Saturday, June 26, 2010

Sumac Ridge's Mark Wendenburg moves on

Photo: Winemaker Mark Wendenburg

Another veteran Okanagan winemaker has become a free agent. Mark Wendenburg left Sumac Ridge in May after 18 years with one of the Okanagan’s premier estate wineries.

“The company and I came to a mutual agreement and we decided to part ways,” he told me in an interview. “That’s about all that I can tell you on that part. I am in the process of trying to figure out what I am going to do next.”

Succeeding him in the cellar is Jason James, who came to Sumac Ridge in 2005 from a winery on Ontario.

“I am planning to stay in the wine industry,” Mark says. “I have been in it since 1980 … basically 30 years now in viticulture and enology. I like the business.”

Mark is likely to take on some consulting assignments. He has already had exploratory calls from other wineries but, so far, there has not been a fit. Meanwhile, he is bringing his résumé up to date and looking after the family vineyard in Penticton – five acres of mostly Pinot Blanc that he planted about 1980 with his father, Chris. That was Mark’s introduction to the wine industry.

He was born in Penticton in 1961, shortly after his parents arrived in Canada. They had owned agricultural land in Germany’s Harz Mountains until the East German government relieved them of their property.

After helping plant the family vineyard, Mark went to Germany in 1982, spending five years studying at a Bavarian wine school and apprenticing with wineries in three regions.

On returning in 1987, he started working at the T.G. Bright & Co. winery near Oliver. That was when the commercial wineries were importing fresh grapes to make jug wines, not finished wine.

“I remember when I was there in 1987 that we took in 1,700 tons of grapes,” he says. “Most of it was Thompson Seedless as grapes. It came up from California in those old collapsible wooden bins. They were stacked without plastic, so there was a lot of juice. They came up as grapes from California, in semis, and we dumped them and made wine from them.”

Brights was also making smaller lots of wine from Okanagan grapes but the winemaker in charge of that was the late Frank Supernak.

In winter of 1988, Mark did a crush at the Nobilo winery in New Zealand; the following winter, he did the crush at S. Smith & Sons in Australia (better known as Yalumba).

In between those assignments, he resumed working at Brights but also became involved in a sparkling wine project that had been launched on the Okanagan by California’s Schramsberg Cellars with Inkameep Vineyards and what is now Blue Mountain Vineyard and Cellars. One of his bosses at Brights told him to choose between Brights and the sparkling wine project. Mark chose the sparkling wine project.

After that project wound up in 1991, Mark joined Sumac Ridge which was just getting its Steller’s Jay Brut sparkling wine launched. Sumac Ridge had begun handcrafting the wine in 1987 but production was insignificant until Mark came on board and until the winery installed adequate equipment for producing bubbly.

Steller’s Jay is now one of Canada’s best traditional method sparkling wines, an elegant blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. In the 2005 vintage, the current release, the winery made 7,500 cases.

The awards won by this wine are useful ornaments on Mark’s résumé. Among others, Steller’s Jay Brut 2001, as an example, was sparkling wine of the Canada in the 2004 Canadian Wine Awards and also got a Lieutenant-Governor’s Award of Excellence in Winemaking.

Sumac Ridge has piled up an astonishing array of firsts and awards during the past 18 years with Mark in the cellar, including Canada’s first red Meritage in 1993 and its first White Meritage in 1995. Pinnacle, first made in 1997, was the Okanagan’s first luxury red blend, selling then (and now) for $50. Sumac Ridge began making Gewürztraminer well before Mark joined the winery but his refinements to the wine help explain why it is Canada’s largest-selling Gewürztraminer.

Mark’s departure might be seen as the inevitable changing of the guard that has been taking place gradually since Constellation Brands took over several years ago. Harry McWatters, who founded Sumac Ridge in 1980 and sold it to Vincor in 2000, retired last year to run his own consulting firm. Harry’s daughter, Christa-Lee, left this year to work with her father in various businesses.

“It was an exciting time there,” Mark says. “We went through three different owners. There was always change. It never got boring. But after nearly 18 years there – I started there in July 1992 – it was time for a change.”

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