Okanagan winery co-founder dies at 81

Okanagan Valley wine industry pioneer George Heiss, co-founder of Grey Monk, passed away June 29

George and Trudy Heiss at Gray Monk Winery in Lake Country. (File photo)

George and Trudy Heiss at Gray Monk Winery in Lake Country. (File photo)

The Okanagan Valley has lost another of its wine industry’s pioneers.

George Heiss, who founded the Gray Monk Estate Winery and Vineyards in Lake Country with his wife Trudy 35 years ago, died on June 29 at the age of 81.

A true family business, George and Trudy Heiss, along with their three sons, Robert (operations manager), George Jr. (winemaker) and Steven (sales and distribution manager), own and farm 75 acres of vines and produce an extensive portfolio of red, white and sparkling wines.

Beyond the production of their own wines, the Heiss family has been instrumental in shaping the Okanagan wine industry, having brought the first Pinot Gris vines into Canada from the Alsace in 1976.

Today, it is the most widely planted white varietal in the Okanagan Valley.

In 2017, the Heisses marked a unique year of anniversaries – 55 years of marriage, 45 years of the vineyard and 35 years of the winery.

Interviewed by the Lake Country Calendar at that time, the duo said their success comes from years of hard work and getting along with each other.

Their story didn’t start with plucking grapes from a vine, it started with hairdressing.

George’s father and mother were both hairdressers, and when he moved from Austria he kept the family tradition.

He also kept the taste for wine, sampling wines and beers from a young age.

“I grew up with wine on the table or beer. It was dependent on what my mother cooked,” he said.

Trudy is originally from East Germany, and she met George at a hair show in Edmonton. She was modelling for a hair company and was in the middle of turning her hair from red to blond.

“That’s when he saw me, I was in the orange stage,” she chuckled, recalling the in-between stage of her hair dye.

They married in 1962, and cut hair for a living, owning two salons in Edmonton. But they desired something more.

“George said he never wanted to be a grouchy old hairdresser,” recalled Trudy.

Eventually, Trudy’s father purchased property on what is now Gray Monk, which prompted them to move to the Okanagan.

They started the vineyard in 1972, living in a shack on the property. Trudy remembers the cold breeze that would blow through the floorboards and around her legs.

They grew grapes for the commercial wineries and cut hair on the side to keep money coming in.

“We were a lot slimmer then because we worked harder,” said Trudy with a laugh.

Not everyone can work with their spouse, but the Heisses said their traits complement each other, in the beauty salon, on the farm, and in their business.

“I think we both realized what each other’s strengths are, and we let each other run with that strength. Even in the business, I don’t want any part of what she’s doing,” said George.

“Our personal life is so intertwined with our business, we’ve never had an argument over personal reasons,” added Trudy.

“We think very much alike. We just click. We have a good sense of humour, never lose your sense of humour. When things got tough we grew closer.”

George Heiss is survived by his wife Trudy; sons, Robert (Vicki), George Jr. (Claudine) and Steven (Dawn); six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Funeral service details will be announced at a later date. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Canadian Cancer Society.

Condolences may be sent to the family by visiting everdenrust.com.

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