– Words by Angela Cowan Photography by Darren Hull
A conversation with winemaker James Schlosser of Niche Wine Company
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Vancouver but my family moved to West Kelowna when I was three, so the Okanagan has always been home.
Where did you train?
I did my undergrad in biology at the University of Victoria and then moved to Ontario to complete an honours and a Master of Science degree in oenology and viticulture.
How long at your winery?
My wife Joanna and I incorporated Niche Wine Company in 2009 and released our first vintage in 2010.
How did you get started in the wine business?
I was inspired by my mom and dad. My parents bought this beautiful West Kelowna property when I was just a kid and I was lucky enough to grow up here. In the late ’90s my dad read the book The Heartbreak Grape and fell in love with the idea and the challenge of growing Pinot noir grapes. Not long after, my parents took the plunge and planted a vineyard and when I came home from UVic that summer, they asked if I would be interested in working on the farm. By the end of the summer, I was registered in winemaking school and on my way to Brock University in St. Catharine’s. I guess the rest is history!
What is your winemaking style?
Have you ever heard the expression: “The best fertilizer for a vineyard is the winemaker’s footsteps?” It’s true. Our small-batch operation demands that attention to detail. That being said, over 15 years of winemaking experience has taught me that although it’s important to be attentive throughout the process, ultimately wine is an expression of things you can’t control. The wines I make are made with little intervention and a lot of farming effort.
How do you know when you have a particularly good vintage?
The weather in a given season usually dictates the outcome of any vintage, but harvest can also be full of unexpected impact. Even if you’ve got the best growing season in the world, it doesn’t mean you’re going to come out with a great vintage. The stars have to align. And the unexpected is sometimes a good thing. It’s one of the things I love about wine — it’s one part mystery and two parts miracle.
What is one of your favourite varietals to work with and why?
Pinot noir is far and away my favourite. It’s funny, because Pinot noir can be quite difficult to grow and hard to work with, so you would think it would be my least favourite. For me, making Pinot noir is truly a labour a love. All of our Pinot is produced exclusively with grapes grown by my parents on the farm where I grew up. There is something really special about this place. The vineyard sits at an elevation of 620 metres and when it comes to growing Pinot, elevation is key.
In the world of wine, who do you most admire and why?
Who influenced you? There’s a smattering of people. One of them is my prof from Brock University, Andy Reynolds, who’s more of a viticulture guy. I spent years with him, and he really taught me a lot about growing grapes and making wine. Sandra Oldfield, former CEO of Tinhorn Creek, is another inspirational player in the wine industry. We are currently working with her through a Scale Up mentorship program offered by Accelerate Okanagan. Her advice and coaching have been instrumental in our growth, and she’ll continue to be a key figure in the success of Niche.
Do you have a favourite wine or vintage that you have made?
The diversity of the wines you can make is exciting: white, sparkling, rosé, red. With Pinot noir, it truly showcases the place where it is grown and produced. If you think about a Merlot, there’s a certain expectation that it’s going to have a consistent nose and palate. Pinot noir has carved out a niche and is celebrated for its regional nuances.
What is one of the hardest things about winemaking year in and year out?
Winemaking at our scale is a very physical job. With each vintage I gain more experience, but I also find it increasingly hard to balance the demands on my knees and my back. There is no question that this job comes with a lot of heavy lifting and power washing. The other challenge is that winemaking can be fairly unpredictable; we often find ourselves at the mercy of Mother Nature.
What is one of the most rewarding aspects of your job?
I love that the winemaking process is so cyclical and dependent on place and time. On the one hand, you’re always looking forward and there is all the possibility of what the next vintage holds. That anticipation, it really is fun. And maybe a little addicting. On the flip side, there is this reflective process with wine. We’re always looking back, tasting cellared wine and talking about “ageability.” I truly believe wine is a conduit for spreading joy and creating connection. Being a maker of that kind of experience is wildly rewarding.
Skateboarding. I recently picked this one up again. I have a longboard and a skateboard I bought in Maui, and it’s been fun getting back into it. And woodworking. I am a YouTube woodworker, but if I’m being honest, I’m better at watching the videos than I am at making the products. It’s a work in progress.
Anything else we should know?
Currently, our winery is not open to the public, but we recently launched a wine club designed for lovers of craft, small-batch wines who are passionate about buying and drinking local. The shipments go out three times a year and contain our latest lineup of wines and other locally sourced goods we think pair well. Because of the limited nature of our production, it’s a great way to ensure you get a taste of what we’re up to. From our farm to your doorstep!