Friday, July 31, 2009

Church & State recruits second Burrowing Owl winemaker

Photo: Winemaker Jeff Del Nin

Some of the rising stars among British Columbia wineries have been changing places this summer.

One fascinating appointment by Church & States Wines has that winery plucking talent for the second time from Burrowing Owl Estate Winery.

In 2005 Church & State proprietor Kim Pullen brought Californian Bill Dyer back to the Okanagan as his consulting winemaker. Bill had been Burrowing Owl’s winemaker from that winery’s launch in 1997 until 2004.

Now Jeff Del Nin, the winemaker at Burrowing Owl since the 2006 vintage, becomes Church & State’s new winemaker in September. With Dyer continuing as the consultant, Pullen has assembled one of the strongest winemaking teams in British Columbia.

This season’s winemaker musical chairs was started in May when Kenji Hodgson left JoieFarm to take a winemaking sabbatical in France.

JoieFarm recruited Robert Thielicke whom had been part of Mt. Boucherie’s winemaking team with former banker Dave Fredericks. In 2008 Robert, who had been an assistant winemaker at Mt. Boucherie for five years, took over the senior winemaker slot when Graham Pierce took the winemaker/general manager post at Black Hills.

Dave Fredericks’s new partner at Mt. Boucherie is Jim Faulkner, who moved there in July from Church & State’s winery in the Saanich Peninsula.

Now, Jeff Del Nin is taking over Faulkner’s job, but not in the Saanich winery. Church & State is moving most of its wine production to a leased building south of Oliver, near to Church & State’s vineyards.

Fortunately for Burrowing Owl, Jeff has recently hired an assistant winemaker for that cellar, Scott Stefishen. A Canadian with training and experience in Australia’s Margaret River, he worked earlier this year as an assistant winemaker at Road 13 Vineyards.

Burrowing Owl is a hallowed wine brand in British Columbia but Church & State is coming on strongly. Earlier this week, Church & State accepted a Lieutenant Governor’s award for excellence for its 2006 Coyote Bowl Vineyard Syrah. This is the latest in a growing list of awards, including a double gold at the All-Canadian Wine Competition for Quintessential, the winery’s flagship red blend.

“I basically saw an opportunity with Church & State,” Jeff explains. “Kim has an absolute commitment to making the best wines in the valley, and having the best vineyards, therefore, in the valley. When you have a guy who is absolutely committed to being the best, that’s who you want to be with.”

Church & State currently produces about 12,000 cases a year, roughly a third of Burrowing Owl’s production. However, the winery owns or controls about 120 acres of vineyards, not all in full production yet.

“He’s a keen guy,” Kim says of his new winemaker. One of the details that appealed to Kim, a tax lawyer with a strong scientific bent, is Jeff’s background in chemistry.

Born in Thunder Bay in 1971, Jeff has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Lakehead University and a master’s in chemistry from Queens, where he specialized in plastics and polymer research.

After graduation, he went to Australia on a vacation, married an Australian and found work there. “I worked as an engineer and research scientist for a number of plastics companies, developing plastic products,” he says. “At the same time, I was developing my love of Australia wines. Pretty much every weekend, I was off to a different wine region.”

At one job, he spent two years developing synthetic closures for wine bottles. Here, he observed winemakers from close at hand and the penny dropped: “I started to think maybe I could do this for a living.” After dipping his toe in a course for amateur winemakers, he enrolled in the wine school at the University of Adelaide and did hands-on winemaking at Barossa Valley Wine Estate.

On graduation, Jeff decided to get experience in wine regions elsewhere. He got a job in 2006 with a Long Island winery in New York state but realized after a month that it was ill-suited for making the Australian style-wines that he had come to like.

As it happened, he had done his first-ever Okanagan winery tour on the way to Long Island and had been particularly impressed with Burrowing Owl. So he telephoned the Okanagan winery. By lucky coincidence, Burrowing Owl was looking for someone with his experience to help with the huge 2006 vintage.

Jeff should be able to apply some of his Australian artistry to Church & State in the current vintage.

He says that “2009 is for me on track to be one of the best years ever for big reds. I have been looking at my accumulated heat units, and we are on track for one of the warmest years ever … warmer that 2003 and warmer than 2006, if this momentum keeps up.”


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