Behind the Wine: Interview with Serendipity Winery Owner Judy Kingston
All photos by Christine Campbell.
It was a crystal clear, sunny day when I arrived at the 12.5-acre property in the Naramata Bench overlooking Lake Okanagan in British Columbia. I saw a vineyard dog lazily traipsing between the vines and a tractor with a pair of pink earmuffs parked in the middle of the road. It was ‘crush’ and Judy Kingston was very gracious to allow me an interview on one of the most important days of the year.
Serendipity Winery's first harvest was in 2009 after three years of replanting and turning what had been an orchard into a vineyard that grows seven grape varieties. The vineyard is made up of four types of soil perfect for growing grapes. Kingston, along with her daughter Katie O’Kell (second in command), winemaker Bradley Cooper and vineyard manager Craig McKenzie, are passionate about wine and winemaking and delivering a product that is excellent and food-friendly.
Christine Campbell: Was there a grape variety or style of wine that you naturally gravitated to before you came to own a vineyard?
Judy Kingston: Not really. My former husband’s family was really into wine and got me interested in trying new things. Typically, I had enjoyed red wines but not so much white wine. We were off in France on our honeymoon when we sat down 35 years ago at a restaurant. The menu I got didn’t have any prices. The menu my husband got did have the prices. So, I thought ‘I am going to order some white wine’ and I really, really liked it. I said to my husband, "I have finally found a white wine that I like." We ordered it a few more times throughout the trip and got back to Toronto and my father-in-law came over for dinner and I said to him, "I have finally found a white wine that I like.” I think it was a Chateau Margeaux and I was told that it was the most expensive wine on the list! I had no idea as my menu had no prices so I was ‘blind tasting’ to find out what I liked. I lived in Switzerland for one year, with a roommate whose boyfriend was responsible to import and export wine from Switzerland. So, he took it upon himself to develop our appreciation for wine. He spent quite a bit of effort teaching us. He said I had super taste buds. Apparently, you are born with them. That is how I got into wine. I love to cook so maybe that is how I got into cooking and it is a natural thing that I then got into winemaking.
CC: So wine appreciation and developing your taste buds came first?
JK: Yes, my big reason for doing this is to be as close to cooking as I can. I have a metal knee so standing at a chef’s station wasn’t an option for me anymore. This was close to cooking and I get to keep moving which is really important for me. For my taste buds and me, dry wines go with food. I like the old-fashioned style wines. For me, Chardonnay is just too big. I find Viognier just a bit more elegant. Viognier is the right choice for this vineyard and more appropriate to grow here.
CC: Is there now a specific wine variety that you love to work with more than the others?
JK: No and I say this because maybe I am a woman but I identified very much with my plants when I planted them. I literally cut each and every one of the ends of the roots off every plant, no one else did this, it was kind of like cutting your child’s’ hair for the first time. I feel connected to each plant. They have each had good and bad years; they have each done different things…kind of like kids. Sometimes you get the perfect plant, other times the one that creates more trouble you spend more time with and you learn the relationship a little more differently…so I would hate to say there is a favorite.
CC: In your own words, what does 'Serendipity' mean?
JK: A fortunate accident.
CC: How does your daughter Katie inspire you?
JK? Katie - she is amazing. No one has ever asked me this. Thank you. She originally came out here to help me and I have watched her grow into her own person and it is interesting as a mother-daughter team... of course it is very clear as little children what your role is as a parent and then as the kids become adults it gets to be a little awkward. You don’t want to not be their best friend. You want to be their Mom. I love being a Mom but of course they don’t need a Mom in the same way. And now we are working together and I am her boss so you get a lot of complexities but it works out well because there is just SO much happening in this industry. We are understaffed so we are very busy and we really don’t have time to dwell on stuff. Now working together for three years, we know how to work ‘through’ the stuff and just get on with what needs to be done. We have gotten into a nice rhythm – we have gotten actually even closer – I am close to both of my kids – and it is nice to be even closer to Katie now. I am just amazed at how talented she is. I knew she was bright with a great sense of humor. But I see her now all the time and I love how competent she is. This wasn’t her initial passion – she has grown into it – which takes courage. She can do anything now and she does it really well. She calls herself ‘second in command’. In the beginning, people in with wine shop would know her as my daughter. Now, when people come in, they ask for Katie because they had so much fun with her and I am now known as ‘Katie’s Mother’. In three years it has gone full circle. I am just the Mom, now its, “Where’s Katie?” So, I am very proud.
CC: Talk to me about food and wine pairing – is this important to you?
JK: I would have been a chef had I not had a metal knee. For me, this was as close to cooking as I could get. I wouldn’t have done this if it weren’t for the fact that it is so close to cooking. It is really important to me that my grapes come out into a wine that pair with very well with food. Eventually I would love to have a restaurant. I won’t be able to do it all myself but it would be nice to maybe have a chef that would allow me to do a cooking class. My entire reason for doing this is my passion for food. So, to answer your question, it is incredibly important to pair wine with food.
CC: Do you think that it was your passion for food and desire to do something that is close to cooking that gave you extra confidence to drive down a gravel road and see an orchard for sale and say to yourself ‘I can do this’?
JK: You know I don’t really know what made me do this. I have talked to other people about this and maybe it is because of the Naramata Centre here or some kind of spiritual thing? As soon as we drove by, we stopped the car and I said to my husband at the time “This is going to be a really weird thing for me to say to you. We have been married for 30 years and we have never talked about moving out west but I’d like to buy this." He said to me, “I’ve never said this to you because your whole family is around Toronto and you are so close to each other. I have always wanted to move out here. If this is what it is going to take, then let’s do it!” So, it wasn’t a long thought out process and I am very analytical. I was a mathematician, it was just ‘this is it’. It was sort of like when you fall in love – it was that kind of connection.
CC: You know when you know? That type of thing?
JK: Exactly, I knew this is where I was meant to be.
CC: Wonderful. So, back to food and wine and pairings – as we are now coming up to autumn, what are some of your favorite food and wine pairings?
JK: I love our rosé with a holiday turkey dinner…Thanksgiving, Christmas. It is that French style with five red varieties done in our dry, evenly balanced style – it is just great. It goes with the turkey and also goes with the vegetables. And the rosé goes very well with salmon.
CC: What are you most proud of both personally and professionally?
JK: Personally, I would say that I actually did it. I’ve been doing this for nine years and I have never really felt that way until recently. And all of a sudden, it is like I am getting recognition for my wines. Last year I won B.C. Winery of the Year at the New York International Wine Competition and we have such strong support from our customers. I have a really great team here and I feel that I actually did what I set out to do. Coming from being a downtown Toronto lawyer to a farmer in a community where I literally knew not one person and everything was brand new. It was a little scary at the start; I had no experience as a farmer, or growing grapes or making wine.
CC: And you are a farmer. You went to school to become one when you came here. Is that correct?
JK: Yes. I was the sole farmer for seven years.
CC: So professionally? That you ‘did it’ must be a huge feeling of accomplishment.
JK: Yes, and that my peers have recognized me truly means a lot. And, now when people come to the winery, they aren’t coming because ‘there is a winery down the road’ but they are coming to Serendipity, which is really nice.
CC: Thank you so much for your time, Judy. Final question – if you could travel to any wine region in the world and live there for a year, where would it be and why?
JK: South Africa. I’ve been told they have some phenomenal ways they are doing their white wines right now and I would love to learn about that.
Serendipity Winery wines to try:
White Lie 2011
Sauvignon Blanc 2013
Red Handed 2010
Devil’s Advocate 2010
Pinot Noir 2010