Wine for the People: A Sunday in August
I first heard about A Sunday in August winery the way I learn about most small, independent Vancouver things: through word of mouth. A co-worker had been praising it one day, then I was able to try it a local pub. Shortly after, I picked it up at a wine shop. Then, Michael Shindler himself was selling it at a collective artists’ studio sale last December, and I was instantly curious. It’s not every day you are able to try wine made from the person who made it. Since 2016, Shindler and his fiancée, Sam Milbrath have been making small-batch, naturally made wines with minimal intervention, using organic grapes from B.C.’s Similkameen Valley. Currently, you can find it at a handful of restaurants and local wine shops.
This summer, I had the opportunity to chat with him about how he found himself in the wine world, how the industry is changing, and why he thinks wine should be accessible and chug-able.
Tell me how you got into making wine. What inspired it, and how did it all start?
“It’s sort of just been a slow progression. I’ve always been into food and wine. We started helping some wineries out, going up and doing a few days of work here and there, then I started taking some courses and reading a ton. I found a wine writer in Vancouver who had just bought a vineyard in The Similkameen Valley. The grapes hadn’t been touched for a few years and the vineyard had been left feral. I went up there with a few buddies in late October to pick the grapes, which were Gewürztraminer. We picked a half-ton of them and made the wine in my backyard. It was about 400 litres, and we left it in my bike shed for a year. The wine was pretty shit because it we picked the grapes quite late, so it was really high alcohol and high sugar. But that was the first instance of proper wine making and trying to do it right, rather than just helping out.”
“I don’t really know what I’m doing to be honest, I’m just kind of figuring it out as I go. Before this, I played in a band and I still do. I think making wine and making music are actually quite similar. Both are very subjective – people either like it or they don’t. Both are kind kind of creative and emotionally crazy as well.”
You use grapes from The Similkameen Valley for your wines. Is there a particular reason for this?
“I love that area. As a kid we used to always go up there and buy apricots and I’d make jams and stuff with my mom. And it still looks exactly the same. It’s so beautiful up there, the soils are different and I like how it’s got this east/west breeze flying through. It’s a really special place.”
“For this last vintage, all my grapes came from there, not necessarily because I only want to get grapes from there, but it’s just kind of how it goes. Because I’m so small, it’s really hard at this point to find grapes. It’s difficult to make connections with farmers, because a lot of the big wineries have contracts, so people can’t sell you their grapes because they have to sell to the big guys. So I buy the grapes in The Similkameen and then I make the wine in Naramata.”
What is the timeline from start to finish when making the wines?
“Mid-September to beginning of October is harvest time. Then I go up every month to check on things. I do everything in neutral barrels so they don’t have any flavour or taste oaky. The wine evaporates slowly - every month I maybe lose an inch or two. If there’s room on the top where the oxygen sits it can oxidize the wine, which isn’t not good for it. So I have to go up every month or six weeks to replenish the wines. Then I bottle everything in late April. Some of the reds I could leave for another six months, but [this year] they were showing really well, and I want to make fresher, livelier wines anyway.”
Do you have any mentors in the industry who you look up to?
“Jay Drysdale from Bella has taught me more than anyone. If I have issues or need someone to talk me off the ledge, he’s always a text away. We have dinner whenever I’m up there and he talks through things with me, so I’m not alone in doing it. Jay mentors a ton of young people and he’s trying to get them to pull it off. It’s really cool to have people who have been in the industry longer, who know their shit a little bit better to push us all up.”
“Matt Sherlock from Lock & Worth is also insanely supportive. Those guys go to trade events and when they have media at their place, they’ll bring out our bottles and be like, ‘Hey, you should try this too.’ They have no reason to promote it except that they’re just awesome people. Having that level of support allows the younger generation to do stuff. The same way that what Nigel Springthorpe from Alibi Room did for craft beer, those guys are helping out and I think it will make the industry way more diverse.”
In your experience, how do you think the B.C. wine industry has evolved in the last few years?
“I’m quite an outsider, and still very new to it. I wasn’t drinking any B.C. wine until five or six years ago. I personally didn’t understand what went into it, how difficult it is to make wine here or how expensive it is. I feel like there’s a ton of different [B.C.] wineries that are all making the same kind of wine. A lot of the styles are quite similar, and a lot of the proprietors are coming from different backgrounds than me. What they like to drink is probably not what I like to drink.”
“I think there was a lot of pretty bad wine 20 years ago, but I think the industry has really started to get it together and starting to make some cool wines. There are a lot of wineries being scooped up by really big companies and that’s always been the case here. But lately, there’s a bunch of people trying to figure out ways to have smaller, artisanal kind of wineries. I think more people are doing locavore kind of stuff, which is great.”
What influence are you trying to create with your wines? Where do you think you fit in among other B.C. wineries?
“The idea is to not make wine a bougie commodity. I want them to be accessible and I want young people to be drinking them. I want them to see the labels and say, ‘Oh I get it.’ I know a lot of time when people go to the wine store it’s like, ‘castle, castle, castle…’ and not know what the difference is. Wine doesn’t have to have a chateau on the front and be about how fancy your house and car is.”
“I just want wine to be fun, and chug-able. Wines that you can go to the park with, party with or go camping on a nice beach or whatever. But I also want them to be elegant and speak of where they’re from, and for people to be proud to serve them in restaurants. I also want my friends to be able to drink my wine, and if they’re not able to do that then it doesn’t really work for what I’m trying to do. If all my friends are like, ‘Oh I wish I could try your wine sometime but it’s like 60 bucks…’ None of my friends are buying that kind of wine.”
Where do you see the ‘natural wine’ movement heading in B.C.?
“There aren’t many people making ‘out there,’ natural wine or trying to push organic wine here, compared to places like Australia, California and France. B.C. is so heavily regulated that it’s very hard to do that kind of stuff. But now I’m finding that there’s a ton of people trying to figure out ways to have smaller, artisanal wineries. I think there was a lot of pretty bad wine 20 years ago, but the industry is starting to make some cool wines. I think in 10 years it’s going to be so fucking cool here. It’s just starting to kick off.”
“The other cool thing that’s happened – which has always been the cornerstone of our business – is that people our age drink wine. Everyone thinks we only drink craft beer. Maybe was the case five years ago, but it’s not anymore. Whatever you want to call them, ‘Millenials,’ or that age group, drink wine and they’re starting to have a bit of cash, and they’re down to spend a few more dollars on something interesting. Everyone’s not just drinking 14-dollar Malbec. I think that’s really cool because it supports people. If you’re okay spending 18 dollars on a cool craft beer, then it’s not a huge stretch to spend $25 on a natural wine.”
I read somewhere that all the labels on your wines are designed by women. Was that a deliberate choice?
“Yeah, all of the labels are designed by female artists from Canada. The first artist is our really good friend Gina Mackay, her partner and I use to play in a band together. Then there’s Darby and Claire Milbrath - my soon-to-be sisters in law, who are both painters. Claire lives in Montreal and has a magazine called The Editorial. My friend Maggie Boyd did one of the designs also. I want [the wines] to be a little inclusive. The wine world can be super man-heavy, and especially white-man heavy so it’s nice to try and push some inclusivity as much as possible, in different ways.”
If weren’t making wine here in B.C., is there anywhere else you’d love to be doing it?
“I think about this all the time! Maybe somewhere in Southern Italy. I like the wine there. I’d love to be somewhere close to the water, because I really love the ocean. We were recently in France, hanging out with some winemakers in Loire and they were like, ‘we pay about 10,000 a hectare which is two acres, for really famous, beautiful land in Loire. Sometimes it’s up to a million here, for an acre, which is so crazy. The grapes we buy here are at least double the price.”
What are your plans for A Sunday in August in the near future?
“We’d like to get some land ourselves and plant grapes. The supply side of it is very insecure constantly so it would be great to know that we have grapes coming in and we know where they’re coming from. We rent an apartment on Commercial Drive so it would be nice to own some land at some point, have some kids and that sort of stuff [laughs].”