Heather Conn Blogs

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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)

Beam me up, Scotty — it’s Rapture time

I wanna know: Who’s gonna have the last laugh after tomorrow’s supposed Rapture? It sure won’t be the Vancouver Canucks. They’re playing like they’re stuck in purgatory right now, down 3-0 against San Jose after only the first period. Maybe they’re destined to flame out in hell for this . . . Skates and sticks sure won’t help them in a place that’s far too hot for ice to form. Did the team get hit with Judgement Day jitters or something?

All day today, I tried making phone calls to Vancouver, BC, and each time, I got the recorded message: “All circuits are busy. Please try again later.” The only other time I’ve ever had this happen is at Christmas. Truly bizarre. I started thinking: Gee, do people think that this is their last day on earth, so they’re jamming the phone lines to talk to their loved ones? Makes me think of those lyrics from the Manhattan Transfer song: “Operator. . .Information. . .Get me Jesus on the line.”

I’ve heard the advice for pre-Rapture prep: unplug your appliances and make sure you’re not in a plane. Sure would make the Mile-High Club a little meaningless, wouldn’t it?

I like some of the tongue-in-cheek Rapture tips that a friend sent: “Wear clean underwear” and “Keep your sunroof open to enjoy extra special effects.”

Anyone near Boston who’s still around post-Rapture can join the Left Behind Party on Sunday in Salem, Mass. What more appropriate place to celebrate Earth-bound survival than in the city that took a torch to witches?

 I can’t wait to hear what Harold Camping, the president of the Family Radio network (based in Oakland, Calif.), who predicted Saturday as Rapture Day, will say when he wakes up Sunday morning in his own home. “God forgot to wake me up.”

May 20, 2011 at 7:12 pm Comment (1)

Life in lotus land: a pricey crack shack could be yours

Can you tell the difference between a mansion and a “crack shack”, a run-down home to crack addicts? Most people would picture the latter as a boarded-up hovel with broken windows in a dangerous neighborhood. Don’t be so sure.


A quick visit through the website www.crackshackormansion.com will undoubtedly change your mind. This site, a tongue-in-cheek creation by two Vancouverites, gives web users a scary– not risky scary but pricey scary — introduction to this coastal city’s real estate market in British Columbia, Canada. What a million bucks buys for habitable property in Vancouver these days ain’t much.


To emphasize this point, the site offers a questionnaire with photos, asking site visitors to identify which photo is a crack shack and which is a mansion. Your answers will undoubtedly amaze you. The site creators are having some obvious fun along the way, but they make their point: If you want to buy a home in Vancouver that’s more than a tear-down, be prepared to pay at least one million. And that’s not even for waterfront or a sea view.


(The website drew such a popular response that there’s now a new version of the questionnaire, Crack Shack or Mansion II, available on the same web page. Have fun with it.)

May 24, 2010 at 7:50 am Comments (3)

There’s no need to fear: Underdog is here



Inexplicably, I recently woke up thinking about two animated TVcharacters from my childhood cartoon-watching days: the superhero Underdog, and Mr. Peabody from Rocky and Bullwinkle. I loved both of these characters since they were quirky and endearing rather than macho and all-powerful. I was even delighted to find an Underdog key chain decades later  at a Value Village in Bellingham, WA. I had forgotten all about that humble hero. (I’m talking about the original Underdog from the 1960s, not the more recent Walt Disney version.)


Maybe the child writer in me enjoyed Underdog’s language, which was always in rhyme like “There’s no need to fear — Underdog is here.” Wally Cox, who later spent years providing quizzical humor on Hollywood Squares, did the voice for Underdog and his alter ego, Shoeshine Boy (I don’t remember anything about that character.)


A quick check on Wikipedia just gave me some Underdog info. Apparently,  he used to crash into walls and so on, which I don’t recall at all. At such times, he would say: “I am a hero who never fails/I cannot be bothered with such details.” The young rebel in me must have relished this attitude. His superpowers, which changed per episode, varied from x-ray vision and atomizing eyes (?) to super breath. Anyone who’s smelled a real dog’s breath would realize what a stretch that last one is.


I had no idea that Underdog was created by ad agency reps to sell cereal for television advertiser General Mills. Gee, my wee eyes were unknowing pawns to their product shilling. Having always been a dog lover, I naturally gravitated to this canine character. However, I did also enjoy Felix the Cat and his bag of tricks. (There’s no surprise where his name came from: Felis catus is  the Latin term for house cat.)


That brings me to some TV trivia: did you know that RCA began experimental television transmissions from New York in 1928, using a 13-inch, paper mache Felix the Cat figure? Rather than pay an actor to stand under hot studio lights while engineers sharpened and tweaked the image, they used Felix, who worked for a one-time fee. (I’m surprised the paper didn’t burn.) They put the black-and-white figure on a turntable and tried broadasting using a mechanical scanning disk and electronic kinescope receiver. These early “broadcasts” usually involved objects, test patterns or photographs; the image received was only two inches tall. Felix stayed on his turntable post for almost a decade while engineers tried to create a high-definition picture. (I got this info from www.felixthecat.com.)


As for Underdog, his last run was with NBC in the mid-1970s. By then, the network censored all references to him swallowing the energy pill that gave him his superpowers. They probably feared lawsuits if kids saw real medication that looked like the Underdog pills (red with a white “U”) and swallowed them. I’m too cynical to think that they genuinely cared about children’s health and well-being.

May 6, 2010 at 6:51 am Comments (0)

What’s Harper got up his sleeve?

My husband Frank is no expert on body language, but he recently noticed a behavioural tic that appeared every time that Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper told a lie. He was watching the parliamentary debate on television that followed Harper’s release of the federal budget.

Various opposition politicians were skewering Harper for his recent proroguing of Canada’s Parliament and his lacklustre budget that offered almost no significant changes.  Although he claimed to have delayed the opening of Parliament for two months so that he could “recalibrate” the country’s economy,  critics were astutely accusing him of using this as a tactic to avoid  fierce questioning about how much he and Peter MacKay, his Minister of National Defence, knew about, and subsequently hushed up, Canada’s torturing of detainees in Afghanistan.

My husband noticed that every time Harper had to answer to one of these pointed challenges regarding Afghanistan or a similarly unflattering topic, he would tug on his left sleeve before speaking. Was this some liar’s protocol or trick that a speech consultant had dreamed up for him? Or was it merely his own body’s reflexive action to a lie? I guess the time-worn response of averted eyes are no longer the only indicator that someone is avoiding telling the whole truth. What’s Harper got up his sleeve?

March 5, 2010 at 1:39 pm Comment (1)

Good-bye, Tundra

Sadly, the beautiful, mellow dog Tundra, who appears on my blog main page and on my business cards, has died. I will miss this sweet-souled creature, part Siberian Husky, and his soft yet glacial ice eyes. (I remembered him as having one blue eye and one green, but Duane corrected me.) Tundra was 15.

In Tundra’s honour, his owner, Duane Burnett, has launched a fundraising campaign to install water fountains along the oceanfront walkways on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast. These would include a fountain low to the ground, reachable for dogs, and a wheelchair-accessible one higher up on the same vertical column. Anyone on the Sunshine Coast can make a donation at the Sunshine Coast Credit Union.

If you want to help or know more, check out the FaceBook Fan Page that Duane set up for the Drinking Fountain Fundraising Campaign.

February 9, 2010 at 6:09 pm Comment (1)

A dog’s breakfast

No, this isn’t a rant about pet food. It’s my potpourri category for comments that don’t fit under my other posted themes.

I first heard the term “a dog’s breakfast” while working on The Ubyssey, the student newspaper at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. (I served as co-editor with Tom Hawthorn, now a Victoria-based author and Globe and Mail writer.) Staff editors used the term to describe some awful-looking layout spread or a disjointed story.

Recently, a friend of mine had some cancerous cells removed from her nose, requiring some skin gouging by a plastic surgeon and garish-looking stitches. While people around her kept insisting that her red, swollen nose full of stitches looked fine and even good, her plastic surgeon told her: “It looks like a dog’s breakfast.” I liked the bluntness of his observation, which made my friend laugh. I’d rather hear the truth.

I hope that posts here, whether yours or mine, can contribute to the “dog’s breakfast” view of life.

November 30, 2009 at 4:36 pm Comment (1)