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From Corporate Law Partner to Winery Owner – the Serendipitous Journey of Judy Kingston

From Corporate Law Partner to Winery Owner – the Serendipitous Journey of Judy Kingston

I spent a couple of days with Judy Kingston and came away amazed at what she has overcome and all she has accomplished.

This is the story of a successful, intelligent woman who suffered a debilitating and overwhelming accident that not only ended a career she loved but also affected her whole being. At the time Kingston was a partner in a law firm in Toronto walking away from a life she loved, she rehabilitated and reinvented herself with strength and endurance.

Many people of a certain age can relate to the terrifying prospect of memory loss, but can you imagine suffering a catastrophic injury and memory loss at 40?

A true success story and it includes wine!

Judy Kingston (Photo Credit: Town Hall Brands)

Instead of asking questions I let Kingston tell her story in her own words.

I had been in a car accident several years before, very serious, and so I couldn’t practice law anymore because I had lost my memory. I got it back but the psychiatrist I had trusted for the past two years of taking care of me made an interesting comment to me she said you’ve got your memory back there will be parts that haven’t come back but you will be fine, you’ll fill everything in, you’re perfectly fine to go back to practicing law now. I felt if I’ve forgotten something, and I was a fairly senior lawyer, how do I know I’ve forgotten and I could give you advice and completely miss something that could be critical to the outcome. I didn’t want to end my career making mistakes so law was out for me.

I love to cook but of course I had health issues at that point. Standing still for long periods of time wasn’t going to work for me and I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I was trying different things and nothing really seemed to peak my interest and then a few years later I came to have this holiday here.

I was on a trip in the Okanagan back in 2005 and I went down to stay in Osoyoos, it was in November, a four day vacation, and it poured rain every day.

There was nothing to do and everything was pretty well closed and you couldn’t go tasting or anything. On the last day of my vacation I saw on my little map that I had to go back up to Kelowna, that I had driven down on the west side and there was a road on the east side to go back up to the airport in Kelowna. I thought well I’ve got all day so why don’t I drive up that east side and see another part of the Okanagan.

I came up as far as Naramata which I had never heard of and the little rental car couldn’t make it on the road. I thought I would spend a day there, it’s only a couple of blocks long and after a few minutes I had seen all of the town of Naramata.

I drove off and started up Debeck Road. I saw this apple and cherry orchard for sale and there was just something in my soul that said pull over. It was for sale so no one was there. I pulled over and I got out of the car and walked around and it just, I don’t know, it just did something very soothing to my soul.

Here I was walking in this orchard and my soul being touched and I thought maybe this is what I’m supposed to do. I figured, because no one in my family is a farmer, farming is moving all the time so if I turn this into a vineyard I’ll be walking up and down the rows of grapes. If I go into the winery, and I’d never been in a winery before, there is moving, in and out of tanks all the time. Moving was something I needed to do, it was being still that was hard for me.

I put an offer on the orchard and I low balled the offer because I figured if it was meant to be it would be and I put a one month condition on it if for any reason whatsoever I could back out of the deal and the offer was accepted.

I hired somebody, I went online and found somebody who knew viticulture, and I said could you please walk the property to see if it would be appropriate for growing grapes because that’s what I would like to do. He called me back and said not all land is appropriate for growing grapes but this is probably one of the best pieces of farming land. He said absolutely do that and even if you don’t want to grow grapes your price is phenomenal and you could flip it if you don’t want to turn it into a farm. He said go ahead with the sale but absolutely grow grapes. So that’s what I did.

The sale went through and then I found out about a farming school here. I started studying all about farming and realizing that because there were all these hills and valleys and because there were trees you didn’t worry too much, but with grapes you do. I had to get it levelled so I hired somebody to come take all the trees out and then level the land.

I just learned more and more as we went along. Anyways, I got the land all ready for grapes and I came out and I went to the farming school and became an official farmer and that’s what started my journey. That’s why the name Serendipity because it means fortunate accident.

It was something I needed to do for myself because at that point the doctors weren’t all that optimistic as to what I was going to be capable to do for the rest of my life and I was only forty at the time of the accident. I felt too young to do nothing. For me this was a chance for me to build my self esteem back up. I didn’t know anything about farming or making wine but that was part of it. Because I had so few options, I felt, I just wanted to do it without analyzing it too much so I just jumped into it.

It was a lot more work, not that I anticipated too much, but it was an awful lot more work than I probably would have taken on had I known about it. But on the other hand I felt like I’d done what I needed to do for myself. I now know I can grow grapes, I now know I can make wine the way I like to make wine. I feel like it’s healed me which is what the whole purpose was.

My first wine making experience came in 2008 with grapes purchased because the grapes I had growing here were babies, you couldn’t, I was cutting them all off to allow the roots to grow. I actually for the first four years didn’t grow any grapes, any grapes that grew were cut immediately. I had to buy grapes. I bought my grapes from down in Osoyoos and down in Oliver.

The first wines I made were white because with my white I didn’t have to age as well as I do the reds. The reds I age for about four or five years in barrels so it took a long time for me to get red wines going but I had white initially.

In 2009 I started my first harvest, white was the first wines I picked in 2009. Reds I started making but they took a lot longer to go in the bottle. The 2009 whites went into bottle in February of 2010. Reds didn’t go into bottle for another four or five years.

I guess when I came out here people weren’t sure how serious I was, how long I was going to be here. Sometimes you can get money in from other provinces or other areas and they just throw money at it and they hire people and leave so they weren’t expecting me to stay and do the work.

Because you can see my whole property from the street as people were driving down the street they realized I was out working in the fields all the time. I was seriously committed to this and I think I got the respect of a lot of people here because I actually was doing the work and I was trying to do it properly. People started coming to the vineyard to see if they could help and I started to make friends.

With 12 acres it is a lot of farming work to do and I really don’t have the time to do more than this.

Because of the style of wine I want to make, for me this was, once it became evident that this was what I was going to do to heal myself, I work on passion, so for me the passion part of this was to do food friendly wines because I love to cook. So to do food friendly wines I needed to learn how to make two wines in particular more food friendly, and that was the Sauv Blanc which out here becomes more of that big pink grapefruit flavour which becomes quite dominant. I didn’t want it to be as dominant because there are not as many foods go with pink grapefruit. Also the Pinot Noir, I wanted it to become a lot bigger to stand up to food. I found some of the Pinots I had that when I ate with them they turned almost like red liquid in my mouth and I wanted something to stand out. It’s all about food pairing.

When I looked around it seemed to me that New Zealand had captured the world market by getting into both Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. That’s why I went to New Zealand because it was just a natural place for me to go to with the two grapes I wanted to understand more. I did a stint in New Zealand in 2008 just for the harvest season. I had to come back because I had already grown my grapes. So as soon as the harvest was over I was back here to take care of my grapes.

In 2010 and part of 2011 the big winery building was made. The tall section is where the white is made and around it is a sort of underground tunnel where all the reds are made. There are no windows in there, it’s all the same temperature year round and especially being underground you don’t have to heat or air condition it just is that temperature.

In 2012 I needed to have markets to sell my wine so I drove myself over to Calgary with some wine in the back and started tasting at restaurants and liquor stores. It turns out that the restaurants, because they get wine differently in Alberta, it all goes through the government liquor store and for restaurants to order from the government liquor store they have to order so many quantities otherwise the price for delivery is too much so they don’t do it through the government they buy from the liquor stores whereas here in BC they buy directly from the wineries. I found out tasting in restaurants that they needed to know what liquor store I was in before they could buy my wine.

Then I started tasting in liquor stores and I found out in Alberta what they like is their reps who they buy their wine from to come and stock shelves on a weekly basis and I wasn’t able to drive to Alberta every week.

Here I was in Calgary can’t get into restaurants because I can’t get into the liquor store and I’m downtown and I look up and there is this sign that says Calgary Stampede. I go on my phone and get the number for Calgary Stampede and call and this guy picks up the phone and he says oh come by and see me tomorrow.

I go in and it’s really early in the year and they aren’t really open and he is actually the head guy there. It’s just him and me and we sit down and for hours we taste all my wine, we trade stories, he tells me all about the Stampede and we talk about wine. He is a fascinating guy.

I get a call a couple of months later and he says he loves my wines and it turns out he tried other wines and he said nothing was the same as mine. The Board of Directors decided they were going to do something special and they are going to have a winemaker in residence and it’s going to be me and they are going to feature me. Would I come and just stay at the Stampede go to the high end, on site restaurants, train the staff on my wine, be there to walk around and chat with people if they have any questions about wine, not just mine but any wine. I would just be the winemaker in residence. Also do some speeches during the day at their pavilion. I said sure I’d love to do that, so I did that. He said we won’t do this again.

Then in October of that year he comes into my wine shop with a bunch of people and says “Judy I know we said we would never do this again but we would love it if you would do it again”. I did it two years in a row, the year of the flood and the next year.

It was fascinating because of the flooding I would get regular updates from them because of course it affected what I was doing as well. It was also fascinating to see how the Calgarians came together just because it happened to be the year I was going there. Just to see how that town pulled together and helped each other. It was just a blessing to be a part of that and to see how people as a community pull together. I was really impressed.

When I started to make enough wine to sell I opened up part of the cellar room and turned it into a wine shop.

Our local governing authority are very supportive, I find, of businesses, or they of me, and I think they are of everybody. One day I got a call from the head guy, who is just a lovely guy, and he says “Judy funny thing happened today. I had this guy in my office.” They go around and make sure everything is the way it should be “he was down in your winery”, and he actually bought a bottle of wine, and he said “I looked at your plans and you don’t actually have a wine shop nor do you have the bathrooms to go with it” and I said oh isn’t it funny what people say and he said “well yes it is” he said “I think you need a bathroom” he said you’ve got two years so that’s when I built the extension.

That extension started off as a bathroom and then I thought if I’m going to have a bathroom I might as well have two for events. You have to have so many washrooms for events and you don’t want to have a nice washroom and then a port-a-potty. I thought if I’m going to have water I might as well put the lab down there so we’re not moving stuff inside. We have a good water line and I thought I’ve got a little bit more land.

We used to work inside the winery but it’s cold because it’s underground and you have to wear gloves even in the summertime so let’s build a little office so you can actually sit like normal people and write.

I thought if I’m going to have a little office why not build a new wine shop that’s actually out of there, and we were just going to be making champagne and I can put the riddling racks there where the wine shop was. We wouldn’t have to dismantle them all the time. We would have a champagne area and that made a lot of sense.

Then I decided let’s have a little patio, and the last little thing in 2017, because I love to cook, I put in a tiny, tiny little restaurant and it was just going to be for me. The restaurant wasn’t going to be open every day but just when my health would allow it and then it would just be a surprise for people coming and I would be able to cook something for them.

Then my health got worse and last year my doctor said I don’t think you can do this. I hired a chef last year and we ran the restaurant together. I did some prepping for him, I cleared tables, did the dishes and served people. This year I have a pending operation so I couldn’t do that again. I have now leased the restaurant to Victor Bongo.

I just made Katie O’Kell the full time winemaker eight months ago but she’s been making wine out here for about eight years so she has lots of experience. We worked together and I also hired winemakers to come and train her because she needed experience from other people as well. There were about two or three winemakers that worked with Katie to teach her. Katie also went to New Zealand, the south island in New Zealand, she was at Oyster Bay. She also got her wine making degree at U.C. Davis.

Judy Kingston and Katie O’Kell (Photo Credit: Valerie van der Gracht)

Judy Kingston and Katie O’Kell (Kingston’s daughter and Winemaker)
This was supposed to be the hottest summer on record and it hasn’t turned out to be that it’s been fairly damp. We’ve had some hot times but it’s not where it normally is we’re in the 20’s rather than the 30’s and a lot of moisture but right now the grapes are still like hard little pellets. Once they get to veraison, which is where they soften up and change colour, that’s when you really need the good weather. August, September, for me October and a bit of November because that’s when I pick my reds, it’s the time where you really want the nice hot weather to get all those flavours into the grapes.

The past years have had smoke from fires but so far not this year. Everyone last year was saying get used to this, this is the new norm for the Okanagan and it’s not at all. It’s been a beautiful year and I think it’s scared some tourists away because of what’s been said. It’s been gorgeous here so hopefully people will start coming back to the Okanagan and seeing what our Province has to offer. We recently had a whole bunch of rain but we’re semi arid, we’re supposed to be anyways, it’s normally very dry here.

The tasting room at Serendipity is open at the end of April and goes until the middle of October.

It’s fun because depending on when people come if we’re in the middle of crush people can come and we’ll let them see what we’re doing and if there aren’t too many we sometimes even let them get involved a little bit and show them around. People love it!

About Serendipity Winery

Nestled among the rolling hills of the picturesque Naramata Bench, a visit to Serendipity is all about discovery, surprise and warmth. Judy or Katie welcome every visitor with a smile and a glass, always pleased to share their passion and education with their guests. For a modest $5, visitors get a full flight of tastings. In the time since releasing their first wine, the winery continues to delight, surprise, and capture accolades. Visit to taste and learn why in 2013 Serendipity was the only BC winery invited to showcase wine at the Calgary Stampede, and why the winery was named BC Winery of the Year at a New York competition.

Serendipity Winery; 990 Lower Debeck Road, Naramata, BC V0H 1N1; Tel. 250-486-5290