Growing up in Sonoma County, Sandra Oldfield was surrounded by some of the best vineyards in California. After finishing a degree in international business, she picked up a job in the tasting room at nearby Rodney Strong Vineyard. But Sandra found pouring wine wasn’t nearly as interesting as the culture and science of making it.
She went on to study winemaking at the University of California, Davis, where she met fellow student and future husband, Kenn Oldfield, one of the founding partners and general manager of the yet-to-be opened Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in Oliver, B.C.
When Kenn invited her to be Tinhorn Creek’s winemaker, “my life took a left turn,” says Sandra. It was a tough move from California and “the centre of the wine universe,” but Sandra immediately saw the potential in the Okanagan Valley. The winery is situated on the west side of the valley on the Golden Mile Bench, a cool, east-facing region that is backed by gentle mountains, has rich soil and a favourable wine-producing climate.
In 1994, before Sandra had even finished her master’s degree in winemaking, she wore the winemaker’s badge and oversaw the harvest, crush, fermentation and bottling of Tinhorn Creek’s first vintage. In the span of six years, production went from 1,000 cases of wine to 40,000 and Tinhorn Creek quickly became one of Canada’s leading wineries. In 2008, Kenn became chairman, and, in 2011, Sandra assumed the role of president and CEO, while continuing her winemaking duties.
Under her leadership, Tinhorn Creek has undertaken many innovative projects, such as becoming Canada’s first carbon-neutral winery and the first to move from corks to screw tops. In 2014, highly regarded, Ontario-born winemaker Andrew Windsor took over the role of winemaker from Sandra.
“I still [decide] what we are planting and where we are selling, but I’m past the nostalgic thoughts of shovelling [the grape skins, pulp, seeds and stems, known as pomace] out of the vat,” she says.
In the fall of 2016, her contribution to the wine industry was recognized when she was named a Top 100 award winner in the Sun Life Financial Trailblazers & Trendsetters category at the Women’s Executive Network’s (WXN) 2016 Canada’s Most Powerful Women awards.
Was it hard to make the transition from winemaker to president and CEO?
It took me a few years to let go, but Andrew Windsor is a fantastic addition to the winery and has a unique blend of scientific knowledge and a passion for trying new things. That is very exciting. His changes to the wines that needed a lift have exceeded our expectations.
What are you most proud of?
We’re proud that after seven years of work, in 2015, the Golden Mile Bench region was officially designated as British Columbia’s first sub-appellation in recognition of the area’s unique terroir and high quality. Wines labelled by designated viticulture areas, and not just as Okanagan wine, tell the consumer that the grapes came from the specific area on the label.
What makes the Golden Mile Bench region ideal for winemaking?
The Golden Mile Bench is east-facing, so it gets the sunrise and morning and afternoon sun—but not the hot, late-afternoon sun—and the fruit flavours of the wines are promoted because of this. The elevation and slope allow for more days of frost-free growing and the sediment-rich, gravelly granite soil comes from the mountains behind us. The soil is different throughout the bench so we get many unique flavours off the land.
You were recently recognized as one of Canada’s most powerful women at the Women’s Executive Network annual awards. How does that feel?
It was very humbling. We push boundaries at Tinhorn Creek in our winemaking and in promoting Canadian wine. To be recognized as a role model for younger generations and by my peers is rewarding.
What should wine-lovers look for in 2017?
Look for the 2013 Gewürztraminer. Even before it was bottled, our winemaker promised it’s a winner. And the 2014 Cabernet Franc is lovely. [The Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series Merlot 2012 and the Cabernet Franc 2013 won the Best of Varietal Awards in the 2016 Spring Okanagan Wine Festival.]
Sandra Oldfield’s favourite adventures:
“Kenn and I loved visiting the Maritimes and Quebec in the summer—the small towns and cafés, fromageries and beaches where the locals go.”
“Half Corked Marathon (May 26 to 28) sees entrants don costumes and run from wine station to wine station and everyone’s invited to party at the finish line.”
“At Tinhorn Creek’s summer, outdoor amphitheatre concert series, I love to dance until sunset. A picnic supper, a chilled bottle of wine, friends, tourists, great music—perfect.”