Burrowing Owl Estate Winery – A Winery Profile

The prototypical big B.C. wine and fighting for a bird’s survival
by Michael Godel

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery makes for a fascinating and compelling story. On one hand, they are producers of some of Canada’s biggest, richest and most impressively structured wines, while on the other we see a family and their business taking care of the natural world through ecological outreach and with a gentle touch. The bifurcated branches of the Owl’s life begins in the southern Okanagan Valley, at the northern edge of the Sonoran tip, situated in the heart of one of North America’s great ecosystems. The location plays a major role in the focus and decision-making at the 25-year-old British Columbia winery.

“The Owl” was started by Jim Wyse and its location in one of North America’s most diverse environs is the source of one of the wine world’s most constant preoccupations. Caring for wildlife and wine don’t always coincide but they do with fervour at Burrowing Owl. The name was chosen as a very authentic and genuine desire to raise awareness for the beleaguered bird. Jim’s two children, Chris and Kerri are farming, winemaking and marketing contributors to the family business.  Brother Steve, who was Burrowing Owl’s original winemaker, left the family business several years ago to start his own boutique winery near the US border.  Chris is President and makes getting wines to Ontario his personal responsibility. I first met Wyse in the fall of 2015 when he and Bernard Stramwasser of Le Sommelier brought the portfolio to Toronto’s Fine Wine Reserve.

Jim Wyse with a friend.

Much has transpired since then. Two years of construction in the cellar has just come to an end. The estate has added 5,300 square feet in total, now with two crush pad presses instead of one, more tank space, and outside tanks are now covered. They opened up cellar “breathing space” for the team, and fashioned a new 1,000 square foot multi-purpose hospitality and business room. The new digs mimic the architecture and style of the Sonora Room Restaurant. They have also added solar energy systems, including 108 panels producing 53,000 kilowatt-hours, enough electricity to power five homes and off-setting 24.2 tons of carbon per year. In total, there are five solar installations on Burrowing Owl properties generating 232,000 kWh, enough to power 25 homes and off-setting 134 tons of carbon per year.  They are just in the final processes of completing eight car charging stations. This is all very exciting, cutting edge and industry leading work and completes the vision laid out 20 years ago by Jim Wyse. “This 5th expansion is hopefully the last,” notes Kerri Wyse as the property has now come to its fruition, especially with the estate’s 25th anniversary celebration just around the corner.

Taking care of nature’s business is always a primary consideration for the winery, and so is making big, robust and enjoyable wines. Their bold and structured wines are now the stuff of contiguous lore, but when you are a pioneer and a trend setter you will always have a legacy to look back on. When you are the first to do something and so many else follow, you’ve got to feel pretty good about yourself. When you are Jim Wyse, these are the things you have accomplished in British Columbia wine. When Wyse began to re-plant vineyards in 1993 he had a plan and whether he fully realized it at the time, or not, that he would unearth California-like ripeness and full-bodied, fruit first wines that just about no one had ever made in Canada before, at least not on the commercial scale that Burrowing Owl would succeed in doing. Certainly not with such a savvy level and extendable reach in marketing.

In August of this year Burrowing Owl Estate Winery was proud to announce a milestone in its support of charitable organizations including the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC (BOCSBC). As of August 1, 2017, the winery had raised $1,029,357, which has benefited not only the BOCSBC, but also other worthy organizations such as the South Okanagan Raptor Rehabilitation Centre (SORCO), The Nature Trust of British Columbia, and Nature Conservancy Canada (NCC).

Since 2004, the winery has been raising funds for conservation by charging a $3 tasting fee to patrons who sample its wines at its on-site Wine Shop. Proceeds have been donated on an annual basis, with the BOCBS receiving the lion’s share of the funds. The BOCBS has always held a special place in the heart of winery proprietor Jim Wyse, who notes “we’re always conscious that we really owe our success to the land we grow our grapes on, and helping this beautiful bird survive is one way we can give back to the earth, for all it gives us.”

Mike Mackintosh, President of the BOCSBC, says “Burrowing Owl Estate Winery has taken on a key stewardship role for this species at risk. Their long-term support has given our society the stability and the means to focus on what is most important – rebuilding a self-sustaining population of these tiny, amazing owls in the southern interior grasslands of BC.”

The Burrowing Owl Vineyard portfolio is a big one, in varietal scope and in style. That the winery is situated at the northern edge of the Sonoran tip, an arid and agriculturally inhospitable stretch of terroir that originates in Mexico, is not exactly so well-known. It may not technically be part a perfectly contiguous stretch of the Sonoran desert per se, but the wines are certainly possessive of a desert influenced geology and geography. That the Owl can produce such wines of extraction spinning on a compass of intensity is one of the wonders of the Okanagan Valley. They have proven to age as well as any in B.C.  At the recent first annual B.C. wines boot camp that ran from November 5th through 8th, Little Farm’s Rhys Pender, MW ran a Masterclass called ‘Built to Last’ during which Chris Wyse poured his 2006, 2010 and 2015 syrah. I asked Chris and Kerri about Burrowing Owl consistency, longevity, conservation and family.

I think it can safely be said that there is a consistency of style in the wines so is the Burrowing Owl style a factor of winemaking or place, or both?

Kerri – “Right from day one the mantra has been leading edge technology coupled with traditional winemaking practices. We strive to constantly stay on top of whatever can be done to make better wine. Our vineyards produce a very specific type of grape, that we know, so because our cellar is structured the way it is, the wines consistently come out a very specific way. As my dad (Jim) said right from the beginning. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this right.”

Can you comment on the 2006/2010/2015 Syrah that you opened at the BCWI Bootcamp last week? I’m curious how the wines were tasting and how they showed. How are the ageability of Burrowing Owl wines appreciated?

Chris – “When we were deciding on vintages we thought it would be interesting to see some comparisons related to whats possible and this year, which is more an anomaly. Rhys was keen to see the 2006, so we opted to bring the 2015 which was a younger version of a similar vintage. As we saw, the 2006 is holding up very well, solid structure and no signs of oxidation or spoilage. It was exciting to see that the body was still holding on to so much fruit. It was a big juicy wine then and is still going strong today. 2010 on the other hand was a cooler year, and we thought that would be a good example to bring for comparison with the future 2017 vintage we are harvesting this year. Our actual heat units dont change much from year to year. But when the season starts late acids are picked slightly higher. When were discussing aging, wines with slightly higher acid levels preserve well. We dont have many cool vintages like 2010, the next most recent vintage was 1999. That was one of the coldest years on record. Even though 2017 was overall a warmer year than 1999 I suspect these wines will age similarly or better. 2010 was more of an old world in style, with lighter body and floral components. Some of the British visitors initially preferred the 2010 to the bolder 2006 and 2015 vintages, which in simple terms were probably more new world in style. In the end I think everybody was impressed with the various perspectives of aging Syrah at Burrowing Owl.”

A second point of interest centres on the winery being at the forefront of a captive breeding program to help the endangered burrowing owl in British Columbia. Fundraising at the winery has helped make possible a recovery program to reestablish them in the Okanagan. The natural grassland habitats available to the owls comprises less than one per cent of the province. It’s a matter of burrows. Agriculture and civilization are taking away their space. Why save the owl? Because they are different – they nest in underground burrows rather than in cavities or in the branches of trees and they are often active in broad daylight. The winery’s co-operation is an example of the landowner’s stewardship agreements needed to ensure the owl’s survival.

How has the recovery program changed since it began and what does the future hold for the owls, especially with a constantly changing climate?

Kerri. “Lauren Meads is the Director of the Society and is the expert on the project so I’ll say this. It’s an uphill battle for sure, in our region they are considered extirpated, not extinct. They need to be funded locally because the government resources don’t cut it anymore. Many don’t return from their southern sojourns, the numbers are small and it is a moving target to manage their maintenance. Their homes are created by other group dwelling animals so development and urban sprawl decreases the habitat possibilities.”

In your opinion, how have farming and viticulture changed since the inception of BOV Ltd with regards to climate change? Are you doing anything different to ensure quality grapes year after year?

Chris – “Since we began making wine, 1998 was our hottest year. We have not had a summer with more heat units since then. The overall heat has not changed that dramatically since then. I suspect global warming resonates more with regions that are hundreds of years old. I am not suggesting we are not experiencing climate change and we are always tweaking our viticulture practices, but these changes are more dramatic in terms of storms and sudden weather disruptions than general ripening. Seasons vary and probably the most noticeable trend is that we have more warm years than cooler years. In the past we could see a cool year every second vintage, whereas now they are every fourth or fifth. Cool years are less noticeable as we perfect our farming and reaction time to respond to seasonal differences. We are more cognizant of irrigation and nutrients timing and applications. There is greater focus on harmony as we become more in tune with the importance of vine balance and wine quality.”

The Burrowing Owl wines do not shrink away from tasters, are not shy and to a bottle show their strength in elicitation. They are wines that give a hoot and leave a zaftig impression. Their strengths travel from big to bigger but in the end, after tasting nine examples, palate fatigue is not an issue. Balance is struck across the portfolio, as is diversity and a shared private moment. Would you say the gist of this statement still holds true and why?

Kerri – “I’m not sure I want to pat ourselves on the back too much but when I hear a statement like that is gives me chills, when I hear that someone, whether a seasoned taster or someone trying our wines at the winery gets an emotional response. It certainly makes us feel like we have succeeded in doing what we set out to do.”

The winery was recently profiled in the VINTAGES catalogue from September 30th. This coincided with the Ontario release of their 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2015 Chardonnay. Their presence in the Ontario market is impressive with at least eight of their wines having passed through VINTAGES in the last year and several others available through consignment. The Wyse Wine Agency conducts its business with the LCBO and for licensees with Bernard at Le Sommelier to make the saturation even more impressive.

How do you approach your work in the Ontario market?

Chris – “Until recently BC wines were still a novelty in Ontario, and I would say there was a bit of disbelief when discussing our ability to produce world-class wines. The LCBO supported our efforts to showcase our wines through the VINTAGES program and we are now moving confidently into the trade and now there is an increasing pattern of premium restaurant locations that are stocking our products. Our Ontario agent is in line with our culture and understands our customers extremely well. We leave most of the placement decisions up to him. We see Quebec as an equally interesting market but with its own set of obstacles to overcome. Volume will always limit how much we can spread out through to our distribution channels.”

Your website notes three generations of the Wyse family, with the third waiting in the wings. Can you expand on that?

Kerri – “Jim and Midge have three kids, together they have four grandchildren, aged 10 -16 in range and they are all part of the family business. We wouldn’t push the kids to work in the family business but if they chose to the education, skills training and nurturing would be made available to any or all of them. We would love our children to want to work in the family business but it would be their decision. 

Here are 10 wines in the Burrowing Owl portfolio. Some are sold out, others are available in Ontario and some at the winery.

Burrowing Owl Pinot Gris 2016, BC VQA Okanagan Valley (B.C. $22.00)
Michael Godel – With a wistful and watchful eye backwards 10 years to a righteous South Okanagan growing season that saw to understanding the needs of pinot gris, here comes another. The season worked its low, slow and warm to getting warmer magic on lively and aromatic whites, a.k.a. pinot gris (and Okanagan riesling plus gewürztraminer will be killer as well). The grapes were harvested out of the Black Sage vineyards over a three-week period (save for the first) in September. This is a delightfully creamy affair, with pear, sweet herbs and a citrus that seems to carry little to no tart edges. It’s an orchard fruit sort of citrus but one that comes from a tropical locale. Through all the fruit and texture there is a roundness of acidity that circles and envelopes, capturing the best of the ripeness in perpetual preserve. Lovely stuff.

Burrowing Owl Pinot Gris 2016

Burrowing Owl Sauvignon Blanc 2016, BC VQA Okanagan Valley (ONT $25.00)
Michael Godel – Burrowing Owl draws from the Similkameen Valley for their sauvignon blanc and to be frank, here is something totally different. It’s a very grippy and grapey expression, simple and also flinty with a bit of residual SO2, though it must be said that the wine is nothing if not brutally open and honest. The palate seems a touch friendlier with grape spirit and lower tones of the orchard and the grove, but not much going on until the herbs take over. Lots of lees lifts and fleshes the fruit which also gets a minor spice from oak. The Similkameen is a next frontier for sauvignon blanc though not yet known as such. Little Engine and Clos de Soleil are making fine renditions so watch out for Burrowing Owl and 2016 is a fine vintage to launch the recognition of this project forward. Good things are still to come.

Burrowing Owl Sauvignon Blanc 2016

Burrowing Owl Estate Bottled Chardonnay 2015, BC VQA Okanagan Valley (Winery $30.00, ONT $33.95)
David Lawrason – This is a big, rich almost lush, barreled chardonnay made in the manner of traditional California models.  But the fruit is not forgotten amid the butterscotch, vague peat smoke and hazelnut. And I was reminded of a vertical tasting of Burrowing Owl chardonnays a few years ago where wines five, even ten years of age had aged very gracefully indeed.
Steve Thurlow – This is a pale lemon yellow with a bold nose of baked apple, toffee with some nutty and smokey tones and a hefty dose of oak spice. It is full-bodied and very smooth though a tad sweet and a little hot on the finish. Very good length.
Michael Godel – Vintage and style are co-conspirators for one of the bigger Burrowing Owl chardonnays they have ever made. Though the baking bread, ripest of orchard fruit, furtive flavours and spicy oak are all in high tonality they breathe and work in great harmony. The transitions from nose to mouth and then into acidity are quite seamless, rising and falling with deep inhalation and exhalation. The creamy centre is a comfortable couch on which to sit and watch the acidity and fine tannin come and go. This may be a full-bodied and maximum fruit captured chardonnay but the integration and balance tells us it’s actually more restrained than before. A bit of magic perhaps and methinks.

Burrowing Owl Estate Bottled Chardonnay 2015

Burrowing Owl Pinot Noir 2015, BC VQA Okanagan Valley (Winery $35.00, ONT $41.95)
Steve Thurlow – This is a bold heavy ripe pinot from the southern Okanagan valley which has largely been abandoned for this cool climate variety by most wineries. Expect aromas of ripe red cherry and raspberry fruit with jammy and oak spice notes. It is almost full bodied and smooth with a warm finish. Very good length. Chill well and try with mildly spicy meat dishes.
Michael Godel – I’m not sure there are cool or unripe vintages but this ’15 from Burrowing Owl is right up there with the phenolic kings of Okanagan pinot noir. Dried and dusty plums mix into tart black raspberries and a modicum of savoury garrigue keeps the overall fruit expressiveness grounded in earthy balance. This is ultimately a highly crowd pleasing pinot noir, big-boned, ripping to bursting with flavour and possessive of perfect, food-pairing parabolas.

Burrowing Owl Pinot Noir 2015

Burrowing Owl Syrah 2015, BC VQA Okanagan Valley (ONT $43.95) Platinum Medal Winner 2017
David Lawrason – Lavish and engaging syrah from a house based in syrah-central on the BLack Sage Bench. They have been making it since at least 2005, and in 2015 they were dealt and extra ripe vintage. This has a beautiful layered nose of florals, pepper, mulberry, anise and ample oak vanillin and smoke. It’s full-bodied, very silky and refined. Just a touch sweet but gorgeous textures here. The length is excellent with black pepper on the finish.

Burrowing Owl Syrah 2015

Burrowing Owl Cabernet Franc 2015, BC VQA Okanagan Valley (Winery $35.00, ONT $44.95)
Michael Godel – Typically bottled in August so frightfully youthful the Owl’s ’15 cabernet franc is still in the starting stall, shifting on its legs, jittery, excited and ready to explode out of the gate. This is no walk, trot, and canter vintage for the explosively aromatic franc and while it is way too young to fully express its perfume you get more than a waft of many things. Tobacco is right there is the opaque atmosphere, along with syncopated beats of pepper and spice. Black currants vie for air space with enough wood spice to smoke a shoulder and then the concentration sets in. Everything about Burrowing Owl’s cabernet franc is big; fruit, wood, pH, acidity, structure and yet it somehow comes across as graceful, loping, Arabian, and statuesque. Who knew it would settle in so easily after that initial burst of snappy conditioning. The longevity of this wine is predicted and predicated by its length so take the time to get to know its habits.

Burrowing Owl Cabernet Franc 2015

Burrowing Owl Meritage 2014, BC VQA Okanagan Valley (Winery $50.00, ONT $58.95) Silver Medal Winner 2017
Michael Godel – In 2014 The Owl’s Bordeaux blend is composed of (31 per cent) merlot, (21.4 each) cabernet franc & sauvignon, (10.7) malbec, and (10) petit verdot. Though cool and savoury France is the virtual parent, it is the south Okanagan dessert that acts the real and certain catalyst for this Meritage. Concrete notes recall curative, big old barrel Brunello sangiovese or dusty Bolgheri merlot as much as those of an expatriate Bordeaux heritage. One whiff apportions a fresh and meaty, just charred on one side salsiccia di maiale with generous herbs and spices. Another goes far east and exotic, like Hmong spicy pork sausage. One aroma notes fennel seed and yet another galangal and cilantro. The spices pass off to currants and Cassis for one seriously extrinsic aromatic potpourri before returning to pique on the silky-textured palate. This isn’t the big. bad and bold red in the Burrowing Owl stable. It’s rather old school, sensuously tart and ready to roll.

Burrowing Owl Meritage 2014

Burrowing Owl Merlot 2014, BC VQA Okanagan Valley (Winery $30.00, ONT $40.95) Gold Medal Winner 2017
David Lawrason – This is very much in Burrowing Owl’s wheelhouse, a full, rich, smooth and ripe red with oodles of blackberry fruit, some violet and generous chocolaty oak. Yet there is a sense elegance as well with an almost creamy texture, a hint of sweetness then a gently drying finish that brings out Black Sage dusty, herbal character. Pretty much sums up what fine merlot BC should be.
John Szabo – One has to admire the consistency of Burrowing Owl wines, unabashedly in the super ripe, dense and plush, oak-infused idiom, which have acquired a large and loyal following over the years. If you’re seeking delicate right bank bordeaux style, this is not for you, but all other fans of bold reds, soft and cuddly, but with genuine concentration and depth, and integrated components on a large-scale frame, will find happiness here. I like the surreptitious floral-violet-sage note that creeps in on the finish, a fine signature of the southern Okanagan Valley, and tannins are much better managed (read: ripe) than many other examples from the region. Drink or hold until the mid-late twenties without concern.
Michael Godel – A cool autumn week brought in the merlot harvested by hand from vineyards in Oliver and Osoyoos. Those grapes delivered between October 15th to 18th have destined to producing a memorable Burrowing Owl merlot in typical fulsome house style with seriously dusty, savoury and fine liqueur twists. The aromas are so serious, refined and smoky old-school but the bite, piquancy, peppery liquid smoke and cocktail sensation are mixologist modern and cool. This merlot encircles the tongue and does flip-flops across and back. It’s a sensational feeling that bears repeating but when it gains five years of age the delivery will act out a much more complex, ethereal and enervating play. The proof of the Owl’s age-worthy work will come late next decade.

Burrowing Owl Merlot 2014

Burrowing Owl Athene 2014, BC VQA Okanagan Valley (ONT $44.95)
John Szabo – Burrowing Owl takes what should be a signature blend of the southern Okanagan, sarah-cabernet, and renders it on a compelling, take-no-prisoners style of red, big and bold, destined to accompany a cowboy or tomahawk steak. From the deep, inky purple-red colour through to ultra-ripe black fruit, ample, well-managed oak, and an intriguing floral-violet perfume (part of syrup’s contribution), this is generous and satisfying wine. Drink or hold mid-term.
Michael Godel – Athene is the Owl’s stylish far-easter, of an Aussie way in a way, in a blend that makes perfect sense in the northern North American desert of the Okanagan Valley. The syrah and cabernet sauvignon get together is a vibrant and perfumed one, exaggerated in the best way with this 2014 vintage. It’s really pretty, bright and effulgent without ever denying the consumer of the richness they so richly deserve. The acidity booms like cracks of thunder and tannins are really fine. Reasonable alcohol keeps the energy at a pulse, respectfully honest and clear in avoidance of a state of purée. Find some protein, grill it, slice it and salt it. Athene will do the rest.

Burrowing Owl Athene 2014

Burrowing Owl Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, BC VQA Okanagan Valley (Winery $38.00, ONT $45.95) Gold Medal Winner 2017
Michael Godel –  This re-visit takes place five months later and is tasted going in with the knowledge of a house style more recognizable and consistently persistent than any in B.C. The Owl structure stands alone and so the reminder is simply this. Five months have done nothing to dampen the spirit or the corkscrew helix of wood and tension coiled around fruit so full of creamy flavour and varietal distinction. Four years from now this will be ideal but four more won’t hurst the cause.

Burrowing Owl Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

Where to Buy

Many of Burrowing Owl’s wines are available in Ontario through VINTAGES stores though they sell quite quickly upon release. They are represented in Ontario by Le Sommelier,  http://www.lesommelier.com

This feature was commissioned by Burrowing Owl Estate Winery. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery. Our critics independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted to WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the winery profile. Wineries pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign. Below is more information provided by the winery.

About Burrowing Owl Estate Winery: 

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery is devoted to producing world-class wines using creative viticultural and winemaking processes that are in harmony with the unique ecosystem where the grapes are grown, which includes the northernmost tip of the Sonora Desert. The winery is known for supporting the conservation work that is helping the burrowing owl make a comeback in British Columbia.