Writer and wine columnist John Schreiner is Canada's most prolific author of books on wine.
Wednesday, April 7, 2021
Remembering Chris Jentsch
Photo: Chris Jentsch
The sudden death on April 2 of Okanagan winery owner Chris Jentsch at age 58 has shocked and saddened the wine community.
If anyone was larger than life, it was Chris. Amber Jones, the first on-site winemaker at C.C. Jentsch Cellars, once told me in an interview that Chris was “a very gung-ho person, for sure. It is nice to work with someone who is so hands-on. He gets his hands dirty and he gets right in there. That makes you feel like you have a team mate.”
A self-described entrepreneur, Chris was born in Kelowna in 1963, a third-generation Okanagan fruit grower. He became an independent apple grower in the 1980s. He built his first packing house in 1989 and rebuilt it after fire destroyed it in 1991. When apple prices collapsed in the mid-1990s, he converted his orchards to cherries. “We were in a golden time for cherry exports, with a 63-cent Canadian dollar,” Chris told me when I first interviewed him in 2013. “Cherries were getting airfreighted to Taiwan.”
In 1999, Chris planted his first vineyard, 19 acres on the Golden Mile, just south of the Tinhorn Creek winery. He sold it five years later to pursue a much larger project—replacing his cherry trees with vines after overplanting led to a cherry surplus. “That was hard because we were ripping out highly productive cherry blocks that were picture perfect,” Chris told me.
In his gung-ho style, Chris jumped in with both feet. Between 2005 and 2008, he planted 65,246 vines on a superb 19.4-hectare (48-acre) plateau on the Golden Mile. Once the vines produced, he sold grapes to several wineries, including Andrew Peller Ltd. He operated this vineyard for his own winery and his clients until 2018, when he sold it to the Phantom Creek Estates winery. He continued to farm three smaller vineyards in the South Okanagan.
Peller had been his major grape client. Their decision to reduce their grape purchases triggered Chris’s decision to develop his own winery in 2012. The first vintage was made off-site while his fruit packinghouse, located on the Golden Mile, was converted to winemaking.
“Winemaking in its basic form is not rocket science,” Chris told me in 2013. “Then there is the marketing. What I don’t like is pretentious people. This is what I don’t want to be part of. I don’t want to open a wine shop. I want trucks backed up. But that part of it is part of it.”
It was his luck that the packinghouse had survived the massive Testalinden Creek mudslide on a Sunday afternoon in June 2010. It destroyed Chris and Betty Jentsch’s home and sent Betty and her daughter running for their lives. Chris, who was not home, was understandably outraged.
The slide resulted from the failure of an old dam at the top of the hillside. The property around the dam was leased by lawyer and rancher Ace Elkink who blamed wrongly for the sad state of repair of the dam. Shortly after, however, Chris encountered the rancher at the Penticton airport where a physical confrontation ensued. Matters ended up before a provincial court judge who dismissed the assault charge but put Chris on probation for a year.
As Amber said, Chris was a “gung-ho guy.”
The wines at C.C. Jentsch Cellars have been very good. At the first Judgement of B.C. tasting in 2015, the top Syrah was a Syrah from C.C. Jentsch. Then two years old, the little-known Okanagan winery achieved instant recognition.
The flagship Meritage red at Jentsch is called The Chase. Several years ago, Dennis O’Rourke, who was developing two wineries in Lake Country, decided to call his smaller winery Chase. This time, Chris hired a good trademark lawyer to defend his brand. Eventually, O’Rourke renamed the winery Peak Cellars.
Chris Jentsch was a force to be reckoned with. He will be missed by his peers, even those he tangled with during his eventful life.