The burrowing owl is symbolic in some cultures of having intuition and insight; the Burrowing Owl Estate Winery has this in common with its namesake. In 1993, when the wine business in British Columbia was a fledgling, Jim Wyse and his wife, Midge, invested in an abandoned vineyard property. At the time, the local industry was adjusting to free trade with the United States and imports from California threatened to dominate the market. Yet today, thanks to ripe land ideal for rich Bordeaux varieties, the Burrowing Owl Estate Winery is a leading figure in B.C.’s now flourishing wine industry.
The name takes its inspiration from the soda can–sized bird of prey that once lived in the lands around Oliver, B.C., in abundance, but was deemed extirpated, or locally extinct, in 1980. (Early recovery efforts by the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of B.C., or BOCS, began in 1983.) “My family tossed around several ideas for names but nothing stuck until we noticed a BC Ministry of Environment sign [for burrowing owls] directly across from the vineyard,” says Jim Wyse, who remains chair of the winery. “It appealed to us because my family has always had a keen interest in the world of birds.”
A few weeks after the winery finalized the name, the family coincidentally came across an article on burrowing owls, in which Mike Mackintosh, then the director of the Stanley Park Zoo, was quoted. Mackintosh was appealing for assistance for a captive breeding program to help reintroduce a self-sustaining population of wild burrowing owls in B.C. “Primarily out of curiosity, we called Mike,” Wyse says. “A few hours later we were at the zoo, being introduced to the birds he had raised and joining the BOCS.” The winery has been donating, fundraising, and providing facilities for the BOCS ever since. Eighty-five per cent of the tasting fee at the winery bar is donated to the conservation society, while the remainder goes to the South Okanagan Rehabilitation Centre for Owls. Kerry Wyse-McNulty says of her parents: “They have a lead-by-example approach, and are far too humble to accept any recognition for their countless volunteer hours. Let’s just say they have set up an amazing legacy of stewardship for their grandchildren.”
Today, the BOCS is steadily taking flight. In addition to the winery’s contributions, the society is assisted by dedicated volunteers—which still include the personal efforts of Jim and Midge Wyse—as well as corporate sponsors like Wildlife Preservation Canada and TD Friends of the Environment Foundation. This past spring alone it released 98 burrowing owls back into the wild grasslands of B.C. The BOCS strives to preserve the burrowing owl’s natural integrity with as little human disturbance as possible. For Mike Mackintosh, now president of the society, raptors have always had a place in his life. At 15, he rescued his first orphaned great grey owl and later raised two snowy owls. “Burrowing owls are such charming and engaging little birds,” he says. “Raising the birds for a year and watching them grow into remarkable, intelligent, highly capable little hunters is incredibly rewarding. Their beauty, their grace, their survival instincts. Everything.”