3 generations inspire award-winning wines at Wild Goose Vineyards

By on March 27, 2017
Roland Kruger, left, winemaker Nicholas Kruger, and managing winemaker Hagen Kruger stand out for their work in the cellar, which is under the tasting room at Wild Goose Vineyards in Okanagan Falls, British Columbia.

General manager Roland Kruger, left, winemaker Nicholas Kruger, and managing winemaker Hagen Kruger stand out for their work in the cellar under the tasting room of Wild Goose Vineyards in Okanagan Falls, British Columbia. (Photo by Abra Bennett/Great Northwest Wine)

An exciting breeze from the north swept over last week’s fifth annual Cascadia Wine Competition when the 2016 Pinot Gris from Wild Goose Vineyards and Winery in Okanagan Falls, British Columbia took top honors as best of show.

The nationwide panel of 21 judges met at the Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River, Ore., and awarded eight gold medals to Wild Goose wines, including three best of class awards and four double gold medals.

Roland Kruger, general manager of Wild Goose, says his is just a humble second- and third-generation winemaking family, describing theirs as one of the old-timers of the British Columbia wine industry. His brother, Hagen, Wild Goose’s award-winning winemaker, says he tries to make wine that’s as close to traditional wine as possible, using new technologies whenever he can.

The Krugers’ trademark mix of humility, tradition and innovation has served them well. Wild Goose has received more Lt. Governor Awards for Excellence in Wine than any other winery in the province. In the past decade, Wild Goose Vineyards has earned 19 Platinum medals in Wine Press Northwest magazine’s year-end best-of-the-best judging. And in 2014, the Wild Goose 2012 God’s Mountain Vineyard Riesling earned best of show at the Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition, beating out 425 other wines from Washington, Oregon, BC and Idaho.

So last week’s performance in the Columbia Gorge shouldn’t come as a surprise anyone familiar with their program.

Kruger family ranks as old-timers

Adolf "Fritz" Kruger, founder/co-owner of award-winning Wild Goose Vineyards In Okanagan Falls, British Columbia, died Sunday at the age of 85. He was a founding director of the BC Wine Institute and spearheaded the effort to establish farmgate wineries throughout the province.

The late Adolf “Fritz” Kruger was a founding director of the British Columbia Wine Institute and spearheaded the effort to establish farmgate wineries throughout the province. (Photo courtesy of the Kruger family)

In the relatively young BC wine industry, the Krugers are indeed old-timers. They planted their original vineyards in 1983 and 1984, and are still tending those grapes today. They began by selling their grapes to iconic Mission Hill Family Estate, and then started making their own Wild Goose wines in 1990.

The story of Wild Goose is the story of superbly successful immigration. Wild Goose founder Adolf “Fritz” Kruger, father of Roland and Hagen, found his way into the wine business after he was cast up on Canada’s shores following World War II.

“We’re proud Canadians, but my Dad was originally from Wittenberge,” says Roland, “right on the Elbe River, where the Russian and American forces met during World War II, in what was to become part of East Germany. When the war ended, he and his brother fled across the Elbe into the western part of Germany. So my Dad ended up in the German wine country, and although he never was a winemaker there he got involved in the German wine culture.”

In 1951, Adolf immigrated to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he met his future wife Susie, who herself had emigrated from Romania. Together they made a life in Winnipeg, and their sons Hagen and Roland were born there. But just months after Roland’s birth the family moved to Vancouver, where the boys grew up.

In the early 1980s, Adolf took an early retirement from his career in engineering and he and Susie moved to a cabin in the Cariboo region of central British Columbia. One harsh winter there, plus a serendipitous reunion with old friends who were living in the Okanagan Valley and growing a few acres of Gewürztraminer grapes, convinced the couple to head for more hospitable climes.

Attracted by the vineyard lifestyle, Adolf and Susie started looking for a parcel of land to buy. Eventually, they found the property that is now Wild Goose.

A phone call, then the honking

Stoney Slope Vineyard, in this photo taken Oct. 17, 2013, produced the best Riesling at the 2015 British Columbia Best of Varietal Wine Competition for its 2013 Stoney Slope Vineyard Riesling.

Stoney Slope Vineyard produced the best Riesling at the 2015 British Columbia Best of Varietal Wine Competition — the Wild Goose Vineyard 2013 Stoney Slope Vineyard Riesling. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Roland remembers that day when all their lives changed forever.

“My Dad phoned my brother and me and asked, ‘Do you boys want to invest in a vineyard?’ I was only 20 years old at the time, and investment was a really foreign word to me at that age. But my older brother Hagen said ‘Sure, let’s do it,’ so we bought this piece of land, which was pretty barren at the time — rocky, very steep and partly forested. And Hagen and I would drive out from where we were living in Alberta at the time, an eight-hour drive, to help work the land.

“After we bought the land, my Dad went out to walk it, following a cow trail, and when he came down into a hollow he came upon about 150 Canada geese,” Roland continued. “He startled the flock, and they all flew up into the air above him, each with a four- to five-foot wingspan, and they were all honking and going absolutely crazy. He felt that it was an omen and decided to call the vineyard Wild Goose.”

Once he owned the land, Adolf began talking to other grape growers in the valley. At that time they were mostly all growing hybrid varieties for bulk wine production, cropped at 14-15 tons per acre, but Kruger wanted to grow high-quality German varieties.

Adolf approached Mission Hill, whose winemaker at the time was Daniel Lagnaz, a trained and certified Swiss winemaker. Kruger told Lagnaz that he had a beautiful site with perfect exposure for growing Riesling and Gewürztraminer, and Lagnaz immediately agreed to buy his grapes. So the Krugers established 9,000 vines, digging and planting every one by hand, 5 acres of Riesling and 4 acres of Gewürztraminer. For several years, they sold all of their grapes to Mission Hill.

When the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was negotiated in 1988, everything changed. To give an advantage to Canadian wines, the Canadian government paid all the grape growers to pull out their old, inferior hybrid vines and replant with vinifera grapes. And that was the start of the modern BC wine industry.

“My Dad got the idea that it would be good to make a little wine and sell it at the farm gate,” Roland remembers. “He began to lobby the provincial government to change their laws in regard to winery licensing to make it possible for smaller wineries to operate. So he and a couple of friends would be going to government meetings and pouring their homemade bottles of wine, and after a couple of years of this, the government decided to introduce a new level of winery license which was called the Farm Gate Winery license. So in June of 1990, we were the second to be licensed under this new law, and we became the 18th winery to be licensed in British Columbia.”

Wild Goose helps set standard for province

The late Adolf Kruger and his sons Hagen, center, and Roland have combined to win more Lt. Governor Awards for Excellence than any winery in British Columbia. (Photo courtesy of Wild Goose Vineyards)

At the same time, the government introduced the new licensing law, it also introduced a quality program, setting standards for wine, called the VQA, Vintners Quality Alliance. The VQA seal on a wine label is a guarantee to customers that they are buying wine made 100 percent from BC grapes. In Canada, there’s also another level of wines called Cellared in Canada (CIC), and although those wines might come in bulk from California or Argentina or Germany, a Canadian commercial winery can bottle it and label it Cellared in Canada. Wild Goose’s wines proudly carry the VQA seal of approval.

“The trade agreement really gave our industry a fresh start,” Roland said.”The downside was that a lot of the older growers pulled out their vines, and didn’t replant, so they lost their lifestyles. But the Kruger family, we’ve always been optimists. We look forward, we don’t look back, we learn from the past, and all these years later it is remarkable to be part of this industry and to see what has evolved. We certainly never imagined that one day there would be over 300 wineries in BC, over 10,000 acres of vineyards.”

Of those 10,000 acres, just 30 acres belong to Wild Goose. They have 10 acres of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and a little bit of Muscat at the original Wild Goose site. In 1999, they purchased the 5-acre Mystic River Vineyard in Oliver where they grow Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir.

At their nearby 12-acre Secrest Vineyard, they grow Merlot, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Petit Verdot. Hagen also grows some Cabernet Sauvignon at Kerry Hill Vineyard near his home on Okanagan Falls. The family also buys 25-30 acres worth of grapes from growers they have been working with for many years. On average, they produce between 15,000-20,000 cases, from about 300 tons of fruit.

“It’s a tough business,” Roland says.” I don’t look at just local competition, but we’re also competing in the market with wines from around the world, including wines from European nations that have been producing wine for 600 years, and we’re also competing against low-priced wines from South America.

“We’re producing wine in this valley that is of exceptional quality, and we’re very excited to be part of it. Of course we promote our Wild Goose brand, because we have to toot our own horn too, but our family has always promoted our BC wine industry first.”

Father/sons transition began 20 years ago

Wild Goose Vineyards, led by winemaker Hagen Kruger, second from left, continues to pull award-winning wines from its Mystic River Vineyard just north of the town of Oliver, British Columbia. (Photo courtesy of Wild Goose Vineyards)

In 1997, the torch began to pass from Adolf to his sons. Hagen, who is a self-taught winemaker, took over the work of winemaking, as well as managing the vineyards. Roland does the sales and marketing and managing the business. And today, the third generation of Krugers is coming into its own, with Hagen’s sons Nicholas and Alexander working in the winery and the vineyard respectively. Sadly, Adolf Kruger passed away in 2016 at the age of 85.

Roland is full of praise for Hagen’s work as winemaker.

“He really elevated the winemaking to a much higher level,” Roland said. “I think he’s one of the best winemakers in Canada. He’s so remarkable at getting fruit extraction and bringing out the true varietal characteristics.”

But, he adds, the wine culture is still developing in Canada.

“Our culture here, we’re a rye-and-Coke culture. You know, go to the bar on Friday and have a rye and Coke and a pint of beer,” Roland added. “But we’re slowly trying to enhance that so that people develop an appreciation of wine. But it takes generations to develop a culture where people want to cellar wines, which is why many of our wines are made in a style that’s ready for quick consumption.”

Hagen’s approach to winemaking is both traditional and sophisticated.

“We spend a lot of time in the vineyard” Hagen said, “and have a lot of people working in the vineyard, because at the end of the day you want to grow the best fruit you can, and make the best wine you can out of it. If I have new people who come in with visions of grandeur, wanting to be winemakers, I send them out into the vineyard for the summer. And if they last, then I know they’re serious about what they want to do.”

Stoney Slope’s spontaneous fermentation of Riesling

Hagen Kruger of Wild Goose Vineyards.

Hagen Kruger, second-generation winemaker for Wild Goose Vineyards in Okanagan Falls, B.C., stands in his cellar. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

His Stoney Slope Riesling, which won a silver medal at the 2017 Cascadia, is an example of his approach to blending tradition with innovation.

“With my Stoney Slope Riesling I’m trying to follow in the path of Weingut Keller in Germany,” Hagen explains. “There the winemaker claims that he takes free-run juice and puts it straight into barrel, and then doesn’t touch it. And that juice is heavy, with solids and seeds and everything. And from there he just lets it ferment spontaneously in the barrels.

“And so I actually tried this on a small portion of the Stoney Slope Riesling last year and I thought that it turned out fantastic. So this year I did a portion like that, a spontaneous fermentation in neutral barrels, which I kept in barrel for about five months. Then with another portion I did a spontaneous fermentation in the tank, and then about halfway through fermentation I added a yeast culture to get it finished.

“And then another portion I fermented with a cultured yeast, one of my favorite strains for Riesling. And then I played around with it, trying to make the best blend that I could out of those three separate portions.”

Hagen goes on to describe more of his approach to building the Canadian wine culture.

“The wine people seem to like the most, the people’s choice, is our Autumn Gold (which won a best of class at the 2017 Cascadia). We always say it’s our secret blend of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Blanc. It’s very yin and yang. The Riesling gives it great acidity, the Gewürz gives it some great aromatics, and we use Pinot Blanc from a very hot growing area, which lends a lot of body to the wine.

“But if I were to choose a favorite for myself, that would be the Stoney Slope Riesling, simply because it’s still experimental and I know the effort that’s going into it. I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but that barrel fermentation almost gives the wine kind of a botrytis effect.”

He emphasizes that he also enjoys the process of making red wines, because he uses hands-on, traditional winemaking techniques. That process is in direct contrast to how he makes his whites, using a flotation tank with injected nitrogen and gelatin, plus a bit of bentonite, instead of traditional cold settling. Flotation allows him to process 1,000 gallons of juice in half an hour, instead of a more usual couple of days.

He describes the process with great enthusiasm.

“So two hours after flotation I can rack off the juice and it’s ready to ferment,” Hagen said. “You’ve reduced your cooling time, removed proteins and clarified the juice, all in one quick process. All of our fermentations done with flotation have been fantastic, clean, fruity fermentations. We just started using this technique last year, and now I ask myself how we ever managed without it. The new technologies are amazing. How did we ever filter before rotary drum vacuum filters?”

Those labor-saving techniques are a gift, but also a necessity, Roland sheepishly admits.

“My brother and I, we still outwork our workers two or three to one, and we’re in our 50s. But there’s no doubt that winemaking is a young person’s game,” Roland admitted. “The other day, I pressed three tons of Riesling, and cleaned out the press, all by myself. But when I went home. I was so exhausted that I could barely move. Hagen and I, we kick ass, and we lead by example. But we don’t tell the young guys how much we hurt when we get home.

“When we did only 7,000 cases life was easier,” he continues. “We didn’t have to work as hard. But you never want to go backwards, you want to grow your business. And now we make 15,000 cases plus, and not only do we work harder to make our wines, although people love them, we have to work harder to sell that much wine. You can never take your foot off the gas pedal. This business just sucks you in, more and more and more, until it encompasses you.”

But it’s clear that Hagen speaks for the entire family when he adds, “I’ve been making wine since 1998 and I enjoy every minute of it. And my sons both love being a part of Wild Goose, too. I mean, how can you not love winemaking?”

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About Abra Bennett

Abra Bennett, after careers in social work, environmental policy, and as a personal chef, is studying enology and viticulture at Walla Walla Community College. She has been a freelance food, wine and environmental and agricultural policy writer for several years and is working on a book about the experience of becoming a winemaker. She also is contributor to Great Northwest Wine, focusing on wineries and vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley.

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