Mark Wendenburg tasting wine in the vineyard.
Local wisdom has it that the young are better off going elsewhere for higher education and work. It is great living here when you were growing up – or retired – but in between prospects for a career in farming, forestry or tourism tend to be slim to grim.
Yet, if you dig deep enough, you can find the odd exception.
As a successful winemaker with a long and distinguished career in the valley, Penticton native Mark Wendenburg surely fits the bill. His parents, Edith and Christian, owned an orchard on Valleyview Road on the East Bench of Skaha Lake. Back in the mid-1970s, Mark’s German-born father converted the orchard into a vineyard, planting Okanagan Riesling, the popular variety of the day. “It was my introduction to viticulture,” says Mark.
Then in 1980, dad added Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder, in German) vines supplied by Lloyd Schmidt, a rootstock specialist who is also co-founder of Sumac Ridge Estate Winery. “The plants were propagated with longer, deeper roots to reduce the risk of frost damage,” Mark explains. To this day, Mark and his family still cultivate the site with those 32 year old vines on the East Skaha Bench.
To further his education, Mark went to Europe in 1982 graduating with a degree in viticulture and oenology from the Bavarian State Institute in 1987. “It was an opportunity to not only study, but work and travel as well,” he says.
When he arrived home, he landed a job at T.G. Bright & Co. in Oliver (now Jackson-Triggs), where he worked in the laboratory and cellar. After working the 1988 vintage at Nobilo in New Zealand, he went to work for Ian Mavety at Southview Farms, now Blue Mountain, followed by a spell at Australia’s massive Yalumba estate. Opportunity knocked in 1990 when California’s Schramsberg Cellars conducted a sparkling wine trial in the Okanagan, working with such wineries as Southview, Nk’Mip Cellars and Summerhill. “When Schramsberg decided to pull out, I became Nk’Mip’s first winemaker under Sam Baptiste in 1991,” Mark adds.
The following year, Mark was asked to head up the sparkling wine program at Sumac Ridge. But this time he stayed awhile, eventually becoming head winemaker. “I did everything at Sumac Ridge until I decided to go out on my own and start a consulting business in the spring of 2010,” he says.
“At the time, many new wineries with small, 10-12 acre vineyards were popping up in the valley,” he says. “When some of them brought me their wines, it was apparent that unnecessary mistakes were taking place due mainly to simple problems such as SO2 management, vineyard issues, or both.”
According to Mark, growing grapes and winemaking is not rocket science. He stresses the importance of starting with healthy vines. Picking the best plant material for the site and grafting them on nematode-resistant rootstocks are basic steps. To produce quality fruit, it is essential to create suitable vineyard management protocol for spraying, fertilizing and irrigation. “You can’t fudge,” he says. “Unlike Ontario, where downy mildew is a threat, we have the opportunity to produce disease-free fruit in the Okanagan. As well, there is all the sunlight we can take and little uncontrolled precipitation.”
Mark sees his role as a troubleshooter. If there are weak plants in the vineyard, he identifies the cause and provides the solution. As well, the importance of making sure that the ideal balance of foliage and crop is practiced cannot be overstressed.
“The first step is to taste the wine, whether in bottle, tank and barrel. Then, I have to give them the truth. The most common deficiency is premature oxidation, which is simple to correct from that point on.” He is adamant about today’s consumers: “They like their white wines fresh, fruity and spritzy.” In the winery, Mark holds that simple is better, yet knows there are times when you have to intervene. “Fermentation is a critical time in the life of a wine,” he states.
Mark’s clients include new, upstart wineries and vineyards, as well as established enterprises. “I also do property and vineyard appraisals,” he adds. “But I am focused on anything to do with growing and making wine, not other areas like sales and marketing.”
Mark sees a bright future for the Okanagan wine industry. Unlike the venerable old world wine regions, “We are allowed to plant anything,” he says, while adding a cautionary note: “the grower takes all the risk.” Even such grapes as South Africa’s Pinotage and the southern Rhône’s Marsanne and Rousanne have found a home in the Okanagan. The most promising varieties so far encompass Merlot in the reds and such white aromatics as Pinot Gris, Viognier, Gewürtztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc.
As a nuts and bolts practitioner, Mark has little patience for talk of the romance of wine: “It’s bloody hard work – dirty, hot and sweaty. It is not that easy for me to go from toiling in the vineyard – say, suckering an acre of vines – to a fine dining experience.” ■