Jim Wyse is the Chairman of the Board and the former president of Burrowing Owl Winery. After obtaining a degree in structural engineering and then an MBA, Jim embarked on a career as a management consultant and eventually owned his own development company. While looking over city properties for redevelopment, he found a relatively inexpensive abandoned vineyard offered for sale. Jim bought the 100-acre property and developed it into Burrowing Owl Winery. He knew almost nothing about growing grapes or running a winery, but he was a good business manager and hired the most knowledgeable people he could find. Today, Jim, his wife Midge, and their three children work in the winery industry. Jim took a few moments out of his busy day to share information about this fascinating Canadian winery.
About Burrowing Owl Winery
LTK: Please tell us about the winery and how you developed it.
Jim Wyse: The winery and vineyard lie within one of Canada's most unique ecosystems in the northernmost tip of the Sonora Desert. The location, on a southwest-tilting, sandy plateau near the north end of Osoyoos Lake, is one of the most highly rated grape-growing locations in the Okanagan Valley, and for that matter all of Canada. In 1993, when I began to replant the vineyards, which had been carefully selected for their ability to produce world class, premium quality grapes, the winery was not part of my long-term vision. Having recognized the potential of this location, I was happy to see wines made with his grapes gaining immediate recognition. Finally, the decision to build Burrowing Owl Estate Winery was confirmed and a winery license was obtained in 1997. Construction began in early1998 and completed just in time for that year's harvest. The site has since been enhanced with a beautiful fine-dining restaurant (2003) and a luxurious guest house (2007).
Today, with its dramatic vantage point in the middle of the vineyard is Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, a wine-making facility that combines state-of-the-art technologies with proven, classic winemaking traditions. A gravity-flow system handles ripe grapes delicately, preserving their rich fruit character. Extensive underground cellaring capacity ensures that long-term barrel aging at constant temperatures is never limited by space.
LTK: Which wine(s) are you most famous for?
JW: The vineyard is perfectly located for the difficult-to-ripen Bordeaux reds. Situated in the southern part of the Okanagan Valley on a west-facing plateau called the Black Sage Bench, the winery's Bordeaux style wines have gained considerable recognition and popularity, and consistently receive gold medals in competitions internationally. Burrowing Owl wines are made in a very traditional way, and to achieve this, the winery houses a large underground cellar, where all red wines are aged in carefully selected oak barrels. The winery was perhaps the first in BC to include a full barrel aging program, which is essential for producing premium wines. Our Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc wines, both which need long ripening times on the vine (winemakers call it 'hang time') are always sought after and sell out quickly.
LTK: What makes them special?
JW: The Bordeaux wines that we produce are full-bodied, with huge flavours, a sensuous bouquet, a lingering finish and a velvety mouth-feel. Because of the exceptional ripeness achieved in our wholly-owned, estate vineyard, these wines are drinkable within a few years, but those customers that have the patience to wait will find that these wines reach their flavour peak at about 5-10 years from the vintage date.
LTK: Why do visitors come to the winery?
JW: We offer a complete wine-touring experience. The winery is set above the surrounding vineyards, and the observation tower gives a commanding view of the vineyards for many kilometers in all directions. The 110-step stairway to the tower is loaded with information on our winemaking and environmental activities, culminating in an opportunity to ring the winery bell. Visitors are treated to fine-dining in the Sonora Room with equally good views from the exterior balcony seating. And since 2007, we have been able to offer overnight bed and breakfast accommodation in our well-appointed, 10-room Guest House, complete with a lap pool, a solar-heated hot-tub and friendly staff.
Since Oliver prides itself as being the Wine Capital of Canada, we are fortunate in having many wineries in the vicinity so wine touring has become very popular in our area. The wine tourist wants to experience a variety of different wineries, but we have been advised by the local tourist board that most of these folks start with a visit to Burrowing Owl.
LTK: What's the best way for visitors to enjoy their visit - what are the "must see" things at the winery?
JW: Most visitors like to start their visit with the self-guided tour which is informative and interesting. It is located in our bell tower, which has a viewing platform at the top, with wonderful 360 degree views.
On the weekends, we have one-hour guided tours through the winery and because this is limited to 15 people per tour, visitors arrive early to secure a place. People can sample wines and shop for their favorite wines plus some lovely gifts. A walk through the vineyard to the Gazebo lookout is encouraged in order to appreciate the extent of the grape production process. After all it is the vineyard that is truly responsible for the quality levels in wines. Then, a relaxing lunch or dinner in the Sonora Room makes a grand finale to the visit. If you are lucky enough to get a patio seat, you're doing the third thing in list of the top hundred things you should do in BC before you die, according to the Vancouver Province!
Making Fine Wine
LTK: Can you briefly describe for us the process of making one of your fine wines?
JW: Well, first of all our grapes are grown on our estate so we can watch over them and farm them the way we want. There is a lot of consultation throughout the year between the vineyard management team and the winemaking team. They are thinned according to our needs, pruned, watered, fertilized and nurtured to produce the finest possible crop.
The grapes are picked by hand at the optimum time, and pass over a sorting table in order to remove any undesirable damaged grapes or debris.
For white grapes, a pneumatic bladder press squeezes the juice very gently. The air pressure can be set and monitored by the winemaker. Using air pressure, there is absolutely no crushing and any harsh pressing that would produce the wrong kind of strong flavours is avoided. The yeasts that are added to start the fermentation are carefully selected from around the world, to achieve the best results.
The red grapes pass through a destemmer on their way into the fermentation tanks that give the grapes a gentle squeeze to release the juice but not to bruise the fruit. The word "crush" does not exist in our vocabulary.
All of the fermenting tanks can be temperature controlled - cool for the white wines to preserve freshness and fruitiness. Warm for the red grapes to extract colour, flavour and tannins and allow the wine to ferment fairly quickly.
All reds go into barrels in an underground cellar that is 30 feet below ground and as a result maintains the correct temperature and humidity naturally - throughout the year. Depending on the variety and the vintage, these red wines may stay in barrels for periods from 12 - 30 months before bottling. Nothing is rushed.
Whites for the most part stay in stainless steel fermenters with the exception of the chardonnay, which has gone directly into new or one-year old French oak barrels for fermentation, malolactic fermentation and aging. These barrels are stirred periodically to develop the flavour.
Visit the Winery
Burrowing Owl Winery is located in Oliver, British Columbia, Canada. Visit their website to learn more. LoveToKnow thanks Jim and Midge Wyse for the interview and photos.