Grey Monk co-founder George Heiss, a truly legendary figure in British Columbia wine, died on June 29, 2021. His accomplishments are all the more impressive, given that his first career was in hair styling.
George was born in 1939 in Vienna and grew up in a family of hair dressers. His father, also George, was a three-time world champion hair stylist. When he was sixteen, the young George apprenticed in his parent's salon. George worked his way around Europe and then abroad, ending up in Edmonton in 1960 where he met another young hairdresser, Trudy Peter. They married in 1962 and successfully operated two hair salons in Edmonton until, in a career change in 1972, they bought an orchard overlooking the lake at Okanagan Centre and set about developing a vineyard and winery there. For cash flow until the vineyard was established, George continued to do hair styling in Kelowna until 1979.
George once told me in a 2003 interview that he did not regret the career change. “But I also don’t regret being in the other one, either. I tell you why: I have worked all my life with people, and very closely with people, because hairdressing is one on one, and maybe with the more difficult set of the human race, the females. In Edmonton, I used to do up to 35 customers a day. Both Trudy (his wife) and I have the advantage that we know how to deal with people, talk to people. It's very natural. Having been in the service industry all the time, it becomes very easy for us to be service oriented.
The move to grape growing was inspired by Trudy's father, Hugo. She was born Waltraud Peter in Rostock, a German community on the Baltic where her father was a machinist and millwright. Her parents fled what was then East Germany, coming to Canada in 1952 and settling in Edmonton. Her parents bought a pear orchard near Okanagan Centre in 1968. Hugo Peter converted it to a vineyard, teaching himself viticulture from professional publications obtained from Germany. His enthusiastic letters about the Okanagan persuaded Trudy and George Heiss to move there.
Being novices, the couple initially planted what everyone else was growing - French hybrids such as Maréchal Foch and Rosette (Seibel 1000). They delayed applying for a winery licence after tasting wines from hybrids and studied Hugo Peter's German wine-growing publications. George famously said that "Maréchal Foch was not exported from France , it was deported."
George did not like the wines being made with the hybrid grapes. "We always had quite good wine at home when I grew up"; he told me. "I grew up with wine because it was always on the table. It was either wine or beer; it depended on what my mother cooked."
In 1975, when Hugo Peter travelled to Europe, he was able to source vinifera vines from the Alsace research station in Colmar.
This was the turning point for the Heisses and for the Okanagan. In the spring of 1976, George planted 2,000 Pinot Auxerrois vines, 10 Gewürztraminer vines, and 50 Pinot Gris vines, all firsts for the Okanagan. There was also enough Pinot Gris budwood to produce about 4,000 vines for planting in 1977. This initial planting of Pinot Gris laid the foundation for the success of what now is the most widely grown white variety in British Columbia.
George also struck a friendship with Helmut Becker, a leading German grape scientist, who first visited the Okanagan in 1975 while consulting in Washington State. "He came up to see us and he spent the day with us", George recounted in 2002. "He went all over the place here and he said, you can grow anything". And that is when he offered us 34 different varieties and told us to do the research. I said we were not set up to do the research. After a lot of discussion, the Grapegrowers' Association took it over and it became the Becker Project." That seven-year trial identified other vinifera vines suitable for the Okanagan. George served as chairman of viticulture for the association.
George and Trudy Heiss -photo from Kelowna Now
In 1980 the Heisses filed the application for what became the Gray Monk winery when it opened in 1982. (The name is a translation of Grauer Mönsch, one of the many German synonyms for Pinot Gris.) The varieties that had been imported from Alsace gave Gray Monk’s wines an immediate advantage in quality. Throughout the 1980s the winery dominated B.C. wine competitions with its vinifera wines, easily besting wines made with hybrid varieties.Hard work and viticultural foresight paid off. Gray Monk eventually had one of the largest wine portfolios in the Okanagan, ranging from the value-priced best-selling Latitude 50 wines to the still affordable reserve wines in the Odyssey Series.
Affordable pricing was a Gray Monk hallmark. "We run out every year and somebody said, 'you should put your prices up' George told me in 2004. " said, no. Why should I penalize my customers? They've been hanging in with me for so many years. If we raise the prices, it is strictly because all other costs have gone up." His customers reciprocated that loyalty. "Business has been very good, almost too good'" George told me in 2005. "Please don't write that; it sounds like bragging. I am almost embarrassed with how it's going."
George and Trudy worked as hard at industry matters as they did at their own business. George was a founding member of the British Columbia Wine Institute and served a number of years as technical chair of the Vintners Quality Alliance. He did not have much patience for navigating the myriad of government rules wineries have had to live with. It once was against regulations to have tasting room seating for guests. "Me being me, I asked the inspector what do I do with a guy who comes in a wheel chair?"; George said once. "Does he have to get up"
A large and energetic man, George typically took a direct approach to problems. In a 1985 article, the Farm Credit Corporation's magazine Encounter reported that when George was asked about dealing with birds in the vineyards, he drew a pistol from his pocket. "The starlings are bad but the robins are even worse. You can shoot one off a wire and the guy sitting next to him will watch the body fall and say 'Oh look, Fred just fell off the wire,' then he'll hop down and eat your grapes. They are fearless and stupid and very difficult to control."
By the time George and Trudy sold the winery in 2017 to Andrew Peller Ltd., Gray Monk was producing well over 100,000 cases a year. And the formerly cramped winery had, after a series of expansions, grown to a castle-like structure that would not have looked out of place on George's native Austria.