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Burrowing Owl Estate Winery: Conservation-minded with earth-friendly practices but no certified organic wines

Jim Wyse with bird low-res

Jim Wyse, founder of Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, with endangered burrowing owl


When most people ask for a splash of red, they don’t expect it to wind up on the wall. Jim Wyse, founder and owner of Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, remembers his early attempts to make wine at home for personal use: “We had sixteen bottles on a rack in the dining room. My wife and I heard a loud ‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’ The bottles were exploding.”


Thankfully for B.C. wine-lovers, Wyse has honed his technique considerably since decades past, when anyone, he says, with “a kit and a paper-lined wastepaper basket” could make wine. And he’s added a lot more green, so to speak, to his commercial reds: his environmental initiatives range from solar heating and biodiesel fuel to mulching all organic waste and recycling grape skins and seeds as compost.


Today, Wyse is the patriarch of a family-run winery in Oliver, BC, which produces 11 varieties of wines from vineyards in Osoyoos and Keremeos. He started growing grapes in the Okanagan 20 years ago as part of a mid-life career change. Since then, the former engineer and real-estate developer has maintained earth-friendly policies as core principles of the company, which currently employs 135 people. (Wyse now calls himself “the ambassador and odd-job guy”; for the past five years, son Chris has served as president.)


Vineyard reflects eco-friendly practices

The vineyard and farming practices most visibly reflect the company’s environmental awareness. An upgraded irrigation system, which converted all sprinklers to drip irrigation, includes fertilizer in the drip, which eliminates the use of tractors for this purpose, Wyse says. It also promotes water conservation and energy efficiency. The company’s six tractors run on biodiesel fuel, which burns more cleanly than fossil fuels.


Solar-powered water probes, using wireless technology, test soil and report the vines’ watering needs, ensuring that water usage is provided only as needed.

grapes and hands photo low-resBurrowing Owl’s alternative pest-control systems use natural predators against harmful insects. For example, the company protects spider habitat by not regularly cutting cover crops between the vine rows. Barriers protect the ground nests of birds such as meadowlarks to avoid their inadvertent destruction by farm machinery or vineyard workers. Bluebird boxes and bat nursery boxes are used to attract these insect-eaters.


Burrowing Owl’s website states that “environmentally safe, biodegradable fertilizers and chemicals” are used as sprays. When asked which ones they are, Wyse said he didn’t know.

Burrowing Owl won’t go certified organic

A company competitor, Summerhill Pyramid Winery in Kelowna, was the first winery in British Columbia to make wine from certified B.C. organic grapes. Ezra Cipes, Summerhill’s CEO, has said he would like to see every winery in the Okanagan Valley convert to a certified organic operation. Will Burrowing Owl make the change?


“It’s not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer,” Wyse says. “We certainly respect the goals and philosophy of the organic movement. We ascribe to, and do, a large percentage of the organic viticultural procedures and methods, but feel there are still some challenges in the vineyard that are best dealt with inorganically. But who knows? Maybe one day, if the resulting wines are at least the same or perhaps improved, we will make the change.”


Burrowing Owl’s wines have won gold medals and best-of-class recognition in global competitions; most recently, their 2011 Syrah picked up a gold and best of class at the L.A. International Wine Competition.


The company name reflects Wyse’s conservation concerns. For years, he has supported the endangered burrowing owl in British Columbia and the captive breeding program that has tried to re-establish these birds in the Okanagan. The birds, once bred, are now released in both the South Okanagan and the Nicola Valley. Yet, despite a volunteer effort to dig more burrows each year for these small birds, their growth has not remained sustainable, Wyse says.


To help ensure the future of these birds, Wyse’s winery sends all monies, earned through its three-dollar tasting fee in the tasting room, to the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of B.C. for its captive release program and to the South Okanagan Rehabilitation Centre for Owls (SORCO). Every year, the wine shop alone raises almost $80,000 for these two organizations.

restaurant and building low-res

Burrowing Owl’s winery, guest house and restaurant


Sustainable principles guide building and restaurant operation

Burrowing Owl’s restaurant is a member of Ocean Wise, a conservation program run by the Vancouver Aquarium that promotes sustainable seafood. The chef uses custom-grown produce from organic growers in the winery’s immediate area, including five colours of tomatoes. “It’s fabulous,” Wyse says.


Wyse’s eco-vision for Burrowing Owl started with the winery building, which sits on 78 hectares (192 acres) with a guest house and restaurant. Most of the production and storage facilities were built underground to reduce the building’s carbon footprint. (Wyse does not calculate the business’s carbon footprint as a whole.) The design incorporated a steeply sloping hillside, poorly suited for farming, to maximize the land for wine-related uses. This multi-level plan allows for gravity-flow winemaking, which avoids the use of pumps to move wine through its various stages.


The wine is aged in barrels in underground cellars, which require no heating or cooling. Instead, they use ground temperature in the summer and natural warmth during the winter. “We’ve had people copy what we’re doing with underground barrels,” says Wyse. “We were one of the first to use barrels [for wine-making] in the Okanagan Valley.”


Eco-friendly building features range from solar panels, low-flush toilets, and low-energy light bulbs to heat exchangers and a geothermal system. The guest house is said to meet or exceed LEED standards. Wyse’s wife Midge runs the guest house and tasting room while daughter Kerri handles product development.


Burrowing Owl wines have expanded into Ontario, Wyse says, but there are no plans yet to import or plant any of the new Negroamara grapes he discovered while in southeastern Italy in May. “We are all constantly trying other varieties and investigating new techniques that might be applicable here in the Okanagan. That is a never-ending process in a relatively new industry and wine region.”

Now 75, how long does Wyse plan to stay involved in the company? “Forever,” he says. “It’s fun.”

Wyse will be one of the entrepreneurs to appear Sept. 29 as a panelist at INSPIRE, an event at Vancouver’s TELUS World of Science sponsored by Small Business BC.


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September 27, 2014 at 9:25 am Comment (1)