Photography - HIRO
Text - MINA
Photography - HIRO
Text - MINA
“Every corner of Burrowing Owl tells a unique story, a testament to our dedication to creating a comfortable and meaningful experience for our visitors. It's the little details that make our winery remarkable.”
- Stephen Neumann
Burrowing Owl Estate Winery
Photography - HIRO
Interview - MINA
Among wine enthusiasts, anyone is familiar with Burrowing Owl Estate Winery in Oliver, Okanagan. Perched atop gentle, majestic vineyard hills that seamlessly blend with the surrounding picturesque landscapes, this winery exudes a certain warmth upon sight. Within the winery's grounds, you'll find The Sonora Room Restaurant, offering fine dining experiences, a 25-meter swimming pool overlooking the vineyard, and ten guest rooms thoughtfully placed around it, making it an ideal destination for a wine country vacation. The wine shop draws visitors from around the world, all seeking their award-winning wines on offer.
The allure of Burrowing Owl extends beyond its internationally acclaimed wines and superb facilities. Arguably, its outstanding appeal lies in being a heartwarming family venture and dedication to environmentally conscious winemaking. These two strong principles have solidified its position as a beloved winery for 25 years since its inception.
Remarkably, founder Jim Wyse, a former civil engineer and developer from North Vancouver, and his wife, Midge, had no prior experience in winemaking when they embarked on their wine business journey in their mid-50s. Undeterred by their lack of wine expertise, they assembled a team of wine industry specialists and experts and propelled Burrowing Owl to produce wines of global standards. Initially, when they began replanting the former vineyard site they purchased in 1993 with Vitis vinifera (European grape varieties), they aimed to sell the harvested grapes to other wineries. However, the wines produced from their grapes garnered acclaim one after another, leading them to decide to start their own winery. The winery opened in 1998, a year after its first vintage, marking the beginning of the Wyse family's journey as a household name in the Okanagan winery world.
The name of Burrowing Owl Estate Winery reflects Jim and Midge's affection for the land and their environmental consciousness. They deliberately named their winery after the endangered bird, Burrowing Owl, to raise awareness for the owl's conservation and people's interest through their winery and wines. Beyond the bird, they have diligently pursued environmentally sustainable farming practices since the winery's inception to preserve the entire natural ecosystem surrounding their winery.
When you visit Burrowing Owl, you'll find the heartwarming story they've woven over 25 years scattered around the winery. To discover the hidden charms of Burrowing Owl, we strongly recommend a semi-private tour with the Brand Ambassador, Stephen Neumann. After following his guided tour, the wine tasting, meals, and stay will not only make your Burrowing Owl experience even more special but will undoubtedly rekindle your love for this family-owned winery and its exceptional wines. Let us share a few of the loving Burrowing Owl stories we heard from Stephen in VOICE.
VOICE (V): What is the origin and significance of the name "Burrowing Owl Estate Winery?
Stephen(S): The story behind the name "Burrowing Owl" is as heartwarming as it gets. Jim and Midge have always been bird lovers and nature enthusiasts. Back in the late '80s, and in the early '90s when they bought the vineyard, only 16 burrowing owls were left in the entire province, and the Okanagan used to be a nesting place for these birds. These little birds caught their attention, and they wanted to learn more about them. So, they reached out to Mike MacIntosh, then director of the Stanley Park Zoo, who was running an exhibit on burrowing owls with his long-term plans for their conservation through a captive breeding program. Jim and Midge decided to pay Mike a visit in Vancouver. It was love at first sight when they met those adorable little birds. They came back to the Okanagan Valley and started volunteering for the cause.
In honor of the birds, they named their vineyard "Burrowing Owl." But it didn't stop at just a name. They saw an opportunity to make a real difference by producing exceptional wines and opening their doors to visitors to help raise awareness and support for these endangered birds. In 2004, their efforts gained even more momentum. They started collecting tasting fees. Now, every $5 fee goes straight to the cause. To this day, they've raised over 1.6 million dollars, becoming the primary funding source for the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC (BOCS). Thanks to their dedication, the society established three breeding centers in the province. In a good year, they release 80 to 100 burrowing owls back into the wild. But it doesn't end there. The organization's impact has stretched beyond provincial borders. They've formed strong partnerships with those in neighboring provinces and are set to begin doing so south of the border in the U.S. They are looking at shifting their focus to a broader North American perspective, making a positive impact on burrowing owl conservation far and wide.
V: What distinguishes Burrowing Owl Winery and makes them stand out as truly special?
S: Geographically, our vineyard is situated on the east side of the renowned Black Sage Bench, a location that ensures our grapes enjoy longer hours of sun exposure in the valley. Adding to our advantage is the presence of Sun Rock Mountain just behind the vineyard. This mountain acts as a natural heat sponge, soaking up the sun's warmth throughout the day and then radiating it onto the grapes below. Plus, we have a 200-foot-deep, fast-draining bed of sand, that is vital for cultivating top-quality grapes. These geographical factors are the bedrock of our ability to grow exceptional grapes.
From a business perspective, Burrowing Owl remains a tightly-knit family affair, and Jim and Midge are at the heart of it all. They have three children, and their son, Chris Wyse, now serves as the president of the winery. Their daughter, Kerri McNolty, holds the position of vice president and heads our marketing team. Even a couple of their grandchildren join us during the summer, adding to the family spirit.
Despite their age―both now in their 80s―Jim and Midge are still very much involved in various aspects of the winery. You might even find Midge working a full day at the guesthouse reception desk. If you reach out at email@example.com, she may be the one responding to your questions. Jim can often be found tinkering and fixing things around the winery. Beyond that, he's deeply engaged in community-oriented activities, serving as a board member of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC (BOCS) and The Nature Trust of BC, an organization dedicated to preserving environmentally sensitive areas across the province. Their passion for these causes and ongoing commitment to the winery are inspiring.
V: How did Burrowing Owl's renowned signature red wines come about?
S: After acquiring the land, Midge and Jim assembled a team of specialists, including Richard Cleave and Robert Goltz, who helped them understand the possibilities and determine which grape varieties would thrive in this unique environment. The wines they produce today are a testament to the wisdom and insight of these experts, capturing the full spectrum of flavors nurtured by the vineyards.
The winery construction was a project that fell squarely within Jim's domain as a civil engineer. Before breaking ground, he embarked on a journey across the Okanagan, Washington, Oregon, and California, visiting various wineries and vineyard owners to gather inspiration and ideas for what could be created here. During each visit, he posed the same question to these winemakers: "If you were to start anew, what would you do differently?" Jim returned from his travels with innovative concepts, many of which found their way into the winery's design.
One concept that particularly resonated with him was the idea of a gravity-flow design. This approach involved gently dropping the grapes from above directly into the fermentation tanks, minimizing the use of pumps. The objective was to preserve the rich fruit character for the quality of the wine. This commitment to craftsmanship shines through in every bottle produced.
When it came to crafting wines in-house, the Wyse family sought guidance from none other than Bill Dyer, a renowned winemaker and consultant from Napa. Jim stumbled upon an article featuring Bill, in which he expressed an interest in venturing north to explore winemaking opportunities beyond Napa Valley. Jim saw this as serendipity and reached out to Bill, persuading him to become the first wine consultant for Burrowing Owl.
Bill played a pivotal role in establishing the winery's distinctive style, rooted in French-influenced winemaking techniques and barrel programs that showcased the unique character of the grapes grown in this region. Under Bill's expert guidance, Burrowing Owl's first seven vintages came to life, setting the stage for the exceptional wines that continue today.
V: Who is the winemaker of Burrowing Owl currently?
S: While Kent McDonald is our current winemaker, it's important to emphasize that we're not defined by a single winemaker. We operate as a collaborative winemaking team. In a significant development, we expanded our winemaking family in 2021 by acquiring Wild Goose, and their winemaker is now an integral part of our team. Furthermore, we work with consultants both international and domestic, who contribute their unique perspectives and expertise. During the harvest season, our winery becomes a hub for learning and exchange. We host a diverse group of interns from around the world, providing them with hands-on experience in winemaking.
V: Can you share some of the notable sustainable practices at the winery?
S: Sustainability is at the heart of our winery, and there are numerous stories about our commitment to preserving the environment. Right from the start, Jim and Midge have been dedicated to minimizing our environmental impact. We've implemented an integrated pest management system that reduces the need for pesticides. An intriguing approach involves intentionally allowing longer grasses to grow in every other row. This fosters a population of spiders, natural predators of other harmful insects. We've established bat nurseries along the river and placed 100 bluebird houses throughout the vineyard. These initiatives are designed to control insect populations that would otherwise be a threat to our vines. By reducing our reliance on pesticides, we're working in harmony with nature to protect our vineyard.
While we may not have official organic certification for our grapes, it's important to note that our focus on sustainability extends far beyond labels. Our winery itself is a testament to our dedication to environmental responsibility. In essence, Burrowing Owl is a pioneer of green wineries, and we take pride in that distinction.
V: Also, we see lots of solar panels around the winery. Can you provide further insights into your green practices and initiatives?
S: We've integrated green practices into every aspect of our operations. In 2017, we installed five solar-powered systems across various locations at the winery, parking lot, and even the penthouse suite of the guesthouse. The panels in our parking lot are bifacial designs, capable of harnessing energy from above and below. Notably, the panels on top of the penthouse suite and restaurant play a crucial role by providing all the hot water needed for the Guest House, office, and wine shop spaces. Our sustainability endeavors extend to our staff housing in Osoyoos and temperature-controlled warehouse in Oliver that also feature solar panels, resulting in zero-net energy consumption for these buildings.
Our commitment to environmental responsibility goes deeper still. We've harnessed geothermal technology to manage a significant portion of the winery's heating and cooling needs. There is also an intriguing story about our swimming pool. In 1998, during the winery's construction, a safety inspector mentioned the requirement of a water reservoir for fire prevention. Being a civil engineer, Jim came up with a brilliant idea - a 25-meter swimming pool that would eventually serve not just one, but three purposes. It is used as a swimming pool, a reservoir for fire prevention, and a heat sink for excess hot water produced by some of the solar panels. Little did he know that this ingenious decision would lead to a delightful amenity for our guests. Today, visitors can enjoy a refreshing swim with a spectacular view of the vineyard, all thanks to what was originally a fire prevention measure nearly a decade before the guesthouse was built.
In our pursuit of sustainability and excellence, we never overlook the importance of small details. Midge and Jim have a knack for making thoughtful choices that resonate with them today. For instance, the wood used for our buildings is repurposed from the nearby mountains, reducing our environmental footprint. Even the balcony railings hold meaning, representing the eyes of the owl, an emblematic touch. Inside the guest suites, you'll find small but meaningful touches, like soft mats on the stone-tiled floors on either side of the bed. These mats would be the first thing your feet touch in the morning, offering comfort and warmth as you start your day. Every corner of Burrowing Owl tells a unique story, a testament to our dedication to creating a comfortable and meaningful experience for our visitors. It's the little details that make our winery remarkable.
V: Can you share a memorable experience from working in Burrowing Owl?
S: In 2018, I moved to the Okanagan Valley after a stint in Napa Valley, at Opus One, and training at the Napa Valley Wine Academy and the Culinary Institute of America. During my first winter in the Okanagan, as the pace of things slowed down, I embarked on a project to reorganize our wine library. I arranged one full case of every wine we had ever produced, all the way up to the 2019 vintage. The wines have been arranged in chronological and alphabetical order, creating a fascinating timeline of our winemaking journey.
Now, here's where the essence of a family-operated winery truly shines through. To access this room, there was just one key that was kept with our accountant. When I expressed my desire to share this beautiful space with others, I initially asked their daughter, Kerri, for permission. She then passed my request along to her brother, Chris, who redirected me to his father, Jim. Finally, Jim pointed me in the direction of Midge for approval.
This chain of approvals epitomized the essence of a family-run winery, where decisions are made collectively, with each member playing a vital role. It's a fact that's sometimes easy to forget as a winery grows in size and stature. Yet, at Burrowing Owl, the spirit of family ownership and operation remains unwavering. The Wyse family's commitment ensures that things are done right, at the right time, as they continue to pave the way for future generations to come.
V: What is your favorite wine at the moment?
S: Our Syrah is a delightful one. I've always enjoyed watching how it transforms and softens with time. When it was initially released, it displayed remarkable generosity and an abundance of fruity flavors. But as it matures, it evolves into a wine with captivating savory aromas.
V: What is the greatest joy of working in the winery?
S: Meeting diverse individuals and hearing their fascinating stories at the winery. It is a truly wonderful experience.