Known for award-winning wines and environmentally sensitive practices, Burrowing Owl Estate Winery founder Jim Wyse first went into the industry when he bought an abandoned vineyard in 1993. The 180-acre, mid-sized vineyard and winery lie within the northernmost tip of the Sonora Desert near Osoyoos Lake in Oliver, B.C. The Wyse family built the winery in 1998, added a restaurant in 2003 and a guest house in 2006.
How is 2010 shaping up?
It’s been great. Compared to other years, 2010 looks higher, but we’ve kind of plateaued out. We’re chock-a-block all summer with wine shop sales and the restaurant serves about 30,000 customers. We just can’t squeeze any more in. It’s been the same for the past three years. The only place where we could expand is in the shoulder season.
We make eight different labels and they’ve been selling out since we first started making them. We decided to go into the premium end because that’s where we saw a gap. Everything we did right from the beginning was to try and make the best product we could from the materials we had. We were one of the first to use barrels – you can’t make a premium wine without barrels. I was shocked to find out how few barrels were being used in the industry. You can make wine in a steel tank, but it will never compare.
The “estate” in our name means that everything we produce, we grow ourselves, so it gives us 100-per-cent control over the product. We’re not the highest price any more, but we probably were when we started. I think we’re the highest price for volume in the province. Our price points are in the $20-to-$45 range.
What’s your advice to entrepreneurs who want to enter your industry?
Hire a good accountant. Folks come into the business with their enthusiasm but don’t think about the business aspect. People run out of money so fast. You have to keep track of costs, sales and cash flow, no matter what level you’re at. I was an MBA from Western in 1966, so marketing, finance and production all had to be part of the plan. We believe in a strong educational component such as a good tasting room for the public. But a lot of people make the wine without thinking how they’re going to market it and end up selling wine at their front door.
I would also tell everyone to get the best advice they can. There’s a lot of sharing in this industry. The enemy is not down the street. We’re competing against Chile, Argentina and Australia. They can make wine a lot cheaper than we can on their massive plots. We’re all tiny vineyards in comparison, so we have to base our success on quality.
Our biggest issue is selling wine across provincial borders. The wineries in B.C. can sell directly to our customers in B.C., but we can’t sell across provincial boundaries. [Ontario has the same restrictions.]Right now, we’re treated like a French wine coming into the Ontario liquor stores. There’s an initiative being put forth by some of the wine associations that would allow direct personal sales to people in other provinces without going through the liquor boards. That would really open up some opportunities for the wine industry and help offset the fact that we don’t have 4,000 acres each like the Chileans. Sales to hotels and restaurants would still go through the liquor boards.
What makes you angry?
I can’t get a liquor licence for my restaurant. It’s a local thing. We have a winery licence and can sell our and other people’s VQA wines, but we get a lot of people coming in who ask for a beer. I was turned down about a year ago, but I may go back in and try again.