005, he arrived in Ontario and spent five years with Hillebrand and Thirty Bench wineries until being wooed to the Okanagan Lake by the Fitzpatricks.
VMF Estates poised to debut CheckMate wines
“My family and I could not be more pleased for John and Darryl’s next moves,” von Mandl said. “They both share the same winemaking philosophy and commitment to excellence and continuous improvement that we need to take us and the Okanagan to new levels of international acclaim that few today even contemplate is possible. The first and formative chapter of our region and Mission Hill Family Estate has been written — now we begin the second.”
Last year, VMF Estates built $4.5 million standalone vinification facility for Martin’s Lane on his CedarCreek property. The move was inspired by von Mandl’s joy for the acclaim Martin’s Lane 2011 Pinot Noir received at the 2013 Decanter World Wine Awards.
Later this year, VMF Estates is expected to debut bottlings made under the CheckMate Artisanal Winery brand in Oliver, B.C., near the Golden Mile Bench. That property was purchased by von Mandl in 2012 from the Combret family.
Wines from the inaugural 2012 vintage for CheckMate were crushed by Washington state winemaker Katy Michaud, who spent 11 months working the project for von Mandl and Simes. She resigned in June 2013 to rejoin her family in the Tri-Cities and now heads up the winemaking for Diversion Wine Co. Michaud also works on small projects with NakedWines.com.