Each time we drive through the sloped vineyards of the Black Sage Bench we can’t help but think back to our first visit to Burrowing Owl Estate Winery.
It was in 1998 and all we really knew was that a winery was under construction.
We drove into what really did look like a construction area and wandered over to a two-storey building, the second floor of which was level with the parking lot. Obviously, the winery was designed to take advantage of the hillside location and let gravity do some of the work.
We stepped through the door and the lone gentleman inside looked surprised. We aren’t really open, he explained, but if you would like to taste some wines we have a couple of bottles open. He led us over to a wine barrel, atop which stood two wine bottles and some tasting glasses. And we fell in love with Burrowing Owl wines.
The story actually started five years earlier, when property owner Jim Wyse replanted vineyards that rest on the northern tip of the Sonoran Desert. The extent of his plan was to grow and sell grapes. By 1997, though, the decision had been made to establish a winery.
In the ensuing years I have often referred to Burrowing Owl as a winery that “got it right.” Establish the vineyards then build the winery and start making wine. Then carry on with construction of a tasting room, restaurant and tourist accommodation. It is a model that clearly indicates the Wyse family had its priorities straight. And the results speak for themselves.
Last week, we parked the car and immediately noticed all the activity around us. In the vineyards, workers were busy picking grapes, a tractor was hauling filled bins up to a sorting conveyor and two women and a man were busy pulling unsatisfactory grapes off the conveyor built before the clusters fell into the press on the lower level.
Inside the tasting room, we were greeted by Sophie, who had been assigned to give us a tasting and tour. Bright, cheerful and very knowledgeable, the French émigré described each wine she poured. We sipped and savoured wines that included a still young but very complex 2011 Pinot Noir, a 2010 Merlot that spent three years in Hungarian oak and fully delivers on the many flavours one associates with well-made Merlot — it was only noon hour, but I found myself thinking about a thick, juicy, rare steak — and a very intense 2010 Syrah. This is one of my favourite grapes and Burrowing Owl does a lovely job with it. People who like to cellar wine will want to put some down for sampling over the next, oh, seven or eight years.
We continued on with the 2010 Athene, which is a Syrah-Cab Sauv blend that really got my juices flowing, as well as 2010 Cab Sauv and luscious 2010 Meritage. All Burrowing Owl reds have great structure, filled with flavour and tannins that come from fruit grown in superior vineyards.
Afterward, Sophie took us out for a quick browse through the winery. Along the way, we stopped to meet new winemaker Tom DiBello. We have been following DiBello’s career through his wines at CedarCreek, Okanagan Crush Pad (under his own name) and Perseus. He’s one of the province’s best winemakers and at Burrowing Owl he should enjoy working with such great grapes. He was bursting with energy, as all winemakers are with harvest in full swing, but took the time to chat and, a bit later, to introduce us to the maker of a very clever series of items we had noticed in the wine shop. It’s been a particularly bad year for fruit flies around the southern part of the province and this fellow is making attractive and functional stainless steel mesh covers to sit atop wine glasses. The wine is able to breathe, but the fine screen doesn’t allow the tiny flies to get at the liquid. Earlier, when we noticed the screens inside, we had commented on what a good idea they are.
Sophie carried on our tour into the winery’s lower level, where fermentation tanks fill some areas and oak barrels lie stacked, aging the wines inside. Upstairs, we were invited to look into the Guest House, where 10 gorgeous rooms of varying sizes accommodate visitors year-round. Beautifully decorated and constructed to take advantage of the views in all directions, we could easily imagine spending a few days of rest and relaxation. Across the way, the Sonora Room is a full service restaurant where the original tasting room once was located. Chef Brock Bowes oversees a kitchen that offers a superb menu for lunch and dinner.
As we made our way around the wonderful Southwest-style architecture we marveled the completeness of the development, all within a relatively small area. The design of the buildings, which takes full advantage of the sloped land, results in a small footprint that doesn’t take too much away from a property whose best use is agriculture (and providing habitat for the winery’s pet project, the endangered burrowing owl). It’s the culmination of the long-term vision of the Wyse family, people who have remained stolidly committed not only to their business, but to the surrounding environment.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance. His website, www.lorneeckersley.com, features a collection of columns, stories and photographs about wine, beer and spirits, food, travel and arts.